A maroon van pulls up in front of Bryant "HairKutt" Johnson's home on an overcast Tuesday morning.
"Hey, Kutt," yells a large black man with bloodshot eyes and a runny nose, leaning out of the passenger's window. "I need my hair cut, man open up!"
A shirtless HairKutt peeks out a second-floor curtain, eyeballs wide. He's been up watching Andy Griffith reruns the way he starts his more productive workdays but he's not ready to cut hair yet.
Five minutes pass before HairKutt emerges downstairs in a freshly pressed pair of khakis, a crisp crimson T-shirt, tan Timberland boots and (of course) perfect hair. He opens the front door and shoos away his pals, mumbling that they've probably just come from their drug dealer's house, even at this early hour.
HairKutt's phone is ringing off the hook: His partners want him to come over and cut their hair at ten bucks a trim. Today this is easier said than done. Kutt is sweating profusely and, in his words, "running around like a chicken with its head cut off."
"I'm kind of sick right now," he confesses in a high-pitched stutter.
Translation: He's fresh out of heroin.
When HairKutt's high, he's happy, relaxed and energetic seemingly sober. But when he's off the drug, he's either agitated and disorganized or profoundly lethargic.
Now 36, Kutt took his virgin voyage with the opiate when he was fifteen, shortly after his grandmother died.
"He was very close to his grandma," his mother, Theresa, explains. "That was the first time he had to deal with death."
It also marked the last time HairKutt was clean for any significant stretch. That inaugural snort Kutt doesn't use needles morphed into a regular habit, which soon became an addiction. Heroin was and is a snap to obtain in the Johnsons' Buder Park neighborhood on the near south side (although the area is in the midst of an impressive residential transformation), and HairKutt was a preferred customer, especially after dropping out of high school to cut hair and put $100 to $200 a day up his nose.
"I saw the neighborhood I grew up in go from sugar to shit not because of crack, but because of heroin," says Anthony "Lark" Dorsey, a boyhood friend who grew up down the street from HairKutt. "Heroin is a worse epidemic than they let people know about. I have a sister who's a cop on the south side, and she says it's on every corner. Crack brought some trouble, but every time there was a shooting, it was heroin."
"From Jefferson to Tower Grove, Chouteau to Chippewa, people deal heroin," says Theresa Johnson, who pronounces the word "harrow-wine," as do her two sons (her youngest, James Jr., a.k.a. "Baby," is 34). "On the north side it might be crack, but with my sons and their friends it was always heroin."
One of those friends was Curtis Elliott. Unlike HairKutt, Elliott never flirted with heroin. But his cousins did. Hell, just about everyone did. "People were bragging all the time about getting their nod on," says Elliott, now 39 and working as a real estate agent and living in Florissant. "It was the shit to do. Black people we take the shit and go all out. We want to graduate, not stay in first grade, know what I'm saying?"
It was one of Elliott's cousins who introduced HairKutt to the drug. Which is why Elliott, to this day, feels a measure of responsibility for his friend's struggles. And which goes some way toward explaining why Elliott, Lark Dorsey and another acquaintance, Maurice "Reese" Bradley, persuaded HairKutt to take a ten-hour drive with them to a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains, where HairKutt would sweat, writhe, moan, bleed, crap and puke his way toward a cold-turkey cure attempt in February of 2002.
Elliott brought along a camcorder and kept it rolling through five days and nights, during which HairKutt made a half-assed escape attempt and ended up in a Tennessee emergency room, dehydrated as a prune.
In the fall of 2002, Elliott contacted Ben Scholle, an assistant communications professor in charge of the video and television program at Lindenwood University, Elliott's St. Charles alma mater.
"He had bought some editing software he was having a tough time figuring out and was stuck on what to do with it," Scholle recounts. "He showed me some footage, and it wasn't slick-looking at all. But the fact that it's pretty rough actually makes it have more impact.
"A lot of what they had was just HairKutt throwing up," Scholle goes on. "I remember thinking: This could be a really repulsive version of Real World: four guys in a house, with one throwing up for hours on end. But I was also thinking it could be a good festival film. It was just a matter of trying to figure out what we needed to do to add production value and make it a story."
Assuming the role of editor and co-producer, Scholle spliced in fresh interviews with Elliott, Dorsey and Bradley, along with scenes from vintage drug-education films and a gripping epilogue that features HairKutt giving Elliott a clipper cut in his basement a year and a half after the Smoky Mountain sojourn.
The result is a 60-minute documentary entitled HairKutt, which plays like a true-life companion piece to Darren Aronofsky's fictional Requiem for a Dream, a nose-and-needle disaster flick with plot consequences so dire that some have suggested it be shown in school classrooms as a gross-out drug deterrent.
Elliott says he's satisfied with the way his film turned out, but adds that if he'd had his druthers he'd have gone more hardcore. "I wanted to give them nothing but two hours of shit and vomit," he says, with conviction.
This past March 12, Elliott rented out the Tivoli for the first public screening of HairKutt. Playing to a packed house, the film elicited tears, cheers and to Ben Scholle's surprise laughs from the crowd, which included HairKutt's mother and seventeen-year-old daughter. (HairKutt, who has never wed, has fathered six children, none of whom he has custody of, by three different women.)
"It's funny in a bittersweet way, but I was shocked at how many laughs it got," Scholle remembers. "I think it still had an impact, but I guess when you get enough people in a big room, the laugh track kind of takes over. All those people who laughed out loud still said they were moved by it. It was weird."
Not long after the screening, the film was named Best Social Documentary at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival and took top documentary feature honors at Cinema St. Louis' Independent Filmmaker Showcase in July. Elliott has since taken HairKutt to rented movie houses and classrooms in Boston, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City; the film will screen again at the Tivoli on November 15 as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival.
"Curtis has a vision for it that's definitely beyond film festivals," Scholle says. "Coming from outside the industry is good for him, because nobody's told him what he can't do. For me festivals are the Holy Grail, but he's just gone ahead and called people up and said, 'I have this movie, and I want to show it at your theater,' and had really good success. He's basically done an end run around normal distribution channels and it's worked."
Worked for everyone, perhaps, except HairKutt.
A heroinless HairKutt slings his red backpack a veritable traveling salon over his shoulder and guides his tiger-striped pit bull, Sam, in from the backyard and up to a second-floor bedroom. From a distance Sam appears menacing. But then, all pit bulls appear menacing from a distance. Sometimes, close up, they surprise you with their sweetness and vulnerability.
HairKutt has about a dozen clients to visit today par for the course when he manages to make it out of bed.
"I have more sick days than well days," he imparts. "And I can't cut no hair when I'm sick."
Kutt has south-side hookups he can call upon, but today's early appointments live near Fairgrounds Park, so first stop is a dealer's crib on the north side, near where Florissant meets Grand. Here Kutt isn't so much worried about getting busted by the police as he is about getting busted by his eighteen-year-old daughter, Alexis, who lives nearby with her maternal grandmother and has spotted Dad scoring here before.
One time not too long ago, he says, she tried to stop him. After a brief reflective pause, he says, he nearly dragged her down the sidewalk to transact. This from a man who'd said Alexis was the main reason he agreed to go cold turkey in the Smokies. Not long before, Alexis' mom, Monica, had died of pneumonia.
"She used to talk about how worthless he was," says Reese Bradley, who was close to Monica and who frequently checks up on Alexis. "I felt [the trip to Tennessee] was my chance to get at this guy, out of respect for Monica. If there was a chance of him becoming a father to Alexis, it was gonna have to start right there. There will be other chances, but that was a big chance."
After exchanging $50 for a half-gram of powdered heroin, it's on to little brother Baby's home a half-mile away off Natural Bridge.
While HairKutt got the street sense, Baby who's 34 but doesn't look a day over 20 got the book sense, according to Theresa Johnson.
"Everybody treats him like a baby," Mom elaborates. "He whines and whines and always gets his way. It's terrible."
Baby and his girlfriend, Velvet, live in a modest apartment with their eleven-month-old daughter and three of Velvet's kids from a previous relationship.
HairKutt's first order of business is to duck into a small room near the kitchen with his brother.
When Kutt strolls into the kitchen minutes later to set up a makeshift barber chair, it's as though a fog has been lifted. Grinning and cradling his niece lovingly in his arms, he sure-handedly preps for Baby's weekly cut. Three blades: "One for lines, one to fade and the other just to trim."
"I'm ready to get out there and fill out some apps," announces Baby, a career busboy and light-industrial laborer who hasn't worked in a year. "I try to get cut as much as I can, to look as decent as I can."
Hanging from a magnet on Baby's fridge is a newspaper account of a young boy who died as a result of the filth in his family's home.
"I think cleanliness is next to godliness," comments Baby, oblivious to the stack of soiled dishes looming in the sink behind where he's seated. "I think it's a shame that the little dude died."
As Baby sees it, HairKutt's high point came back in the '90s, when he worked in a shop Elliott owned downtown called Curtis' Cuts. "The low point is now: just trying to get back in a shop," he says, noting that Kutt attended beauty college but failed to get his license because the school closed down before he'd logged the requisite nine months. "He's about the best brother I could ever have. I'd invest in him and I'd hope other people would too.
"A lot of people would have put them clippers down a long time ago," Baby testifies. "But Kutt's always gotten up out of bed and kept his skill."
Baby's never seen the movie: "I don't have to see it I know my brother," he reasons. But he doesn't like the promotional material Curtis printed up for HairKutt: a portrait of a raggedy-ass Dumpster in a trash-strewn alley.
"You're not gonna see HairKutt in an alley," Baby argues. "And you're not gonna see him with a needle in his arm. A lot of people think that if you snort heroin you'll progress to shooting it. Not Kutt."
James Johnson Sr., who suffers from terminal prostate cancer, hasn't seen the film either. As far as he's concerned, Elliott and his cohorts are out to exploit his son for personal gain.
"He's going through a whole lot right now," Theresa Johnson says of her husband, from whom she has separated a handful of times in the course of their 40-year relationship.
During one of those splits, Theresa was compelled to enroll her sons in public schools because she could no longer afford the tuition at their Catholic school. So HairKutt and Baby were bused to Affton High in south county as part of St. Louis' controversial desegregation program. Theresa suspects it was at this point that they became susceptible to the allure of drugs.
"Maybe they had too much freedom," she speculates.
Baby earned his diploma. HairKutt, however, says he was encouraged by a guidance counselor to ditch his studies and learn a trade. So he did.
"I ain't never heard of no counselor ask nobody to just leave and go to trade school," Kutt reflects. "So I started cuttin' hair."
And snorting heroin.
"It shocked me that he was doing it, because he comes from a good house," says Lark Dorsey.
"A lot of people whose hair I cut, they get high," says HairKutt. "I've tried to change up my clientele, but one lady whose hair I was cutting told me, 'Whatever you do, you sure do it well.'
"I'm good at cuttin' hair. Always been good at cuttin' hair."
His stocky frame clad in denim shorts, black Mack work boots, a navy green cargo vest and a spotless white HairKutt T-shirt (complete with the notorious Dumpster) on a balmy autumn morning, HairKutt looks as sunny as the sky as he mows the front lawn of the Johnsons' four-family flat on Hickory Street.
"Just like cuttin' hair," he muses.
q2 The fact that he's just given himself a fresh trim helps complete the dapper picture. But the inner glow comes courtesy of a pre-chore bump.
"I was supposed to cut the grass last week. But I couldn't because I was sick. I had some [heroin] last night and this morning, so I have energy. It's like food or water to me," he explains.
HairKutt guides his mower past the stoop of a vacant unit he once shared with four of his six kids and their mother, Tara, who was with HairKutt for twelve years before his drug-addled wheels came off.
"We stuck by each other after high school, but in the end she just gave me an ultimatum: either the drugs or my family," HairKutt says. "I tried to sneak and get high, but she caught me. I regret all that, but I can't take it back. Instead of hindering her life, I let her get on."
While HairKutt and Tara remain estranged, she stays in close contact with Theresa Johnson and still brings the kids over for occasional trims from their father, who, by his own admission, provides scant and infrequent financial assistance if he provides it at all.
On the porch near the mower is a battered paperback copy of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, which HairKutt found abandoned on a sidewalk last night.
His interest in literature works both ways: HairKutt journals with abandon in a "big old book of thoughts" he stows in his bedroom. "I write about my kids, how I feel, if I was off drugs what I'd do," he says.
His mother, a cafeteria worker at Monroe Elementary on South Broadway, remains hopeful that such a day will dawn.
"It gets old," she acknowledges. "He's like, 'I'm gonna quit.' Well, when? You can't do it for me. You've got to do it for you. But I've got a lot of hope for my sons. I know they're tired of what they're doing. I pray a lot and ask the Lord to take the taste out of them. Eventually they'll get off it."
But with each passing year, Curtis Elliott grows less and less confident that his friend will sober up. While he's trying to get HairKutt into a proper treatment center a tall order, considering Kutt has no health insurance and blows all his income on drugs at times it seems as though he's already moved on, toting his film with him.
"If I can't save him, I can save others," says Elliott. "It's bigger than HairKutt now."
That strikes a nerve with the Johnsons.
"It can't be bigger than HairKutt if it's about HairKutt. What you gonna educate people with, if you don't have HairKutt? Bryant hasn't gotten anything out of the film," Theresa Johnson argues.
"Curtis has put a lot of money and work into the film, but he failed to realize it's about me and my family," says HairKutt. "I thought I was gonna get some money off each ticket, but that didn't happen. Everybody says I should be rich by now."
But documentaries even those that find wide release hardly ever translate to profit. As for gripes about exploitation, well, that comes with the territory, says Steve James, whose low-budget 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was nominated for an Academy Award. The film, which chronicled the on- and off-court adolescence of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two basketball prodigies from Chicago's mean streets, grossed a then-unprecedented $8 million.
"Any filmmaker who doesn't wrestle with issues of exploitation is either lying to you or they have a pretty shallow relationship with the craft," James told the Chicago Tribune in March 2004.
"Because the film made a lot of money, we cut Arthur, William and their families into the income stream at a very significant level," says Gordon Quinn, the film's executive producer. "But that's very, very unusual. Most of our films don't make any money. Sometimes participants will have very unrealistic expectations about how much money will flow to them."
Says Curtis Elliott: "I'm about a $40,000 loser on this project. If it does make money, we are going to split it and I did tell them that. But I just hope I can break even on it."
"[My father] had a guest house with a little two-room apartment in it and that's where I went," East St. Louis jazz great Miles Davis writes in Miles: The Autobiography. "I'd just lay up there in the dark, sweating like a motherfucker. I was so sick trying to kick the habit. I got to feeling bad all over, all stiff in my neck and legs and every joint in my body. It was a feeling like arthritis, or a real bad case of the flu, only worse. The feeling is indescribable. All of your joints get sore and stiff, but you can't touch them because if you do you'll scream. So nobody can give you a massage. It's the kind of hurt I later experienced after an operation, when I had a hip replacement. It's a raw kind of feeling that you can't stop. You feel like you could die and if somebody could guarantee that you would die in two seconds, then you would take it. You would take the gift of death over this torture of life."
Toward the end of HairKutt, Elliott sits in a basement chair while HairKutt trims around his ears with a whirring electric clipper, confessing that it took him less than 24 hours after his return from the Smoky Mountains to commence using heroin regularly again.
"My ear's not a handle, you know," cracks Elliott, before turning dead serious. "But let me ask you something, Kutt: That first time you got high after Tennessee, did you say, 'What the fuck am I doing?'"
Evading a simple "yes" or "no," HairKutt poses a scenario to his old friend:
"In school, when you ran around the track and took that first drink, what did you say?"
"Ahhhh!" says Elliott.
"Yeah, that's what I said," HairKutt replies. "Ahhhh!"
If you ask the people closest to HairKutt what it will take for him to get off heroin once and for all, the conversation inevitably leads to "mind over matter."
Country-folk singer and reformed substance abuser Mary Gauthier ("If it altered my mood, I put it in my body," she says of her habit) begs to differ.
"If it was mind over matter, we wouldn't need help, would we?" says Gauthier, a native Louisianan who got clean after a drunk-driving arrest in 1990 and multiple stints in rehab. "There is a profound difference between quitting and surrendering. We quit Vietnam. In the Civil War, the South surrendered.
Surrender, says, Gauthier, "means you lost. You put up a white flag, you're on your knees and you beg for mercy. It's not an act of will; it's a crushing defeat. And that's what happened to me with booze and dope: an acknowledgement that I could not quit."
Lark, Reese and Curtis say their biggest regret about their 2002 expedition to Tennessee was their inability to prearrange for HairKutt to enter a treatment program immediately following the trip to the cold-turkey torture chamber.
Elliott also contends that Theresa Johnson is "part of the problem. If your child's on a drug, I don't believe you should pity them by putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. I would hope that if my child were on heroin, I'd help him get off of it. But I'm not going to help him get high. That's the difference in philosophy between me and her."
Here, Elliott ventures, he sees a cultural phenomenon at play. "Slave owners would take the biggest, baddest black dude out into the fields and whip the shit out of him in front of everybody," the filmmaker posits. "It broke the black man and made the black woman the matriarch. Bryant's mom babies him like I don't baby my eight-year-old daughter. Just like slavery times: the motherfuckin' woman taking care of the man."
"You'll hear this dictum in the African-American community that African-American women raise their daughters and love their sons," observes Prudence Carter, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard University. "Some would argue that African-American women are more protective of their sons because of what the system has done to black men. It's emasculated them, and certainly slavery was an emasculating institution so maybe there's been some emotional overcompensation."
But if you're looking for a scapegoat, steer clear of Theresa Johnson.
"People say, 'Do tough love.' Well, 'tough love' is hard to do," she says. "To see your son in severe pain, you're gonna throw him out of the house? You're gonna turn away from him? I'm not trying to knock Curtis. He's a good guy. But what Curtis went through up there in the mountains, I've been through a few times.
"I have no guilt," HairKutt's mother goes on. "I felt like I raised them right. They know what they're doing. They know right from wrong. Baby wants a job, he has a little family. But Bryant has always been with me. Always."