A Barber by Kenneth AllenHousing and Neighborhhod Economy

*Please note that names in this have been changed for the purpose of anonymity.

 

Emmanuel is a man in his late-twenties who works at a barbershop in Egleston Square. He was born in the Dominican Republic but has spent most of his life in the United States. Because of this, he speaks English without an accent, and you wouldn’t know that he’s bilingual until he speaks Spanish. After meeting him a few times, it becomes very easy to discern what mood he’s in. Sometimes his eyes are wide and bright, and he enjoys talking to those around him. But there are other times when his tired eyes show that talking isn’t something he’s interested in. During these moments, you can find him sitting down on his phone with headphones on.

 

The first time I met him, he was in an obviously good mood. He narrated his every move as we watched him. He repeatedly disinfects the counter where he keeps all of his hair product, razors, combs, brushes, and other tools. He must always keep everything clean; if he doesn’t, a customer can report him to the city, and the barbershop will be subject to a random inspection, he warns. He wears gloves partially for hygiene and partially for comfort. He spends a lot of time with his fingers deep in the hair and beards of other people—something he demonstrated to me—and would feel uneasy with his bare fingers in anyone’s hair. Although Emmanuel works at a barbershop, he might explain it differently than that. Emmanuel would say that he, along with the other barbers in this shop, is his own boss. Although he sets his own hours, he is there from the time the shop opens (9 AM). Every week Emmanuel tells the owner of the shop how much time he plans to spend working and rents his chair.

 

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Before Boston, Emmanuel lived in New Orleans. I’ve caught him looking at Google Maps exploring his old neighborhood. It’s not there anymore—Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. Although he ostensibly hasn’t been to New Orleans since Katrina, he still knows the city well. He points out where he used to live, what kind of people live in what neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods one would have to be brave to visit. He looks around his old city, searching for a recovery after Katrina. But in the neighborhoods where Black and Hispanic people live there is no recovery to be found. The places where tourists go to visit appear to be completely intact, but as he scrolls through the pictures on his phone, he notices that neighborhoods like his look like Katrina had just hit them. The more empty lots and destroyed neighborhoods he sees, the more his frustration builds. For every new scene, he exclaims “look!”, and eventually this exclamation turns into a yell. It’s at this point that Emmanuel ceases to discuss New Orleans and explains that he doesn’t like to bring it up.

 

If it were up to Emmanuel, he wouldn’t be here. As soon as he is done with his parole in 2018, he wants to pack up and go. His sights are set on Atlanta. Not only does Atlanta have better weather than Boston does, but it’s a city that is much better for people in his profession. He’d likely be able to find more and better clientele in Atlanta. Atlanta, a city Emmanuel describes as “black Hollywood”, and Boston have roughly the same number of black and Hispanic people, but Atlanta is definitely better known for its style than Boston is.

 

One of the times I saw him, Emmanuel wore a Manchester United shirt. He told me that he hoped we didn’t have a problem with the team, because they were his favorite soccer team. He purchased this shirt in England, where he’d also seen Manchester United play before. He found England to be a fun place with stronger beers and better women than Boston. He is clearly nostalgic about the time he spent in England with some of his friends that live there, but he hasn’t been there in approximately two years.

 

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All of the barbers have a style: some engage their customers in conversation, some talk to others while they cut their customers’ hair, some seem to cut their customers’ hair begrudgingly. But Emmanuel cuts hair like an artist intent on creating a masterpiece better than his last. When I tell him how I want my hair cut, he nods, puts on his headphones, and gets to work. I’ve seen barbers run errands, talk on the phone, and engage in political conversations with patrons, but Emmanuel doesn’t tend to partake in anything of that sort. He’s stopped cutting my hair on two occasions. One time he points out a young boy sweeping up hair in the shop. He informs me that the boy comes into the shop, sweeps up hair, and asks the barber for money. Emmanuel doesn’t like the mild shakedown, but he admires the boy’s entrepreneurial spirit. Emmanuel predicts that one day the boy will be rich. On a different occasion, Emmanuel talks to another man about a gathering of friends. The man tells Emmanuel that they hung out and played chess. Emmanuel responds that he’d like to play chess, and the man says that he’ll invite him next time. But the man tells Emmanuel he has to go and leaves the store. The second he’s out of the door, Emmanuel announces that the man is crazy; to which Elvis ponders “don’t two crazy people make a sane one?”

 

Before all of my haircuts with Emmanuel, he combs out my hair. On one specific day, he has a hard time doing so. My hair is very nappy, and he asks me if I own a pick. I told him I do, but I forgot to pick my hair that day. Emmanuel seems skeptical, and I say that I don’t pick my hair except for the morning of a haircut. He replies “that sounds more like it.”

 

Outside I see Emmanuel walking to a store to get change. On his way out, he walks back from the store holding a drink or snack in his hands. This insouciance is a change of pace from wolfing-down-sandwiches Emmanuel. He sees a car that has broken down in the middle of Washington Street and runs to join a bunch of men pushing it. Soon he finishes pushing the car to where it needs to be, and he starts walking back to the barbershop. He then sees that the man driving the car still needs help, yells to the man to hold on, and helps to push his car once again.