On The Other Side: The Barbershop Chronicles

Derrick Adams.   Human Structure Headquarters,   2013

Derrick Adams. Human Structure Headquarters, 2013

Written By: Kasai Rex

I should’ve known better than to come in for a cut when life’s nippin’ at my ass. My girl’s texting me heavy, asking when we’re gonna start moving her stuff into our new spot, and I definitely didn’t get enough sleep, at least not enough to steel me against today’s trial. But I need this fade like a motherfucker, so I convince myself this is all worth it.

That chair I’ve been waiting on little man to get out of for a minute (for a few dozen minutes) is finally free, and I spring for it. But that’s the thing about plans.

A wild LIGHT-SKINNED DUDE appeared!

“Hey brother, I’ve been waiting a while and have somewhere to be,” I offer up, assured that my calm, kind approach will be rewarded.

“Sorry brother,” he offered, without making eye contact. “I’m a lawyer. I got appointments.”



On a Saturday afternoon?

The fuck is that supposed to mean? Is this what I get for acting with tact and courtesy? I’ve been sitting in this hard ass seat, listening to fake revolutionaries on AM radio invoke Malcolm X like they were in the 3rd grade together, rolling my eyes while cats slander white folk (what if they find out my girl is white? what if they knew most of the people I work with are white? most of the people I grew up with?), sweatin’ my ass off in the basement of this spot (a new shop I figured I’d try after saying ya basta to my old joint) for over an hour. I guess it’s my own fault for not checking upstairs, for not scoping out an open chair. But damn all that, Gina! This dude clearly thinks I’m the one.

Watching this crusty old dude in the 3X Pelle Pelle button up (who’s been called a no-good drunk by one of the barbers no less than five times since he walked in, well after me mind you) slide into the seat I’d laid claim to ages ago, if only in my head, I feel my face get hot, every muscle in my body taut to the point of feeling like they’re going to pop right off the bone.

I hear the sirens blaring, impossibly loud in my head, critical mass having been reached, perhaps foreshadowing of the actual blue and red and black and blue I’ll see if I act on my basest desires. A familiar feeling, deep in the darkest crevasse of whatever my Self looks like in the Now.

The precursor to a “nigga moment,” with a side of a potential “when keeping it real goes wrong” moment wrapped up tightly like my friend Matt’s killer angels on horseback, tucked inside that bummer of a u2 song “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” running in the background (that’s some dual-consciousness for your ass right there!). This struggle is real. And unlike THE STRUGGLE, which we’re all embroiled in from the womb to the tomb (if not all of us being “all in”), this tumult right here is centered in the mind.

Walk with me.

There is an “I” inside of the me you’ll see, the latter mildly worried about white readers seeing the word nigga in this piece so many times. The former? He’s the one they call Dr. Feelhood, and he couldn’t give a fuck, wish a nigga would cuz he’s the toughest nigga on earth who’s also afraid of his own shadow, of living up to society’s subterranean expectation of him, of expressing himself outside the solid white lines on Blackdom Boulevard.

I’m always gonna bring Dr. Feelhood with me to the barbershop, or to the bodega or anywhere else I feel his services might be necessary. I can tag him in or out on the fly, as the situation demands, and that’s just the way the shit be.

But back to the lecture at hand, because I won’t call on him this day. I’m almost thirty, have never been locked up despite my best efforts in harsher times and don’t plan on starting that shit up now. So on this day, the lawyer homie doesn’t get the hands, I get my cut (while also getting the Full Barber Shop Experience when finally in the chair, replete with a dude telling a story about getting punched so hard he shit himself) and I leave the previous hour and a half’s anger and otherness from another motherness behind like a mildly bad memory.

See, the thing is, my pops used to always cut my hair. I got my first regular in a barber shop on the south side of Williamsburg at age 22 by a Dominican named Exotic (much respect to this dude and the framed pics of him rap squatting in front of rented Lambos flanked by infinite mamis). I’d sit there in silence, hands clasped under the sheet, picking the occasional word or idioma out of the smoke-filled air.

I would graduate to THE BARBERSHOP years later. Strolling in, with no particular bond to patron nor barber. Most of the time, I’d just sit there like Cuba Gooding in the barbershop scene in “Coming To America.” I was a customer, paying for a service and then leaving when done. If the movie “Barbershop” was about my experience there, it would’ve resembled a poorly made student film exploring the spaces of postmodern solitude and the futility of blah blah blah.

I’d like to say, that sweltering Saturday afternoon was the first time I’ve been cut while waiting for a cut, straight up dissed, on some invisible man shit with my own people—but it’s definitely not. Whether it’s at the shop or at a cookout, when I get the “you ain’t a real nigga” look/line/whatever (was it my tiny pants that gave it away?), I want to ask, hat in hand, if I walked up in Barney’s, would I not get followed, scoped out, harangued even after droppin’ hard, legally earned stacks, only to be stopped and frisked once out on Madison Ave., cuz I should know better, right?

I’ve been on the receiving end of this trip my whole life, so you’d think I’d be used to it, or at least able to reconstitute it and use it to my advantage, like I did with initial childhood anger at an old white lady clutching her purse when I drew near. Now, I know that another’s fear-based thinking is not a reflection of who I am. I think.

Before this latest trip, so frustrated with the experience at my old barber, I vowed to embrace nappy hair and rock my shit in natural mode, on that Kunta Kinte steez (That real nigga enough for you?! I wanna scream at no one in particular, at everyone, at myself, at my other self). Madame CJ Walker and her “good hair” bullshit be damned. But sure enough, the warm and fuzzies brought on by a fresh-ass fade called me back to the jagged rocks and crashing waves like sirens of the shape-up.

On the real, I can’t front like I wasn’t pissed when a dude who looked like an undergrad version of Braxton from the Jamie Foxx Show walked in about half an hour after me and was helped almost immediately. The sight of his powder blue, above the knee shorts, slate v-neck tee and light skin made my brain tickle in a way that I’m not proud of, the thought that he was now the “whitest guy in the room” definitely crossing my mind. As with so much in life, “it’s levels to this shit.”

As alluded to in the interview that writer Ernest Baker attempted to conduct with Rick Ross (real name withheld) for Noisey, there are Vans niggas and there are Reebok niggas (Ross’s words, not Baker’s; I think yung Braxton was rockin’ Tom’s, but I could be wrong about that). And whether the performance artist-cum-rapper knows it or not, this is an existential battle stretching back well before cats were even in sneakers. W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington’s alternating schools of thought, reform vs. accommodation, sought out in their own ways the most promising path to prosperity for downtrodden black America. Today, we’ve got Reebok vs. Vans, two sides of the same damn coin, the spiritual core of the dichotomy same as it ever was.

(This paragraph has been dedicated to my old pair of pink and blue checkered Vans SK8 HIs, which earned me more than a few threats from rowdy teens on lonely bus rides home from work. Time will not dim the glory of your deeds.)

Stepping within the Veil, as DuBois put it, sometimes without even realizing it, is just part of the game when navigating “this white man’s world,” as Yeezy put it. And similarly, I can be hanging out with Dr. Feelhood without having expected it, like when a white girl asks you to talk “thuggish” for her because “The Real You” isn’t quite enough.

And when someone like Bill Maher is adamant that President Obama is “not black enough,” at the end of the day, even if it is cable chat show schtick, Bill Maher can go back to his crib or the Playboy Mansion or wherever the fuck and chill, but the stakes are higher for the target of his fire-and-forget bullshit, and for those close enough to feel the shrapnel, which in the age of the internet is anyone with a phone, phablet or two-way pager (I see y’all two-way freaks).

When even the most well-meaning friend/co-worker/girlfriend throws the “you’re the whitest guy I know” at me, it’s like Nat Turner’s ghost taps me on the shoulder and says “Just Do It.”

As much as whites in America must acknowledge and work to dismantle this country’s white supremacist constructs, erected centuries ago yet still alive and well (if you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case For Reparations,” please do so for a much more eloquent discourse on this matter than I could hope to muster), blacks (and latinos) must work to push beyond what ethicist Victor Anderson calls “ontological blackness” if there is any hope in a fight against disenfranchisement that again grows realer and more vicious by the minute.

Those wiser than me often tell me that it’s none of my business what others think of me, be it the homie hovering over an empty chair at the barbershop straight clownin’ me when I approach him or the matronly old white lady who can’t stifle her disbelief when I tell her I’m a writer.

But god dammit, I’m due for a cut this week, and I’ll be damned if I stop writing because the Better Homes & Gardens crew can’t process or acknowledge my intellect. Despite that one asshole contributing to a negative experience on my most recent stop by the barbershop, I can’t swear them off. Nor can I let my head fuck with me to the point of not cherishing who I am, of cutting myself off from my fellow man because of perceived slights, of not reveling in the fact that every moment, good, bad and neutral, has led me to the present. And neither a dude in a Pelle Pelle button up and some PePe jeans, nor a decrepit Barbara Bush lookin’ creature can take that away from me.

When walking to get a pack of smokes in my old hood one day, a woman shouted out, “them pants too tight!” Before I could whip around and snap back a retort, her drinking buddy replied, “no they ain’t baby, mmmph!”

No they ain’t indeed. And I need a fresh cut.

Follow Kasai Rex on Twitter: @KasaiREX