My first real haircut came right before picture day. I had to rock a skin fade like the other second graders at PS. 152 so I looked right. I didn't want to highlight my buck teeth at the center of the portrait. I needed a correct hairline to offset them. No one told me about the pain required for fresh edges. But I knew I was tough enough for anything in my Velcro snow boots and London Fog bubble coat.
My mom and I walked to Foster Avenue and Flatbush, a junction of patty aromas and double-parked cars. Not quite at the Sears, but before Rogers Ave, sat the barbershop. Haitian men I couldn't understand ran the place. Their hands molded fat knuckles and gold rings. Callouses shaped their palms and Kreyòl swears escaped their lips.
In 1990s Flatbush, Brooklyn, awnings faded but the barber poles spun red, white and blue stripes in front. I walked in, no longer holding mom's hand, kicking slush off my soles. She undid my scarf and pointed me to the empty seat. A man with veiny temples peered at her, then me.
"You coming to me next, OK, Big Man?" as he winked at my mother.
I nodded. I wasn't big but he zeroed his tiny eyes on me. My mom had never let my hair grow that much. She said when I was born I was like some other creature, covered in fur. I thought I must've been a secret werewolf. I would transform soon too, like when I turned 10 or so.
The big-knuckled Haitian barber told me his name but his accent made it sound like it could be either "Jean" or "Jack." I couldn't tell.
"And what is your name, Big Man?" he asked.
I climbed up the chair, ignoring him, too scared to speak.
"Stand up one second, Big Man," he commanded and propped two phone books under my narrow ass. My denims squirmed against the book cover. I kept sliding to the brink of the chair.
"Cut the sides dem low, right baby?" my mother sought my input. "But leave some on the top."
I approved. What he attempted next, I did not approve. Of the thick clippers hanging from hooks at his station, he chose the one with big buck teeth like mine. The black combs on the end of this humming blade cursed their way against my grain. He was shaving tufts off from front to back. Sin! It felt like someone stripping duct tape off my scalp but my hair was the tape. He pushed so hard with each stroke of the clippers that my neck jerked backward. This shit hurt. They must do different styles down by the equator, I thought.
When I looked around though, young and old men floated on chairs, surrounded by hair piles, silent. Were they blind to the child torture taking place before their eyes? My follicles screamed for relief while they swiveled and chatted, none the wiser.
"Don't move! Hold still, Big Man!" Jean or Jack looked at my mother again. His glance loaded threats and he used his free hand to steady my neck with a stern thumb and index finger. I calmed after a few more warnings: "I don't want to cut you, you hear me?! You goin to make me cut you!" I came to get a haircut, not to get murdered.
LeBron James is the biggest, strongest, fastest athlete in the world. And his HBO series The Shop portrays him as the most vulnerable one.
Ever the showman, James cannot help but stage his transitions though. The glossy set of The Shop cushions his candid takes on growing up a poor Black boy in Akron, Ohio. The soft light and prop barbers betray a stark message: few spaces welcome Blackness.
My 8-year-old body shivered when I heard the snap-click of the line-up shears targeting my forehead. That blade had aged in neon blue gel alongside an ancient dying comb. The barbershop of my memory doesn't resemble The Shop in any way.
James, the basketball icon, poses his venue as a place for other celebs to reveal themselves. The Flatbush barbershop, by contrast, taught me to muffle pain and hold still. Although James' The Shop gives a curated look at the wide-ranging capacity of the barbershop, it avoids scary truths. For one, barbers ain't quiet. They're often conduct code officers presiding over both chairs and manners. They run the gamut from patient interjection to constant oration. They're fact-checkers and chin-checkers. They're shepherds of ego and mood. They reserve the right to kick you out for selling bootlegs or to bring you in from stormy winds.
My first haircut showed me pain and weakness didn't belong in their shop. By the time I turned 14, no matter how rusty the blade or rough the hands, I took my line-up like a man. I'd rather grit my teeth and let a silent tear roll down my cheek than break my stare. I'd sooner piss my pants and clench my fists than deny the fierce slap of ethyl alcohol against my raw wounds.
The Shop mirrors this almost-tenderness and skin-deep consensus. But the feel-good circle of camaraderie begs for less easy agreement. They won't show my friend Hassan who, at 3 years old, had his arms strapped into a chair so he could take his cut without running out. They won't show him trying to cut his own hair at home with scissors and scarring himself in the process. The Shop evades the image of clippers slicing into fresh razor bumps and hairline scars. They can't name the barber who talks to his wife and his baby mother in the span of your appointment. Nor can they allude to the intimacy he shares with both, whether each woman knows or not.
But with a pristine brand at stake, James likely understands he can't reveal the messy world of the barbershop. Rather, he serves a larger audience, in two lean episodes, by narrowing the scope of discussion.
My last haircut earned me a fast friend. I warmed to the chair in a natural way I hadn’t before. The barber was a hip-hop head. I asked if he liked the new Eminem as he finessed my funky naps. He’d played the album twice since I entered the shop. It turns out Em was his favorite rapper and he didn’t think anyone new compared. He asked how I wanted the sides even as I grilled him on not liking Kendrick and worshiping Marshall. He said Pac was the GOAT anyway and left it at that. In our brief connection, we performed the unspoken but accepted bonding ritual we were allowed. Because he needed to touch me and I needed to invite his hands and trust his skills, it made sense. As our talk muted, I felt the loneliness between us, knowing this might be the only friendly exchange either of us had that day.
Black men aren’t ready to share our pain yet. We still forge manhood through stifled trauma and swallowed tears.
But I hope we get past that by Season 2.
(Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)