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The Barber Shop

Other than going to church across town on Sundays and occasionally to the City Market downtown, there were few opportunities to see beyond our neighborhood nest. Trips to the market were always a treat. Aisles of farmers’ produce and butchers with meats and chicken on ice melting across the concrete floors. The forest of legs would block my view but the din of people bartering and cash registers ringing confirmed it was a place full of life. Sometimes, if dad had a little money to spare, he would buy sliced corned beef and egg buns. This was a very rare and special treat that made the trip back home even longer.

When it came time to get a haircut, dad would load me into the car and head down to the “Avenue.” Indiana Avenue was the “Black Man’s Downtown” where nearly everything you needed could be found and where Blacks could be themselves without the judging eyes and humiliation of whites. Saturdays, the sidewalk would be busy with folks trying to get all their business taken care of before church in the morning. Pool halls, restaurants, shoe shine stands, doctors and lawyers lined the street for blocks. Jazz clubs offering some of the best music of the time were numerous serving short-term, liquid antidepressants that could exaggerate anybody’s moves on the dance floor. The Avenue was a frequent layover stop for some of the most celebrated jazz and blues artist of the day crisscrossing the country by rail. Locals, such as Wes Montgomery among others, could be found jammin’ in the clubs on the Avenue perfecting the sound that made them world famous. Greats like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and Charlie Parker would head to the Avenue after their paid gigs to let loose. The Avenue was an enclave, a safe harbor. It was a world apart.

Lockefield Gardens was across the street from the barber shop. It was an early version of what could have been called the “projects” now gentrified as off-campus housing for Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) students. My Aunt Doris, Uncle Tom (Yes. We called him that not knowing what connotations it had.) and my 5 cousins lived there in a small 2-bedroom apartment. I remember syrup, catsup or fried bologna sandwiches, the dusty patches where grass had once grown between the sidewalks and kids running in every direction playing tag, jacks, kick ball oblivious to the struggles their parents faced beyond the Avenue.

A 1980 image of Lockefield Gardens looking south. The Dust Bowl would have been near the top and center of this image at the south end of Lockefield. Indiana Avenue is the diagonal street in the lower corner (image IUPUIUniversity Archives).

Lockfield was the birthplace in 1938 of the "Dust Bowl," a barren basketball court between two net-less hoops where a young Oscar Robertson and others refined their skills against the older and larger varsity players, shaming them with their agility. Many of them went on to comprise the Crispus Attucks High School team that became to first all-black basketball team in the nation to win a state championship. For Oscar and some of his teammates, it was their ticket out and into history. The Dust Bowl was paved in 1948 but became well known to NBA professionals as a venue to develop and test new moves they would take into the living rooms of millions of fans.

Inside the barbershop, it was as most shops are today, a row of spectators’ chairs along the wall, vinyl seats with chrome handles repaired with tape, facing a row of barber’s chairs in full performance. Pictures hung high on the wall that were easier to see in reverse in the mirrors once seated in the chairs. Those chairs were a curious assembly of chrome plated levers with leather seats and a thick leather strap hanging down the side. I was always mesmerized by the barber’s skill stroking that razor sharp blade up and down that strap before taking it gently to the throat of his trusting patron. Then it would be my turn in the chair.

With the child’s seat set, dad would hoist me into place. The barber’s cape would swirl through the air and land around my neck. Then the combing, brushing, buzzing and the hand gripping my head twisting it this way then that would begin. Out the window through the backward shop name, I could watch the red, white and blue ribbons of the traditional barber sign hypnotically slithering down the pole and people sauntering by enjoying their weekend of rest. I could see the tall, black clock that stood at the curb whose hands’ movement kept time with the pace on the sidewalk below. That is until the chair would spin around to face the old men engaged in their form of gossip. There would be dad laughing and joking with the other men along the wall, most of whom didn’t need a haircut but just a place to be and let what hair they did have down. I guess the shop was their Kiwanis or Rotary, a place to gather out of earshot of their wives to talk about women and sports, to connect with others who knew each other if not personally, of their shared experience and the lives they all endured. A cloister of wise, wrinkled and weathered faces and understanding ears.

Like a magician, off came the cape with a snap and I was done. No more nappy head. Taking dad’s hand, we headed home. Looking back through the fog of years gone by, I can see more clearly what I could not see right before my eyes then. A life and time that was defining me even then revealing itself as I reflect on all that has passed between then and now.


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