Tent City Barbers Stories
Below is a work in progress. It is a collection of rough draft stories compiled from my three years volunteering as a Tent City Barber© in Seattle and In the SF Bay Area. They are in no particular rough chronological order. All of the stories are true.
Story #1: The Beginning
In 2018 I had fled the Bay Area to stay with a friend in Seattle. One day while walking home from Whole Foods I passed by a steamy windowed hygiene center called The Urban Rest Stop. It’s a place where people living on the street can shower and do their laundry. I noticed that Amazon employees with their unmistakable blue lanyards were tiptoeing through a minefield of homeless people sleeping or passed out in front of the hygiene center. Amazon employees were literally stepping over society’s throw aways on their way to work at one of the the most highly valued companies in the world. This raised my ire. The juxtaposition of rock bottom hardship and obscene wealth made me mad.
I thought to myself “But what can I do about this?” I no longer enjoyed the prestigious academic affiliations I had had in my previous career and I had less than no money. Then it occurred to me that what I could do is cut hair. I had a newly earned cosmetology license and I was unemployed. So, I walked into the Urban Rest Stop, stepping over those same comatose bodies and I asked the attendant: “Do you happen to need someone to cut hair here?”
“How much would you charge?”
‘Let me get the director.” She answered.
After a lot of clomping on stairs the director appeared. When she saw me, her eyes lit up and she said; “You are an answer to our prayers! Our old guy stopped showing up months ago! When can you start?”
“Give me 30 minutes to get my stuff and set up.”
I cut 6 people’s hair that afternoon from a tiny cubbyhole with a view onto the rainy sidewalk where Amazon employees stream on their way to their headquarters two blocks away. What I mostly remember from that first day was an overwhelming feeling of having arrived home, an undeniable sense that I was exactly where I belonged. It was a feeling that New Age thinkers call "flow" and it is addictive.
I had seen posh salons where stylists cut hair behind chairs looking out onto the street and I dreamed of one day doing the same and now the universe had handed me a salon chair looking out onto the street. The only difference being that, instead of fancy ladies who lunch, my clients were the city’s throw aways. Huuman litter piling up to be stepped over on the way to work. These are some of the stories from my experience as a Tent City Barber.
(MORE stories to come soon!)
Client #1: Excuse Me. I Dropped Something.
Age: 30 Something
Hair color: Dark Brown
Eye Color: Brown
Face Shape: Square
Skin Tone: Death Palor Olive
The front desk at the Urban Rest Stop put out a piece of scratch paper to use as the signup sheet for haircuts. I was set up in my corner and it was time to get started. I called out the first name on the list. He had been bragging that he was first on the list and was being territorial about his position in line. I seated him and asked him what he had in mind. He asked for a bald fade. I was very nervous but put my cutting drape on him and started.
About halfway into the haircut he said "Excuse me. I dropped something." He reached down and picked up a small object. There was a flash of bright orange, and I realized he had picked up a syringe cap. I wasn't surprised because the street dwelling population in Seattle is comprised of a lot of intravenous drug users. Sadly, in parts of Seattle syringes litter the ground like cigarette butts. I continued the haircut. It was a very short haircut and there was a lot of detail around the ears. Every time I touched his ears, he would faintly gasp. "Ahhh..." The gasp was barely discernable. As I finished the haircut, I also noticed that he was sweating profusely. But the hygiene center is so humid from showers and laundry that the windows are always steamy. I assumed it was just Urban Rest Stop sweat.
After the cut he started peacocking around showing off his new haircut. Client number one was a success! He was very important because he was a walking advertisement for my skills. Other people signed up for a haircut after seeing that I knew what I was doing.
I started prepping for the next client by shaking off my first client's drape. It was in that moment that I realized that a drape covers the whole body. A drape for someone living on the street is really a private room. I'd seen surfers strip out of all their clothes in front of crowds of people using only a towel as their dressing room. My client used the cutting drape as a private space to inject drugs. When he dropped the syringe cap, it's because he had just used a syringe. The quiet euphoric gasps and sweating now made sense. His last words to me that day were: "I'm going to go to my tent and watch videos all day." Addiction held my client tightly in its icy clutches, and it was ripping the life out him. I would learn the hard way some months later that the haircuts I give might be the last haircut my clients ever receive. I keep that in mind while I work now.
Client #2: Lesson 1: Give them what they want, not what I want
Hair color: Salt and Pepper
Eye Color: Gray
Face Shape: Round
Skin Tone: Street Life Gray
Client #2 looked like a plump bean as she shuffled through the crowded waiting area over to my chair. She shed her many woolen layers and sat in front of the mirror.
"Shave it all off with a number 3, please."
"Are you sure? I can do something prettier. You have enough hair for a cute pixie cut"
"No. Please just shave it."
"Well. Let's try something else first and if you don't like it we can take it shorter, OK?"
I was looking forward to doing a makeover on her that would reveal a softer side to her dingy and utilitarian appearance. I felt I knew better than she how she could look her best. Then, I rather smugly started to put on a show for the hygiene center by launching into a smart pixie cut. Cutting hair is or, at least, can be performance art and I gave the captive Urban Rest Stop audience a flamboyant platform artist haircutting demo.
I finished the cut. She had kept her eyes on the floor the entire time rather than looking at herself in the mirror.
"What do you think?", I asked excitedly.
She slowly lifted her head and stared shyly at her image in the mirror. After pausing she whispered "It's beautiful, but would you please shave it off now? I can't keep this hairstyle up in my situation. I need it to be very short." I cringed because instead of wowing her with my Edward Scissor Hands fabulousness, I made her feel ashamed and wasted her time. It is a lesson I will never forget: Give them what they want, not what I want. Get over yourself, girl! It's about THEM not about me!
hair Client #3: You're a Terrible Hair Stylist
Hair color: Extremely Damaged Light Blonde
Eye Color: Blue
Face Shape: Diamond
Skin Tone: Fair
One rainy winter evening as I walked up to the Urban Rest Stop to cut hair I noticed a beautiful girl with long, overly processed bleached hair squatting next to the building entrance. Upon closer inspection I realized she was smoking crack through a long metal tube while people came and went from the hygiene center. She was escorted by two men who appeared to be her companions. I asked the front desk to put out a sign up sheet and I set up to do some haircuts. After doing a couple cuts I approached her and her companions who were now sitting inside waiting their turn for a shower. I asked her if she needed a haircut. Her companions answered for her.
"Hell yeah she wants a haircut. Get over there. You look a hot mess."
"We can wait until after your shower if you like." I said
She said nothing and she looked really angry, so I went onto the next person on the list. About 20 minutes later she walked over and sat in my chair, still escorted by the two men. Her long light blonde hair was soaking wet. She had taken a shower.
"I just need the dead ends cut off. Trim my hair. Don't take too much off!
I rolled my eyes and put the cutting drape on her shivering shoulders. "How much can I cut?" I asked.
"Just the split ends." she replied in a cranky tone.
"OK, I'll take this much off." I said holding up a section of her hair.
"Whatever. Just do it."
Her companions laughed and looked at me sympathetically. She offended me, but I fell back on the words of my old beauty school teacher who was affectionately known as The Wooly Mammoth because of her prodigious amount of wooly auburn hair. She always said, "Get in and get out." which I always took to mean, You're there to do a job. Be a professional and finish the service. Suck it up! So I swallowed my pride and proceeded. Client 3's hair was destroyed, shattered by years of inept bleaching and street living. I endeavored to do what I could to repair her hair. I trimmed the worst part of her length and then added split end menders and blow-dried her hair. During the blow dry, some of her hair got sucked into my blow dryer and immediately burned to a crisp. The sulfuric odor of burnt hair pervaded the air. Fortunately for me, she and her escorts were so loaded that they didn't notice. After finishing, I took off her drape. She looked at her freshly blown out hair and gave me her verdict:
"This looks like shit. You are a terrible hairstylist." To which I replied stealing a line from an old Smiths song called The Queen is Dead,
"Terrible hairstylist? You should hear me play piano."
She sneered at me and then walked out into the wet Seattle night with her escorts in tow.
Client #4: We Got Your Back
Age: 60 Something
Hair color: Salt n Pepper, Gold Prospector from Old Western Movie
Eye Color: Steel Blue
Face Shape: Sunken
Skin Tone: Ruddy
This wiry senior gentleman had been through a lot judging from his appearance. Rail thin he looked like a prospector from an old western movie. He settled all of his 95 pounds into the chair, and I started doing a much needed beard trim. Then out of the corner of my eye, I see M. M. is my stalker. We met when I first moved back to Seattle. A former Microsoft Executive and acquaintance, he had disappeared from my life only to return as a stalker. He had started writing threatening notes like "I know where you live!" and "Just saying Hi. in the dirt on my car ", dropping by unannounced at my work place and otherwise showing up out of nowhere. I told my client, "I'm sorry but I might have to stop the service right now. My stalker is here and I don't want any trouble. If he gets any closer, I'm going to have to pack up my stuff.
"Where is he? my client asks scanning the crowded room.
"He's the guy in the blue shirt over by the coffee maker." I answered
After spotting him and sizing him up, my client looks up at me with his steel blue eyes and says, "We really appreciate what you are doing here for us and we can take care of your stalker problem in about four minutes. Just say the word."
"That's very kind of you. I'll let you know."
I finished cleaning up his long gray beard and nicotine stained moustache and he went on his way.
This was a break through moment in my efforts to integrate my services with street dwelling clients. It was a sign that I was accepted and appreciated. I was incredibly touched that Seattle's untouchables had this budding hairstylist's back.
Client #5: Bear
Hair color: Weathered chocolate brown
Eye Color: Brown
Face Shape: Rugby Ball
Skin Tone: Sweaty and Fair
Client 5 was the most imposing person I worked on at the Urban Rest Stop. He was six five and 300 pounds with long brown hair and a bushy beard.
He slept almost every day outside the Urban Rest Stop on a large piece of corrugated cardboard. Even totally covered with blankets, his size gave him away. He was very seriously mentally ill and spent a lot of time muttering to himself while pacing back and forth through the laundry area.
The hygiene center loans out a pair of coveralls to people doing their laundry, so clients can wash the clothes they are wearing, which may be the only clothes they have. The day I cut client 5 he walked up to the chair looking like a beige monolith. A wall of beige canvas approached me and said he was next on the list. I made room for him and he sat down in front of the mirror. He completely filled the tiny alcove where I cut. He was so big, my oversized cutting drape did not fit around his neck. I had to use duct tape to fill in the span created by the circumference of his neck.
I could not really make out what he was saying, so I just started cutting. When I was done, I asked him if it was ok. He looked at himself and nodded his head and started talking to himself.
"Yeah..." (Heavy breathing and head nodding) "Can you do my beard?""
Beard trims are dicey under the best of circumstances, and I was totally unprepared for the task. But he asked for it and I had to do it. I asked him to hold his head back and I carved into his unkempt beard with my clippers. I was crammed into the work space smashed against the cold plate glass like a pressed flower. I winced as large chunks of beard fell to the floor. He muttered random, unspeakably violent nonsense as I did my best to even out his beard and trim his overgrown moustache to reveal his lips. I'm still alive, so I guess he thought the work was ok.
I cut his hair a couple more times over the next few months. I would see him out and about when I was running errands in the neighborhood and he was always dressed in the tan hygiene center coveralls. I realize now that those were probably the only clothes he had.
Client #6: He's Asleep. Now what?
Age: 20 something
Hair color: Jet Black
Eye Color: Hopeful Brown
Face Shape: Angular
Skin Tone: Very Fair
Client 6 was a very slender asian kid of college age. He could have been one of my Russian undergrads at UW or one of my graduate students at Stanford. There was innocence still in his eyes, an innocence that street living tends to snuff out. He was very polite treating me with the same deference that many of my students did when I was teaching. He didn't seem to belong at the hygiene center. I called out his name from the sign up sheet and he sat down.
"Thank you for doing this, man."
"No problem. What can I do for you?"
"Just shave it all off."
"Shave you bald?"
"I'm gonna start with a number 2, ok?"
"OK, I trust you"
I laughed inside in order not to cry because I really had no idea what I was doing, but I started to cut his hair.
"So, are you in school? What's your major?"
"I was in school. I'd like to go back."
"You should. Then onto grad school! Grad school is really fun!""
He smiled in the mirror with genuine shared enthusiasm. He actually made eye contact with me which was rare. It was nice to be cutting someone who was able to communicate clearly and who had a shared love of learning. But soon after I started cutting he bagan to slouch in the chair. His eyes slowly closed and his head started falling. My heart sank as I realized this bright eyed kid who was so excited about going back to college was nodding off in an opiate trans. It got worse. He started to fall out of the chair. I pulled his shoulders up and he came to and resettled in the chair. I continued cutting but he nodded off again.
"He's ASLEEP! Now what?" I thought to myself.
In the end, I could only cradle his head in my left arm and finish cutting with my right. He was basically unconscious for most of the haircut. His body seemed to know when the haircut was over. He opened his eyes and looked in the mirror appreciatively.
"Thanks, man. That looks tight. I really appreciate it"
"No problem. It was nice to meet you. You be careful out there"
I took off the cape and watched him walk out into the underbelly of Seattle. "Every junkie's like a setting sun..." as the song goes.
Client #7: Purple Rain
Age: Early 30s
Hair color: Auburn with Gorgeous Eggplant Purple Undertone
Eye Color: Brown
Face Shape: Square
Skin Tone: Olive with Hep C Cast
I met client 7 in my first and last Seattle tent city outing. Many of Seattle's local parks now have homeless encampments in them. Denny Park which is located in the Shadow of the Space Needle was full of tents. I decided to expand my services beyond the scope of the Urban Rest Stop and venture out into a homeless encampment. Denny Park was near where I was living and it had one distinct feature which made it very popular among the unhoused; it had electrical outlets attached to the outdoor park lamps. There were dozens of long extension cords snaking through the park and into tents akin to what you would see in a Brazilian favella. With power I would be able to keep my equipment charged and work beyond the charge time of my cordless clippers.
I set up my station and people milled about. The crowd was mostly younger addicts. I was motivated but uncomfortable. My equipment is in high demand in a world where people normally cut their own hair or their friends' hair. It is also very expensive. My Hattori Hanzo shears alone cost $1500.00. I was nervous about getting jacked, a street term for getting robbed.
A slender young man sat in my chair.
What can I do for you?
I dunno. just need a haircut.
He had wavy hair. Most remarkably, the dappled sunlight of Denny Park revealed a distinctive eggplant purple undertone in his auburn hair.
Did you dye your hair?
Amazing! Your hair has a purple undertone.
Yeah! He's right! I can see it too, bro! added an onlooker.
Client 7 just smiled at himself broadly in the mirror that I had propped up against a big leaf maple tree.
I started cutting his hair and reestablished a square geometry and tightened up his outline. Others watched.
This dude's got mad skills, bro! said one of the park's bystanders.
Client 7 just smiled at himself in the mirror. After the cut he rose from the chair and looked more closely in the mirror. He started laughing as he ran his fingers through his hair. He was clearly ecstatic for some reason. Unusually ecstatic but not from obvious drug euphoria.
So I asked, You are like REALLY happy with your haircut. What's up with that? Why are you so happy?
Um, yeah. I've never had a real haircut.
What do you mean? You're like 25 or something, right?
I'm 33. This is the first haircut I've ever had outside of an institution. I've never gotten just a normal haircut on my own.
I been incarcerated since I was about 13. You know, like in juvie or in prison. This is a new experience for me and it's hella cool.
I paused and then not wanting to make him feel self conscious exclaimed, "Well, OK, Purple Rain! (Crowd laughs) Glad I'm the one who got to do it!
Thanks a lot, man.
Client #8: Primal Fear
Age: Crowd of 20 Somethings
Hair color: All
Eye Color: All
Face Shape: All
Skin Tone: All
About 2 hours into my first and last cutting foray in a Seattle tent city, with assorted characters walking around me freely in Denny Park, my body gave me a primal, intuitive message: "LEAVE RIGHT NOW! DON'T THINK!! GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW!"
I began throwing everything into a plastic bin as if on automatic pilot. I grabbed the mirror off the big leaf maple tree and schlepped all my stuff out of the park.
Downtown Seattle is routinely the site of very serious violence. 3rd Avenue near Pike Street is straight out of a dystopian, post apocalyptic Scifi film. Denny Park is a stone's throw away from this very dangerous area. All of the young unhoused people mingling around me and my stuff as I worked and the out in the open drug use and dealing probably triggered this fight or flight reflex. The body knows. Listen to it!
I never cut hair outside the Urban Rest Stop hygiene center again while in Seattle.