Hundreds of customers plan to throw a ceremonial dinner for Bernand "Mr. B." Bacon, a barber who has held forth in the same Greenmount Ave. barbershop —Petite Barber Shop —for the past 60 years.
Four of the six rowhouses in the 2000 block of Greenmount Ave. in Baltimore are boarded shut. A disheveled man nurses a bottle on the front steps of one of the houses. Plastic bags float like tumbleweeds in the swirling little eddies created by the traffic that rushes by.
But stop in at No. 2003, where a tiny red, white and blue pole still spirals, and meet a man who has maintained an oasis of welcome since 1955.
Bernard Bacon, 88, known to generations in East Baltimore as "Mr. B.," stoops over a customer, wielding a straight razor with the sure, measured strokes of a portrait painter.
How, a visitor wonders, has he kept the tiny Petite Barber Shop going in East Baltimore Midway for all these years?
"It's simple," Bacon says, looking up briefly from the procedure. "Give customers what you'd want if you were in the chair.
Not that he'd ever say so, but the soft-spoken Mr. B. is a legend in these parts. Ask the half-dozen men in the shop one recent Friday afternoon, each of whom got his first cut here. Or their parents, uncles, children, grandchildren and friends who come back every couple of weeks, for everything from a hair shaping and an eyebrow arching to the freewheeling conversation that touches on sports, food, parenting, marriage, faith and neighborhood history.
"It's like family, man, that's the best way to describe it," says Carl Brown, 54, of Northeast Baltimore, a customer since he was 1. "I [always] leave this shop looking 25 years old and with a big smile on my face. That's what Mr. B. is about."
That deep-seated good feeling has led Bacon's friends and supporters to celebrate his legacy. Dozens packed a cozy VFW post last week for a dinner to salute his 60 years as business owner and local institution.
On the menu: chicken, Swedish meatballs, stringbeans, speeches and an awards ceremony.
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who has known of Bacon for years, presented him with a certificate of achievement.
Bacon's real legacy, Young says, is not just that he's served up a million or so high-quality haircuts in his day, but also that he has used his commitment to quality — and to people — to create a haven of stability in an otherwise challenged neighborhood.
"You need to understand that in the [African-American] community, barbershops are almost like churches, and a great barber is like a preacher," Young says. "People come for conversation, for company, for guidance. Mr. B. is all that. But 60 years? That's unheard of. He's an anchor in this community."
The Petite Barber Shop was born in 1952, when a man named Ralph Robinson bought a rowhouse on the block and opened for business.
It held three chairs, a soda machine, a bathroom and little else.
"You could hardly turn around in there," Bacon says. Ten years later, the owner moved it to its current site.
Today, the shop is a blend of the old and the new.
Take the the four padded chairs down the center of the place and the tiny folding chair for kids, artifacts in use for generations. Or the sign that reads "THROUGH OUR DOORS WALK THE FINEST PEOPLE ON EARTH — OUR CUSTOMERS." Or the wiry Mr. B. himself, a halo of wispy white hair surrounding his balding head.
"You've never been shaved with a straight razor?" he asks, befuddled. "Good grief."
Then there are younger regulars such as Greg Butler, 45, with his full beard and neatly kept dreadlocks, a man given to checking videos on his smartphone and riffing on the latest NBA news.
"Golden State? They'll make the playoffs, but you can only get away with that small-ball stuff for so long," he sniffs, to murmurs of agreement.
It's against this backdrop that Bacon sits by a window and recalls that when he started out, the idea of becoming an institution never entered his mind.
Born in Baltimore in 1927, he quickly learned his father was "no damned good," he says — he does not elaborate — but he was lucky enough to be raised by grandparents who taught him he'd never get ahead in life if he didn't work hard, pull his weight and always keep his word.
When an older friend, a self-taught barber, showed young Bernard a few moves, he warmed to the precision required. He ended up at what was then the only barber training program for blacks in Maryland, the Apex Barber School on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Teachers "gave the kind of lessons you don't forget," he says, such as requiring students to use straight razors to remove shaving cream from balloons.
"If you made a nick, you knew it. It blew up on you," says Mr. B. He graduated in 1951.
By the time he met Robinson and took over a chair at Petite, he was in his 20s, married and long used to keeping his financial life as trim as a tapered fade. He and the former Estelle Shockley, a nurse, moved in four careful stages from a two-room apartment in West Baltimore to a home they built in Catonsville.
In those days, the East Baltimore Midway neighborhood was thriving, with grocery stores and butcher shops, plenty of middle-class residents, and the feeling you didn't need to lock your doors.
Haircuts and shape-ups cost less than a dollar. The five chairs in the shop were always busy. And if regulars didn't have the money to pay, Mr. B. would do what he often still does: give a cut for free.
He took over the place after Robinson died in the 1980s and owns it now. But in many ways, little has changed.
Joyce Wilson, 62, grew up in the neighborhood in the 1950s.
"Everybody's out for a dollar, but not Mr. Bernard," she says. "He'd say, 'You're a little short? You sit on down.' He was always there to help us. He was always polite, Mr. Bernard."
Bacon keeps the door to the shop locked but still manages to create the impression it's a walk-in salon.
He tends to customers in the very first chair — protege Michael Frederick mans a second — and when a new arrival knocks, he's there in a flash to open it, serve up a warm greeting and add to the size of the gathering.
Bacon's movements are as smooth as a much younger man's. His recall of customers' grandparents, parents and children is total. And as he returns to his work, it's clear his barbering skills have not diminished.
"This isn't a case of folks coming to hang around the old-timer to make him feel better," says Troy Franklin of Parkville, a longtime customer. "Don't get me wrong — Mike [Frederick] is outstanding, too — but Mr. Bernard still gives the best cut I've ever had. He's the master."
That sense of time-tested craftsmanship confers its own moral weight. So do the other details of Bacon's life — his stature as an African-American man who has run a successful business, a gentleman who loved his wife and enjoyed his marriage for 65 years, a father who raised a responsible son, and a sounding board whose counsel has proved worthy.
When young people came into money, Bacon pressed them to save it. When relationships faltered, he counseled steadfastness. When Frederick was struggling years ago, Mr. B. had him live upstairs from the shop until he got on his feet again.
Frederick, 47, can joke about it now — "I still came to work late," he says — but the crucible formed a deep bond.
He travels with Bacon, takes him to the casinos, car shows and sporting events he loves, even spends Father's Day with him.
"To call Mr. Bernard a friend would be an understatement," he says.
The customers are mostly folks who grew up in the neighborhood but have moved away — lawyers, scientists, truck drivers, professors, police officers and state workers who come from as far away as Westminster and Port Deposit.
Franklin is an electrical engineer. The scene is so lively, he says, many people drop in even when they don't need a haircut.
As conversations unfold, Bacon tends to focus on his work, pausing only occasionally to insert a barb. Clients talk politics, debate social policy, tell jokes, opine on the condition of the city and trade views on why the Ravens or O's can't seem to get out of their own way.
When the time comes for Mr. B. to weigh in, he does so with uncontested authority.
There was the day a group was trying to settle on the best baseball player in history.
One man favored Hank Aaron, noting his consistent excellence: 23 years in the majors and 755 home runs. Another backed Barry Bonds, who retired with 762, the all-time record. Other names cropped up.
As Frankin recalls it, Bacon put down his razor deliver the verdict: Jackie Robinson, who hit a relatively paltry 137 home runs but endured racist taunts and worse as he broke baseball's color barrier.
"'Think of the pressure he had to play under 154 games a year," Mr. B. said.
"You could have heard a pin drop," Franklin says. "That was the end of that discussion."
Mr. B.'s house
Not even Mr. B., of course, can be the last word on everything. As the decades passed, the city razed blocks of homes in the neighborhood. The crime rate rose hand-in-hand with drug use. The professional class mostly moved away. The Petite is now open just two days a week, Friday and Saturday.
Has he thought about moving?
"Moving? This neighborhood has been too good to me," he says.
As Frederick takes care of a customer, Bacon sits down and fishes through his wallet for a photo of Estelle. She died three years ago of cancer.
Asked what he loved about her, he replies with one word: "Everything." Tears come to his eyes. He puts flowers on her grave once a month.
The same kind of loyalty is being returned to Mr. B. It was several months ago that Wilson says she realized that his customers had never formally expressed their gratitude to him.
She reached out to friends, spread the word and rented the biggest hall in the neighborhood: VFW Post 8509 on East North Avenue, which holds about 100 people.
She's certain she could have drawn 300 if the place held that many. Franklin says it could have been 500.
As closing time nears, Butler, his beard neatened, has stayed for two extra hours to talk kids and football and the way things used to be.
Marion "Little" Nowlin of West Baltimore, 48, a business owner who got his first cut here 47 years ago, leans back in Bacon's chair, getting his mustache trimmed.
Mr. B. has taken care of at least 30 members of his family, Nowlin says, including his grandparents, seven aunts and his children, all of them now grown.
He and Butler both know Bacon can't go on forever, they say, but they're hard-pressed to imagine the neighborhood without him.
"When Mr. B. retires," Butler says with a laugh, "I'm going to have to go to his house."