In Alfred Gladden's barbershop on a Thursday afternoon, two TV sets are squawking, and the radio's blasting. Every chair, taken. Every subject, covered.
Ten, 12 conversations at once. Men's talk. Gossip. News. Confession.
"You can't compare nobody to Kobe, man. But Mo [Marcus] Hatten - major talent. Huge!"
Two chairs down ...
"I said, 'Girl, I just saw your husband,' and she said, 'Which one?' and I said, 'What do you mean?' Then she started naming them, and by the time she got to No. 4, I was like, 'Oh no. That's a spider web, man.'"
The shop owner weaves his own tales ...
"By the time I was 15, I was gone. I was trippin' for real, you know what I'm saying?"
Who could resist the sound of electric shears and the chatter of men bonding on a cold day in February? Who could not enjoy the easy mix of memories with the sweet smell of hair tonic and aftershave on a cloudy afternoon?
Maybe that's why this is a very regular crowd - weekly customers, some of whom have come to Alfred for 30 years or more.
A few still remember his father's house on Rutland Avenue, where 9-year-old Alfred first hoisted up on a stool and started "bootleg barbering" for 75 cents a head. The barber does not look that old, not nearly the age of his middle-aged friends who still appreciate the exacting stroke of his straight-edge razor. But Alfred's first job, accomplished from atop a wooden stool under a dangling light in the family living room, would indeed have been 40 years ago.
Some people say the barbershop in African-American neighborhoods is an institution as important as the local church. A place to stand atop the soap box, hone political contacts, sort out personal problems, cull the news. Certainly it's still true at Alfred Gladden's shop in the Old Town Mall in East Baltimore. This has never been just a place to get a haircut.
"It's wide open, man," Alfred says. "You sit down and talk about whatever you want to talk about. Just put it out there."
There is enough material for a book.
And now, in fact, Alfred Gladden has written that book.
The Barber's Close Cut may be the most provocative people's history of Baltimore since the 1960s. It is a self-published paean to the people who have populated Alfred's life, mostly by way of his barber's chair, since childhood. These are people who helped him survive a fast life of womanizing and drug addiction. They are common folk and celebrities who have made his shop, over time, a place of comfort amid the chaos.
The book is not the work of a professional writer, but of a barber who has chosen not to forget. The stories are sometimes as lurid as the photographs he has published in the book of young men gunned down by local mobsters. But Alfred also has leavened the hard reality of drugs, promiscuous sex and violence with tales of friendship and grace and unsentimental confessions about his and his own generation's abandonment of good sense for the lure of street life and club culture. Between the lines is an honest expression of regret for the willful neglect of adult responsibilities that helped introduce even deeper sorrows to Baltimore communities.
Alfred admits to some foggy times in his life, but he seems to have remembered everything, and in his book, his accounting is clear and unflinching.
There was the August morning in 1995 when construction teams razed the Lafayette Courts housing project. Twenty-one acres just out the back door of the barbershop. "Tons of memories buried under tons of debris," Gladden writes in the opening chapter. People called the shop from all over - an inmate even phoned from federal prison to get a report on the proceedings. Who would remember the lives in those old projects? The barber has.
There was the day 3-year-old James Smith III was shot in the head, shortly after his mother took him to a West Baltimore barbershop for a haircut on his birthday. Who would still remember something like that? Alfred Gladden.
Or the day "Toodie" Rodgers decided she was sick of waiting for her big break and decided to move to Hollywood? It wasn't big news to anyone outside the shop, but Alfred made a mental note. Now it's in print.
He writes about the day Bob Wade dropped by for a haircut and announced he was about to take over for Lefty Driesell at the University of Maryland - and become the first black head coach of an Atlantic Coast Conference basketball team. The barber had the scoop before the newspapers.
Over the years, a regular troupe of politicians (city councilman Jack Young and state delegate Talmadge Branch), professional athletes (Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, Skip Wise), actors (Charles Dutton, Jada Pinkett Smith) and local gangsters ("Little Melvin" Williams, Marty Gross) has excited the passion of Alfred's homey shop. Their stories became the barber's tales, their lives preserved in conversation around the shop and now, at least in small part, in the paperback book.
Even he is amazed by what he accomplished. "I didn't know a thing about writing," he admits. "Nothing! Nothing!"
Looking back, though, he believes it was inevitable.
Scraps of memories
"In 1989, I remember, my mother came to my apartment and she says, 'Alfred, what is all this stuff around the house?' My coffee table and my night stand were all covered with scribbled-up pieces of paper. There were just pieces of scrap paper all over the place. She said, 'Alfred, why do you do this?' The only thing I came up with was, 'Mama, I forget things so I write down things I don't want to forget.'
"But, no that wasn't it. I was writing this book all the time, unknowingly. I didn't know I was writing it because it looked like just names and papers and stories and different things. But the fact is, it was everything I wanted to remember about this life. When I realized that, this thing just opened up. I could not get out of this if I wanted to. This book was coming."
His customers ("clients," he calls them) waited more than six years for the book. Many thought it would never happen. One, in particular, Muggsy Bogues, the NBA basketball player, began to fear that the book was not going to be about the adventures of Baltimore barbering, at all. For a long time, he thought Alfred was writing about the private life of Muggsy Bogues.
"Muggsy thought I was going to rat him, man," Alfred says. "And I hadn't even formulated the book yet. I mean there are things between Muggsy and me that have nothing to do with nobody. I mean, we have a history. So he was concerned. He was like, 'Oh my God, Alfred's my barber, and I've told this man everything in the world!' But it wasn't about that."
Bogues quit communicating with his barber for a while until Alfred finally convinced him that his story would only be a small part of the recollections, and that while the book would be a blunt memoir, it would not "rat" on anybody. Today everything's cool, Alfred says. When he's in town, Muggsy still drops by the shop.
Alfred does not have hard feelings about the episode. Through the years, he has made his own confessions to barbers in Baltimore. It is simply the nature of the relationship; in some neighborhoods, it is the higher purpose of the profession.
For instance, during the black consciousness trend of the 1970s, Alfred went to a shop called Third World, which he remembers as "a Muslim oasis for the black experience." His barber, a fellow named Rainor who changed his name to Bilal, would welcome customers with the sounds of jazz, the smell of burning incense and a compassionate ear.
One day, very confused about whether he would continue attending college or drop out, Alfred made his private confessions to Bilal. "As I got to Bilal's chair, I opened up," Alfred recalls. "I told him I felt totally lost inside myself. That was the first time I told a man the entire truth about what was happening to me." The barber gave him two books (Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X), and for the next three years served not only as Alfred's barber but also as his mentor and guide. "He explained so much about life to me," Alfred says.
Today, as clients slip in and out of Alfred's chair, the same trade goes on. Renard Smith, former basketball coach at Northern High School, drops in and they trade scouting reports of the best up-and-coming ballplayers. Yaqub Matin settles into the chair with his lowdown on the latest African-American theater performances in Philadelphia and New York. The men get meticulous shaves, a splash of Jeris Hair Tonic and Clubman aftershave, and before they're out the door, a warm "Peace, love" blessing from the barber, a handclasp and a hug.
'He cares about me'
"Good conversation, good man," says Robert Morgan, one of this afternoon's clients, a 43-year-old body builder who has relied on Alfred's services since he was 12. "I know he cares about me, not just about cutting my hair."
Last week, Robert says, his ride failed to show up at the shop after the haircut, leaving him stranded after dark. Alfred insisted on giving him a lift home in his truck. More importantly, over the past few years, the barber has helped Robert with a decision about whether he should stay in Baltimore or relocate to Florida. "Alfred's talked to me for a long time about that," Robert said.
Today, as Robert takes the chair, he cranes his neck and tells Alfred: "I finally made my mind up."
This may be the last haircut Alfred gives Robert. "I'm happy for you," the barber tells his client. "It's gonna work out."
By late afternoon, women and children join the older men filling chairs. Rosa Brooks, a grandmother who has raised her daughter's boy "since he came home from the hospital," chats up a storm about everything from how to manage panhandlers to gastroenterology (she's a nurse) while her grandson plops down for a haircut. A younger man rumbles up the stairs wearing a heart monitor and heads over to the radio to listen to an interview with jazz singer Al Jarreau. Another regular comes in from the back stairs lugging two buckets of soapy water to wash Alfred's truck. An old hawker man carrying a bunch of roses drops by with a special package deal for the men for Valentine's Day - "a rose and a thong."
Business is good, and the barber smiles. He is busy, laughing, deep in the rush of an end-of-the-week crowd and awash in the wealth of a storied career.
Alfred Gladden's book is available at Flair Barbershop, 435 Old Town Mall; Jerome Dyson's Book Stand on Baltimore Street; Wisdom Book Store, 5116 Liberty Heights Ave.; Conscious Views, 219 E. 25th St.; Sepia Sand and Sable, 6796 Reisterstown Road and Sibanye Inc., 4031 W. Rogers Ave.