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A barber's chair, a measure of dignity

Robyn Donaldson eyes the head of the man in the barber's chair before her. His beard is a little scruffy, his hair a little too long. In his lap he holds a weathered baseball cap.

"You're going to be the new kid on the block," she promises, picking up the electric clippers. "You're going to feel really good." In the chair, the man smiles at the thought.

On this sweltering Friday, a small room in Tampa's Hyde Park United Methodist Church has become a makeshift barbershop — two chairs, two women who know hair, a line of homeless people waiting for a turn in the seat. In the big hall just outside, folks are milling about at a sort of expo for street people called the Homeless Stand-Down and Health Fair.

Homeless people finger pamphlets on bipolar disorder and depression, talk to those who know about jobs or veterans' benefits, get ID cards they say are key to getting a life back. They fill backpacks with sunscreen, Slim Jims and Off and sort through stacks of clean donated T-shirts that say things like "World's Best Dad." They try on used sneakers.

And they wait for the small comfort of a haircut.

Before 10 a.m., all seats in the small room are taken, the men six deep. I ask Donaldson why she volunteered, and she says she wanted to do more, to use what she can do.

She has eyelashes out to there and she calls the men sugar or baby, as in, "How short do you want it, baby?"

Short, they answer. "Like a shadow," one man says. The streets are hot, and who knows when they'll get this chance again.

And every man I ask mentions one more reason: to look respectable enough to have a shot at a job.

"I don't mind washing dishes," says Gary Lee, who settles into Donaldson's chair in scuffed work boots and shorts. "Make sure you write a good column about me washing dishes or painting or car washing. Say 'He's willing to work.' " He is willing to work.

Ariane Davenport, who works at Luciana's Salon on Waters Avenue, is busy at the other chair. They have only a small hand mirror to share, so she tapes a black T-shirt behind a glass wall so people can see their reflections.

"A haircut," she says, "brings up the self-esteem."

The men keep coming as the morning wears on, asking politely for a fade, a No. 2. A skinny man who sits down with stringy locks falling past his shoulders will later rise with ears exposed and neck clean, a glimpse of the boy he must once have been. Another submits seven months of beard for a trim, the hair tied in a rubber band like a ponytail. Sweaty curls that touch shirt collars disappear, floating like clouds to the floor.

The banter is all barbershop.

"Hey, man, you're going to have to go to Home Depot and get you some black spray paint," one wit says to a friend in the chair. "What for?" says the friend. "Cover up that bald spot," he says, and everyone laughs.

A man checks himself out in the glass. "Rico Suave!" somebody calls.

"I don't care what mood you're in, I can change a person's mood with a haircut," Donaldson says, working away. In the chair, Lee agrees. "I love me a nice haircut," he says.

When the men shoulder their backpacks and walk out, trailing the clean smells of hair spray and baby powder, each one seems a little lighter.

A barber's chair, a measure of dignity 06/11/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 11:30pm]
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