Being back in Brooklyn always stirs up emotions for me. I miss it terribly from my far flung corner in shadowy Portland and feel the electricity pulsing in my veins almost immediately upon breathing in the fumes and noise at the intersection of Fulton and Nostrand Avenues. The hustle keeps me on my toes and, as every New Yorker knows, it also takes the wind out of you some days. It is those days that leave me ready to return to the forests and rivers of my Western homeland, it is this ebb and flow that is the essence of life in New York.
As I have been walking these beloved streets over the last few weeks, I could think of no better way to pay homage to this special place than to revisit a piece that summed up my feelings about Brooklyn early on in my transition. I’ve added photos to give some visual context to the story of this borough I love so dearly. These streets with their requisite bags of refuse and clans of hoods looking for trouble, old ladies dressed in their woolen coats, brooches and Sunday hats, have made me the man I am. The Nation of Islam blasts on a loud speaker while the call to prayer bellows from a few blocks away, sounds that mean very little to me, inextricably linked to daily life in this neighborhood. Learning to put this city on like a heavy coat each day in order to keep the metropolitan muck from sullying my soul, remembering the sanctity and calm found inside the homes of friends and the fierce love and support I have yet to find anywhere else in the world, these are the lessons that I am reminded of each time I return.
When I left here a few years ago, I got the words “Bedford Stuyvesant” tattooed on my knees. I had recently come across this book of traditional criminal tattoos. Photos of Russian, French and British prisoners in the early 20th century filled the pages, as did explanations of the meaning and symbolism of not only the images but the placement of the tattoos themselves. The knees-a symbol of both willingness to submit and defiance to authority that would force you to do so- seemed the most fitting home for these words that represented just that- “home”. This is the place that created me, the center of my genesis, at once sobering in its humility and uniquely inspiring in its transcendence. I breathe for Bed-Stuy and she fills me with courage, knowledge and hope every day I am blessed to walk her tree-lined streets.
Originally printed in Issue #2 of OP Magazine, 2009
I am by nature not a hairy man, my dad and brother each have a thatch of about 7 hairs on their chests. My shins have never grown hair and the rest of my legs are so sparsely populated by long, thin, straight hairs that it looks as if I am recovering from an unfortunate encounter with Nair. While I wear my creepstache with pride, I keep the rest of my facial hair shaved to hide the battle for distribution going on. The left side sports thick, curly whiskers that I often find myself rubbing with my hands in that ponderous way, the right is spotty fuzz at best. This second whack at puberty is definitely going as smoothly as the first.
More than shaving though, my regular use of a barber has been the biggest and most unexpected change in grooming since beginning my transition.
As someone who presents pretty firmly on the masculine side of the spectrum, the first few months after starting T proved to be both thrilling and confusing. It was exhilarating to finally be seen as the man I knew was, to finally see my face and body doing what I wanted. But, it is really the realization that OTHERS see you as a man that comes as a most startling backhanded compliment at times. This effect is especially pronounced among men-of-color in places like Brooklyn, Philly, Chicago, Oakland. Suddenly, I was getting the “What’s up?” nod on the street from other brothers and people really were stepping away from me in the elevator. The side-cocked fitted hats I’ve worn for years take on new associations and I “fit the description” of the guy who punched you last night. These changes are a new dimension in my daily life that I have taken these two years to grow accustomed to. For the first time in my life I find myself searching for community specifically among Queers of Color.
I also began to find community in spending time with other Black men, cisgendered, queer or not, there I find a key tool for survival in this world.
Throughout the black diaspora, the barber shop has served for generations as a place where people go to speak freely, share ideas and gain a sense of community. It is arguably one of the pillars of Black American culture; folklore and film do not exaggerate the significance of this institution.
My first barber shop experience was the day I snipped off my dread mohawk and walked down to the Dominican shop at the end of my block in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Anyone familiar with the styles of this tradition of barbering can envision the impeccable hairline cultivated during these weekly visits. I loved the way it felt to be preened as the barber cut hair by hair with a straight razor, predictably humming his meditative hum. (hummmmmmm)
While I did get the tightest line this side of the gulf for 7 bucks, my limited Spanish limited my understanding of the music and conversation around me. To be in such a social and communal space without the ability to participate is like being invisible. I went back faithfully for months, humming and reggaeton always included free of charge.
Then I moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. I thought I’d have a better chance of finding a barber shop where I’d at least get to laugh along with the inappropriate jokes. I happened upon G’s Barbershop on Nostrand Ave, one of those magical places one imagines only exists in Brooklyn. “G” is a tall, sort of portly guy. He charges 10 bucks across the board for all styles and a full shave is only an extra $5. He’s known to be one of the best in the borough for good reason. He is also known to stop in the middle of your cut to eat chicken nuggets or smoke, sometimes, if the shop was really busy, he wouldn’t even stop cutting. Cigarette in mouth, bluetooth in ear and clippers in hand, he’d expertly craft my coif each visit.
Getting down the etiquette in these establishments is imperative. There are no appointments. You walk in, ask “how many heads?”, then decide whether to wait or try later. If it is worth the wait, you sit and if you are lucky enough, you listen.
The revolving cast of neighborhood characters always ensured an entertaining hour. I had a few favorites, there was the guy who sold everything you could ever want from the back of his bike and of course, the crackhead courier service. This lady would come in, take orders for the corner bodega or McDonald’s and bring “G” his requested items, in return she’d get a few bucks and maybe a cigarette or two. She’d always ask me about my tattoos as she pulled up my sleeves, call me crazy and tell me in a motherly tone “You better stop now, boy.” This admonishment always seemed sort of ironic coming from her. Sometimes she’d walk home with me and we’d have a disjointed conversation before parting ways. It was a fleeting connection in a city made of fleeting connections.
The most memorable character was an elderly curmudgeon of a man, didn’t know his name so I think of him simply as “The Professor”. I never once saw The Professor get his hair cut. Not a beard trim, never even a line-up. He appeared only to head up his own lecture series. No one ever really asked him any questions. Most days, he just came prepared with a topic, at other times he was obliged to let the spirit of the conversation lead him into that day’s lesson. He would pull his chair into the middle of the small room, take his throne and preside over his pupils, his booming voice competing with the bootleg videos that are always playing on the screen.
For Halloween last year my costume was a sort of Jodeci/Genuwine 90′s playa. (describe costume) So to take it all the way I went in to have “G” hook me up with designs. “The Professor” was in that night and had been going on about everything under the sun. He seemed to be in an especially cantankerous mood, so I thought he may have an opinion about the swirls and zigzags that were being etched into my hair. As G did that final stinging wipe with the alcohol pad, I braced myself for the moment when he would turn the stool around. I underestimated the reaction. As I was spun around, I heard “Ooooh, boy” and I chuckled, hoping that would be the end of it, but I was not so lucky. The Professor’s next comment still makes me laugh to this day. As I got up from the chair he said, “Booooy, you better get you some pussy tonight! Doing all that crazy shit to your head.” I replied, “Yeah, no worries. I have a girlfriend.” “No, No,” he says “I mean you better get you some SPECIAL pussy, not no regular pussy. Something special.” As the packed shop burst into hysterics, he continued to elaborate on this “special pussy”. Hilariously scandalized, I left as quickly as I could.
There was another instance, though, that had an even deeper effect on me. His lecture on the integration of the U.S. public school system, as someone old enough to have attended segregated schools, was an enlightening conversation…er, monologue. I was the younger of two pupils in the shop that day, so he singled me out and began by asking, “Young man, how do you find out the literacy rate of any country?” His wording threw me off and I am ashamed to admit my answer was “Google it.”
“No” he said and repeated his question. I further extolled the wonders of Google, “enter in the country you are interested in…literacy rate…it should come right up.” The other guy in the shop nodded in praise of the search engine’s virtues.
“No,” he said, “you look at the prisons.”
With that answer, I thought I knew where this conversation was going: crime, illiteracy, poverty, the correlation between the three. But I was blindsided as this led to his main argument: Blacks would have been better off in segregated schools. He contended that White teachers left Black children behind, that integration was the worst thing for Black children. He blamed integration of schools for the disparity between the educational outcomes of White and Black children. He said Black children couldn’t and wouldn’t look up to White teachers and thus did not value their own education.
Most of his lectures went like this, part challenging viewpoint on sensitive and complex issue, part old man rant. His was also an opinion you could never really argue with. s he spoke, “G” tried to break in every once and a while, this was always met with an indignant “I ain’t talking to you, George, I am trying to teach the young man.” I was so interested in where his rant would take us next that I never dared to interrupt. I just listened. I have never forgotten that discussion. No matter how much I disagreed with his opinion, I felt honored to be hearing it. A similar conversation was likely happening in a Bed-Stuy barber shop in 1954. When I left the shop that day The Professor and G were in a heated discussion about crime rates and what makes young men behave the way they so often do, a discussion I was relieved to slink out of.
A few days before leaving Brooklyn to move back west, I got one last fade. “G” hugged me and said “I’ll miss seeing you around the shop.”
I am still navigating the fields of maleness, though with fewer and fewer surprises as time goes on. It took me 6 months in Portland before I found a barber I trusted, and now waiting while thumbing through Men’s Fitness and Vibe is a part of my routine once more. Though there is an addition that would have never flown in G’s shop, a sign that reads “No Cussing”. Before finally taking the chance on this new guy, I felt so much loyalty to G that I’d been cutting my own hair since I moved, with mixed results.
A word of advice: NEVER get stoned and try to put designs in your head with your beard trimmer.