The waiting area at Headlinerz Barbershop on El Cajon Boulevard looks like a swank doctor’s office. In one corner of the spacious room, five men wait on a leather-cushioned, L-shaped bench. The black, laquered floors shine. A six-foot-tall magazine rack stands to one side of the bench, filled with issues of Jet, Men’s Journal, Ebony, Car and Driver. The Hangover plays on a flatscreen television hung high on the wall.
Although Milton, the shop’s 42-year-old owner and head barber, is expecting me, he rolls his eyes when I enter. Waving an electric razor in my direction for emphasis, he gives me his list of rules.
Rules one and two:
“Don’t take my picture,” he says. “I don’t like my picture taken. And no recording.” He shakes his head, apparently appalled that I would even attempt such a thing. “You can’t record in the ’hood.”
A broad-shouldered athletic kid sitting at the empty station next to Milton’s shakes his head, too. No recording.
At the sight of my notebook and pen, Milton again rolls his eyes. “Guess I’d better watch what I say,” he says. “I don’t want to be in the Reader as Asshole of the Year.”
The kid at the empty station laughs. So does the one in Milton’s barber chair. He’s broad-shouldered, too, pimply, and rocks a thin, wispy mustache. Three of the five men waiting for their turns in Milton’s chair also laugh. The fourth is too riveted by the movie to notice anything else. The fifth is asleep.
“Don’t ever say you work freelance,” Milton warns when I mention my work-from-home privilege. He’s shaving a shadow taper on the pimpled kid. “Around here, it means you’re a hooker without a pimp.”
When he turns to make sure I’ve heard his warning, Milton’s eyes widen. “You’re writing that down? You can’t write that down!”
A half-second later, he turns to look at himself in the mirror behind him. “Why didn’t you come on a day when I’d shaved?” He calls out over his shoulder, “Where’s my powder guy?” And laughs.
Milton (“first initial ‘D,’ but don’t use it”) arrived in San Diego from his hometown of Memphis in 1990. He was a Navy guy, stationed at 32nd Street. In 1997, he left the Navy and returned to Memphis. Three years later, he came back to San Diego for “the weather, the beaches, the people.” In search of a vocation, he began classes at Associated Barber College downtown on Fifth Avenue.
This afternoon, Milton wears a faded black shirt, black jeans, and black Nike sneakers. Nothing fancy, though the diamond studs in his earlobes suggest the possibility of slick after-work attire. When I ask him how black San Diego compares to black Memphis, he purses his lips and gives me a long stare before saying, “Limited.”
He counts off on his fingers.
“Ain’t that many niggas.” Thumb.
“Ain’t no projects.” Pointer finger.
He turns back to his client’s head. “But seriously. The first bad thing that happened to me here was that I got greenlighted.”
I shrug ignorance at the term, and Milton sighs. The kid at the empty station sighs, too. But the one in Milton’s chair offers, “It means to get jumped by gang members.”
“Okay, we’re going to skip this section,” Milton says. He points to a tall, thin man on the bench with headphones in his ears. “That guy over there was my very first cut at the barber school.”
In 2003, Milton began his career at Don’s Hair Kingdom on Marlborough Street and University Avenue in City Heights. The owner, a man named Don Schaffer, retired in 2005, and though Milton’s plan was to rent a chair in another barbershop after Don’s retirement, the owner of the building talked him into staying and purchasing the business.
“I put down $2500. He told me to try it out for six months, and then if I wanted out, he’d give me my money back,” Milton says. “Let’s just say I never got that money.”
In the summer of 2009, the city shut down the building due to code infractions, and Milton moved the business to its current location. He still misses the old neighborhood.
“It’s where I started at,” he says.
Milton uses a straight razor to trim the wispy mustache on the kid’s upper lip. “See that guy there in the red shirt?” he asks without looking up from his work. “That’s the track coach at SDSU. He gave up his spot on my schedule today so this kid could get to football practice on time.”
The kid slides his eyes in my direction. Without moving his head, he blinks in confirmation.
I nod, then take a shot at returning to the greenlighting incident.
Milton turns and narrows his eyes at me.
“It was out in front of DJ’s liquor store,” he says. “On Imperial? Anyway, back in the day, the Bloods used to hang out there. One asked me for a cigarette. We should probably just say I answered wrong. That was a Friday night. I woke up in the hospital on Tuesday morning. Head busted open. Both eyes swollen shut.”
A minute later, he says, “You better white out that whole section.” And then after another second, “At least make sure you say it was in Southeast Day-go. Not East Day-go.”
A white guy who’s been sitting on the bench gets up, approaches Milton, and says he’s sorry but he can’t wait any longer. Milton apologizes back and promises that if he returns tomorrow, he’ll fit him in no matter what time. The guy nods and leaves. He doesn’t look too perturbed. No one does. The track coach has been waiting since noon, and it’s 5:30 p.m.
“Hey,” Milton says, “make sure you put in there that these people are waiting because my partner’s out sick today.” He points at me with the straight razor. “Don’t you make me look bad.”
After he finishes the cut, Milton brushes the young football player’s neck with an orange-handled brush. He unsnaps the nylon cape. The kid stands up and thanks him. He pays him for this cut and the one he got two weeks ago.