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Cutting loose

The free-wheeling banter of local barbershops rivals the hit movie, where no one is spared a good ribbing.

By RON MATUS and JANEL STEPHENS
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Nathaniel Foster, 63, sprays customer Gary Davis' hair after a cut at Foster's shop on Main Street in West Tampa.
WEST TAMPA -- Across town, Barbershop plays to packed theaters.

Over on Main Street, Nathaniel Foster plays to his own theater.

His barbershop regulars, chuckles locked and loaded, watch as he shows off the same old photo of his 1979 Buick Riviera. It's a souvenir of younger days, when wallets were fat and wheels were chrome.

Before long, they'll be talking about high school rivalries, the downside of integration, baggy pants. For now, the target is Foster.

Once, you know, he was a player.

Now he's 63.

"Forced into retirement," deadpans Rudolph Alexander, 61.

"Had to turn his player card in."

Chuckles erupt into howls.

So goes the banter at Foster's, one of several barbershops in Tampa that cater to African-American men. They are shops not unlike the movie, anchors of mostly black neighborhoods, places where black men can be themselves.

Actor/rapper Ice Cube stars in Barbershop, the movie.

Foster stars at Foster's, like Russell Albury stars at Albury's Barber Shop and Keith Powe stars at Bowers Barbershop.

"They should put up some cameras in here," says Ali Malphus, 23, a regular at Bowers, in Ybor City. "This is the real deal."

How real? At Albury's, 68-year-old customer Eddie McArthur wields his opinions like a battering ram.

At Foster's, the customers built the building back in 1987.

Davian Simpson, 3, closes his eyes while his father, Scott Simpson, brushes hair from his face at Bowers Barbershop on Nebraska Avenue near Ybor City. "They should put up some cameras in here," says one customer. "This is the real deal."
Some were repaying Nathaniel Foster for years of free haircuts.

"This," Foster says, "was a gift."

The movie centers on a South Chicago barbershop in danger of being turned into a strip club. At one point, senior barber Eddie (played by actor/comedian Cedric the Entertainer) calls the barbershop "a place where a black man means something" and "the cornerstone of the neighborhood."

Very true, says Alexander, getting his hair cut recently at Foster's.

In African-American neighborhoods, barbershops rank alongside schools and churches, says Alexander, a retired AT&T vice president who grew up in Hyde Park and lives on Harbour Island.

They're communication centers, he says, juicy clusters on society's grapevine.

"In some cultures, they use the bar," he continues. "We use the barbershop."

Even when he worked in other cities, Alexander would return to Foster's in West Tampa if he visited friends and family in Tampa.

Who was sick? Who died? Who got married?

Alexander could count on the news.

"There's a serious side to it," he says. "People take care of each other through that information."

As Alexander talks, Foster wields the electric clippers.

They purr a steady zzzzz as a slow avalanche of hair tumbles to the floor.

Foster has been doing this for 43 years. Before he finished barber school in Jacksonville, he had to shave a balloon without popping it.

Since then, he has cut three generations of hair.

* * *

Nicholas Reed, left, jokes with other customers waiting for a haircut at Bowers Barbershop. Reed got his first haircut at the shop and still comes once a week for a cut and the camaraderie.
In the movie, the barbershop is a bastion of free speech.

The character Eddie, resident contrarian, even rags on Rosa Parks, before launching into a tirade against Rodney King, O.J. Simpson and Jesse Jackson.

"We can't talk straight in the barbershop, where can we talk straight?" he says.

The scene has drawn criticism from some African-Americans.

In real shops, the ribbing spares no one.

At Bowers Barbershop, it has a name: The Saturday Morning Show.

"There's a lot of chewing in here," says regular Malphus, a customer since age 4. "You have to be sharp."

But there's plenty of serious discussion, too.

Politics. Religion.

One Saturday, the shop seemed almost like church. A customer began talking about God. Before anyone knew it, sermons were flying.

"The only thing that was missing was the passing of the plate," says barber Powe.

An African-American flag of red, green and black hangs on one wall. Another keeps a poster for Rosewood, a movie based on the 1923 attack by whites on a black community near Gainesville.

It seems an appropriate backdrop for the morning's debate.

"I've always considered myself as an African in America but not African-American," says a customer they know as "Mr. B."

He's a native of Jamaica who lives in Brandon.

Jayquan Grice, 11, sweeps up hair cuttings at the end of the day at Bowers Barbershop. Jayquan gets his hair cut at the shop and usually stops by after school to help out.
"We were considered black and colored," he says.

"Don't forget Negro," said Powe.

When Mr. B points out he wasn't born in Africa, barber Scott Simpson is quick with the comeback.

"Man, we're all Africans," he says.

What if you were born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Powe wonders. "What would you be called then?"

Mr. B has the answer: "What's the closest city around?"

The room sputters with snickers.

* * *

At Albury's, a block from Foster's, Eddie McArthur is on a thunderous roll:

The Bucs shouldn't have dumped Warrick Dunn.

Northerners ruined Florida.

I-275 killed West Tampa.

"You can't keep disrupting people's lives because you want to drive 100 mph," says McArthur, a 27-year Army veteran and former semipro football player. "You just need to get your butt up earlier."

Owner Russell Albury, 66, listens as he cuts.

"That's right," he says.

Old men play dominoes in the pocket park next door. Liquor and barbecue are sold across the street.

A handwritten sign near Albury warns: "No Alcoholic Beverages. Thank you, Management."

"I don't drink, so you don't drink," he explains.

He pinches McArthur's nose and trims the top of his mustache.

He holds a mirror in front of McArthur's face. McArthur studies it carefully. A faint smile grows.

"But the Bucs always go to the playoffs," he says mockingly as he sheds the smock and rises from the swivel chair.

He unleashes a roaring laugh that would make Warren Sapp proud and predicts a Buccaneer loss.

Albury agrees: "You know that," he says.

* * *

Back at Foster's, a teenager in baggy jeans flies through the door.

His cell phone is clamped between ear and shoulder. Three 12-packs of soda are pressed between hands and stomach.

He shuffles to an ancient Coke machine.

"Look at those pants," one customer cracks.

"He should have put the sodas in there," chimes another.

photo
Russell Albury takes a break between haircuts at his shop on Main Street in West Tampa.
The kid ignores the men. He fills the machine, never breaking stride on his cell phone conversation. He's barely out the door when talk turns to old high schools -- Blake and Middleton -- and a crosstown rivalry spoiled by integration.

Once, black teenagers squared off at the "Soul Bowl."

Eddie Denson was there, playing for Blake.

"We were Yellow Jackets," says Denson, now 62.

"We could fly," he says, fluttering his fingers in front of his chest. "And sting," he says, pointing his hands perilously. He repeats the motions: "Fly. And sting."

The room blows up again.

A minute later, smiles fade.

"I can show you doctors, lawyers, engineers that came out of here," Denson muses. But when the schools closed, "Other things came in the neighborhood."

Drugs, crime, violence. The others nod again.

But now Denson is hopeful again. The schools are back.

After a 31-year layoff, the "Soul Bowl" has resumed.

The barbershop? In one form or another, it has been here all along.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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