“It’s like a trick. You have to let down your guard to get a haircut. Nobody sees it coming but you end up being in a space where you actually open up because you have to.” —Ronnie Dents
Women have carved out infinite spaces where they can share their feelings, fears, concerns, burdens, and accomplishments with other women: book clubs, bathrooms, dressing rooms, spas, salons, slumber parties, BYOB painting sessions, and so on. There are classes to help with prenatal care, breastfeeding, and new parenting. Women asking other women for help is expected.
Men are complex creatures who need the same sorts of spaces but have far fewer to choose from. We all make stronger choices when we feel seen and heard, when we can voice our worries, our ambitions, when we can speak to someone who’s “been there” and knows how this next step goes. Neighborhood barber shops have always been that sort of place, and New Orleans is no exception.
I spoke to four barbers with more than a century of cutting experience between them. Each of them is an advocate for the members of their community, each has put a stamp on the city, and each has formed personal connections with clients over many years, being in turn a friend, confidant, priest, analyst, and a lending hand in any way necessary. Jamal McCoy has been the owner of HeadQuarters Barber Beauty & Natural Hair Salon in Tremé for over a decade. He throws community events, like bicycle and turkey giveaways, fathers’ day BBQs, and meet-and-greets with up-and-coming politicians. Ronnie Dents works at The JuJu Bag Café & Barber Shop in Gentilly and is a muralist, who features the kids who sweep in his shop as his subject matter. Michael Pellet is an independent barber from New Orleans East, who writes poetry and does advocacy work for the Lincoln Beach Project, the New Orleans East Coalition, and the Community Advisory Group. Stan Norwood has been working at Dennis’ Barber Shop on Freret Street, on and off, for 35 years. He reads up on law and politics and has sought basic training from medical doctors and psychologists, so that he can be there for his clients, whatever they may need.
I asked these four men, over a series of phone calls (one of which was interrupted by a surprise visit from Stan’s childhood friend, Birdman) about the essential role that they, as barbers, play in their communities.
How did you get started as a barber?
Stan Norwood: My grandfather and my uncle were both barbers, though I never actually saw either one of them cut hair. I used to stand and watch my uncle shave all the time. He used to live with us and when he passed away, we were all living in the same house. I was 9 and we were cleaning out his room and I found all of his equipment. I actually used it to cut my own hair to go to his funeral.
Michael Pellet: I’ve been cutting hair since I was 14. I grew up on Cleveland and Rocheblave. That’s where I started cutting hair. One time, when I was a kid, I went to the barber to feel good, to get a haircut that was a style. This old barber, he tried to do a flattop and it had a hole in the top and I thought, “Oh no. I can do this myself.” I did and I’m a barber today.
Ronnie Dents: I’ve been cutting hair since I was about 12 years-old. I just kinda wanted to get my own hair cut more frequently than I was getting it done, so I started cutting my own and I messed up a lot of the time. I kept doing it and over time I ended up getting good. People were noticing and being like, “How do you have your hair cut every day?” That led to cutting friends’ hair and that developed continuously until this point.
Are you from the neighborhood your barbershop is in?
Jamal McCoy: 15 years ago I had a shop that was in the footprint of the VA hospital. They came and did a land grab, so I was part of that. We had to move because of eminent domain. So that’s when I purchased the current building, on Broad. We’ve been here for over 10 years. I really love the neighborhood.
SN: The barbershop that I work in now is actually the first place that I got my hair cut. So the barber who cut my hair when I was 5 years-old is now working right next to me. I am from here. I’m a product of my environment and I mean that in a good way. I have a tremendous amount of stories of success of people coming from the same kind of communities that everyone looked down upon. I’ve always said that if you take any community and you take all successful people out and leave everyone else in, you’re gonna create a poverty-stricken community. That’s the problem with being sold the American dream of once you become successful you leave your community, you go get the picket fence and you leave to the suburbs. No, not in my book. In my book, you build where you are. Make a success story of the place that you are. Be influential to the ones around you. Be inspirational to the ones around you and you will create a great community that way.
What does it mean to provide a safe space in the community?
SN: We are the place where it’s safe to ask questions all the time. You’re not the first person to walk in here not knowing what to do and you’re not the last. Someone has crossed our path with what you’re going through already and, in some instances, what they felt like was their solution probably added to their problem, and I’m not gonna allow that to happen to you. We deal with a lot of single parents, single moms, single dads. We tell them all the time, “You’re not alone.” We deal with school issues, you name it. We go over and beyond to make sure that the whole kid is taken care of. If there’s tutoring necessary we pair people together. If your kid needs a ride, going in this direction or that direction, you drop ‘em off at the barbershop and I’ll get them a ride home.
RD: We have a chalkboard outside of our shop, put up by the Community Advisory Group, that asks people, “What makes you feel safe?” I designed it for them. I think it’s a great idea, that when you’re trying to provide assistance, you ask, “What do you need?” There’s possibility in that. A lot of people who want to help have never gotten into the hearts and minds of the people who they were helping. That’s what barbers do. We’re so up close. The therapy just naturally takes place. A lot of times they don’t want to talk but one day they’re gonna walk in here and be like, “This is what’s going on.” And you gotta be like, “Alright, let’s talk about it.” ‘Cause we’re here for an hour.
JM: I encourage community involvement always, getting back to old values. You know how they used to say, “It takes a village to raise a kid?” Well, just having that sort of real tight community where you can rely on your neighbor to be your eyes is like that. We look out for each other and create an inclusive community where people are working together. We highlight fathers in the community that are doing positive things. A lot of people want to see more action from police in terms of community involvement, in ways of feeling that we’re all working it together instead of feeling like the police are against them, so I invite them to events. We have police from our district come out and be involved, not in a policing mode but in more of an interacting, small talking with the people in the community, eating, and just engaging in a good wholesome way that makes people feel like the police are human too. I find that those kinds of things are effective. We give a lot of events besides just cutting hair and they’re all based around the community.
MP: My barbershop, when I cut hair in my neighborhood, it was always a place of peace. New Orleans was very territorial with wards in the ‘90s. I lived in the 3rd Ward, but a block over was the 4th Ward, and on the other side, we were connected to Calliope. I literally cut everyone’s hair from all around. There was none of that territorial beef ‘cause everyone needed their hair cut and I stayed neutral to the situation by becoming a barber. Once you’re in the chair though, I’m that guy. I want to know what’s going on: your birthday, interviews, weddings, going out of town? It’s my responsibility to make sure you’re looking good everywhere you gotta go.
Stan Norwood, Dennis’ Barber Shop
Is there a multigenerational aspect to the barber shop?
RD: I’m a muralist. I studied with [Brandan] BMike [Odums] and a lot of my murals are based off of the kids that would come into the barbershop and sweep in there. We’d give ‘em a little change on the side for sweeping, so they can learn how to make a dollar and have a place to be where it’s not bad influences and they’re safe. I’ve run into some really, really smart kids. They’ll tell me what they like, what their ambitions are. And I’m able to gauge from an older perspective and I’m really listening to what they actually want… I remember when I was a kid, people didn’t know how to talk to us the way that we wanted to be talked to, or listened to, especially at that age. I’ve developed a good relationship with the kids in the neighborhood… I painted a mural next door to the barbershop, of one of the boys. He’d come in and sweep and later he said, “Ever since you painted me, my life has never been the same.” That changed the way I felt about art and what it can mean, what it can be used for.
SN: I’ve cut the hair of the grandfathers, the fathers, and the grandsons, even the great-grandsons and the great-grandfathers. At the shop where we are, right now [in Freret], gentrification has taken its effect. We own the shop but the neighborhood is not at all what it was. (I’m actually president of the neighborhood association and it’s difficult.) We still see the same clients but they aren’t all able to come because it used to be all walk-up and everybody lived here. Now, they don’t live here anymore, so I have people drive in from Baton Rouge, from Slidell. They come from all over because this is their safe haven. This is home. I’ve worked here for 35 years. It’s been home for a very long time. Without it, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’ve been blessed to be in people’s lives and have an impact.
Ronnie Dents Mural (@ritesideronnie)
What is the hardest part of the job?
MP: In the ‘90s, with the government gifting crack cocaine to my community, a lot of my clients died, but fortunately they had fresh haircuts right before they passed. I lost a lot of clients in that era but I was always ready to make sure that they’d have a good welcome home.
SN: I’ve been to funerals to cut hair. I’ve lost almost 30 people to street violence. If I cut your hair while you were living, I’m gonna cut your hair at the funeral home. It’s hurtful to see that. These are people I’ve known, that I’ve given their first haircut to. Just this past weekend we lost a guy. He was 42 years-old and I’ve been cutting him since he was maybe 5 years-old. It’s a tumultuous situation. What we do, people have no idea of the impact. We are way more than just a barber standing at a chair.
What do people talk to you about, in the chair?
JM: I didn’t know I was signing up to be a therapist. I didn’t know that’s what it all was, but it’s definitely that. People come and talk to me about all kinds of things. For a lot of men—and Black men in particular—who come into my shop, they tend to not feel like they’re [often] in an environment where they can express a lot of their emotions, things that they’re going through. The barbershop is like a bar or those places for men to talk about what they’re going through and know they’re not gonna be judged. ‘Cause of that, the barber is a very personal selection. Aside from them being able to cut your hair properly, a barber is a person you spend a lot of time with, so you build a relationship with them.
RD: It’s New Orleans; I’ve had people who come and sit in the chair and they just got out of jail, plenty. They fresh out and they need to get a haircut. That’s happened a bunch of times. I’ve had people who have said, “Man, I’m really going through it” with their personal relationships. I’ll listen and give a more guided response. With teenagers, they’ve got that jaded sense of reality. You know, when you’re 16 and you know just enough to think you know things but you really don’t. I’ll shed light on certain things. They’ll begin to tell me that they have issues talking to girls or something like that and it’ll be like, “OK, I know a little bit about that.” They’re not dismissive, they’re like, “I’m trying to see what you got to say about that.” Same for men with their ambitions, things that they want to be. Men have told me that their parents were not supportive of their ambitions and that bred insecurities, so we talk through that and go back into the past and sometimes they can separate themselves from that emotion and say, “That’s not me. That was a result of how I was spoken to.”
SN: Because of questions I’ve been asked, I have a podcast that streams live from the barbershop and talks about recurring things. Right now we’re covering the questions that come with being a new father, because it does not come with a handbook. Some of the topics are things that people are not comfortable talking about unless they are in a comfort zone.
Do you think they ever take your advice?
RD: They not coming over here like I’m their pastor and they know what my responses are gonna be. I’ll have ideas and they’ll be like, “I tried that.” So, I’ll be like, “Let’s try this.” There are all those things that make you not want to listen to a more prescribed theology. I’m just Ronnie. I’m they partner. I’m they friend. I probably get better opportunities for that than even the people who are licensed.
MP: Throughout my years people have come to me to advocate for them. They’ll bring me information about what’s going on and I would be a voice for people who can’t speak for themselves. Sometimes people don’t know how to speak out and sometimes they have jobs where they can’t and I’ll be the whistleblower. I’m a resource because they know they can come to me.
Ronnie Dents, JuJu Bag Café & Barber Shop
Does the barbershop play a role in physical health as well as mental health?
MP: Men feel more comfortable talking about their medical issues with barbers than with almost anyone else in our lives. Prostate exams, colonoscopies. I’ve had clients who have had prostate cancer. One long-term client of mine, he had kidney cancer. He works with FedEx now. He fought it off. I supported him through that, showing up at the hospital while he’d get tests and treatments. He is the greatest person to be around. He is that guy and when he was in treatments, we were all like, “He gotta get right so we can all get back to the party!”
SN: I have eight or nine different doctors who come in as clients and have helped train us, so we do health assessments here at the barbershop. They’ve taught us how to look at clients, how to observe their actual day-to-day health, because we see them all the time and I can notice that your eyes are not looking right or your ankles are swollen or you’re breathing funny. We can get a blood pressure cuff out… Sure enough, there have been six or seven people who have gone into congestive heart failure. They had fluid around the heart, older gentlemen, ankles swollen, really short breath. I’ve actually been able to save a few people, just on that simple information. One was talking with slurred speech; that’s not normal for him. ‘Cause we talk, we notice everything. I said, “Come on, man. We gotta get you to the hospital, I think you’re having a stroke if you haven’t had one already.” And he’s like, “I feel fine.” But the way he said it, the language wasn’t normal, so I jumped up, got the car, and said, “Alright, I understand what you’re saying but what you’re saying and how you’re looking is two different things. We’re going to the hospital.”
Jamal McCoy, HeadQuarters Barber Beauty & Natural Hair Salon
What makes barbershops so essential?
RD: There is a time when men can communicate and express their emotions but it’s in a certain kind of environment and the barbershop allows that space. The fact that we have more testosterone means that we can tend to be more aggressive, but that isn’t an inherent mandate. The relationship with your barber becomes much stronger because touch takes things to a whole different place. They’d never let their brother touch them like that, that many times up so close. There’s some energy being transferred and a lot of trust and a lot of letting down your guard. Also, in the worst times, people need a haircut. Even when there is no money, people still get haircuts ‘cause you need ‘em.
MP: As far as our community, there’s not many things that we do have, from birth. Hair is one of those things. It’s for protection and adornment, with it you can have personal pride and style… It’s not all about the money. We’ve built real personal relationships. It’s expanded my network, with all the different careers and businesses my clients are in, it’s given me opportunities. I have faithful clients, people who will support me, make sure I eat, no matter what happens in my life. That makes me feel safe.
SN: Some of the barbers of my generation, we talk about trying to get younger barbers to understand that they’re not just a person who cuts somebody’s hair. It’s about: have the awareness and understanding of knowing that being a great barber is not just giving a great haircut, it’s being a great person, it’s being a well-rounded person, it’s being a person that’s filled with information, a person who, if he does not have the information at the moment will go out and get the information to be as helpful as he can to every client that comes across his path. Things of significant importance, things that we take for granted, you may not see them as that important but someone else does. Those are the things that we have to really stress the issues on. We do our best. It resonates amongst people. If there’s information needed: go to the barbershop. Trying to find some help with something? Go to the barbershop. If you’re uncomfortable talking to someone, talk to your barber. Ask us questions.
JM: The barber is like the hub of the community. We get to talk to a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds, lot of different ethnic groups, lot of different lifestyles. You might have a person that’s a judge sitting next to somebody that’s a convicted felon that’s back on the streets, trying to get his life in order. Or a cook might be next to an attorney. You have a mix of all different types of people so you get together a lot of different perspectives. We give meet-and-greets for politicians—we just had one with Jason Williams and another with Clint Smith—so that people can get information. Having these types of events and bringing people from all parts of the community, whether it’s police, the neighborhood association, or just a regular old Joe out of the neighborhood who feels like his voice is never heard—[they] get to bump shoulders, to talk directly to people who have influence in your community. We use it as a platform for the everyday person, who might not have a voice, to have a voice.
photos by Katie Sikora