Tuesday, January 25, 2005
The Vanishing Boy of Pacific Heights: The Barbershop (Sans Cedric the Entertainer)
On a sunny Saturday in the spring of 1970, I was playing catch with my friend Mark on the sidewalk in front of the house Mark and his family lived in on Clay Street in San Francisco. Mark was two years younger than I was and black, and we had been good friends since I forced my acquaintance on him the previous summer. In the meantime, we had had various adventures, most of them innocent, a couple of them stupid. The stupid things were mostly my idea.
We hadn’t been playing catch long when Mark’s father, Rip, approached us. Mark’s father was a big man—at least by ten-year-old standards—and had a deep and rich baritone voice. He was, at the time, the Executive Director of the NAACP in San Francisco, and was the kind of person who didn’t have to raise his voice to gain your attention or to persuade you that things were going to go his way. Especially if you were, say, ten.
As he approached us, he called out, “Mark. Time for your haircut. Let’s go.” Mark, as I recall, didn’t complain or whine, he just turned to follow his father. And Rip looked down at me. He said, “Len, you can come along too, if you’d like.” Happy to be able to extend my time with my friend, I agreed and followed them to their car.
Mr. R.—believe me, I never even began to call him Rip back then—took us on a bit of a ride. I was expecting to go to someplace in the neighborhood, but we were, instead, going to one of the less upscale areas of town. In fact, we were going to the ghetto. We were going to a part of The City called Hunter’s Point.
The building was old, as I remember, and the windows of the barbershop were huge and old-fashioned. It was the stereotypical poor black barbershop with old men sitting around jawing about anything that came to mind. As we walked in, the place went sort of silent. White boys weren’t frequent visitors to this locale; at least that’s what their stunned silence led me to believe. Mr. R. greeted everyone and the greetings were returned, but the boisterousness that had held sway on our entrance was no longer present.
It must’ve been early afternoon, because the Giants pregame show was on the radio. Russ Hodges was interviewing somebody and I listened and soaked in the distrust and confusion that was radiating at me from every part of the room. Finally, the game began, and the atmosphere lightened as we all took an interest in the contest just starting probably not more than a mile from where we sat.
I don’t remember whether I said something or if someone asked me or if it was just apparent by my demeanor when he came to bat, but the mood of the room changed toward me thanks to Willie Mays. I came to realize that all of us in that barbershop were united by one thing: We were in love—in a nice way—with Willie Mays.
Leo Durocher said that there are five things that a ballplayer can do: hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw. And Willie Mays could do all five with grace and verve. He was an artist. He was amazing. He was my hero.
Mr. R. gave me a wonderful gift that day. He taught me, through the medium of experience, what I had thought all along, that there is no gulf so great that we cannot bridge it, no difference so stark that we cannot find some common ground. A middle class white boy and a group of poor black men could root together for the same thing and cheer together for the same man. I’ve never forgotten it.
And so I say thanks to Mr. R. for the experience, and to Mark for being a better friend to me than I was to him, and to Willie for being Willie.