East Baltimore barbershop echoes voices of voters

August 13, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

On the walls of the barbershop at Chester and Hoffman streets, hanging alongside dusty advertisements for Luster's Curl and Ajax Unbreakable Pocket Combs, are posters of Baltimore's mayor. That's not to say Oather Monsieur Jones, proprietor of this four-chair corner cuttery, has made up his mind about the upcoming mayoral election. No, not Jonesy. Not yet.

"I ain't turning [Mayor Kurt L.] Schmoke loose yet. I used to have [former Mayor] Du Burns' picture up," says Mr. Jones, 70, a North Carolina native, who blames the cleaning lady for the photograph's disappearance. "Nobody's been by with one. Whoever's running for mayor, whether he's Democrat or Republican, his picture goes up on the wall."

visitor to this East Baltimore outpost, hard on the edge of Collington Square, asks why.

"Because everybody comes in here," says Mr. Jones, who has cut hair for three generations of neighborhood residents since he opened the shop in 1963. "Like Mr. Woods here. He's the best Republican I know."

Thin-lipped and bespectacled, Lenis Woods sits stoically under a front window. "Yeah, I'm a Republican, but I vote for the man. The party doesn't make any difference," rasps Mr. Woods, 81, a retired seaman. "I'm a McKeldin man."

While Lenis Woods was helping elect Theodore R. McKeldin to a second stint as mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, the present mayor of Baltimore, was making the kinds of grades at City College that would earn him a place in the freshman class at Yale University.

But, for all the young mayor's education (a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate as well), Mr. Woods thinks Mr. Schmoke certainly didn't do right by his school superintendent.

"He should've given him a chance," Mr. Woods says of ousted schools chief Richard C. Hunter. "This man is an educator. Schmoke is just another politician. That's the difference between the two men."

Mr. Jones isn't as hard on the mayor,"I wouldn't vote against the mayor because of his trouble [with Mr. Hunter]. We can't blame the mayor for all the troubles the city has."

Like several of the other men in the O.M. Jones Barbershop on this hazy August day, Mr. Woods didn't come to have his silver-gray hair trimmed. They come to sit on the hard edge of a chair, chewing on life as though it were a wad of Red Man, spitting words like a stream of tobacco juice. From love to labor, they ruminate on the state of the world.

The Supreme Court: "Bush is putting people on the court who have no conscience."

Elizabeth Taylor: "She is a strong, powerful and beautiful woman. She loves life and she loves men. I like women who love life and love men -- whether it's me or not."

The economy: "Everybody's pinching dollars, pinching dollars."

A 6-year-old murder victim: "That child shouldn't have been out there, 11 o'clock at night. When you're out in the rain, rain's going to fall on you."

The conversation is interrupted by the buzz of Mr. Jones' door-opener. In walks a young beefy man, dressed in a T-shirt and jean shorts. Mr. Jones snaps a pale blue sheet clean of hair and drapes it over Edrick Brown, 22, whose father and grandfather have sat in these same red leather barber's chairs.

Mr. Jones opened a neighborhood barbershop the year President John F. Kennedy was shot. He and his wife, Ophelia, were living on Hoffman Street -- the same house they live in now -- and raising 12 children. Then when he clipped a man's hair close to the scalp, the style was called "High English, Low Crown." It cost a buck and a quarter. Now, such stylish cuts as "the fade," "a flattop" or "the ramp" can cost a young man $9.

When Mr. Jones moved to his home 36 years ago, his neighbors owned their two-story brick row houses. Flowers and trees filled the park in Collington Square.

"People all knew it as Sheep's Hill Square because there used to be sheep grazing on that hill," he says, noting that the slope of that hill since has been cut back. Broken glass litters the playground there and tenants now occupy houses fronting the park.

To Mr. Jones, this neighborhood will always be Collington Square, a patchwork of corner groceries, storefront churches, Formstone row houses and boarded-up buildings. To city officials, it's the western boundary of a larger community named Berea.

"I like the progress the city's made in four, five years," Mr. Jones says as he takes a seat in his own chair. "I like the Harborplace. Without Harborplace, this place would be a ghost town. We just need something to be done about the drug traffic."

"Do you think it will help if you legalize it?" Mr. Woods asks the barber, picking up Mayor Schmoke's much-debated proposal. "It would take the profit out of it."

Major Slade grimaces. A burly Virginian who once earned his living with a pair of barber's shears, Mr. Slade brings up the demise of the numbers racket. When the state lottery began, he says, one neighborhood business dried up and another more dangerous one moved in.

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