Hairdresser to the politicians

Barber: Lenny Clay has been cutting hair for government leaders for 40 years in his Poppleton shop, where rumors often give way to the truth.

February 02, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

When rumors percolated that Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke would step down from office this month, his hairdresser knew for sure.

For the past 40 years, Lenny Clay has cropped the hair of Baltimore's top African-American politicians and government leaders at Lenny's House of Naturals in West Baltimore. As barber to the politically connected, Clay is often the first to learn political developments, a valuable commodity as the city approaches its first mayoral race without an incumbent in almost 30 years.

Clay's stature as shearer to the leaders also gives him an opportunity that most voters would like to have: their elected leaders' undivided attention while standing over them with an electric razor.

"When I come in here, it's an education," says Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who popped into the chair less than 24 hours after witnessing the president's State of the Union speech. "Lenny will tell you to your face, you're [exaggerating] or you're not serving the people."

In addition to Cummings, Schmoke and city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III are regulars at the 1099 W.

Fayette St. shop, as is 4th District City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who walked into Lenny's recently and learned he was running for council president.

"That's where I get all the information on me," Mitchell says, chuckling while conceding that he is considering a council president bid.

`Mayor of Poppleton'

Clay also knew that Schmoke would not step down as mayor this month and hand the reins of city government over to Council President Lawrence A. Bell III in return for allowing Schmoke directors, such as Henson, to remain in office.

Schmoke, who announced in December that he would not seek re-election to a fourth four-year term, told Clay he planned to finish his term.

"One thing I'll tell you about Kurt Schmoke," says Clay, who sports a white mane and matching beard, "everything he ever told me was true."

Schmoke refers to Clay as "the mayor of Poppleton" and walks out of Lenny's more attuned to what people are saying on West Baltimore streets, he says.

"Lenny's been around his community a long time," Schmoke says. "He knows a lot of people in all walks of life so his antennae are pretty good."

But what makes Baltimore's leaders confide in Clay?

"He's a good listener," says Henson, who began going to Lenny's 30 years ago. "And he doesn't bite his tongue. Lenny has kind of become Father Confessor."

Snipping and shaving in a haze of cigarette smoke at the fourth chair near the back, Clay attributes politicians' ease around him to his refusal to treat them differently.

"They get truth," Clay, 63, says. "When they come in here, they don't get treated like congressmen, they get treated like customers."

He began cutting hair when he was age 12. That's when his father carved a chair out of wood for him at their Charlotte, N.C., home. With nine brothers and sisters, Clay had people to practice on.

He arrived in Baltimore in 1955 and opened his first shop in the Poppleton neighborhood a few years later. He has had two shops since in the vicinity.

His passion for cutting hair is matched by his love for his neighborhood and people. The shop at Fayette Street and Carrollton Avenue is adorned with posters of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam leaders. Commendations from every level of government -- city, state and federal -- hang on Clay's walls, praising him for his work with youth.

Whether it's trying to raise money for Pop Warner League football uniforms or storing clothes in his shop for drug addicts who graduate from a rehabilitation program, Clay tries to live the Nation of Islam faith that helped save him as a "hell raisin' " youth decades ago.

"This is my job in the neighborhood, trying to help these young men," says Clay, who only cuts hair by appointment. "There is not enough people putting back into the neighborhood."

`Love for the community'

He is active with the Poppleton empowerment zone board and relaxes in a nearby lot practicing his golf swing. His connection to the neighborhood is a gold mine for politicians insulated from the streets by bureaucracy.

"Lenny is a special person because he has love for the African-American community," Cummings says. "I've gotten more lessons in here about drugs and how much of an affliction it is."

Despite being cozy with political leaders, Clay refuses to let go of one political lesson his father taught him: "Listen to what they tell you and watch what they do."

Ackneil M. Muldrow II, president and chief executive officer of Development Credit Fund Inc., visits Lenny's every Monday afternoon.

"Lenny doesn't mind telling you, `Neil, what you think is a crock,' " Muldrow says. "I come here every Monday to get advice from Lenny -- whether I need it or not."

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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