Snippets Of Life

East Baltimore's Alfred Gladden remembers decades of details in a self-published paean to the people who have filled his life and his barber's chair.

February 25, 2003|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

In Alfred Gladden's barbershop on a Thursday afternoon, two TV sets are squawking, and the radio's blasting. Every chair, taken. Every subject, covered.

Ten, 12 conversations at once. Men's talk. Gossip. News. Confession.

"You can't compare nobody to Kobe, man. But Mo [Marcus] Hatten - major talent. Huge!"

Two chairs down ...

"I said, `Girl, I just saw your husband,' and she said, `Which one?' and I said, `What do you mean?' Then she started naming them, and by the time she got to No. 4, I was like, `Oh no. That's a spider web, man.'"

The shop owner weaves his own tales ...

"By the time I was 15, I was gone. I was trippin' for real, you know what I'm saying?"

Who could resist the sound of electric shears and the chatter of men bonding on a cold day in February? Who could not enjoy the easy mix of memories with the sweet smell of hair tonic and aftershave on a cloudy afternoon?

Maybe that's why this is a very regular crowd - weekly customers, some of whom have come to Alfred for 30 years or more.

A few still remember his father's house on Rutland Avenue, where 9-year-old Alfred first hoisted up on a stool and started "bootleg barbering" for 75 cents a head. The barber does not look that old, not nearly the age of his middle-aged friends who still appreciate the exacting stroke of his straight-edge razor. But Alfred's first job, accomplished from atop a wooden stool under a dangling light in the family living room, would indeed have been 40 years ago.

Some people say the barbershop in African-American neighborhoods is an institution as important as the local church. A place to stand atop the soap box, hone political contacts, sort out personal problems, cull the news. Certainly it's still true at Alfred Gladden's shop in the Old Town Mall in East Baltimore. This has never been just a place to get a haircut.

"It's wide open, man," Alfred says. "You sit down and talk about whatever you want to talk about. Just put it out there."

There is enough material for a book.

And now, in fact, Alfred Gladden has written that book.

The Barber's Close Cut may be the most provocative people's history of Baltimore since the 1960s. It is a self-published paean to the people who have populated Alfred's life, mostly by way of his barber's chair, since childhood. These are people who helped him survive a fast life of womanizing and drug addiction. They are common folk and celebrities who have made his shop, over time, a place of comfort amid the chaos.

The book is not the work of a professional writer, but of a barber who has chosen not to forget. The stories are sometimes as lurid as the photographs he has published in the book of young men gunned down by local mobsters. But Alfred also has leavened the hard reality of drugs, promiscuous sex and violence with tales of friendship and grace and unsentimental confessions about his and his own generation's abandonment of good sense for the lure of street life and club culture. Between the lines is an honest expression of regret for the willful neglect of adult responsibilities that helped introduce even deeper sorrows to Baltimore communities.

Alfred admits to some foggy times in his life, but he seems to have remembered everything, and in his book, his accounting is clear and unflinching.

Project remembered

There was the August morning in 1995 when construction teams razed the Lafayette Courts housing project. Twenty-one acres just out the back door of the barbershop. "Tons of memories buried under tons of debris," Gladden writes in the opening chapter. People called the shop from all over - an inmate even phoned from federal prison to get a report on the proceedings. Who would remember the lives in those old projects? The barber has.

There was the day 3-year-old James Smith III was shot in the head, shortly after his mother took him to a West Baltimore barbershop for a haircut on his birthday. Who would still remember something like that? Alfred Gladden.

Or the day "Toodie" Rodgers decided she was sick of waiting for her big break and decided to move to Hollywood? It wasn't big news to anyone outside the shop, but Alfred made a mental note. Now it's in print.

He writes about the day Bob Wade dropped by for a haircut and announced he was about to take over for Lefty Driesell at the University of Maryland - and become the first black head coach of an Atlantic Coast Conference basketball team. The barber had the scoop before the newspapers.

Over the years, a regular troupe of politicians (city councilman Jack Young and state delegate Talmadge Branch), professional athletes (Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, Skip Wise), actors (Charles Dutton, Jada Pinkett Smith) and local gangsters ("Little Melvin" Williams, Marty Gross) has excited the passion of Alfred's homey shop. Their stories became the barber's tales, their lives preserved in conversation around the shop and now, at least in small part, in the paperback book.

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