“Everybody needs a haircut. That’s how I got started. I was forced to cut my own hair in eighth grade. Back then, they would start around the head like a bowl — no blending, no nothing. That was the style then.'’
So says Ishmael Coye, his own hair closely trimmed, his beard neat, wearing a bright blue smock and standing before one of the 20, count ‘em, 20 chairs at the Success Barber School, 214 S. Wabash, where a haircut will set you back $8.
On the walls of Egyptian tombs, you will find paintings of barbers tending to the hair of the pharaohs, and if you think that fact is lost on students like Coye, you’re mistaken.
“It’s an ancient art — that’s one of the things I love about it,” says Coye, 38. “I’m going through the same experience barbers have gone through since ancient times.”
Though “student” seems too weak a word to describe Coye’s relation to barbering.
“It’s what I was doing as a kid,” he says, pointing out that learning to cut hair on your own head has its advantages.
“I could mess up without messing up.”
He tells me the haircut I think of as “a Princeton,” since that’s what barbers called it in Berea, Ohio, in 1965, is now “a fade.”
“You’ve got a fade,” he says, setting to work. I tell him that though professional responsibility demands that I test out the $8 haircut, I feel like I’m cheating on my regulars barber, Ron Edwards, whose shop on Huron is jammed with philosophy books.
“I feel like most barbers after a few years in the business become philosophers,” says Coye. “There’s more to barbering than just barbering; it’s like a spiritual experience. Especially in a good neighborhood like Hyde Park, where the next customer coming in might be the United States president.”
That isn’t whimsy. Coye tells me he works at Hyde Park Hair Salon, 5234 S. Blackstone, where Barack Obama got his hair cut. When I call the shop, I learn that Coye is not just philosophical, but modest, too.
“He’s co-owner,” says his older brother, Tony, also confirming that Ishmael was barbering in high school.
“He was pretty famous,” Tony says. “From high school on, he’s been cutting hair and doing it really well. We’ve been coming to this barbershop since we were kids, and in 2000 there was a chance to buy the shop, and we’ve been owners ever since.”
Tony Coye concurs that barbering is not just a matter of trimming hair.
“I definitely agree with that,” he says. “The cutting is a physical thing, the conversation and the camaraderie of the clients that come in. You build relationships. You have deep conversations. It goes beyond barbering. It’s a community that you’re taking care of.”
As is Success School, where blue-smocked students mill around, cutting customers’ hair, cutting each other’s hair, deploying hot towels, brushing the locks of mannequin heads. They drift over to watch Coye’s technique, as does school owner Joe Barsic, who takes the trimmer from Coye.
“Now you just want to come through and just smooth it, blend it out,” he says.
Barsic’s parents, Joseph and Nancy, both are barbers in Indiana.
“Joe actually grew up in a barber school,” says Nancy. “He toddled through hair.”
She says the school costs $14,000 for nine months, that it has 100 students in Chicago and another 100 in Merrillville, that the city used to subsidize student tuition until two months ago.
“Suddenly we were cut off,” she says.
Nancy Barsic did not envision a life behind the shears for her son.
“I didn’t want him to be a barber when he was growing up,” she says. “I wanted him to go to college.” But after a year at Indiana University, he dropped out to cut hair.
“All his friends went to college and didn’t have jobs,” she says. “He never had a day without work, while we trained some of his friends with four-year degrees.”
She claims that the school places 100 percent of its graduates in jobs, a statement that sends me running to the state.
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility,” says Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. “Barbers and cosmetologists tend to find jobs.”
On Wabash Avenue, Coye is finishing up.
“You know the old saying?” he says. “‘You do what you love, and you never work a day in your life.’ I love cutting hair. It’s art for me. I’m not really here for the license.”
He hands me a mirror. Looks good. I’ll still go to Ron — it is indeed a relationship, and beside, I have one of his books. But Ron’s is closed on Wednesdays, and Success is open every weekday from 9 to 5. Sometimes a guy needs a haircut on Wednesday.
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