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Hyde Park barber cuts and converses with style

Frederick Ellis Dashiell Jr.
Hyde Park barber cuts and converses with style
The barbershop has long held a special place in black culture, and at Maria’s Hair Salon in Hyde Park, 31-year-old Remi Adams (right) performs a special role in the lives of the people he serves. (Photo: Frederick Ellis Dashiell Jr.)

Author: AP /Elise AmendolaThe barbershop has long held a special place in black culture, and at Maria’s Hair Salon in Hyde Park, 31-year-old Remi Adams (right) performs a special role in the lives of the people he serves.

When he’s standing behind his chair, clippers in hand, Remi Adams has the ability to pontificate on any and all subjects. As a black barber, that’s part of the job description.

Today’s topic: Who’s the best rapper alive? One of Adams’ regulars at Maria’s Hair Salon in Hyde Park, Mike Ifill, offers the opinion that Nas is better than Jay-Z, the barber’s pick for the title.

“How can you say Nas is better than Jay-Z?” Adams asks as he trims the hair on the jaw of the client in his chair. “Yeah, ‘Illmatic’ was hot, but then he got lazy with the ‘Nastradamus’ album. Jay-Z didn’t make a bad album until after he came out of retirement.”

Eyes wide and animated, Adams will continue in this manner for the rest of the day, fielding questions ranging from which are the hottest nightclubs in Atlanta to whether or not Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett will make an appearance in the NBA playoffs. This is how a black barber operates, and how the black barbershop works.

According to the Rev. Eugene Rivers III, a Dorchester community activist and cultural historian, the barbershop holds a special place in black culture, and the barber performs a specific role in his community and in the lives of the people he serves.

“Historically, the black barbershop has always been a place where news and information is disseminated into the community,” Rivers says.

While there’s no explicitly spoken or written rule, the idea that the barbershop is a men-only club is prevalent.

“It is also a safe haven for black male culture, a place where black men can congregate without interference from women,” Rivers says.

As the barber, Adams, 31, is the centerpiece of that club and the nexus of the barbershop — through him, and those like him, flows black culture in its purest form. Adams has to be knowledgeable on a variety of subjects; he is the source.

Before Adams can continue singing Jay-Z’s praises, he receives a phone call.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” Adams answers. “Tonight? … Yeah, but I got Bible study ’til 8 … You and Pierce? … OK, no problem. I’ll call you when I get out of service.”

Adams hangs up sheepishly, suddenly self-conscious, and looks around at his waiting clients.

“Who was that?” Ifill asks.

“That was Rajon Rondo,” Adams responds. “He wants me to come out to the practice facility to cut his hair.”

The Celtics’ starting point guard isn’t the only celebrity athlete whose hair Adams cuts. Team captain Paul Pierce and reserve guard Gabe Pruitt also sit in Adams’ chair. You would never know unless you asked, though; Adams’ humility keeps him from dropping his clients’ names.

“I met Remi through [Minnesota Timberwolves forward] Ryan Gomes, when he played for the Celtics,” said Rondo. “It’s too bad he’s always busy — he does a great job.”

While Adams has always enjoyed cutting hair, his first barber job came by coincidence. Walking home from class one day in 1998, his sophomore year at Clark Atlanta University, Adams walked by a barbershop named Philly’s Finest. A man standing in front of the shop called out to him as he passed.

“Hey! You need a haircut?” the man inquired.

“Man, I cut hair!” Adams replied and kept walking.

The man nodded at Adams’ answer, then asked, “You need a job?” That was how Adam met Jesse “Black” Nunn, the man who gave him his first job as a barber.

Adams stands 5 feet 9 inches tall and is thickly built. He is dressed casually in baggy Levi jeans, Timberland boots and an oversized polo shirt under his barber’s smock. Sitting in his chair between clients, Adams recalls his first job in Boston after becoming a fully licensed barber. Smiling as he speaks, Adams talks about Styles Unlimited, a shop in his home neighborhood of Hyde Park where he used to work.

“They were cool, but they had way too many chairs,” Adams says. “It was always empty in there except for my chair and this other guy.”

Henry Perkins, former owner of 4 Heads Hair Salon, walks in with his son, while Adams is in the middle of explaining why Jay-Z is better than Nas.

“I used to work for him,” Adams says, nodding in Perkins’s direction. “Henry, how good was I at 4 Heads?”

Without missing a beat, Perkins replies, “Terrible!” Everyone laughs and Perkins’ son hops into Adams’ chair.

“I had a sign in my shop window because I had just opened,” Perkins says. “Remi comes into my shop and asks me if I was still looking for barbers. I say I am and ask him if he has a license. He says he does.

“Now, you have to know that everyone says they have a license, but when you ask them to show it to you, you always hear, ‘I forgot to bring it’ or ‘I got it in a box,’” Perkins continues. “So I was surprised when the next day Remi shows up at my shop with his license in hand and presents it to me. I hired him on the spot.”

Adams confirms the story. “Henry didn’t think I was legit until I came back the next day. I was the first one who was able to show him a barber license.”

Becoming a “master barber,” the title that Adams now holds, takes several steps, starting with attending beauty school for barbering and styling. During school, 1,000 hours of “chair work” must be completed. When students complete school, they earn the title of “apprentice barber,” and must then study under a master barber for two years before becoming masters themselves.

Adams took a circuitous route to his rank. Because he did his initial apprenticeship in Atlanta, where beauty school is not necessary to become an apprentice barber, he had to restart the process when he returned to Massachusetts, studying at New England Hair Academy.

What makes Adams’ path interesting is that the route he took to becoming a barber is more along the lines of tradition. According to Rivers, initially, black barbers were either self-taught or learned from other barbers. They never went to a beauty school. In a sense, Adams’ route is faithful to the heritage of the black barber and the black barbershop.

Working now at Maria’s, Adams strikes a comfortable chord with salon owner Maria Foster, his co-workers, all of whom are female, and his clients, who are predominantly male.

The front of the salon is just that: a hair salon for women. Along the wall to the left of the entranceway sits a row of hairdryers. It is not uncommon to find all of these dryers occupied on a Saturday afternoon.

Across from the dryers are four salon chairs. Foster’s is the first chair in the row, closest to the door. The walls are adorned with posters of hair care products, artwork depicting black women under hairdryers, and signs letting people know that the hairdressers don’t work for free and that children under the age of 12 are not to be in the salon unsupervised.

A desk in the middle of the salon acts as a boundary between the two worlds that share the shop’s space. Once you cross the border, the airy scent of hairsprays and products gives way to the buzz of hair clippers and the smell of aftershave. Even the two TVs hanging in the salon mark the difference — the set facing the hair salon plays game shows and reality television, while the TV facing the barber shop rarely shows anything other than ESPN.

During the summer, Adams will open the back door of the shop. Invariably, men looking for a haircut will enter through the back door, avoiding the women’s side of the shop completely.

The balance also displays itself in how the women treat Adams. The women view him as a younger brother, and razz him from time to time.

Foster describes Adams as “cool, but slow.”

“He’s on his own pace; we call it ‘Remi Time,’” she explains.

Co-worker Michelle Cameron echoes the sentiment: “We love Remi, but we also have to tell him about himself sometimes.”

Adams gets grief from his clients, too. Ifill, 28, of Framingham, has been coming to Adams since 2002 for “line-ups,” a barber term from trimming the hairline along the forehead. He says he used to give Adams a hard time because he knew Adams was “the one.”

“If you care about someone, you give him a hard time,” Ifill adds.

Jokes aside, Foster is also quick to talk about how friendly Adams is.

“I’ve known him for eight years, and I can’t remember a time I’ve seen him and he hasn’t had a smile on his face,” she says.

Likewise, young Celtic Pruitt has nothing but good words to say about Adams.

“Remi’s good people,” he said. “He’s the type of dude you can ask a favor of and just know he’ll come through for you. We need more people like him around.”

At one point, after Adams had stepped out of the shop, former boss Perkins spoke aloud about him. But not too loud.

“Remi’s a great man, a man of God,” Perkins whispers. “Don’t tell him I said that.”