It’s 5:30 a.m., and all is well along the 200 block of St. Charles Avenue in the Central Business District of New Orleans.
There is the occasional beep of a lone car horn and a couple of early morning joggers making haste on the sidewalk through the fog. The sun is just beginning to peep over the Mississippi River, but only the kaleidoscope of traffic lights along St. Charles offers any civilized illumination.
But then, you look up toward the fifth floor of the Whitney Bank Building at the one ray of light emanating from the concrete canyon.
That’s where, unbeknownst to the rest of planet Earth, the world’s problems are being solved: the economy, the balance of trade, the upcoming hurricane season.
That light is a beacon, beaming from the Whitney Barber Shop.
But if you don’t know it’s there, chances are great that you’ll never have your tonsorial needs catered to at Tony Trippi’s clip joint. And if you don’t know where it’s located, it’s an even safer bet that you’re equally out of luck in finding it.
“Take any of those elevators against the wall,” says the security guard at the Gravier Street entrance. “Get off on five. Take a right and just keep walkin’ down that long hall until you come to a door. There’s no sign on it telling you it’s a barber shop. But just walk in.”
And behind that unmarked door is where you find Tony and two of his buddies: Darryl Cannon and Steve Lejeune.
The Situation Room
Trippi’s barber shop is like the Situation Room at the White House and City Hall all melded into one.
On this morning, the subject matter being bantered about around the horn and amongst the three men is a blur like a hopped up ping-pong ball: those bicycle paths in the CBD, crime in the French Quarter (and how to solve that problem) and the slowly rising price of gasoline.
President Obama’s name comes through chatter, as does that of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
By 6:15 a.m., the sun is steadily inching its way over the concrete Himalayans that is the CBD.
And though none of the world’s problems have been solved, it’s time for Cannon and Lejeune to depart for their day jobs and leave Trippi to his: cutting and/or styling the hair of the eight to 10 customers he’ll have this day … CEOs, titans of business, bus drivers, janitors, lawyers.
“They all love Tony,” one guy says. “And Tony loves them all!”
If they “love Tony,” they’ve been doing it seemingly since Delilah did that number on Samson’s hair.
Trippi is telling why the guy in the chair doesn’t want his caterpillar-like eyebrows touched and he puts down the comb and brush and steps back to give a run through of the Trippi family connection to the beauty/barbering trade:
“My father was a barber for 65 years,” Trippi says. “My uncle was a barber. I have a cousin who’s a barber. My mother was a beautician. My wife is a beautician. And my brother, Guy, was a barber.” Trippi nods to the chair next to his. “My brother, Guy, and I worked right next to each other right there in that chair for 30 years. He died two years ago. He got leukemia and that went into lymphoma. His nose started bleeding one day, and man, was he p***** off.
“He went to the emergency room and they put balloons in his nose to stop the bleeding. That’s when they discovered the leukemia. He died within a year. Man, it was tough. It still hurts. I miss him so much.”
Cutting famous hair
Trippi lets on how Guy smoked for 47 years and how his daddy warned against the dangers of smoking. He segues into a verbal checklist of the headline-grabbing and now deceased customers who made their way into his shop on a regular basis: “Sheriff Harry Lee, Congressman F. Edward Hebert … Yeah, and District Attorney Jim Garrison. A lot of U.S. attorneys, judges.”
Again, Trippi’s soliloquy moves easily in another direction and it’s tinged with warnings against smoking. Somehow, it all runs together smoothly: “I’ve seen so many young people who smoke. They look a lot older than they really are. I had a customer … He comes in, takes off his coat and dropped dead. Right there by that chair. Right there on the floor. He smoked like a stove.”
“That’s why I never take my coat off when I come in here,” jokes a young lawyer who is next up.
Trippi stops in mid clip and shows a new customer the massive vault behind a five-ton door. “That’s my store room,” he says. I keep all my ‘stuff’ in there. They’d have a hellavu time breaking into that.”
He pulls down a black-and-white, framed photo of the 1965 graduation class of the New Orleans Barber and Beauty College that once operated above the now defunct Loew’s State Theater on Canal Street. “Can you pick me out?” Trippi asks a customer. “I’m the handsome guy in the back row. Fifty years ago. Man, it’s been a great half century.”
Paying it forward
Eventually, Trippi settled into the basement at the Whitney Building, rocking along until a combination of busted water pipes and Hurricane Katrina flooded his shop with 4 feet of water, wiping him out. He wanted to stay in the building and looked around before arriving at his present location on the fifth floor of the monolith on St. Charles and Gravier.
“This place was shaggy, to say the least,” Trippi says. “I asked the bank if I could make a $4,000 loan at a good rate to buy a couple of chairs and fix the place up. They said, ‘Tony, we’ll take care of everything.’ They gave me this room. Tore out a wall to give me more space and bought me two chairs. They set me up with everything I needed. They spent $25,000. That’s what I call good people.”
Trippi uses the expression “pay it forward” a lot. After his brother died, Tony brought in Susan Deckert, a barber who’s a single mom with three children. He calls her “Sunny.” When Deckert wanted to discuss terms of rental, Trippi wouldn’t hear a word of it.
“Nope,” he said, “You work here. You keep what you make. No rental. No nothing! Hey, look what the bank did for me. You gotta pay it forward in life.”
And so, tomorrow morning, prepare to arise confidently to face the day, knowing that although the problems of the world may not have been solved overnight, they’re being discussed by people who care for all the right reasons — way up there behind that beacon of light beaming from a room behind an unmarked door on the fifth floor of that building in the 200 block of St. Charles Avenue.