In the anticipation of the fun and excitement leading up to Thanksgiving Day and the huge Southern University versus Grambling State Bayou Classic football game in New Orleans, this was not the news I expected.
My main barber for the past 12 years had died unexpectedly. The news caught me off guard last Sunday.
“Hey, did Teedie tell you that Hank had died?” my wife asked me on a phone call as I was driving home from church.
Just five miles from his shop when I got the news, I drove there hoping to find out more. It was going to be long shot since his place was typically not open on Sunday. As it turned out, a beautician was there doing someone’s make up. She confirmed the news.
The last time Arnold “Hank” Poydras had cut my hair, he told me that he was having surgery, but that he would be back in three to four weeks. He made it sound so routine.
There are few relationships more interesting than the one between a barber and his longtime client, especially in the African-American community. I’ve had only three full-time barbers in my life. I have one that I still use occasionally that I have had for nearly 40 years.
Movies have been made about the relationships between African-American men and their barbers and about the atmosphere in the barbershop. It is a hotbed for sports, politics and the news of the day. NBA superstar Lebron James has a TV series called "The Shop" that deals with social, political and economic issues. It's set in a barbershop.
The exchange between a barber and client is almost like talking with a brother. You share almost everything. Most of it is the truth. Some is enhanced, and I think over the years, both parties know when a little gravy is being added, but don’t challenge it.
I met Hank many years ago when we would square off in basketball games at local recreation centers and neighborhood courts. Our similar heights, or lack of it, usually had us guarding each other. It was a period when we both had athletic bodies and loud mouths.
We would occasionally embellish our skill levels in conversations in his shop. We would joke loudly about our basketball match-ups to the entertainment of the other customers. “Man, I would leave you so fast that I had to leave a note so you would know where I went,” I would announce.
He would counter: “Man, you’re dreaming. You couldn’t do anything with me. I schooled you.”
There would be smiles and laughter from a couple of the customers.
Even though I was about five years older than Hank, we knew a lot of the same people — either through high school and neighborhood athletics or just moving in and out of different neighborhoods. We would occasionally go through the “whatever ever happened to" or “when was the last time you saw" exchanges that grow with age.
Sometimes the news was that the person had gone astray, and we would lament that his or her potential was lost.
Sometimes, sitting in the barber chair, I would see a teenager waiting to get a cut. I would look out at him and say: “You see this gray hair in my head? You see this hair missing? He ( I pointed at Hank) did this to me. I’m really only 30 years old.”
The comment usually elicited a smile from the youngster.
There were also personal conversations. We talked about everything: our wives, families, growing up in neighborhoods across Baton Rouge, vacations, all that stuff. He would sometimes talk about Christianity and God’s grace. While it was not a major part of our conversation, he would find spots to weave it in.
More than anything, Hank had found a way to balance being a successful businessman with caring deeply for his family. He would give both beginning and experienced barbers a chance to get a chair in his shop. That meant a lot.
When the clock hits 6:50 a.m. next Saturday, it will be strange for me. It’s around that time I would be dashing out of the house to drive those two miles to Hank’s chair at Gilbert’s Hair Care for my 7 a.m. appointment.
I would have already had my comment ready in case he brought up our basketball days. “Hey Hank, remember when I got around you so fast you couldn’t remember what I had on?"
Thanks for the memories, my brother.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.