Mr. Chill, More Than Just A Barber
It seems that death is a recurring theme in my writing these days. Chalk that up to the price of getting old. The people you know, love and admire start kicking off. That’s life. And death.
The woman who gave me my first job at the Washington Post back in 1983 – Nancy Brucker is her name – gave me my first wisdom about the newspaper business. I was hired as a copy boy and worked outside of her office, which was located right next to the obituary desk at the paper.
It seemed to me a maudlin pursuit to tap-tap-tap all day on their computers, those obituarists, logging the ritualistic memorials for those who just died. But she told me: “They do the most important work at the paper. And when they do it well, they tell stories not about the way people die, but about the way we live.”
I’m not sure I possess the grace to achieve that high standard, but I do want to tell a story about a man I knew. A man who just died. A man I wrote about many years ago. A man who made a difference. A man who cut my hair.
He went by the name Chill the Barber. Which was a perfect name for him. Because he was, if anything, very chill. His real name was Wilbert Wilson. And he passed away over the weekend of pancreatic cancer at the indecent age of 51.
You might have heard of him. He became a bit of a celebrity/legend after Hurricane Katrina. When his barber shop in Pigeon Town flooded out, he set up shop in the parking lot of an abandoned Shell gas station at the corner of Napoleon and Claiborne avenues.
In between gas pumps, he arranged a chair and a mirror and box of clippers and combs and set about his job. And no trivial calling was his; if there was anything men needed in the days, weeks and months after Katrina – it was a barber. From between the concrete aisles of the gas station, he established a semblance of routine, of normality, of every day life – in a city that had none of those at the time.
He offered his services to first responders and National Guardsmen for free. For everyone else, it was pay what you can afford. He camped on that concrete for a year, doing what he knew how to do best. And as barbershops tend to be, his little one-chair barbershop pop-up became a gathering place for men, old and young, a place for stories, prevarication, boasting, tough talk, gossip and tall tales.
It became a comfortable place in very uncomfortable times.
I wrote a story about him and his grace and his kindness and the community he had assembled in that parking lot for the newspaper back in 2006. Another barber from another part of town – Aiden Gill – who was in the process of re-establishing his own decidedly more upscale barber shop on Magazine Street – read it.
I wrote a lot about Aiden Gill back in the day. He was a fierce advocate for the rebuilding and rebirth of this city. He spoke to me some of the most profound and provocative words that anyone said to me back then, words I repeated over and over in my newspaper column: “A day will come when someone asks you: What were you doing about it? You can’t tell them: I was just watching it. I was just an innocent bystander. Let me tell you something: There are no innocent bystanders.”
Gill read my story and decided to throw a fundraiser for Chill. It was a hoity-toity affair at his Garden District salon, fine Irish ales and Cuban cigars abound; Chill the Barber the toast of fine society for a night on the town.
We raised enough money that night for him to open a “real” barbershop on Carrollton Avenue – with red leather chairs, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, a barber pole – all the trappings of, well, a barbershop. It was at an unassuming corner, lot called Mr. Chill’s First Class Cuts. And from there, over the past 13 years, Mr. Chill attended to and mentored – and groomed – young men and boys from Uptown, Mid City, Riverbend, Pigeon Town and Holly Grove. Kids were welcome to hang out in the shop, even if they didn’t need – or couldn’t afford – a haircut.
They did homework. He told stories. He gave lessons. He was an after school tutor. He taught private school kids how to tie their ties. He offered a safe place, a clean place, for neighborhood kids. And he cut their hair.
Chill the Barber cut hair. That was his gift, his calling, his talent, his yearning, his career. And he did it well, and with great humor and humility. He was loved and beloved. He was an influence and icon of our recovery, our rebirth. From between those gas pumps so many years ago, he created a sense of home, a sense of place – a sense of pride – where old men talk and young men listen.
A sense of the broken place where they, and he, belonged and from which they would recover and rebuild, together.