Last Saturday morning, I joined a couple dozen or so people — artists and activists; lawyers and bankers; academics and entrepreneurs — for a collaborative conversation about the future of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. It was a vibrant and enlightening discussion, as this room full of diverse and intelligent people shared ideas about the KST and its relationship to the city, the arts community, and East Liberty.
After the meeting, I drove two blocks to Everyday’s A Sundae; a cafe on Centre Avenue I frequent because the owner (Natalie) and the workers are exceedingly nice. But mostly because it happens to sell two of my favorite things: breakfast sandwiches and ice cream. After my 10,000 calorie meal — consisting of bacon, egg, and cheese on a croissant; washed down with a moose tracks shake — I walked a half block up Centre to Target to purchase a diaper genie. Which, I assume, will happen quite frequently. Because my daughter is 10 days old, and they apparently go through a shitload of diapers. (Pun intended.)
And then, after leaving Target, I walked a block down Penn Avenue, made a right on Highland Avenue, and went into Villa. I’d been jonesin’ for a new pair of Timberlands for an embarrassingly long period of time, and a post-Black Friday sale was all the urging I needed for finally break down and buy a pair.
And then, after leaving Villa, I finally did what I had been meaning to do — and dreading doing — for weeks. I went next door to East Liberty Kutz to find out what happened to Dre.
The relationship between Black men and the Black barbershop — and the Black barbershop and the Black community — passes personal and foundational and enters psychic territory. Perhaps even hallowed. It, like certain churches, certain businesses, certain community centers, and even certain basketball courts, is sacred ground. It’s a relationship I’ve written about numerous times. One that was the focus of a recent (and hilarious) episode of black-ish. And the premise for the Barbershop movie series. And my relationship with Dre (my old barber) and East Liberty Kutz (my old barbershop) was no different.
I actually started going to the shop by accident. It was the summer of 2001. I was home from school and hanging out with my friend Brian. We were on our way to Mellon Park to hoop, and we stopped at his barbershop on the way there. I also happened to need a cut, but I was so used to getting my haircut in Buffalo that I didn’t really have a regular home barber anymore. So while Brian sat in his barber’s chair, I took Dre — who also happened to be the owner of the shop — up on his offer when he asked if I “needed some help.”
For the next 13 years, Dre was my barber. I followed him as he moved the shop from an alley off of North Sheridan Avenue to a prime location on Highland Ave. And in that time, he became a friend. I looked forward to the weekly visits; the debates about Lebron James and (former University of Illinois quarterback) Juice Williams; the jokes he’d have about my shoes or the decisions I’d make with my hair. He’d ask about my job and my dad, and he’d offer (usually unsolicited) advice about women and dating. I’d ask about his oldest son, and his feelings about the changes in the neighborhood, and if he still owned that car with the hydraulics. Outside of my family and my closest friends, my relationship with Dre was my most consistent. He was perhaps the only person I could depend on seeing at least once a week every week for a decade-long span.
This relationship was so congenial, in fact, that it obscured me to the reality that, well, Dre wasn’t a very good barber. He wasn’t a bad barber, perse. It wasn’t like I’d leave the shop looking like my head had been stuck in a Cuisinart Elemental Food Processor. But he’d get so caught up in his stories and jokes and in pausing mid-cut to run across the street to get an iced tea or a steak sub, that he’d often lose focus. And when that would happen, my hairline (often uneven) and my beard (often crooked) would suffer.
In 2014, after maybe a year’s worth of convincing from my wife, I finally decided to leave Dre and East Liberty Kutz for a new shop. And, as people who’ve had barbers or hairstylists for a long period of time know, when you decide to “break up” with them, there’s no closure or final conversation. No “it’s not you, it’s me.” You just leave and don’t come back…and just really, really hope that they don’t feel too bad about it.
But, I was in the shop again that Saturday. Because, a couple weeks earlier, I learned through Facebook that Dre passed away in early November after a battle with cancer, and I needed to know…something. Anything.
I spoke to one of the barbers still there. He told me Dre had been sick for a while. He also told me December would be the last month of East Liberty Kutz. Without Dre there, the shop was just too much and the location just too expensive to manage. Before I left, he pointed me to a eulogy from Dre’s funeral that was stuck behind of the barber’s mirrors. I read it. And then I left East Liberty Kutz for the last time.
The East Liberty I knew, grew up in, fell for my first crush in, lost my first (and last) fight in -- is gone.
But while I continue to work out those thoughts, one thing is certain. The East Liberty as I knew it, the East Liberty I grew up in, fell for my first crush in, lost my first (and last) fight in — the East Liberty where the I’d, as a teenager, post up outside of the old Kingsley Center (now moved) to watch the girls walking on and off the busway (now gone) or perhaps to the highrise (also now gone) — is gone. Sure, there are entities still there. David’s Shoes. Vento’s Pizza. The Pennley basketball courts. And a meteor could hit Pittsburgh tomorrow, but the East Liberty Presbyterian Church will still be standing. But, for reasons both good and bad, it is not the same place.
It is a place where a place like East Liberty Kutz — once valued and hallowed; sacred and sacrosanct — is no longer foundational. Instead, it’s an anachronism. A relic from a time and a place when it served a vital and necessary function for the community’s primary demographic.
And as I walked out of East Liberty Kutz for the final time, the words from Dre’s eulogy still fresh in my head, I couldn’t help but think that East Liberty needs one now too.