Not Fade Away 

Retired barber George Tucker stays active by cutting hair for the homeless

Early on Monday, Jan. 25, George Tucker returns to the Shamrock Club of St. Patrick's Center to spend his first day behind the barber's chair after a period of forced inactivity.

By 9:45 a.m., he is already well into his "third or fourth" client of the day, a woman named Mary, whose hair Tucker is clipping off in good-sized chunks. Tucker advises her to "go with the bend of your hair. If you don't do that, you'll be fighting it.

Mary asks Tucker, "How long have you been cutting hair?"
"Forty-four years."
"That's a mighty long time."
"It's before you were born, wasn't it?"

"I'm only 29." Mary delivers the line with a laugh, for she's a shade older than 29.

Mary is a "green card" holder, which means she can come into the Shamrock Club, a large social room in the basement of the downtown St. Patrick's Center that doubles as the commissary and, in one corner, a weekly barbershop.

Like Mary, some folks talk to Tucker, 70, while he's working on their hair. Others are mum. Still others talk to themselves, an unfortunate part of working with a large clientele of homeless and low-income people, a number of them suffering from some form of mental distress.

"Some are talking to people other than me," Tucker admits. "They're talking to themselves, and I have to know when to jump in there.

"It was entirely different at first. I've often thought if I were to quit -- if age caught up to me, or illness -- I'd have to train the next person, tell them what to get used to. I've had people say, 'Trim my beard, and that's an order.' And I think, 'Here I am giving them something for nothing, and they're giving me an order.' But for me, who else are they going to give an order?"

Tucker seems to have endless patience, a necessary attribute developed over the seven years that he's worked at the center, providing a free service that was definitely lacking before he called on a whim.

"We have about 3,000 volunteers, in some capacity," says Ann Rotermund, the director of mental-health programs for St. Patrick's, which serves the homeless on many fronts. "Not all of them provide direct services. We had been looking for a barber for years. At the point that he called, our volunteer coordinator just about went through the phone."

As Tucker explains, "I called down here wanting to help on Thanksgiving dinner, but they said that they were all booked up. I said I was a retired barber, and she got all excited."

Actually, Tucker was then semi-retired. After 33 years, he'd sold his barbershop -- in Maplewood, near the corner of Southwest and Manchester -- and was working part time. He'd been cutting hair since graduating from a long-shuttered barber's college at Sixth and Washington in 1953. When he went to work at St. Patrick's, it thus marked Tucker's return to the neighborhood where he learned his craft years before. Since then, he's spent most Mondays, the traditional barber's day off, at the center.

Mindful of his profession, he carefully points out, "One thing I'm not hurting is the barber on the street. These people would be cutting each other's hair or their own or just not getting one. They wouldn't be getting one otherwise, so that's why I don't mind helping these fellas out."

He figures that around 70 percent of his weekly heads belong to men, and 70 percent of those are black. That provided its own challenge at the beginning.

"I'd done very few Afro-American haircuts before then," Tucker says. "Just a handful. So it was like going back to school. The terminology was different: A box -- for a white man, that means a flattop. And when they wanted it tapered, that means a fade. That first year, I really struggled. They kept telling me, and that helped, but I felt like I was an apprentice after 40 years."

Once seated, few are shy about telling him what to do. First comes a series of requests, from beard trimmings to intricate fades that can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. One client this morning hasn't had a haircut in more than a year -- almost all of his comes off. Others are looking for something less drastic.

"You notice how each one tells you exactly how they want it done?" he asks, leaning away from the chair. "You may think they don't care, but every one has that self-pride and self-esteem."

There's a flip side to that interest: "I used to have a handheld mirror, but they'd hold it the whole time," says Tucker. "'Can you just do this? Can you do that?' I'd be here all day if I did that. I'd never get done. I had to leave the mirror at home."

In recent years, he's cut down on his service. He used to work from 9 a.m. through early evening, with no stops. Now he shuts down the operation at noon, just as the center opens its doors for anyone in need. They come by the dozens for a free lunch and a place to sit. Some hurry up at the last second, trying to sneak into the chair before he packs up his compact kit of clippers, scissors and vacuum.

He refers them over to Roosevelt Scott, who works the door, monitoring various lists, shouting out starting times for programs, occasionally barking at someone to put out a cigarette. If they're not on the list, or if time's slipped by, they'll wait till next week. It's usually those who have job interviews or need the care in a bad way that get Tucker's time first.

"You try to service them, to get as many people in as really need it," he says. "The ones that used to get a haircut every week, they were doing it to get some attention more than really needing a haircut. So Roosevelt tries to screen that.

"That first year, I used to work all day. But this is all I can do at my age. If I could pace myself, I'd be able to do it. But as you see, once I start, I never stop."

Age isn't the only thing slowing Tucker: Health troubles have hit him hard over the past month. "I hadn't been here for the last three weeks," he says. "It took a while to get into the swing. I had to get the hands working together. Kind of like playing the piano, I guess. Though I don't know how to play one.

"I had a blood clot first. They thought that was a heart attack -- I was doubled over. But it moved through my heart and settled into my lungs. After they treated that, I still didn't feel right. They gave me a CAT scan. They found out that I had a malignant tumor in my bladder. They had to go in and operate on that. The only reason I survive is that I'm tough. No, no, I've got good doctors and the good Lord was with me on this one. I feel great now. I might be tired when I'm finished, but that's to be expected. I'll just go home to rest."

Around the room, folks are engaged in everything from playing cards to watching Channel 11, which runs through a morning of Matlock, In the Heat of the Night and Mills Lane's new judge show. The pool table's active for the whole three hours, and a constant stream of clients come in to use showers or attend the "AA rap session." A good number of them say "hi" to Tucker, who delights in greeting them back.

"That's why, when someone's moving through here, or they've moved on and they're on their own, I want to feel like I had a part in it, that I've helped somebody," he says. "There's quite a bit of turnover. Just when I think I know somebody, they're gone.

"I didn't even think of doing this in the beginning. I'd have never given it a thought. But now I'd give anything to know if anyone else is doing this. I'd hate to think that I'm the only one when this service is so needed."

Tucker now encourages strangers to think about volunteering, placing business cards "at all the restaurants where I eat." Figuring that it's mostly older folks at the cafeterias that he visits, he simply leaves a card on the table, one that he's had printed up in large number.

The card reads: "Retired and bored? Call Social Services. See Yellow Pages 1432. Volunteer Your Time and Talents. It's Very Rewarding!"

"One thing I used to hear all the time when I was around the shop was old guys, when they retired, coming in and saying, 'I'm bored.' Why didn't they volunteer for things when there are so many organizations like this? That's how I got started thinking about this. I didn't want to just sit around, watching the idiot tube. These were people who made a good living, who were successful at what they did. They should want to give something back."

Says Rotermund, "We have a mentoring program, and businessmen from downtown come in after hours. Others work in the finance department or input things into the computer. Our executive director started as a volunteer. Our finance director. And our computer expert. All of them started a volunteers."

Although important, those jobs may not have the striking, tangible effects that Tucker's work brings about. It's really something to watch people go through his little corner of the building and leave his chair looking completely different than when they entered that morning.

He does this routinely, missing only four Mondays a year because of illness or other factors. He even schedules vacations with his wife around his St. Patrick's schedule, leaving town on Tuesday so he can get back for the next week's shift.

"And in the seven years that I've done this, only three people have gotten up without saying, 'Thank you,'" Tucker says, smiling.

By coincidence, that Monday a woman who'd been pacing nervously before getting a close crop exits without thanking Tucker. But chances are that the rare slight won't color Tucker's thinking all that much.

He'll be back next week.

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