When Business Is Personal
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Hamilton says it’s time to stop being quiet, for the sake of a united black community.
The writer lives in Hayward, California, and is the author of six books.
The first time I heard the saying, “This ain’t personal, it’s business,” I didn’t think much of it. But today? I understand what that means in a whole new way. Back in 1991, I was a rookie in the barbering game. I didn’t know much about the money aspect of it, but cutting hair was my thang, my love. Even before becoming a licensed barber, I did hair by going door to door; in fact, I had a slogan: “Three or more and I’m at your door.” As long as you had at least three guys for me to cut, I was there. They’ve called me Doc for some time now, and that’s when it all began, when I went from being a door-to-door barber named Anthony to being called Doc. One day, I had a guy come to my door with what he called an emergency. The emergency in question? His son was going to his high school prom later on that night and was in desperate need of a hair makeover—the dad had tried to do it up himself. And the young man was almost in tears.
The father had apparently been real tired right before he took the clippers to that child’s head. “Sure, I can fix this; it ain’t nothing I can’t do with these clippers, so let’s make it happen,” I responded. His father took a seat in the living room while I took his son to the kitchen, sat him down and draped him and went to work. In about 15 minutes, he was ready. When his father came over to see the transformation, I went from being Anthony the neighborhood barber to being the hair doctor, making house calls throughout the community. Since then, people have been calling Doc from all around the Bay Area to cut their hair.
I never knew the politics that the business world entailed. But I learned that not everyone who smiles in your face will have your back.
I had always dreamed of being someone that others would look up to, and when that day came, I was ready. The hair game became my way out; the business was personal. And I was good at it: I could cut up to five people an hour. It felt good to make people smile. I was working in the electronic field by day and supplementing my income by cutting hair at night. Before long, just from cutting hair alone, I was able to pay the rent. I was a single parent with two young boys to feed, and as they grew, so did my clientele. After work, I would rush home. At least two or three clients would be waiting in my living room. (My oldest son knew to get things ready in advance.) While cutting hair, I would teach my two boys what I called some of life’s lessons. And when my clients paid, I had them hand the money I had just earned to one of my sons. I did this until each boy had enough lunch money for the week. It was my way of showing them that I was there to work, and to provide for them. For the next few years, I kept working in the electronics shop by day and going to beauty school at night. It took two and a half years to obtain my license.
Toward the end of beauty school, I had begun to get calls from several of the local barbershops who’d seen my work on the streets. I felt like a star in my rookie season, like I was getting ready to be drafted. I chose a place called Simply Unique. (Because, to put it plainly, I was.) Simply Unique offered me six months’ free rent, which gave me more than enough time to get my street clients into my new location.
I never knew the politics that the business world entailed. But I learned, and fast. I learned that not everyone who smiles in your face will have your back. Soon, success arrived: I went from making $200 in two days to $200 in two hours. Yet there were more people cupping their hands outward toward me, to receive; more than there were who shook my hand just because. And out of nowhere they came a-calling. I could feel them pulling on me, attempting to weigh me down in droves.
All I had wanted was to end my struggle and do away with poverty as I knew it. I didn’t want to be the best at anything; I just wanted to be better at everything I could … so I cut my way out of the hood, so to speak. I got up every day. I learned how to listen to over 200 or more life stories in that shop and to be able to recall each man’s tales. I didn’t just walk into their lives, no, I cut myself into their lives, stroke by stroke. But it ain’t never personal when it comes to business. And no one, I mean no one … stays on top forever. They are like crabs, the people who resent your success, who want to pull you back down into the barrel of failure. They smile. They tell you it is out of love. But they hold you down.
We don’t stick together. We are doing our best to hold our own people down.
I remember having one of my biggest days as a barber was the day before Thanksgiving, about seven years into cutting hair. That day, the people just wouldn’t stop coming, and before I knew it, I had done 64 people in one day. I had so many $20 bills in my back pocket, it hurt me to sit down. I was driving a yellow and black drop-top convertible Corvette, and on the way home, something hit me emotionally, and the thought of where I had been and where I was at that moment brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t believe how loved by others I appeared to be. Yet I also knew how envied I had become. And I’ve continued to see that irony. When I moved down the street, away from Simply Unique to my own shop, my own turf, my pride grew. But strangely, I saw some people I was once close to slip away. They stopped coming. These boys whose hair I had cut for free when they couldn’t pay, these people who I had, in a sense, fathered — they saw my success, they didn’t like it, and they left.
It takes a very unselfish person to truly want to see another individual become successful. Many of us are envious by nature. This is the truth of our community: The unprotected back of a black man is an endangered one. I am often outraged at the lack of cohesiveness that has stifled us as a community, because that stifling, those who despise and resent success, could ruin us. We are not unlike crabs in the barrel, for as soon as some of us gain the knowledge that a person close to us is getting ready to achieve greatness, many of us develop a deep anxiety — one brought on by jealousy. It stems from our inadequacy, our biggest fears. And we pretend. We pretend to support, and yet we don’t. We don’t stick together. We, the black man, are doing our best to hold our own people down. Now attempt to muzzle me if you will, but I’ve said it and I’m not taking it back.
I’m still a salon owner in the beautiful city of Mountain View, California. I continue to reach and teach as many as I can. Why? Because I still enjoy the sweet sounds of a pair of well-oiled clippers and the crisp feel of my scissors, and receiving the definitive nod of a satisfied customer. As for the crabs? It’s about something bigger, something I saw through the window of my business but which plagues our entire community. We must voluntarily relinquish our stronghold on blame and point the finger in its rightful direction. Because it is personal. This business is personal. And if we pretend it’s something different, we will keep burning away the unity that could help us become as vital as we believe we should be.