But Robinson offers a warning: Even casual listeners, spoiled by a master orator's prowess, don't put up with a half-told or poorly researched tale. A barbershop floor can suddenly transform itself into center-stage at the Apollo Theatre, the rowdy assembly out for blood.
"I think one of the greatest compliments in our culture," she says, "is to find out: 'What do you think?' (But) if you can't tell the story, ain't nobody going to listen. But when you can 'tell the story good' . . . the story creates the images, people get totally involved in it and it's like the best theater."
The difference is, Robinson points out, "We don't perform \o7 for \f7 people. People perform \o7 with\f7 us."
Haircuts and Headlines
Raymond Ferguson analyzes the daily exchanges filling his barbershop--from quickly transfiguring team rosters to tallying community crime: "All they want is somebody to talk to." He likes to soften the problems with a tease or a smile, and with an island lilt in his voice, his words flutter like a song.
Originally from Belize, Ferguson came to Los Angeles in 1970 and has owned this shop for three years. The building sits along on a strip of Belizean-owned and -operated businesses that front Western Avenue near Vernon. Since up-to-the-minute CNN updates about Belize don't often flash across television screens, Ray's Barbershop offers more than just a touch-up for your fade; it is a living Belizean community bulletin board, a place to discuss the fallout from colliding disparate cultures.
Some younger Belizeans became involved with L.A. street gangs and have been deported, he says. "(So) they carry that behavior back to Belize. At one time (people) could take their vacation and go down there and walk around at night. Now you can't do it no more, because the same nonsense is going on in those streets."
But as well as providing the community wire service, the circumference surrounding the barber chair, as any proprietor will tell you, serves myriad purposes.
"You go to enhance your possibilities," says Pacoima writer Emory Holmes III, who celebrated the neighborhood barbershop in a performance piece, "Evolution of Stylesville." "You go to assert your identity as a black person, and those two mirrors showed endless possibilities. You went on forever."
More than an expert in image alteration and astute interpreter of headline news, a good barber easily sheds, then assumes, many personas.
Richard Shelton most times looks at his role as payback: "I was surrounded by so many people who gave me good advice."
Shelton's Barbershop, which sits at the edge of a shopping center on Jefferson Boulevard near Western, attracts a clientele from children transfixed with the sheen of the shears to wizened seniors looking to reclaim the crown of their youth. "Some things that you may tell a person may not help them today, but you push that recall button and it will come."
Shelton's buzzes early. After barber Nicky Piatt brings the morning paper and steaming coffee, the snap of the white cotton bib and the hum of the electric razor announce the day's start.
Originally from Texas, Shelton came West in 1953 "to find (my) pot of gold." He didn't find it, but instead lays claim to a noisy barbershop that cuts or styles about 275 heads a week, and an expert's knack for keeping the ideas flowing and customers not only entertained but well-informed--from immigration laws to the Rodney King case.
Most important, explains Shelton, are the kids who return and say, " 'Mr. Shelton, I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for you. I would have been in trouble if you hadn't focused my head.' They're so impatient. And if they don't have that self-control, it's so very easy to get out of your focus."
In April, 1992, Shelton found out how thick blood runs in his neighborhood. After watching the flames and smoke choke stores in and around the center--his shop was not damaged--customers who had long ago moved to the western or northern edges of the city stopped by to see him. Shelton was there, positioned behind his chair; razor in hand; audience in place. Says Shelton: "I just keep right on trimming along."
Ear to the Grapevine
Blacks' often-precarious relationship with most mainstream media and traditional advertising sources makes reaching black audiences and consumers a tricky test in creativity.
Black publicists have mastered the maze by keeping one's ear to the ground and staying on top of even the most minute alteration in a trend.
Makeda Smith, who owns Jazzmyne Public Relations in Burbank, says it's simply a matter of getting out and spreading the word. Her model: the ancestors.