Tony Bravo, also known as the Dreamer, gives a haircut to Victor A. Goldbaum… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
They amble in with overgrown manes and beards, looking as if they've spent the night on the street. Some of them have.
Eyes downcast, they climb three metal stairs, duck through the doorway and sink into the black vinyl chair, where the proprietor begins to snip. By the time he has brushed their necks with talc and patted their cheeks with clove-scented after-shave, they could pass for anyone's impeccably coiffed father or brother or uncle.
In reality, they are veterans whose haggard faces reflect the psychic scars of service in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan and of their ongoing battles with addiction, grief and pain.
Audio slide show: Helping vets heal
The Freedom Barber Shop, a star-spangled trailer anchored in a parking lot on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus, is their haven. Barber Tony Bravo, a.k.a. the Dreamer, is their shaman, helping to heal them with clippers, corn-pone humor and Patsy Cline.
Few people understand the plight of homeless veterans the way he does. Like many of them, he served in the military. And, although he owns what he describes as a 200-acre cattle ranch in Benson, Ariz., the Dreamer lives several days each month on the street, voluntarily, in Los Angeles — in solidarity, he says, with the rootless vets he meets and in memory of his unfettered youth.
"Don't let them know you're hurting," he advises his fellow gypsies. "The key is to stay invisible."
Apples and oranges
Starting in the 1970s, Bravo owned a succession of San Vicente Boulevard salons that catered to a different clientele: the Westside elite. Political movers and shakers, venture capitalists and film honchos shelled out $100 or more for a cut and styling. Today, the Dreamer is much more likely to take payment in apples or oranges, or a ball made of rubber bands.
Outside his 1950s-vintage Terry trailer, a barber pole stands before an American flag. The 28-foot vehicle is painted with red, white and blue stripes and blue stars. Camouflage spatters and netting decorate one end.
"Command Post" reads a sign over the door. "NO SMOKING. EXPLOSIVE AMMUNITION" says another. A blue awning shades a couple of picture windows, one of which showcases a sign featuring two neon peace symbols and proclaiming "Peace! Victory!"
The trailer's interior is an ever-evolving exhibition of objects, many of them mystically or patriotically themed and donated in lieu of tips. A poster shows Native Americans cradling weapons: "Homeland Security, Native Americans, Fighting Terrorism Since 1492." There's also a life-size cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley in his Army uniform.
Bravo's typical work ensemble includes a western-style navy shirt with white piping and stars (naturally) and the word "Dreamer" embroidered across the back in hot pink. He wears cuffed and faded jeans over polished two-tone wingtips that resemble spats, like something Fred Astaire might have worn. The shoes are two sizes too big, to allow for multiple pairs of socks for comfort and warmth as he makes his nighttime rounds.
His black, wavy hair is slicked back and combed close to his scalp over his brown, weathered face. To amuse himself and his customers, he sometimes wears yellow-lens goggles and a black Billy Jack hat — after all, he says, he's half Yaqui and half Apache.
On a recent afternoon, Tom Walton stepped into the Freedom Barber Shop wearing a red straw cowboy hat over long, straggly hair. The 62-year-old Navy veteran had spotted a flier for free haircuts at the VA and stopped by without an appointment. It was his lucky day. The Dreamer was in.
"I don't want a Marine haircut," Walton said as he settled into the barber's chair.
With the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do Is Dream" playing over the sound system, the Dreamer went to work.
Walton, a self-described alcoholic with missing teeth, told the Dreamer he once worked in the mortgage business, making as much as $12,000 a month, before the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and '90s.
In 1975, he said, he watched as a friend on the deck of an aircraft carrier "got squeezed like a grape" when a helicopter toppled onto him. Today, Walton lives on about $3,100 a month from a military pension and payments for post-traumatic stress disorder. He has been homeless for much of the last eight years.
The Dreamer put the finishing touches on Walton's haircut and turned the chair so that he could see his reflection.
"When you look in the mirror, what do you see?" the Dreamer asked him.
"Tom Cruise," Walton replied.
A life under the stars
Anthony Bravo Esparza was born in 1944 in Corona. As a youngster, he said, he picked tomatoes with his father, napping under oak trees, bathing in canals and sleeping under the stars at night.