The barber’s scissors clicked in time with the quick rhythm of the jazz tune on the radio.
The music bounced from a wooden console, filling the front barbershop of Cooke’s Style Center and a beauty parlor in the back.
A clutter of shampoos, creams and gels on a head-high counter blocked wall mirrors, barring sneak glances at unfinished haircuts.
James A. Cooke spun a barber’s chair away from the mirrors. His customer hardly breathed as the barber snipped at small bunches of black woolly hair.
He opened the city’s first black barbershop and beauty parlor in 1946, when he was 23 years out and fresh out of the Navy. Today, he is “Mr. Cooke,” the stocky, friendly man who has made Cooke’s an institution in Long Beach’s black community.
“You can see everything in here,” said Mr. Cooke.
A lanky man sauntered past the shop at 1067 East Anaheim Street and hollered a greeting to Mr. Cooke, who wore a snug blue smock over his clothes.
“Wonderful,” Mr. Cooke responded, the last syllable lilting in singsong style. “Everything is on the ball.”
“I’ll be back to see you,” promised the passing voice.
And they do come back.
A young man dashed by the shop, announcing the homecoming of a student of Tennessee State University, a historically black college.
A muscular six-foot-tall youth, wearing dark sunglasses and tight-fitting blue jeans, strode inside. He plopped into a vinyl chair a few feet from Mr. Cooke.
“We’re playing in the Peach Bowl,” said the athlete proudly.
“That’s wonderful, that’s marvellous,” said Mr. Cooke, who’d known the young man for years.
“Did you get the pictures,” asked the athlete, who had sent his image in football jersey 2500 miles to Mr. Cooke, who he knew would share the photos.
He’d gotten them, Mr. Cooke said, but had not found the right album for proper display.
Reassured, the athlete shook hands with the barber and left the shop. He would stop by again before going back to school, he said.
“It makes you feel good when they think enough about you to come see you,” said Mr. Cooke, the son of a Washington, D.C. barber. “You know there’s a lot of places they could be going.”
“I know everybody around here and their families,” he said. “And you see them grow up. Some do well. Some, not so well. But 90 percent of them are nice. It’s only that 10 percent that causes the problem. You’ll find that in all societies.
“Most people get jobs, have families,” he said. “They try to make something of their lives. It’s about 10 percent of the people who are regular hoodlums. And those are the 10 percent you read about in the newspaper.”
A middle-aged woman, wearing ankle-high white boots and carrying several bags and a black umbrella, ambled into the shop.
“I know you’re responsible,” she insisted. “I know you’re the one.”
She smoothed her hair, styled in a flip, as she thanked Mr. Cooke for helping to mend a mother-son rift. Then, she kissed his left cheek and tapped his ample belly.
“Watch that,” he teased.
“Isn’t he sweet?” she said.
She left with the barber a manila envelope of pictures of her prodigal son.
“Hang in there,” said Mr. Cooke, as she bustled on her way.
He pulled a black net over the hair of a customer, patted it to check evenness, then snatched it off and snipped again.
A large man, wearing suspenders and magenta trousers, took measured steps with a metal walker into the shop. He eased over to one of the chairs lining the wall. Everyone asked how he was doing.
“I’m blessed, I’m blessed,” he answered, and fell back into a chair with a loud sigh.
No one was waiting for a cut, he mentioned after he had caught his breath.
“We’re selling a product that people don’t need to have every day like bread or milk,” said Mr. Cooke.
“You want to sell groceries?” quipped the older man.
The man rested awhile, then moved toward the door, his right foot dragging.
“You’re gonna be all right, Tom?” Mr. Cooke playfully called as the man reached the doorway. “Can you make it?”
He returned with an imitation leather satchel full of bags of roasted peanuts. He’d sell them to customers for 50 cents each.
The jiggle of a hot comb through a woman’s hair and a burst of laughter from the beauty parlor broke the temporary silence up front.
Three hustlers whisked into the shop, one lugging a used pole lamp, the other selling the merchandise. A steal at $35, they said.
They barely caught a glance – except through the corner of an eye. There were no buyers.
The radio station broadcast a news brief.
“Twelve point what percent unemployment,” asked Mr. Cooke, shaking his head.
The state rate of unemployment had been released that day: 11.2 percent out of work.
“Business hasn’t been what it was,” Mr. Cooke said. “It hasn’t been quite the same in two years.”
He has thought about retiring but doesn’t know how he would spend his time.
“The only feeling I’ve got is the feeling to live.”
This piece was first published in the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California, on January 13, 1983.