May 14, 2019

‘Best Barber in the World’

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This story was produced as part of Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. Stories of Atlantic City is funded with a grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey. To read other stories produced as part of the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.

Kevin Allen, 21

Abdullah Anderson Sr., who is 48, cuts hair five days a week at Omar and Abdullah’s Hair Bazaar at 1208 Atlantic Avenue. He opens his shop at six a.m. two days a week (the other three days he opens at eight), and he works until six or eight p.m. every day.

Persons unfamiliar with the Hair Bazaar (yours truly, for instance) might not expect the neighborhood barber shop to be a bustling spot at 7:30 in the morning, but Abdullah’s clientele, which includes city workers, casino workers, workers who are shuttling from job A to job B, duck in for a haircut or a break when they can, sometimes before sunrise.

One morning last week, one of Abdullah’s regulars, who’s got Abdullah’s number in his phone under “Best Barber in the World” popped into the Hair Bazaar and showed off the green socks he was wearing.

“Ducking people because my Celtics lost,” he said and pulled up a pantleg.

A few minutes later, he announced, “I done had my fill of Ab today,” and left.

Tyresse Arnold, 8

Abdullah has been cutting hair since 1990. He grew up in Atlantic City. His parents were “kind of activists,” he said. His mom is from England. He and his big brother, Omar, worked at two different barber shops before they came together to form the Hair Bazaar, Abdullah said. Prior to that he worked as a kid at Resorts, where he was a bus person, a waiter and then assistant manager of room service. He enjoyed working at the casinos, he said, but that was before he had kids.

Consistent with his job description, he keeps the conversation going in the barber shop as he cuts heads. He is conversant in the Ducktown revitalization plans (apparently going forward), the Kentucky Avenue revitalization (apparently still stalled) the New York Giants draft decisions, where to get good jerk chicken wings and how to get the attention of a bartender at a crowded club in Cancun.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a good deal of the chat at the Hair Bazaar revolves around sports. The clientele is largely—though not exclusively—male. But a few minutes in the seats are also likely to bring you up to speed on Game of Thrones, Avengers and an array of other bingeable pop culture. People sometimes issue spoiler alerts before they sit down.

My first morning lurking around the Hair Bazaar happened to be the Monday after the Battle of Winterfell, so the talk turned to Arya Stark’s evolution as a stealth warrior, her tactics in the library of some old castle (I don’t actually watch) and whether or not the appropriate number of beloved characters were obliterated in the big battle between the humans and the ice zombies.

For what it’s worth the Bazaar crowd seemed disapproving of the onscreen coitus between Arya and that guy from The Fades but it was approving of the midair fight between dragons (“That was magnificent,” someone said.)

From there the conversation shifted to different streaming services for internet TV. People were down on Sling for some reason. “I gotta watch one more episode of Murder She Wrote I’m a beat somebody,” someone said.

The phone rang.

Abdullah answered, “Hair Bazaar.”

“What’s body-shaping?” he asked.

“That’s when you try to hurt someone’s feelings by talking about how they look.”

“Oh, body-shameing,” Abdullah said.

“Alright have a good one, Ab. See you next week, same Bat Time. Same Bat Channel.”

Typically, Abdullah has a rule about profanity and likes to keep the language more or less clean in the Hair Bazaar, but on a recent morning, a new customer walked in and unspooled a lengthy string of colorful, highly evocative language, most of which is unprintable (a “whole family of mother-f*$#ers” was involved at one point).

He had been a difficult case (in his estimation) hair-wise, and his usual barber had been indisposed so he was pleased to see Abdullah pull out scissors rather than clippers and knew he was going to get a good cut.

When the man left, one of the regulars got in the chair and said, “I’ve known you for 20 years never heard nobody talk like that in here.”

“I’m the curse-master,” he said (I’m quoting).

That guy was superman (I’m paraphrasing).

Abdullah said, “You have to pick your battles.”

When there are kids in the shop, he doesn’t allow bad language.

**

Atlantic Avenue is not famous for its up-market retail charms these days. In March, City Council President Marty Small was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling the city’s main business street “Zombie City” and “Night of the Living Dead.” A lot of mental health services and social services that, in a less grotesque society, would be handled responsibly, elsewhere, are instead pushed into places like Atlantic and Pacific Avenues, sometimes into the barber shop, where people sometimes ask Abdullah about odd jobs.

One day last week an older man entered the Hair Bazaar, stated his name, rank and serial number before and announced he needed $3.60 to get the bus back to Toms River (the senior-citizens rate, he said).

“We’re in the barber shop, we hear that all day,” someone said.

He then announced he was a retired New York City firefighter, prompting a flurry of jokes about what a good pension he must get.

“I was a professional fighter,” he said. “I was born in Ethiopia and I’m half Mohawk Indian.”

“That’s why I love my barber shop,” someone said (the guy with the Celtics socks) and gave him the $3.60.

Despite, or maybe because of, the street’s reputation, Hair Bazaar occasionally gets celebrity customers. Abdullah said the poker champion Phil Ivey used to come in for haircuts.

In April 2012, according to court documents, Ivey won $2.4 million playing baccarat at the Borgata by taking note of inconsistencies on the designs on the back of the Gemaco Borgata playing cards the casino used and then adjusting his bets accordingly.

In December 2016, a judge ordered Ivey and his friend, Cheng Yin Sun, to pay back $9.6 million they won playing baccarat and another $504,000 they won playing craps with their baccarat money.

Abdullah said some of his customers have the latest iPhones, but Ivey, who has a private jet, had an old iPhone with a cracked screen.

“Nice guy,” he said. But he hasn’t been around much since the unfavorable ruling.

**

In 2011, Abdullah’s big brother Omar died suddenly in his sleep at age 42. Then in 2016, a fire at the masjid upstairs, forced the Hair Bazaar to a temporary location a few blocks down Atlantic Avenue.

Abdullah said the fire was a disruption (I didn’t ask him about his brother). It wasn’t his shop so it was harder to control things. But in a way it might have been a blessing.

He’s been working with his current partner, Tracy, for more than ten years and J-Love (whom we did not meet) for more than 20.

They might have ended up in different shops and not come back together, but they did.

“It’s difficult when you go to another environment,” he said. “I can adapt to anything because I’ve been through a lot in my life.”

**

On the wall above Abdullah’s head, while he cuts hair, are pictures of NFL players. One is Austin Johnson, Abdullah’s wife’s cousin, who is a defensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans. The other is Abdullah’s son, who is also Abdullah.

Abdullah Jr. played basketball at Absegami up until his senior year, when he took up football. He was recruited to Bucknell on a football scholarship where he played defensive tackle.  In 2017, he was named the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. Last year, he graduated with an econ degree and he signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent.

Last August, he had four tackles, including one sack, a pass defense in a preseason game against the Bills and he’s currently on the practice squad.

**

Abdullah used to cut hair six days a week, but he’s been at it thirty years. He’s an empty-nester, he said, so he takes Saturdays and Sundays off and hangs out with his wife, who is a school teacher in Atlantic City.

For years, he used to organize ski trips with groups of friends. Now he plays golf. A few months ago, he started doing yoga to spend time with his daughter, who is an accountant in Philadelphia. Now he goes once a week.

“When I first started I was huffin’ and puffin, but now I’m good.”

**

On Friday morning a student from Stockton came in to get a haircut ahead of their graduation, that day at Boardwalk Hall.

Big party afterward? Somebody asked. “Nah, I’m fasting,” he said (it’s Ramadan), “so I’m not going to get involved in anything along those lines.

The chat in the shop had to do with Kevin Durant, the forward for the Golden State Warriors, pulled up with an injury in the third quarter. Officially it was calf strain or something, but he was having an MRI and the speculation was maybe he’d done his Achilles tendon.

“The Warriors actually played better with Durant out of the game,” Kevin Allen, who happened to be a forward on the Stockton basketball team, said. “Crazy as that sounds, they were better with him off the court.”

That night the Warriors beat Houston without Durant.

This story was produced as part of Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. The project was produced in partnership with Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, ivoh (Images of Voices and Hope), Stockton University, Authentic City Partners and ThisIsAC co-founder Evan Sanchez, Grace & Glory Yoga and The Leadership Studio co-founder Alexandra Nunzi, Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, SJNtv and Breaking AC. Stories of Atlantic City is funded with a grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To read other stories produced as part of the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.

Stories of Atlantic City launch party
Meet the people featured in the Stories of Atlantic City series during a launch party to celebrate the collaborative project. The party will start with a panel discussion and be followed by community networking.
When: Tuesday, May 21 from 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
Where: The Leadership Studio, 161 S. Tennessee Ave.
RSVP: Via Facebook at bit.ly/RSVPStoriesofAC

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