Knuckles the Barber

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Rumor had it that Knuckles was born in jail. I took that as metaphorical, apocryphal maybe, but then again sometimes I wasn’t sure. He was the head barber for the jail, and he lived in my cellblock. He was about sixty, rotund, and his fade and mustache were always perfect.

The officers didn’t even bother to lock his cell door, I kid you not. Knuckles stayed in there when he wanted to. Maybe because he wanted to. And when he didn’t want to, he’d sit out in the dayroom at his table with his very own chair, and read the paper or snack on microwave popcorn, or play checkers. This went on day and night. Sometimes, someone might grab his chair by accident, and he’d hover over them until they realized it and got up, embarrassed.

I checked with another inmate once, a neighbor who’d been there a long time too, how it was that Knuckles’ door never got locked. “Is his lock broken or something?” I naively asked. “Well, last time a CO tried, he threw his foot locker through the window,” he said. “So they don’t do that no more.”

Once I was on the phone next to Knuckles – they’re fixed to the wall only a foot or so apart – and he knocked over my soda, spilled it all over me and my papers. “Don’t leave your drink where someone can knock it over,” he said when he walked off. It was as close as he’d come to an apology. I just stared, dumbfounded. I suppose I was expecting him to say something a tad more contrite.

When he cut hair, he’d take his time too. There might be 25 of us crowded into the little three-chair shop, waiting. But he was no dummy. He figured if he took 45 minutes to do one cut, his co-workers could bust their asses on the rest of us. He had his few customers he’d fit in, during our time in the shop, and no one was going to hurry him along.

Certainly not Sgt. Rawlings, who was nominally in charge. She sat out in front of the shop flirting or admonishing as the situation demanded. She had straight purple hair – might have been a wig – wide hips, and a drawl when she called you baybey. “Hey baybey,” she’d say, “you’ll get your cut, be patient. Take them nail clippers meanwhile.” She’d come to the block and get Knuckles and her other workers even when the shop wasn’t open, and there was a lot of speculation about that.

Inside the shop, some crummy DVD was always playing, the sound turned up way too loud, a small handful of Tyler Perry movies on offer. The haircuts weren’t even very good, but you were grateful to get cleaned up a bit, feel like a normal citizen for a while. If you wanted a fade or anything extra, or just to avoid being last in line, you’d better bring a couple bucks worth of commissary with you. A pack of tuna or a cheddar cheese bar would usually do the trick.

There was a Spanish kid in the shop whose chair I always tried to sit in, he was careful and serious about his work. Covered with tattoos from head to toe, I’m pretty sure; every visible patch of skin was inked up, anyway, including his face and scalp.

There were some real characters in that jail. One was a swindler named Vic who’d scammed victims for tens of thousands; his cell was filled floor to ceiling with commissary, I’ve never seen anything like it. Another guy from Mexico with a scar from his eyebrow to his chin said he’d snuck into the US eight times. Last time he got deported, he told me, he stayed home four days before he paid a coyote to smuggle him through again.

I never asked the Spanish guys – or anyone for that matter – too many questions. A lot of them were Mexican mafia, drug cartel guys. Salvadoran and Honduran gangs too. The Spanish speakers all stuck together regardless of nationality. They were principled and disciplined, and insular, but they let me use their phones.

I think they liked me because I spoke a little Spanish, and helped them practice their English. They definitely didn’t like my Salvadoran cellmate, who was obviously gay. He drank sixteen big tumblers of coffee every day and was always edgy and aggravated, often pacing the cell in the middle of the night.

Mostly though, the DC Jail was filled with Black guys. One of them told me, “if you’re in here and you’re white, you gotta be guilty.” He had a point. Sometimes I was the only white guy on my cellblock of 160 men. At most there were a handful of us. White guys were always assumed to be drug dealers or child molesters.

I wondered how it was possible that ‘only’ half the inmates in America are black – in there, it was about 90 percent. And it seemed like most of them were just kids. One was a rap artist of some minor local reknown with a bad case of entitlement. Other inmates let him get away with a lot, like always going to the front of the chow or commissary line, mostly because he’d crack us up with his rhymes.

But the rapper never went ahead of Knuckles – even he knew better. “Go ‘head OG,” he’d always tell him. No one – not inmates and not COs – could afford to piss off the head barber. Inmates like him ran that jail, just like everywhere I’ve been locked up. None could function without inmates doing the cooking and laundry and janitorial work.

The COs certainly weren’t going to do that stuff, they could barely get the count done right, most days. So guys like Knuckles were treated with kid gloves, and with far more respect than they’d likely get in the real world. He wasn’t the nicest or kindest guy, but he had his pride, and it made me happy to see there was somewhere that it mattered.

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