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A Hug For A Haircut

Joe The Barber, With The Help Of Friends, Fosters Fellowship On A Hartford Street Corner

February 11, 2007

It's 5 p.m. on a wintry Wednesday, with temperatures in the low 20s. Joe the Barber is on the sidewalk outside Hartford's former YMCA building, talking softly to a man with cuts and bruises on his face. He removes his own wool hat and gently fits it over the raw stitches on the man's forehead. He reaches up to tug the hat gently over the man's ears once, twice.

"You need to keep your head warm," Joe urges.

Joe the Barber, whose given name is Anthony Cymerys, sets up his alfresco barbershop and snack bar across from Bushnell Park every Wednesday.

Balding and white-haired, the 5-foot-6 Cymerys passes out sandwiches from the back of his gray Dodge Caravan and ladles soup from a stainless-steel stockpot that sits in a cooler on the sidewalk. Steam from the soup carries the smell of hot chicken broth up and over the cold concrete steps of the vacant building.

No matter what the weather, Cymerys, 75, has set up shop here once a week for the past decade. In warmer weather, as many as 50 people gather here, but in winter, it's more like 15 to 20 regulars.

Beards are trimmed, and hair is clipped. Cymerys can do a buzz, a fade, a zero, "whatever styles the guys ask for."

His fee never varies - a hug for a haircut.

Cymerys, a retired businessman, began volunteering at the Immaculate Conception Shelter on Park Street in 1988. It was there that he started to cut hair for free, and he has since taken his services on the road, visiting convalescent homes, shelters and private residences.

"I make some house calls if they need me," he says. "Everyone likes a good haircut, even the guys who live under the bridge or in a railroad lot or in an abandoned building."

Guillermo Romero, 58, and Jose Rodriguez like to keep up appearances, even when they are in dire straits. Both men are homeless in Hartford.

"It's important to take care of your body and your appearance," says Romero, a button-down collar visible beneath his winter jacket.

Rodriguez, 43, pulls out his new reading glasses. They're narrow and rectangular, sleek and fashionable. He tries them on for Cymerys, who nods with approval.

"Wow, you look so intellectual, just like a college professor," he says.

Some seek haircuts for special occasions, like job interviews or court appearances and funerals.

Harry Jaye helps out at the Hartford soup kitchen. Jaye, 59, was homeless when he met Cymerys five years ago, but now he has an apartment in Hartford.

"Last year, I was in a hurry to get down South. My father had died, and I didn't want to look scruffy. I went down to talk to Joe for a few minutes. Sometimes there are a bunch of guys that get there at the same time, but he made sure that I got my haircut and that I looked nice for this sad occasion. Joe is a good dude."

Cymerys has connections, and he uses them wisely. His friend Diane Cecere works as a recreation assistant at Kimberly Hall Nursing Home in Windsor, where a group of residents gather every other Wednesday afternoon for the "homeless club." The residents, some in wheelchairs, peel carrots and simmer broth, making soup for Cymerys to pick up at 3:30 p.m., along with 50 sandwiches. Cecere, 50, rises each Wednesday at 4:30 a.m. to make the sandwiches from bread and cold cuts that Cymerys gets from Foodshare.

In the cold dusk, the back door of Cymerys' van is open. Inside are the sandwiches, dozens of doughnuts and oranges, and toiletries.

"You wouldn't believe the things that people give me for these guys," says Cymerys. "One time a bus pulled up, and the driver called a couple of the guys over. He handed them a huge container of fruit, all these apples and oranges. And a lady from Avon who works downtown came by and brought them clothes. She made me cry."

Scot Lane arrives, greeting Cymerys and the others. He peers into the bag of food that he has been handed. "Let's see. Looks like a piece of cake - a nice piece of pound cake - two sandwiches, two oranges, some chips and a doughnut. Looks good."

Lane is 6-foot-6, with a deep melodic voice. Homeless since May, the 43-year-old plays the guitar. He practices nightly at the Immaculate Conception Shelter, where he's staying.

"I play some blues, reggae, jazz, some ska," he says. On a Friday night in January, he played at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford.

"I had a friend from Kenya perform an African folk song with me; he sang in Swahili. It was a beautiful song about a man who is very much in love with a woman, but he is so poor that issues of money are disturbing his heart and his mind. The punch line of the song in Swahili is: `I can marry you, but I cannot feed you'."

Silver Fox comes around the corner with his black backpack slung over one shoulder. He's been working today. Fox, with his Native American phrases, his long white braid and clear blue eyes, is almost iconic on the downtown streets. He's 49 and has been homeless for 18 months after serving time in prison.

"I stayed in a shelter for a while, but when spring came, I just started sleeping under the bridge. My friend told me about Joe and how he gives out sandwiches."

A weary Fox sits down on the frigid steps of the Y.

"I just come here to see other people I know and to get a bite to eat. That's it, that's all." He pauses and then decides that there is more.

"I guess there is a connection down here that involves suffering. Just the cold itself - that's suffering. And I get depressed when I see how people are forgotten and kicked to the side. Some people who work downtown look at me with real disgust, just because I carry a backpack. A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck, and they don't realize how close they are to being homeless."

Cymerys knows he is also helping the working poor.

"Well, sure, I see people that are homeless, but there are also a lot of needy people who have places to stay and are just squeaking by. It breaks my heart."

By 5:30, it's dark. Sirens, both close and far, ring through the city. More people arrive, but few leave.

"Hey, Davy, want some soup?" calls Cymerys.

Davy is David Weaver, 46. "I work," he says, "and I have a place to stay. But rent is expensive, and I make too much money to get food stamps. Joe's soup and sandwiches really help out, and the people, well, it's like going to church. It's fellowship, you know - camaraderie."

Cymerys says he's been called "the white guy who can't cut a black guy's hair." Weaver laughs, pulling off his knit hat.

"I can vouch for that," he says, revealing his close-cropped graying hair.

Steven Roy is a regular at the corner. A portly 42-year-old with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, Roy is disabled and uses his electric wheelchair to travel from Chelsea Place, the nursing home on Lorraine Street where he lives. "I just dress real warm," he says. "I won't come if it's raining because I'm afraid my chair would short out. If I don't come down, Joe comes to see me when he's done here."

There is talk about the plans to convert the Y building into luxury condominiums. Cymerys and his regulars wonder if they'll have to relocate.

"If I have to go, I'll find some other place, although it might not be a bad idea to hang around a multimillion-dollar development," Cymerys says with a grin.

At 5:45, things are winding down on the corner, but not for Cymerys. He's likely to be out late, making the rounds in Hartford before he heads to the home in Windsor he shares with his sister and brother-in-law. When asked if he feels vulnerable or fearful on the city streets at night, he's indignant.

"No, of course I'm not afraid! These guys are terrific. They're like my sons, my nephews. One night while I was cutting hair in the smoking room at the shelter, one of the guys made up a whole rap song about me:

`Some of these guys, they look so tragic.

Then Joe the Barber, he works his magic.'

"It was incredible. I loved it. And besides, I have what's called a ghetto pass."

Fox takes a minute to define the term:

"It means you're not from the ghetto but you can relate to it; you are respected." He straps on his backpack and says goodbye. Cymerys watches him leave. "God put him in my life," he says.

Roy is getting ready to head back to Chelsea Place in his motorized wheelchair. Cymeras will meet him there; he'll drive over to cut hair and deliver leftovers. From there, Cymerys will drive to the shelter to trim hair and beards for the rest of the evening.

"Sometimes I get out by 11:30, but other nights I don't get home until 1 or 2 in the morning," he says. "Anyway, this is so much more fun than watching `American Idol.'"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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