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Joe The Barber Is Back

In From Florida, Resumes Haircuts And Food Donations At Park


April 07, 2011

HARTFORD Just before 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Anthony Cymerys parked on Elm Street next to Bushnell Park and popped the trunk of his 1996 Crown Victoria.

A nearby group of men, many a bit on the scruffy side, soon spotted him and began to approach as he took a car battery, a lawn chair and a duffel bag out of his trunk.

Joe the Barber, as he is known on the streets of Hartford and really pretty much everywhere, was back in town.

After a three-month respite in Florida, he was raring to get back to what he has been doing for 23 years. In the universe of humanitarian altruism, Joe's niche is giving free haircuts, sandwiches and soup to those who have fallen on hard times or those who once had but still relish the experience of sitting in his makeshift barber chair.

Joe, 80, was eager to see his clients.

"I hate to think what some of the guys are going to look like," Joe had said the night before, just after returning from Florida. "Some of them won't let anyone else touch their hair."

For their part, the guys were eager to see him.

"Joe, leave like that again and I'm going to come down there and get you," said Mike Rose, a former client and now a volunteer in the cause, as he wrapped Joe in a bear hug.

"Hey, Joe the Barber, who's first on the list?" called out Shawn McCray from a park bench.

"You," Joe shot back.

"Good, 'cause I really need it," McCray said as he got up. "I just got out." He had spent nine months in prison.

Joe had just returned to his home in Windsor the day before. Among his re-entry chores was to organize his clippers, electric shavers, combs and brushes, fix the inverter he uses to get juice from the car battery, see who was making sandwiches and collecting other food and who was showing up to help hand it out.

Joe started his mobile barbershop in 1988, offering his services at shelters and convalescent homes. He did his work for years at the downtown YMCA, then took his act al fresco, at first near the steps of the shuttered Y, then to Bushnell Park near the carousel before the police suggested he move on.

"I guess they didn't want my clientele hanging out there," Joe said.

These days he sets up his chair on the lawn a few feet off the sidewalk on the Elm Street side of the park. Joe asks his clients about the desired style and sets about clipping, trimming and shaving.

Each haircut ends with Joe brushing off his customer, then splashing some rubbing alcohol on his hands and massaging face, ears, neck, throat and shoulders. Not done yet. Joe splashes his hands with after-shave and repeats the process.

By the end of it, many of his clients bear a facial expression that says they don't have a worry in the world.

"Yeah, feels good, Joe," one man says. "This is heaven."

Joe has inspired others to follow his example. During his absence, Ed Galler and Betty Magee, among others, helped provide food on Wednesdays in the park, even if the haircuts had to wait.

"I wanted to help Joe out," said Galler, who got up every Wednesday during the winter at 3:30 a.m. to start making soup.

Magee admitted that she had to pause before agreeing to volunteer. "The first couple of times I came with Joe, so I felt safe," Magee said. "Then after you're here a couple of times, you realize it's fine."

After his haircut, McCray talked about the difficulties of readjusting to life after prison. He hopes he'll have an interview Saturday for a job stocking shelves at a supermarket. At least now he looks respectable, he said.

"Thanks again, Joe."

"Shawn, it was my pleasure."

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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