Do The Knight Thing

Short on the sides and leave a little on top today, please, Professor. And give me a little of that Sicilian Defense while you're at it.

Mitch is strutting around, fists clenched above his head, completely in love with himself. "I'm bad," howls the off-duty postal worker. "I live on Baaaaaad Street. I live all the way down at the end of that street past all the other houses, I'm so bad. There aren't no other houses around, and it's dark at my end of the street. I live down in the basement, in the dark, in a closet I'm so bad. That's where the postman delivers my mail." He distributes high-fives around the barbershop.

The target of Mitch's ridicule sinks low under the brim of a Malcolm X baseball cap and fixes his bemused stare on the few chess pieces that still stand before him, struggling to reckon with the incontrovertible truth of a checkmate. "Any way I make it I can't get out of it," mutters Rodney, as he restores the pieces to an earlier position and tries to figure out where he went wrong. He reaches for his can of Ballantine Ale and brings it halfway to his lips before he realizes it's empty. "I can't get out of it."

"What you say?" Mitch catches the opening bass riff of Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" as it slides out of the two dusty speakers that sit on the barbershop floor. "Whadyousay?" He shuffles back toward the table, cupping his hand to his ear and feigning deafness.

"Any move I make," Rodney mumbles, no louder than before, "I can't get out of it."

"These guys," says Mitch, pointing at two men leaning intently over another board, "when they beat me I'm all ears, 'cause they bad! But this guy...." He jabs a finger toward Rodney. "You can kick him, hit him upside the head, knock him down, and he still won't admit it." He exaggerates a sigh and helps Rodney reset the pieces for the fourth of their late-afternoon confrontations.

"Professor" Ted Lampkin, the shop's 40-year-old proprietor, stands at his familiar post behind his barber's chair, smiling his benign smile on the cycle of celebration and defeat and tending to a troublesome boy who squirms uncooperatively mid-cut. Currently the headquarters of the predominantly black Miami Knights Chess Club, Professor Lampkin's Barber Shop in Opa-locka plays host to some of the most aggressive, colorful, and masterful chess in South Florida. Rarely does an hour pass when at least one of Lampkin's several chess sets isn't locked in furious battle, whether commanded by experts or fumbled by eager schoolkids.

For as long as Lampkin can remember, there's always been a chess set ready to go in his shop, back when the business was housed in North Miami, and even before that, when it was located several blocks away from its present site in this impoverished, predominantly black city that is perhaps best known to outsiders for its junkyards and extraordinarily high crime rate. The chess custom, Lampkin will point out, evolved from another time-honored tradition in many black barbershops, where checkerboards were nearly always a part of the furniture.

But the establishment is something greater than an arena for cerebral and street-savvy gamesmanship. As caretaker of a disappearing tradition A the neighborhood barbershop A Professor Lampkin and his shop serve as a nexus of local gossip and opinion, and a sanctuary for men seeking refuge among their own. "The barbershop is a meeting place, a place where men can come to exchange ideas or work off their frustrations under a nice lather and shave," Lampkin says. "Over the years we black people didn't have many places to hang out. Barbershops have always been hangouts. Someone's got to keep the tradition alive."

Afternoons bring the best players to the shop as the men get off work, and the games invariably continue well after Lampkin lowers the blinds at 6:00 p.m., pulls the front door shut, and cranks up the air conditioner. Competition is tough, trash-talking irrepressible. "I got Red talking over here, saying he's going to win this game," scoffs a middle-age auto-body mechanic and Miami Knights Chess Club member whose friends call him Zay. The men are battling in the endgame, and Zay, who is considered one of the club's superior players and who holds a United States Chess Federation rating of about 2000 (an "expert" in USCF parlance; players earn ratings by playing in USCF-sanctioned tournaments) is down two pawns.

"I'm going to win the game." Red flashes a mouth full of gold.
"He saying like he gonna win this game. Ha! You hear that 'Fess? He saying like he gonna win."

The men face each other at a ten-foot-long folding buffet ringed by collapsible metal chairs. Just big enough to lay out four boards in a row, the table is the focal point of the narrow shop, which is modestly furnished and slightly disorganized in the way of a bachelor's apartment. Several customers, all of them men, rest in various states of consciousness in the waiting area near the front of the shop. Scattered here and there are objects that serve no apparent purpose but have become so much a part of the surroundings that they probably won't ever be removed: an empty candy dispenser falsely promising M&M's, jellybeans, and after-dinner chocolate mints; a defunct cash register; and an empty rack for the distribution of the used-goods classified magazine Show & Sell, the sort found at the entrances to supermarkets. A black-and-white television, broken for weeks, still sits in an alcove in the wall.

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