And when it comes to chess at Professor Lampkin's, there is no dearth of machismo. Off-the-board posturing has always been an integral part of chess, particularly at the highest levels of competition. At the barbershop, some of the fiercest psychological clashes occur in the gulf that divides those who read chess books and those who don't. "A lot of black guys have this thing about book chess as sissy chess," asserts Lampkin, a book chess player himself. "They wouldn't care if they're sitting across from the world champion; they'll play you with disdain. They're out to prove that they've survived the streets and that what they have learned from the streets has made them successful, whether it was hustling pool or running numbers or whatever. No formal education has made him the man that he is, so why now would looking into a book enhance his development?"
In the end, though, attitude and skills aside, the toughest opponent the players face is time, the essential luxury needed to play such a game of leisure. "Women can't believe this is how we're spending our time," Lampkin says. "Maybe we try to justify it by saying, 'At least we're not in the streets.'"
"But that doesn't hold water, pal," Bernard Isler interjects. "You get these women mad at you and they don't want to hear it. They want to know why you're here!"
"One time this guy's wife came in and sat here for a half an hour, saying, 'Felix, we gotta go, we got to go,'" Lampkin recalls, stepping back from the chair and waving his clippers for emphasis. Isler smiles, his face registering the recognition that he is about to hear an old, familiar story. "And there's Felix, deep into a game, saying, 'All right, just a minute.' And she's going, 'Felix, we got to go.' So finally she just walked over to the table and wiped the chess pieces right off the board."
"Yeah," nods Isler. "I've been in so much trouble over this game called chess."
At 9:15 on a sunny Thursday morning, fifteen minutes past the posted opening time of Professor Lampkin's Barber Shop, the blinds are still drawn, the front door locked. A balding customer stands patiently outside with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his shorts, staring vacantly into space. The street is still.
But inside the darkened shop, Professor Lampkin, decked out in a pink polo shirt and his trademark captain's hat, is already at work. An angry-looking man with a deeply furrowed brow and bloodshot eyes sits stiffly in Lampkin's chair. A pair of dirty, untied high-tops stick out from under the red-, green-, and black-striped vinyl cape in which Lampkin swaths all his clients.
"You need to put her in an environment that will affect her values positively," remarks Lampkin, speaking slowly A as he always does A and choosing his words with reassuring care. "Sometimes people teach in ways they don't realize. They teach by example."
The angry man listens intently, his broad shoulders tensed, his lips tightly pursed, his eyes narrowed to crevices of rage.
"For instance, if a mother is bringing men in and out of her house A now, I'm not saying that's what she's doing A and the girl is always told to go to her room and shut the door, that little girl might be picking up on the pattern. And when that girl gets older and figures out they weren't watching TV, then she's going to think she can have numerous men at regular intervals. Now, you want your rights to your daughter, right?"
"Right," the man replies, unscrunching his face just enough to speak and nodding his head slightly. "But I done some research, and there ain't nothing out there for the man, no help or nothing. They set it up like that, like, because they think the man is a man and he doesn't need any of that. They only got it for the woman."
"A lot of organizations exist out there for women because they have been abused," Lampkin remarks.
"So have men been abused!" growls the client, motionless and clenched. "But a man's got his pride and he ain't gonna let his pride slip out of his hand!"
"Men are often abused but you can't always see the scars," Lampkin concurs gently, gesturing with comb and clippers. Intent on speaking clearly, he sometimes seems unable to cut and converse simultaneously. "Oftentimes they get lost in the bottle or drugs and they fall to the wayside. That's what happens to men. Women can get help from welfare or counseling."
"But who pay for it? The same man that gets lost in the blues and the bottle or whatever. And he feels just as bad as the woman."
"There need to be outlets where a man can get help."
A sudden, loud barking interrupts the discussion. Lampkin looks through the front window. "That old dog trying to fight again?" he asks. He notices his customer standing outside the shop. Sheepishly glancing at his watch, the barber unlocks the door and welcomes the waiting customer inside with gracious apologies. A breeze sails through to the back door, which Lampkin has left ajar, and a torn Bruce Lee poster flaps against the wall. Brillo pads of cut hair scuttle across the floor. Aside from a smudgy mirror that runs the length of the room and three posters that depict male models with different hairstyles and dopey expressions, the shop's walls are largely bare. The only personal memento Lampkin has chosen to display is the front page of a computer-generated mock newspaper, the kind of gimmick sold at malls, whose headline blares: "PROFESSOR LAMPKIN BEATS KASPAROV IN GRUELING MATCH 10-1."