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.

Indeed, the past three years have seen the arrival of a Subway sandwich shop and a new Rite Aid with Islamic-design flourishes. And a sign positioned near the railroad tracks (so drivers heading into town can see it) announces the expenditure of $646,185 in public funds for improvement of the streets and the planting of palm trees on the newly widened sidewalks. But the motley collection of businesses, the absence of customers, mocks the sparkle of the public-works project like a BMW with an engine and parts from an early-model Yugo.

At 366 Opa-locka Boulevard, Lampkin supplanted another barbershop that for years had been owned by two elderly white men who catered primarily to elderly white men. Wedged in between the pizza parlor and the clutter of Phillips Electronics Services, Lampkin's storefront boasts the words BARBER SHOP painted in red block letters over the bay window, and the customary electronic barber pole, a holdover from the previous tenants. The move to his present location was an economic necessity, Lampkin explains; his third marriage had begun to crumble and he needed a shop with a lower overhead and, presumably, room to sleep: "My wife got everything from the last divorce, and I mean everything."

On a well-deserved break in the back room, which doubles as business office and living quarters, Lampkin is reorganizing a collection of cassettes that so many hands have pawed over the past couple of days. It's vintage material from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Al Green, the Temptations, Bill Withers, Aretha Franklin, the Impressions, Sam Cooke, the Ink Spots, Wilson Pickett. "This," he remarks, making a sweeping gesture around the room, "is the only thing I could keep my hands on."

The wave encompasses a thin mattress tucked away in an alcove; a half-bathroom; an improvised kitchen outfitted with a toaster oven, a refrigerator, and a hot plate; a cluttered desk; and several sets of shelves sagging under the weight of scores of books: outdated but complete sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Collier's Encyclopedia, World Book Encyclopedia, the International Library of Afro-American Literature and History, and The New Illustrated Science and Invention Encyclopedia; The Preacher's Homiletic Commentary; Smith's Dictionary of the Bible; books with titles like 1100 Words You Need to Know; self-esteem books; elementary Spanish-language tutorials; and, of course, chess primers. "If there was ever an ordeal in my life he says," again motioning vaguely around the room, "this is it."

Much of Lampkin's life, though, has been marked by struggle and ordeal. Born into an impoverished family of eight kids, he grew up in a two-bedroom house in West Perrine and can recall long periods when the family went without food. "We were on welfare, we were super poor. There were many months without electricity, months without water. We would go to bed hungry at night." In junior high school, he ran with a group of fatherless boys who came to school without money or food. They called themselves The Hungries, Lampkin says, and they took handouts from other kids. "We didn't let the shame of our poverty get the better of us. We just found a way to deal with it."

At the age of twelve, with his parents separated and his father gone, Lampkin turned in some Top Value redemption stamps for a set of clippers and transformed a little shack behind the house into a barbershop. "My oldest brother went into the army and I took over as the man of the house," he says. The money he earned cutting hair went toward buying clothes and other necessities. "I was also in the marching band, playing clarinet, and I needed reeds. Those were tough times."

His formal education ended at high school, but, Lampkin adds firmly if somewhat defensively, "My education has been in a trade, working with my hands mostly. And I've learned a lot. I'll tell you, I know what it takes to be a man."

In the past couple of years, as Lampkin has struggled out of the wreckage of his marriage, chess has provided a needed distraction and emotional salvation. He learned the game from his brother-in-law when he was about 21, and it has become as much therapy as entertainment. "I've learned to deal with all my anger," he explains in his low, calm way. "If I'm angry I look through all the options and think rationally, like a chess scenario. I always see chess in life situations."

Muffled cries of victor and vanquished rumble back from the chess table. Mitch strolls confidently into the room, pelted by the Preacher Man's impotent promises of revenge.

"No sooner than I can get back on my feet," Lampkin continues, despite the interruption, "I'm going to remodel my shop to reflect the traditional values of the barbershop. I like that nostalgia: the straight razor and strop, the jukebox, the old Coca-Cola machine, black-and-white checkered floor, traditional barbering chairs, the shoeshine stand. I like the era we grew up in."

He drops a recording of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" into the tape player. Mitch disappears into the front room, waltzing with an imaginary partner through the now-empty shop.

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