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.

Three barber's chairs A two of them ancient behemoths with iron footrests and padded arms, the third a sleeker, modern, styling chair A lined on one side of the room, even though Lampkin is often the only cutter. (During busy days, his son and nephew help out.) Opposite the chairs, but near enough that a customer could conceivably play a game while getting a haircut, the chess table beckons.

Squeezed in next to Zay is Preacher Man, a hyperactive air-traffic controller and ordained minister who has allowed his queen to roam on Mitch's side of the board in a blatant challenge to the enemy's defense. It's an aggressive move, and perhaps premature. "You got your girl out there on the streets! What she doing there?" Mitch cries. "Girl, you better get back in the house."

"I guess it's after curfew," replies Preacher Man, acknowledging his folly.
"Girl, you know how the boys treat you out there on the street. Get back on home."

"Hollywood" Oscar hunches over a third board, gradually crushing a weaker opponent. In the process he helpfully provides a running commentary of his thoughts and observations regarding the unfolding game. "Gotta play the strong guys," patters Oscar, an above-average but unrated player who, according to Lampkin, suffers from an inflated estimation of his own ability. "These little guys don't mean nothing. Beating a light guy doesn't mean nothing. It won't be much longer. It's almost over. Cookies 'n' cream, cookies 'n' cream. Let's make it nice, let's make it pretty. Cookies 'n' cream. Cookies 'n' cream. Now what's he doing down there? What's he doing down there? I don't see anything down there. Oh, he's making it tougher now. He's makin' it tougher for me now. Now he's taking some time to move. What happened? He's taking some time. Brain contusions and illusions. Brain contusions and illusions. Oh that's better. Now I can see more clearly. Yes, I can see more clearly now."

Professor Lampkin, a compact man with a proud bearing and TV-worthy good looks, takes a couple of steps toward the table to assess the games, his clippers still buzzing in his hand, the power cord taut as the leash of a dog tugging at its master. It's a familiar sight, and one his clients have come to expect. While long-time customers know they'll step out of Lampkin's chair with a good, inexpensive cut (eight dollars for adults, seven dollars for kids; five bucks for a shave), it isn't necessarily going to be fast.

"I am frustrated most times," admits the barber, who although unrated by the USCF is one of the top players in the 23-member Knights club. "I have to constrain myself because I want to get over there so bad." But Lampkin wouldn't have it any other way. "There are times of unexpected excitement," he says, his voice the same resonating low pitch and soothing timbre as the electric clippers he is dragging across a customer's head. "When we get all the guys here, the atmosphere becomes like Jesse James and some of the other outlaws all meeting together in one place."

For years African Square Park, a little patch of cement and dirt on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in a forlorn neighborhood of Liberty City, was the unofficial headquarters of chess in black Miami. "You had something cultural, something that had been in place a long time, unmarred by all around it," remembers barbershop habitue Bernard Isler, a 39-year-old firefighter and paramedic who founded the Miami Knights in 1988. "It was a microcosm of the black community. It didn't matter what you did A we had everyone from homeless to attorneys. Anyone, no matter how strong they were, could be beaten up by an unrated player. You couldn't look at their appearance and make any prejudgments."

But by the late Eighties, dealers and users had turned the park into an open-air drug bazaar. When Miami city officials transformed the space into a children-only sanctuary, Isler moved his fledgling club first to Miramar and then, about three years ago, to Lampkin's shop. "The expenses of renting the office went beyond the budget of the club," Lampkin explains. "So for expediency's sake I offered my shop free of charge." The active membership of the club, one of about five chess clubs in Dade, is all male and mostly black.

While the chess club schedules no formal meetings, many members drop in at the shop at least a couple of times a week to hone their skills against each other and against opponents who visit occasionally from other local chess clubs. Lampkin also gives occasional chess clinics at the shop A a sign on the front window advertises "Chess Lessons" A and has taught the game at several public elementary schools around North Dade.

Several times a year the club's top-rated players compete in matches against other South Florida clubs; they also make an annual trek to the New York Open and to the World Open held in Philadelphia. "We have stiffer competition than any other club," the normally humble Lampkin boasts. "We get into a lot of practical games. It's not a matter of sitting down and playing out chess positions and theory from books. We get into a lot of combat every day. No one sits down at the board and acquiesces, but you don't generally sit down with the expectation of winning, either. The caliber of play is high. I'll say that for anybody who is not a strong master, if he's not playing above 2400, then he's going to have trouble in our club. Not necessarily by all the members, but by the time he gets down to play and the competition gets at him, he'll probably go away and say, 'These guys are underrated.'"

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."

"Women can't get me and pull moves on me like before," Lampkin asserts as he pulls up the blinds, the morning sunlight brightening the shop. "Before you react, you have to research. Most things that happen don't happen all of a sudden. They happen with some kind of warning, like in chess when you're put in check. You got to read the signs and plan ahead."

"I never looked at it like that." The angry man sounds his first note of optimism. Lampkin finishes the cut and whisks loose hair from the customer's neck with a small brush. The man glances briefly at his new flattop in the mirror A save the vanity for some other time A and begins pacing.

"It's about caring for yourself. How much do men do for themselves?" Lampkin observes. "I'm not saying that all men get the shaft. But there's a lot of evidence to support the fact that men's rights are being eroded to the benefit of women."

"Yeah," chimes in another client who has just come in. "What's it cost to keep a woman up? What's it take for her nails, maybe 50 dollars or 100 dollars, and another 50 to keep it up?"

"Not to mention a pedicure," interjects someone else.
The shop falls silent under the reflection of four brooding men.
"Just pursue the avenues that you can to secure the rights to your child," Lampkin concludes. "You need to pursue the legal channels. Keep everything documented. Go to Office Depot, get yourself a pad and write everything down."

"The judge don't know, he don't live in your house," snarls the man.
"You could be right in your heart, but you got to be right on paper, too. Think about the child and think about you. You don't have to do anything bad to the woman."

"It makes you feel like that."
"Your life is too valuable. Let that feeling pass."
An elderly woman clutching a newspaper shepherds in two small boys and takes a seat. Stillness again settles on the shop, interrupted only by the steady drone of Lampkin's clippers. In this pause, the place seems to regain its equilibrium. A waiting customer tips his head back against the wall and closes his eyes, and the angry man, noticeably less agitated than before, thanks the barber and departs.

The two young boys drift over to the dormant chessboards and set about reinventing the game. Bishops turn corners in one swoop. Pawns float several spaces backwards. Queens, it appears, are immortal.

As the conversation resumes A before the morning is gone, it will cover a spectrum of topics: the Rodney King case, racial stereotyping, the dislocation of the black family, weaknesses of the city commission, the relative merits of salted and unsalted grits A Lampkin disappears into the back room and emerges to the opening guitar licks of Lightnin' Hopkins's "Mojo Hand." "Ah, yes, the blues," Lampkin chuckles, half to himself.

For nearly three years Professor Lampkin's Barber Shop has occupied a small, one-story building among a hodgepodge of other small businesses on Opa-locka Boulevard in downtown Opa-locka. That is, the sleepy four-block stretch that begins just north of the railroad tracks and dead-ends at the city hall, a cartoonish, Islamic-style edifice complete with domes and phony minarets. But downtown is a relative term, and Opa-locka's version is much closer to Tombstone, Arizona, than to Broadway. Vehicular traffic is light, pedestrian traffic virtually nonexistent. Tumbleweed cartwheeling down the street under the noonday sun would be an unremarkable sight, if only amaranth grew in Northwest Dade.

With the notable exception of Opa-locka Pizza, which opened when Gerald Ford occupied the White House, and the Igloo Bar down the block, now in its eleventh year, most of the existing businesses are no more than a few years old. Many shops have come and gone so rapidly that their names, stenciled in paint on the storefronts, haven't kept pace. The shop at 400 Opa-locka Boulevard sells used furniture, not Latin-American food or "Brooklyn Candy" as two signs on the wall suggest. B&P Thrift Store expanded into the space vacated by Gemini Records, but the music store's logo still remains. And still other storefronts have closed and stayed that way. Sweet & Soft Ice Cream, across from Lampkin's, scooped its last cone a couple of years back and has remained boarded up ever since. And the last patient paid a visit to Dr. Oper's office down the street about the same time.

"When I came here twenty years ago, it was a nice little town A now I'm not prejudice, but it was white A a pretty little town where everybody knew everybody else," recalls Connie Stout, the owner of Opa-locka Pizza and one of only a few white business owners that have stayed in the neighborhood. The frenetic Stout, whose wispy-thin frame belies her name, has watched the area fall into disrepair as crime and poverty eroded the community's moral and financial foundations. "I think it's drugs and A oh, it's just my opinion A but a big problem is the damn politicians. Everybody, 'stead of working together, is working apart." Stout scoffs at the recent sprucing-up city officials have given her block. "It's too late. That's only my opinion, you know. They waited too long."

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.

"In some ways it would be a lesson in history," the barber muses. "You walk in here and we're not rushing toward the year 2000. We're trying to run the clock back, insofar as old-fashioned values are concerned. I want a place where a man can walk in and know without thinking that he can get a haircut and a shave and a shoeshine. If that's lost, man, then it's kind of lost forever."

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