Herman James worked out of a barbershop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side until the city temporarily closed all nonessential businesses in March. Looking for a way to stay busy and help New Yorkers take “a step closer to normalcy,” as he put it, Mr. James started cutting hair in Central Park in mid-May.
“I put my chair and tools out there to see how people would respond,” Mr. James said. “I waited 10 minutes and then one person jumped in the chair.” Since then, he has provided about 300 free haircuts (donations accepted).
Although his previous employer, Man Made Barbershop, reopened in June, Mr. James aims to continue his one-man, outdoor business, HAIRitage, through September, after which he plans to switch to house visits.
“It’s less of a risk than going inside a barbershop,” said Mr. James, 32. “And my clients really enjoy the experience of being able to get their hair cut outside, especially in the beautiful atmosphere of Central Park.”
Mr. James can be found just north of Strawberry Fields, under a leaf-laced pergola by the lake (the closest entrance is at West 72nd Street) from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Monday, when he arrives in the afternoon after making supply runs. Walk-ups are welcome, but appointments through the app Schedulicity are encouraged. He lives alone in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
SUITCASE AND THE SUBWAY I’m up at 7 a.m. pretty much every day. I’m about an hour away from the park. I just take the 3 train straight there from the Rockaway station to 72nd Street. I try to make it by 9 a.m. I travel with a suitcase and I have the chair attached. I open the suitcase, pocket the clippers I need. I rub down the equipment with 99 percent isopropyl alcohol, they jump in the chair, and I just start working.
THE CUSTOMERS I’m catering to people affected financially by the pandemic, giving complimentary haircuts. It’s a wide variety of people: young, old, middle-age, men, women and children. People tip or donate what they can afford. But they don’t have to give. There was a guy from “Shark Tank” — Brandon Fay — and another gentleman — the owner of Rao’s Homemade tomato sauce — I cut his hair, as well. And then, Eddie from Brownsville came by. He’s the owner of Moca Barber Shop — one of the guys we look up to in the neighborhood who always shows self-reliance and leadership.
BIG CHOPS As a barber, I specialize in short haircuts. I have about four cordless clippers I use every day: the trimmer that takes off the bulk of the hair and a T-liner for outlines — and then two backups in case those die. Right now, because some people haven’t gotten their hair cut in 90 days, I’m generally doing big chops. The number one cut is fades, which are usually short on the bottom and a little longer on the top. At the end of the cut, I wipe them down with alcohol.
EARLY INFLUENCE I was raised in a single-parent home. My father left when I was 5 years old, and one of my only memories of him is when he’d cut my hair. You could see he took very good care of his clippers — folded together very nicely. To be honest with you, he gave me a terrible haircut, but the experience stuck with me and maybe subconsciously the interest blossomed out of that. I believe in self-reliance: It’s the key to freedom. I had started my business as a traveling barber two years ago in Nassau County, Long Island, so I was already equipped to provide cuts in a mobile way.
WORK BREAK It’s back-to-back appointments. I don’t take any breaks at all, except at 4 p.m. to replenish. I go to Lilly’s Cocktail & Wine Bar — I’m a regular over there — and I grab a bite to eat, vegetable kebabs or they have a really nice hummus. I have that, some water to hydrate and I’m back on the clock.
THE RULES For the most part the officers — from the N.Y.P.D. to the Parks Enforcement Patrol — have been very supportive. Two N.Y.P.D. officers grabbed a couple of business cards and actually commented on wanting to get their hair cut, but, of course, they couldn’t because they were on duty. There was only one park officer, who, I guess, was told to inform me to pack up, and he did it very reluctantly. He was open to communication. He also admitted to me that complimentary haircuts were unique and there are no specific rules against it and there are also no permits created for it, so it’s a gray area.
CLEAN UP As soon as I finish with the last client, I have a broom and dustpan, I sweep up all the hair and put it in a garbage bag and I pack up all the tools and equipment. The supervisor of cleaning services to the parks department actually approached me and said, “Bro, I understand you cut hair in the park and have been here some time, can you let me know what time you finish and we’ll clean up?” — which was awesome, the gesture alone — and I said it wasn’t necessary because I clean up after myself.
VIBE ABOUT Then I usually go to Lilly’s. We vibe about and then after about an hour and half, I take the train home. I like to take the subway going and the L.I.R.R. on my coming back. I usually get home at about 9, 10ish.
SO MUCH TO DO After work I usually work on a book that I’m writing and finishing up, called “Nine Principles of Triumph.” It’s a self-improvement book that I started writing when I was 27. I charge my equipment so when I wake up the next morning I can just get dressed and be out the door. Then I jump in the shower and I go to bed. I’m probably in bed by 1 a.m. at the earliest because there’s just so much to do and prepare for.
Sunday Routine readers can follow Herman James on Instagram @hairitage121957.