“Bury me with some clippers, homie,” Pierre Dotson shouts above the din of the NBA play-offs, hip-hop and general ball-busting at A-Unique Barbershop in Anaheim. “Real talk!”
Dotson's barbers are busy treating every head of hair as though it's a work of art, meticulously sculpting styles according to each customer's request. African-Americans and a few Latinos fill all seven chairs; on two sofas, waiting patrons shoot the shit with everyone.
Near the back of the shop, playing dominoes behind a display case selling do-rags, Afro picks and sunglasses is Dante, a regular from La Habra. Dotson, A-Unique's owner, puts the finishing touches on a 'frohawk, pausing to set his cell phone to Afroman's one-hit wonder, “Because I Got High.”
“I'm sure that brotha got a house off that song,” Dante cracks.
“Oh, that nigga got a mansion making this album out his garage and shit!” Dotson says in a high-pitch Chris Tucker voice. The shop erupts in laughter.
Ed Small, a Cypress resident new to the area, waits for a chair to open.
“Barbershops are everywhere, but as far as black barbershops, specifically, I wasn't too sure,” he says of his new surroundings. “I wasn't gonna drive to LA to get a haircut. The service is good and so is the atmosphere. It's close for me. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
Black barbershops are long-standing cultural institutions within the African-American community, a testament to entrepreneurial know-how, and A-Unique isn't any different. Since 1998, it has served that role for OC's black residents, nestled in an otherwise-nondescript L-shaped row of business suites on Anaheim's Westside. A concert flier for a recent Snoop Dogg show at Heat Ultra Lounge is taped to the front window. The bulletin board and personal connections help to hook people up with jobs, real-estate agents and loan services. Menus are clipped together for the new-ish Papa's Fish & Soul Food down the street.
There has never been a full-fledged “chocolate city” (slang for a predominantly African-American city, as immortalized by funk master George Clinton in a Parliament song of the same name) in Orange County, although such communities existed in Santa Ana, Fullerton and Tustin in OC's Marines base years. But Anaheim has made a push to crown itself the capital of black OC in the past 15 years. Black-owned businesses are popping up around town. Anaheim's “Census 2000 Demographic Profile,” published in January 2002, noted at the time that it was home to “the largest black or African-American population group in [Orange] County,” and it still holds the title, according to the 2010 census, boosted by an influx of Kenyans, Somalis and Ethiopians. And two years ago, Anaheim became home to the Orange County Black History and Cultural Fair, which Santa Ana had hosted for decades.
“I definitely see the African-American population growing,” Dotson says. “I see a lot of Ethiopians coming in, too. When Obama became president, everybody swarmed up here. They all just wanted to talk about it.”
After finishing with his client, Dotson takes a break, sitting on a plastic chair in the back alley. “[The original owner] was a hard-working dude, turned a negative into a positive and created this pillar in the community,” he says. “I came in fresh out of school in '07, put a lot of hard work here, made him an offer, and he took it.”
The 32-year-old Inglewood native now oversees six barbers skilled at providing fades, facial grooming, texturizers and specialty cuts. “It's good to be around your community,” Dotson continues. “You'll find some camaraderie among your brethren. The Latino homies, them is the closest to my brothers without having the same mother. We get a lot of Asians. We get the elderly. We get the kids. We are a black barbershop, but we love everybody who loves us.”
The men at A-Unique share different experiences of racism in the city. “I get it all the time,” Dotson says. “Even right in this chair once.” The barber recounts how a white customer was getting his hair cut and started lecturing how if Dotson stayed away from prison and kept working hard, he could one day own a shop like this and start a family. “Afterward, I had to show him the business license,” the family man says.
“I haven't had any problems,” barber Big Al Hunter says; he moved to Anaheim in 2005. “I'm an all-around type of guy. People like me.”
“You lyin'—I hate this motherfucker!” Dante butts in with a laugh. “Nah, I'm just playing. I got barbershops around my house that's closer. I come and choose to fuck with these niggas. I drive over here. It's the energy.”
Closer to the entrance, Spencer “Spence” Rodney is busy buzzing. “The biggest part of a hair cut is a conversation,” the Riverside resident says. “Everybody gotta feel at home. That's why Eddie keep coming back. I say things that change people's lives,” he adds with a chuckle. Spence finishes with Eddie, who leaves with a handshake and a shoulder bump.
David Baker of Anaheim is next to get on the chair. “Taper the back,” he says.
“You want it real low?” Spence asks.
“Yeah, and no sideburns.”
The conversation turns more casual. “I'ma be gone on the 31st,” the barber says.
“That's my orientation. I got that gig,” Baker replies.
“Didn't I tell you a haircut will get you a job?” Spence says to no one in particular.
“Where you going?” Baker asks.
“Hawaii. I wanna wake up and have nothing to do. That's what vacation is. It's what you don't do!”
More people enter the barbershop, and one-on-one conversations fade into a larger discussion on the NBA play-offs, with everyone chiming in. “Who your team, brother, 'cause I hear you over there,” Spence asks a customer in a chair toward the back.
“Uh, Lakers,” he responds.
A collective groan lets out. “You mean the dysfunctional family?” a man on the sofa says and snickers.
“'[Former owner Jerry] Buss is dead; we good now,' you said? His son is gonna fuck it up!”
The back-and-forth exchanges rage on for more than half an hour. “I definitely think it's more than just haircuts,” Dotson explains of the vibe at A-Unique. “We'll lift somebody's day up.”
And they can get you lucky, too, gents. “We definitely do that!” Dotson says. “You gonna get some pussy off my hair cuts, fo' sho'!”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.