Cut Above: North Side barber Earl Baldwin offers more than just a haircut | Last Word | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Cut Above: North Side barber Earl Baldwin offers more than just a haircut

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Probably I pull over to the curb in front of the Hallelujah Anyhow barbershop because I'm always looking for some kind of healing. But it's nice to have the excuse of being a writer.

When I walk in, the barber stops shaving the head of a young man who sits a little slumped in the chair that faces East Ohio Street. It's cold out there, where snow softens the frames of parked cars, illuminating the grey morning from the ground up. I introduce myself and tell the barber I've been looking for a story. His wary eyes soften in surprise and he nods.

"Good," he says. "Let me finish with him and we'll talk."

Gospel music plays, but doesn't obliterate the silence that fills the narrow, unheated room. Some of the barber chairs are covered with drop-cloths. Under the white tin ceiling, the choir sings, This is my prayer, Lord, that I praise you every day.

I take a hard-backed chair against the wall. Across from me, perched on one of the barber chairs, a young woman stares into space. She's bundled in a coat, and her eyes are heavy. She might as well be holding a sign that says Don't you dare talk to me. I watch the barber and listen to Jesus, My Protector! just feet from where he works. He's a solidly built man in a warm-up jacket, his own hair cut short. He's using an electric razor that makes a comforting hum as he sculpts an intricate hairline to frame the young man's serious face.

Be my salvation! the choir sings, and a big man with a wide smile enters, greeting both the woman, who meets his eyes, and the barber, to whom he tells a story about being stopped by the cops for no reason.

"Racial profiling, man," he says, and the barber shakes his head and agrees.

The young woman steps down off the chair and heads out into the cold. "OK, sister," says the barber as she's leaving. With a black bristle brush he dusts the young man's face and neck. He looks great. Another man, about 60 years old, enters, and sits down with a Sports Illustrated. But the barber, whose name is Earl Baldwin, takes a seat beside me.

"I served a total of 20 years in prison," he begins, a softness in his voice, his round face, and bright eyes. While he was in prison, he tells me, his brother was murdered. Then his mother and sister died. He could not have survived those deaths without God. Now he's helping others.

"This is not a barber shop," he tells me. "This is a kingdom business. This is atmosphere.

"We all go through things. This place is here for anyone who needs it. I had one lady come in and say she saw the sign, and could I pray. And I prayed with her and she broke down and cried so hard she had black lines all down her face from mascara. Folks come to breathe. We help them find jobs. I got four barbers working here, all of them ex-prisoners." He says the women like it because you don't hear vulgar talk. His wife works with the girls, gets them what they need -- food, drugstore products. And they play nothing but gospel music, all day long.

I'm coming back, I decide, too conscious of the waiting customer to press Baldwin further. But before I leave, he invites me to see a play he's written for kids around the city. It's called If You Must Shoot Someone, Shoot Me, But Leave My Brother Alone.

"It's a play about how to deal with unchecked anger," Baldwin tells me. "The people in the play don't know how to access their inner release valve, which is God." He tells me that Debra Germany, who lost her own son to violence and does prison outreach through Divine Intervention Ministries, plays the mother who finds her dead son. "The play changes kids."

Hallelujah Anyhow takes donations. If you believe in refuge, stop by and give. (Think of those budget cuts.) If you need refuge yourself, it's there. Or, you could get a haircut from a really careful barber.

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