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    Steve Kennedy is a big man. When he talks, people listen. “Who’s open?” he says, raising his voice over the low hum of conversation. He has owned the Tri-City Barber College since 1989, and tells me it’s the oldest continuously run barber college in the country. It has been training clippers since 1914.

    The gauntlet of student barbers lined up behind chairs on either side of the shop look up at Kennedy, but no one answers. “I need somebody who can cut hair!” Kennedy says, a grin hiding behind his lips. A few people laugh. There’s a definite coach-jabbing-his-team vibe.

    Blake Mattingly waves at him. It’s a little after noon, and Mattingly has been here since Kennedy’s 8 a.m. lesson on styles, cuts, the science of the craft. He may or may not have grabbed some sleep before he came in — his shift at the Ford plant runs 6 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Maybe some gas station breakfast. He’s grateful for the Sunergos coffee shop just down Preston Street. “That’s my lifeblood right now,” he says.

    Mattingly’s first cut of the day is a middle-aged guy, his peppered hair already short. Call it a tune-up. He knows what he wants. He’s been coming here for three years — never tried anywhere else in town — and he knows what to say: Go over it with a number four on the clippers. “Four all over?” Mattingly asks him. “Easy enough.”

    Mattingly is from Bardstown, but he’s not the type to stay in a small town. He liked to skate, would have liked to play in a band — if he played an instrument, that is. When he hit his “quarter life crisis” last year, he decided to start working toward something. He watched barber tutorials on YouTube and thought: Here’s the perfect middle-ground between blue-collar work and art. The 26-year-old joined the college last July — his “first foray into the college experience.” He’s one of about 20 students working toward 1,500 clock hours of training, prepping for his apprentice exam with the Kentucky Board of Barbering. (Kennedy says there are 20 prospective students on the waitlist.) Admission to the college requires a high school diploma or GED. It’s worth noting that the admissions office phone number is 866-NEW-CAREER.

    If Mattingly sticks on his current path, he’ll graduate in nine months, but he wants to study full-time — it’s a faster track, and the tuition’s cheaper, $6,500 compared to $7,500 part-time.

    “What would that take?” I ask him.

    He sighs. “I guess I would have to work something out with Ford.”

    “Seems like you’re focusing a lot on one side, there,” the guy in the chair says. “Make sure you get the other one.”

    What’s the toughest cut? Well, everybody struggles with bald fades. Detail work. You have to get used to holding the clippers just right, the scissors. “Barbering’s a cycle,” Kennedy says, and sure enough, all the old styles are coming back — fades, sharp hair lines, pompadours. A lot of “elderly gentlemen,” Mattingly says, get high-and-tights. “You’ll talk to people who’ve come in here their whole life,” he says.

    “Where do you want your sideburns?” he asks his customer.

    “Anywhere, as long as they’re even.”

    Most of the barbers — or “knuckleheads,” as Kennedy calls them — at the Derby City Chop Shop graduated from Tri-City, as have some at Market Street Barbers. (Students can bite back: One of them tells me Kennedy is a “vampire for hair.”) Somebody tells Mattingly he’s on the Chop Shop’s shortlist, and he blushes just a little. When he’s done with the cut, Kennedy inspects it. “Turned out better than you thought!” he says. “You were nervous.”

    “Thanks,” the guy tells Mattingly, paying cash for his $7 cut. After he leaves, I ask Mattingly if he got a tip. “Yeah,” he says, smiling. “Four bucks.”

    This originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on pg. 32 under the headline Barber Apprentice. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo by Terrence Humphrey

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is an award-winning poet and essayist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine.

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