"Every man has an opportunity to turn his life around," says Eddie Lopez, owner of Xclusive Cuts.
In Cicero, on 26th street, a paved vacant lot on one side, a chiropractor’s office on the other, sits an unassuming barbershop with the unassuming name: Xclusive Cuts. On Tuesday, nine barbers—all young, all men, all Latino—were giving fades and squares to young boys and teenagers primping for their return to school. The other thing worth mentioning about these barbers is that each of them is looking for a second chance. They’re from the street, some former gang members or drug runners or just hangers-on—young men who had nowhere to turn but here, to Eddie Lopez, the loquacious, no-nonsense, 37-year-old barbershop owner with the mischievous grin.
Eddie, who is broad shouldered and sports a trimmed beard, himself has had his close calls—and has found his way back. At 16, he ran away from his home in Little Village, and within three weeks, got shot in the groin. He continued to bounce around from friends’ attics and garages. Even after his second stint in prison, when he was released, he sold drugs—big time—and put away his cash, planning to move his family to Florida. When his partners heard that, they robbed him of his money and shot him in the right temple, leaving him for dead. Amazingly, he survived. But he was set on retaliation—until he discovered God. He eventually ran into his assailant, and Eddie forgave him. "One of the hardest things I had to do with my life was to let go," he told me. Every new barber at Xclusive Cuts has heard this tale (usually a longer version); it’s a part of the hiring process. Eddie recounts his life’s trajectory and sees if it resonates. If it does, you’re in. If not, well, he’s still likely to give you a shot. "It’s my testimony. I just want them to know they’re in good hands," he says.
This is not a story about the power of faith, though that’s clearly girded Eddie. Nor is this a story of forgiveness, though that’s wrapped up in the walls of this barbershop. Rather, it’s about a small storefront in a small town where a guy can get a haircut for $12, enjoy some good company (on weekends, especially, the place is packed), watch TV on a couch, play video games (Eddie’s old-school, so he has "Mario Brothers" and "Galaga"), get by in either Spanish or English, and know that you’ve become a tool of Eddie’s—and I mean that in the best sense. You’re helping support Eddie’s cause: getting guys to believe in themselves.
Eddie sees a bit of himself in each of these barbers. He knows what it means to burn with vengeance, to feel self-pity, to play with temptation. And so he runs a tight ship. On the day I was there, he chastised one young barber for leaving his lunch on the desk. He doesn’t allow hats or hardcore rap, and while he tries to keep the guys from cursing, especially because moms accompany their young children, it’s tough, even for him. "They don’t need to hear that crap," he told me. He got rid of the DVD player because, he says, the guys were watching "gangster rap videos with half-naked women." I once saw him lecture his barbers for hanging outside the store after hours, fearful that neighbors would think they were up to something other than barbering.
Though he can appear stern at times, there’s a tenderness to him, a certain vulnerability. Eddie’s given people second, third, even fourth, shots at a life away from the street. He’s taken risks on young men whom others had given up on. He’s taken risks on young men even he’s given up on. One barber came to work at the shop while on parole, but he got caught up with drugs. Eddie let him go. Then he asked Eddie to give him one more go. Eddie did. And he’s now one of his best employees, whom Eddie trusts with the key to the store so that he can open it in the mornings. Not everyone makes it, though. One young man was nodding off between haircuts, which, for obvious reasons, concerned Eddie. And then one day he dropped a small bag of powdered heroin on the floor. Eddie got him into rehab, but once the employee got out, he relapsed, and Eddie let him go. "I try to help people," he says, "but they got to be ready to help themselves."
A few years ago, the mother of a 13-year-old boy named Edwin came by and begged Eddie to let her son hang around the shop. The boy was involved in a street gang and messing up at school. Eddie eventually taught Edwin to cut hair, and removed a tattoo on his arm. (Much to his wife’s chagrin, Eddie bought tattoo removal equipment for $2,000 and does the procedures for free.) "[Edwin] did okay," Eddie told me. "But anytime something wasn’t going right in his life, he’d head back to the streets. If you want the streets, you can’t be here." Eddie talked to him, and then Edwin conceded he needed to stop coming by—he didn’t want to jeopardize the business.
Edwin, who’s now 16, returned about six months ago, his tattoo back on his arm, to ask for a third chance. Eddie hesitated, but Edwin’s now been at Xclusive Cuts for half a year, working toward his GED and cutting hair. "He never closed the door on me," Edwin told me, speaking of Eddie. "He never gave up on me."
On this particular day, Edwin’s giving a haircut to a seven-year-old boy headed back to school. "You want it faded?" he asks the boy’s mother. "Or square?" She looks bemused, and replies, "I don’t know nothing about a fade. Make him look decent." And Edwin, who has a shy smile and still has traces of baby fat in his open face, picks up a pair of clippers and goes to work.
Eddie, who is sitting to the side, remarks out loud to no one in particular, "Somehow they end up in my lap. Somehow they end up working for me." And he lets out a gentle laugh.
Photography: Esther Kang