Pradith is well traveled.
Ventiane, Laos. Prison camp somewhere in North Vietnam. Two days in the Mekong River. Bangkok, Thailand. Relocation camp somewhere in the Philippines. Washington, D.C. For the moment, Chicago, Illinois, where he had his first American haircut last week. I went with him.
He picked the place. On Broadway near Wilson, it's called the Hair Force. The sidewalk outside was being ripped apart by two men with jackhammers, which echoed inside the shop like pistons firing inside an engine. It was a large place, eight chairs, but only one of them was taken. All of the hairstylists were black Americans, and there were dozens of pictures of the latest black hairstyles on the wall. Pradith chose the flattop.
Two of the hairstylists joined us by the picture and looked at Pradith with his long, silky hair. One said, "Now there is no way we can do hair like this that way." "That's right, no way," said the other.
A third hairstylist glanced over from her chair and laughed, "That'd be one funny-looking flattop for sure." The woman in the chair looked over and made no comment, just shook her head. "Hold still please," said her hairdresser.
Then, from the back of the shop, where it was too dark to see, came a voice that was calm but rang with authority. It cut through the jackhammers and the laughter like scalding water through an ice cube, and it said, "It can be done." A very tall, large man, easily approaching the seven-foot and 300-pound marks, appeared like a genie out of smoke in the center of the shop, walking so slowly he seemed to glide, and planted himself behind a chair. He repeated, "It can be done." He motioned for Pradith to sit down, and Pradith did, tentatively. He draped a smock around Pradith's shoulders, and with a pick in one hand, scissors in the other, he gestured at Pradith's head. "Watch." The women were quiet.
I sat down and looked over to Pradith hopefully. The giant barber was pulling and cutting. When the barber picked up a whisk broom and, without comment, brushed the loose hairs from Pradith's face, Pradith didn't bat an eye.
The barber said, "Done." Pradith had an approximation of a flattop, short all over and not one stray hair sticking up to flag the wind.
"Thank you," I said to the barber.
"You get many Asians in here?"
He smiled at me. "No," he said, and in his smile I could see that they didn't get many white people in there, either.
Pradith paid him without expression, $10 from the $200 a month he gets from public aid, and I slipped the barber an extra $2, "for a challenge well met." "Come back anytime," he said.
The ladies waved, the jackhammers roared as we walked out. Pradith, waiting until we reached the corner, put both hands to his head, mussed his hair vigorously, and finally smiled.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.