Published: October 26, 2011
There's not an empty chair inside the barbershop this afternoon. Whole families are here at the lively InZone Barber and Beauty Salon on Gratiot, just north of Eastern Market — men in the chairs, women under the hair dryers or at the nail tables, and children on the plush couches in the middle of the room, looking around and watching, listening. You can barely hear the classic funk and soul playing through the speakers because the noise from the conversations is so loud.
A Saturday at a big barbershop in Detroit like this one is more than just a quick stop for a haircut. It's a social event, a gathering of friends. Then a stranger, Robert Watson, steps in.
The 32-year-old man carries a little cardboard box. He's making the rounds of black barbershops in the city to peddle, one by one, hairbrushes that he invented. It's the coldest of cold calls.
He approaches the chair closest to the front door. "Hey, brother," he says to a freshly shorn man. "We got the hottest thing on the streets. We're from Detroit, a local black manufacturer." This is his slogan all afternoon. Being a black business owner from the city still carries a lot of weight in Detroit.
What makes his brushes different is their curve, which lets more bristles touch the scalp at the same time. "They work better than the regular brush on brothers' hair," Watson explains. "A lot of black guys can't get the wave, get the ripples, because it takes so long to brush. But with this, in like a week or two, you're there."
At each station, the customer and barber take the brush, look it over, listen to the offer of a $15 brush for only $10 today, accept Watson's flier and promise to later check out his products online. During this short visit to the shop, two guys reach in their pockets and buy a brush.
"See, that's how it works," Watson says after walking out of the building. "You don't get everybody, but you get a few."
And so a long afternoon of street sales has begun. It's a job with full-circle significance. Watson did street sales years ago too. But back then he was selling drugs, fighting for sales turf, trying to burn down a rival's house.
"I ran the gamut of crime," Watson says. "I was for real. I wasn't out there playing."
Watson was a good kid with good grades who got into the University of Michigan to study finance, but he dropped out of school because he saw, like many kids growing up in the city, that you can earn more selling drugs now than chasing a career through college while waiting for a payoff later. It didn't take long for him to learn the ins and outs of Detroit's drug world:
Like how almost all hired arsonists, the "pyro artists" as they're known, are women. "Maybe 'cause they're less prone to getting caught."
How the guys at the top of the supply chain, the ones selling the keys of coke, are usually clean-cut nerds. "Because you have to be smart to do it."
And how amazing crack is when you first smoke it. "The first time I smoked crack, I tried to sell my TV. It's so addictive, but you feel like Superman, like bliss, like you can't stop smiling. So you chase that."
He had guns pointed at his face, served stints in the county jail, and searched for the right pyro artist to put someone else out of business. "I just knew how to make money, but it was like you're gonna have to take somebody out if you want to get ahead," he says. "I was like, what am I doing this for? Like, what's the end objective?"
After his partner wound up arrested and the coke supply dropped off and the weight of his escalating involvement got too intense, he broke down and checked into a drug treatment center, hoping to start over. He wasn't even 22 yet.
He credits his faith for his second chance. "I cried out to the Lord, 'cause I was like, I don't believe in no white Jesus, but man, the devil had me in his clutches and I was going down fast," he remembers. "I was like, 'I need you to come and get me."
Sweet Billy's Barbershop on Gratiot is an uninviting place. Its sign is down-home and hand-written. The building is old and small. And when Watson tries to pull the front door open, it's locked.
A barber walks up and peers out at Watson and his cardboard box. "We're OK," the barber says gruffly without opening the door. "Do you know what we got?" Robert replies, eagerly. "You got them brushes. I seen them before," the man snaps back. And he walks away. No sale. No entry even.
A dejected Watson walks down the block to Edward's Barbershop. Just as small. Just as locked. Like Sweet Billy's, this isn't a luxury spa like InZone, it's just a place for a quick haircut. In fact, the farther away from downtown Watson travels up Gratiot, the more barebones the barbershops get. At this one, weathered newspaper clippings are taped to the walls, and old sports photos from long-retired athletes fill the gaps between them. The place is old and musty. The barber opens the door and lets Watson in.
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