By Tim Trenkle
Makiah Cooper opened the barbershop in the Washington Street neighborhood by the traffic light, across the street from the scrap yard in Dubuque. The shop had been closed for years but the barber’s pole still hung on the north wall and the one-room space invited the maestro’s touch, the sculptor’s stroke of clippers and scissors, razor cuts and finishing talc.
“I don’t know, man,” he said in 2006. “I was looking to open a shop and I found it.”
The railroad crossing sat 50 yards from the front door. The ground rumbled when the trains slowed at the crossing.
An important history of Dubuque could be written during the time he clipped hair, thinned eyebrows and offered a place to discuss life.
During the Great Recession, he always seemed to be open.
“I’m always workin’, man, seven days a week,” he said in 2008. “Gotta be here when my customer needs me.”
Makiah’s coal-black face was an unlikely success story when he opened. The city grappled with race but he said he wanted to try, said he thought it was time. He drove from Cedar Rapids. He was the first black barber in Dubuque.
“Well, come on in!” he’d say.
“What can I do?” he’d ask a hurried traveler, three more waiting in chairs, thumbing magazines.
Cooper cut impoverished children for free. He empowered the community; he encouraged each good deed he heard and did many.
Soon after he opened, young tradesmen stopped for cuts and beard trims at 6 a.m. Then the mixed martial arts fighters called and he cut fresh, swirling emblems across their pates. After several years, Makiah followed them to the Gym, a nearby weightlifting facility where his tar-dark smile converged in Dubuque’s white cloud but fit into that space of exercise and industry like a key on a piano.
“Gotta stay in shape,” he’d say, “Gotta keep movin’’.”
Before weddings and graduations, before funerals and job interviews, every year before the start of school, he’d shake the cape across their laps, then tie the neck and study each hair. He was like a matador, a ballet dancer, a linebacker, moving and turning, clenching and eyeing each whisker, each tiny follicle.
When the Great Recession drove its iron-eyed despair into his shop there were discussions about race — community headlines: a stabbing death blocks from City Hall in 2007, an African American father and son staging a tavern robbery in 2009, a young black shot in the back in 2010, U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development confronting Dubuque about racism in 2013.
Ray was an Army vet who regularly offered anecdotes. When he moved here, he said, he was shown real estate in segregated spaces. He said he fought for the country and wouldn’t be told where he could live. He added that the barber made a difference, the shop where trouble could be discussed, honesty spoken openly, fearlessly.
Shirley tired of hypocrisy. She wrung her hands about neighborhood violence. She feared for the children. She said the barber was a place for people to gather, to share, to empower.
Cooper kept order.
“I have rules here. Man don’t want to follow the rules, he’s gone. I won’t have that. No sir.”
Rules included no cussing. Any hint of alcohol or illicit smoke was unforgivable. “This is a family place.” he said. He did not tolerate disrespect.
One Saturday morning, a rock was tossed through his window. Makiah shrugged, picked up the dirty stone from his linoleum floor and said he’d replace the window. Later that day, he planted trees at the arboretum, a volunteer in Dubuque’s Community Days of Caring.
He closed in September. The mailman said he didn’t leave a forwarding address. The Dubuque shop Body & Soul said he’s working full time in Dyersville but still cuts hair for them, 10:30 to 2:30, Sundays.
If someone sees him, the guys at the Gym said hello.
Tim Trenkle of Dubuque teaches psychology and writing at Northeast Iowa Community College and is a freelance writer. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org