Willie Clark is the oldest barber in Belle Glade. At 95 years old, Clark came to Belle Glade when he was making just one dollar per day.
BELLE GLADE — Willie Clark stood over his customer in the breeze of the open shop door. It was a chilly day in Belle Glade and Clark donned a puffy, blue, fitted jacket over his collared shirt.
Clark wavered over his customer, clippers in hand.
The customer sat silently as Clark carefully, skillfully trimmed above his upper lip, tracing the line marked by his mustache, removing the few stray hairs that disrupted the clean, straight edge. Clark glanced at the customer’s face through his thick-lensed glasses, checking his work before returning the clippers to the quiet man’s face.
Clark did not smile as the two strangers stepped into his shop, one man and one woman; and if he lifted his head to take in the newcomers, it went unnoticed.
The 95-year-old barber answered the few questions the visitors asked of him.
Slowly, however, as the visiting man asked more and more questions, and let the silence that followed linger -- showing Clark that he wouldn’t leave without sufficient conversation -- the old barber began to open up.
Or maybe, the man just asked the right questions.
“I’m engaged now,” said Clark, the word engaged rolling off his tongue surprisingly easy for someone his age. Just like the word boyfriend seems reserved for a younger age group, the word engaged seemed equally reserved.
Engaged for over a decade, he said.
Clark spoke of his beautiful, young fiance. A woman he put through school and who is now working as an educator in Palm Beach County.
“When do you think you’ll get married?” asked the man.
Clark didn’t know, but he seemed unperturbed by the passage of time; even with the obvious signs of it marked in the wrinkles on his face and hands.
Looking around his shop, it seems as if time had stood still and yet passed all the same: vintage signs hung on the wall gathering dust and grime, juxtaposed with President Barack Obama’s face that stood out on a 2008 campaign poster signaling a change for the future.
The man asked about the poster.
“Do you like Obama?” he wondered.
“Yes,” answered Clark with some hesitation. He had more to add.
“I never thought I would see the day when a white man would help a black man,” said Clark, alluding to former president Bill Clinton, who backed President Obama during his campaign in 2008.
Clark turned his focus back onto his customer. His spotted hands shook as he held the clippers in the air, but the steadiness that allowed him to be so successful for so many years returned as he touched the clippers to the man’s face.
Clark trimmed his customer’s beard, his hairline and even the inside of his nose with the precision of a man much younger than he.
“They [the young people] don’t come around anymore. People think an old man can’t do what a young man can. Maybe that’s true,” Clark said.
The decades of working in the same barber shop was evident. Stacks of papers, boxes and random trinkets lay scattered on the floor and on top of tables. Barbershop necessities intermingled with the collection of random oddities, leaving room for Clark to work and nothing else.
Clark once said he came to Belle Glade “looking for better.”
“When I was young,” he said, “the most you could make was a dollar a day; come here, and you made two.”
The prices he presently charges stood tentatively in the background on a makeshift paper sign: Boy’s Haircut $6; Men’s Haircut $9.
The prices spoke of the times changed -- the times that Clark has been witnessing changing for over 90 years.
As Clark stood over his customer, going through the motions of his daily grind, the peaceful shop nestled comfortably on a street in downtown Belle Glade echoed the muffled sounds of the thousands that had walked through its doors and left their mark on the four walls that house Willie Clark’s Barber Shop.
The peace was palpable and reminded the strangers, who grew up in much faster times, that the world as it once was still exists in the unlikeliest of places.
The strangers left, but took with them the peace that the shop, Clark and his silent customer afforded them.
Staff writer Melissa Beltz can be reached at 863-983-9148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.