From the monthly archives: "May 2014"



All Montgomery photos by Paul Natkin

MONTGOMERY, Al.—The Malden Brothers Barber Shop has been in continuous operation since 1958 as part of the historic Centennial Hill neighborhood of Montgomery. The three-chair shop is around the corner from the Ben Moore Hotel, a shuttered four-story landmark where African American civil rights leaders stayed in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Montgomery was seriously segregated and the hotel was a safe haven.

The Rev. Martin Luther King had a lot of work to do in 1954 when he arrived in Montgomery to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He lived with his young wife Coretta Scott and their daughter Yolanda in the parsonage, which is walking distance from the barber shop at 407 S. Jackson St.

In 1955 Montgomery had a population of 120,000. More than 92 per cent of the city’s registered voters were white, according to a modest book “Touched By History” (A Self-Guided Tour to Civil Rights Sites in Central Alabama” I found at the independent NewSouth bookstore.

A couple weeks ago I got my hair cut by Dr. King’s barber (1954-60), Nelson Malden. His other brothers Spurgeon and Stephens are deceased. The trio opened their first store in 1952 in Montgomery before moving to the present location in 1958. I sat in the same chair that Dr. King sat in, the one closest to the window.

It is the chair that is nearest to the light.

I was in Montgomery gathering oral histories for my next book. I called an audible on visiting the barber shop since it was off my project’s subject. We had an appointment in Birmingham. But patience is lost in buzzfeed media. My photographer Paul Natkin suggested that I get a haircut. I didn’t even know if the barber shop owner would be around. When we arrived early on a Thursday morning the  black burglar gates in front of the barber shop were open.

If I could get just one good story in spending an hour or so at the shop, it would be worth the time. If not, it would be a cheaper hair cut ($13) than in Chicago.

I wound up with an experience of a lifetime.

“Dr. King and I talked about politics, sex, religion and food,” Malden said while clipping away. “One time we were in here alone and he said, ‘You know what barber? I’ve learned more in this barber shop than I heard in my life.’ He said, ‘Barber shop medicine will get you in the cemetery and barber shop law will get you in prison.”

A few weeks later Rev. King returned. Malden recalled, “I said I remember what you said about  barber shop law and barber shop medicine. What about barber shop philosophy? He said, ‘Barber shop philosophy will get you in the crazy house.”

Malden is 80 years old. His young face is chiseled with the promise of a distant force. The barber  shop is filled with family pictures,  a panoramic black and white 1960 shot of Alabama State students marching to the Montgomery courthouse to integrate lunch counters  and books like Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience and other essays.”

Get to know Nelson Malden

Get to know Nelson Malden

Malden started cutting hair in 1952 at Alabama State College (now University)  in Montgomery, where he was studying political science. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks also attended the Alabama State laboratory high school.

“And Reverend King used the Alabama State University library to finish his dissertation,” Malden said. Alabama State was founded in 1866 as a private school for African Americans.

In 1967 Malden ran for Democratic Executive Committeeman in Montgomery.

“Three years after the voting rights bill passed,” added Malden, a U.S. Navy vet. “In Alabama, you had the voting rights bill out of Selma, the civil rights bill out of Birmingham and a supreme court decision (that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws enforcing segregated buses were unconstitutional.) Alabama was the one that changed the whole dynamics of the country. But a white boy beat the devil out of me. He said, ‘My great grandfather was a colonel in the Confederate army!’ That was the end of my campaign.”

The Southern confederacy was formed in Montgomery.

The entire barber shop laughed. All his customers were African American men.

The barber shop always was a liberating space.

“Dr. King was a regular customer for six years,” said Malden, working near a cardboard sign that read “The Only Place You’ll Find Better Barbers is in the Next World.”  “I did not see the greatness coming. If I did I would have made a lot of pictures. [You can visit the Nelson Malden collection  at the Levi Watkins Learning Center Digital Library at Alabama State.] I was a big dog when I was started cutting his hair. I was cutting a lot of big people’s hair. He was just a little dog. It never affected our relationship. I gave him the mirror after his first haircut and asked how he liked it. He told me, ‘Pretty good.’ I said, ‘You tell a barber ‘pretty good’ and that’s kind of an insult. But he came back two weeks later and said, ‘You’re all right’.”

I don't have much to work with.

I don’t have much to work with.

Macon, Ga. native Little Richard lived in the Ben Moore Hotel. He was living in a penthouse suite at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Strip the last time I saw him . “We used to have a shoe shine stand in the corner,” Malden said. “Little Richard spent a lot of time in the barber shop. Little Richard scared away a lot of people. He’d be on the shoeshine stand with a barbershop full of customers and go, ‘Oooh, you’re all so pretty, man!.’ My brother said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t say that in here.’

Little Richard, always nice hair.

Little Richard, always nice hair.

Malden is a native of Pensacola, Fla. where he began cutting hair in 1944. He came to Montgomery in 1952 to attend Alabama State.  He has no idea how many haircuts he has given over the past 60 years.  “About five per cent of our customers are white,” he said. “Tourists like yourself.” Malden  has met with groups of political science and  sociology students from all over the United States. He said Chicago’s De Paul University recently visited the store.

The Ben Moore Hotel

The Ben Moore Hotel

I gave Malden a $7 tip (I’m off a newspaper expense account!) for sharing the stories.

He said the young Rev. King was not that good a tipper. Rev. King was 25 years old in 1954, the first time he came to Malden Brothers.

“I told him, ‘When you go to a restaurant and have a nice meal and the waitress gives you good service you give her a tip. Don’t you think it makes her feel good?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’

He got out of the chair and grabbed my hand and held it real tight. He asked , ‘Do you put 10 per cent of your earnings in church?’ I said, ‘Rev, I’m a student at Alabama State College I cannot afford to put 10 per cent of my earnings in church.’ He said, and maybe he used a touch of profanity, ‘And I’m the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and I cannot afford to tip you either.”

I shook Malden’s hand with a firm grip. This was a moment to hold on to.


Akron Rock n' Roll Bobble Head giveaways.

Akron Rock n’ Roll Bobble Head giveaways.


EASTLAKE, Ohio—With no surrender and lots of Mountain Dew I drove to Columbus, Ohio in mid-April to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. This marked my 30th Springsteen concert dating back to Sept. 6, 1978 at the Uptown Theater in Chicago ($7.50 ticket.) All those ticket stubs are bookmarks in my life.

The Holiday Inn in downtown Columbus was filled with Springsteen fans who were knocking around the region for his “High Hopes” tour. They had been to Virginia Beach, Va., they were heading to Nashville, Tn. for his next show.

I was surprised how many people were traveling before summer vacation. Maybe they were all out of work like me. Some fans were as middle aged as a slab of warped vinyl. Others were in their late 20s and early 30s. They carried coolers and bags of chips into the elevators. They shared stories in the lobby and at the small hotel bar.

The road is a thread.

Whether you are following a musician or a baseball team, travel is a colorful fabric of commitment, open minds and good spirits. Who was it that said “Life is sustained by movement, not by foundation?” I had to look it up.

It was French poet-aviator Antoine de Saint-Expuery.

My plan was to wake up the morning after the concert and catch three baseball games in one day.

I wanted to see the new wacky named Akron RubberDucks (Cleveland) host the Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees) in a noon Eastern League double-header in downtown Akron, just 126 miles from downtown Columbus. The Columbus Clippers were on the road.

The next move was to go to Eastlake, Ohio for a 6 p.m. double-header between the Midwest League’s Lake County Captains (Cleveland) and the Peoria Chiefs (St. Louis). I watched three games in roughly eight hours. I did not stay for the second game in Eastlake. I am not the hard working The Boss of Minor League Baseball.

Maybe it is because I was a kid –ages 3 to 12–when I lived in Columbus–but life still seems more gentle and fresh in Central Ohio than in my native Chicago.

Before the Springsteen concert in downtown Columbus I stopped at the new Grass Skirt Tiki Room, 105 N. Grant Ave., also downtown. The Grass Skirt is a humble but pretty hole in the wall bar and restaurant that pays homage to the since-razed Kahiki in Columbus, one of the greatest Polynesian restaurants in America. Here is my Kahiki Supper Club  link. A friendly customer gave me her plastic Grass Skirt membership card for another couple drinks but I had to get to the show.



The Grass Skirt is adjacent to The Hills Market, a fine locally owned one stop grocery store which also features a coffee lounge, local magazines and a wide assortment of local beer. For my morning drive on a pothole free I-71 to Akron I stocked up on the market’s coffee, vitamin water and a bagel.

Springsteen’s “Stand On It” played out of my car radio as I headed north into the concentrated land of Chief Wahoo. If you are a fan of the Tribe you could play out a marathon baseball day, just as my friends in Baltimore did. The Columbus Clippers, Akron and Lake County are all Indians affiliates and easy drives from Cleveland.

The crowd was sparse as I arrived at Canal Park stadium in Akron.

In this overly politically correct era the noon game was promoted as a “Businessperson” special. The previous night’s game had been canceled due to rain and snow so the “Businessperson” special became the first game of a double-header for the Chief Native-American affiliate. It was a sunny 33 degree day. I hand -counted about 100 fans through the first three innings of the game.

I saw a few familiar faces on the field.

Trenton’s center fielder was Mason Williams, the 22-year-old grandson of former White Sox center fielder Walt “No Neck” Williams. Someone should do a Walt Williams bobble head. I had seen Mason Williams play a few months ago for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League.

Mason batted leadoff for Trenton and went two for three in the first game with a fly swatter bat approach similar to that of Ichirio. Williams has a good pedigree. He is also the son of former New England Patriots wide receiver Derwin Williams.




I got a kick out of the new 23-seat “Tiki Terrace” in the far right field corner of Canal Park–even though the terrace was playing hip-hop music.


But the best motivational tool to return to Akron this summer are awesome rock n’ roll bobble head promotions that honor the rich musical heritage of Akron:

* Devo, May 24, Reading Fighting Phils

* Joe Walsh, June 14 with the Portland Sea Dogs

* Chrissie Hynde (no hot dogs or hamburgers please), June 28 with the Harrisburg Senators

* The Black Keys (and a Black Keys fireworks show), July 5 with the Bowie Baysox.

Where’s Akron’s pure pop singer Rachel Sweet, who in 1978 had a hit record by reworking Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” ?



The Rubber Ducks have many other nutty promotions: There’s a June 13 Springsteen fireworks show combined with a salute to soccer moms, and Moustache Monday “When In Rome” Ron Burgundy Night on July 21.

The temperature had jumped to 40 degrees by the time I landed in Eastlake, just 50 miles north of Akron.

Of course I arrived in timely fashion because I burned rubber ducks.

The Lake County Captains are still playing up the nautical theme that I enjoyed on my last visit in 2011. The west side of Eastlake is actually on Lake Erie.

My old friend Jay the Bartender from the Matchbox used to talk about baseball road trips with women. A game is only a couple of hours (now over three hours in the major leagues). so there’s ample time to explore other things. With more than 30 species of sandpipers and other wading birds along the Lake Erie shoreline, Eastlake’s Lake County is a huge draw for birding enthusiasts. Must-see stops include the 20,000 red-breasted merganser birds at Headlands Beach State Park in the Cleveland section of Lake County. The park’s trademark is its mile-long natural sand beach, the largest in the state.

Headlands Beach State Park

Headlands Beach State Park


Classic Park opened in April 2003, when Lake County was a member of the South Atlantic League of all places. (Lake County joined the Midwest League in 2010). The men’s bathrooms at Classic Park are called the “Poop Deck” and the Castaways Bar down the left field line looked like an inviting port of call, although it was closed on my visit due to the cold weather.

Another  sparse crowd helped define the sea of empty blue seats. At the 6 p.m. start for the first game I counted about 150 people in the stands.

The most exciting player I saw was Peoria’s fleet center fielder C.J. McElroy. The fleet, left-handed hitter is Billy Hamilton without the hype. McElroy, who turned 21 on May 29, is the son of former Cubs reliever Chuck McElroy. He laid down a couple of beautiful bunts in the first game, manufacturing one drag bunt into a catcher’s throwing error and then a stolen base. McElroy is ranked 24th in the top 30 St. Louis Cardinal prospects for 2014. And the former 5’10” prep wide reciever was signed by Ralph Garr, Jr.

Baseball is so bunched up in this stretch of Ohio, fans could even parlay visit to the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame with a Captains game. Downtown Cleveland is just 18 miles northeast of Eastlake.

Many minor league teams have Jimmy Buffett nights but I imagine it plays well in Eastlake: Aug. 22 is “Margaritaville Night” with Buffett themed fireworks and a post-game concert by Happymon. The Ohio-based Buffett-Beach tribute band performs on a stage that looks like a boat and their drummer is named James Taylor. And thrill seekers may want to catch the June 7 “Hungarian Heritage Night” with a Hungarian Disco fireworks theme at Classic Field.

Wonder if that includes the Springsteen smash “Hungarian Heart?”

View from home plate, Akron, April 16, 2014

View from home plate, Akron, April 16, 2014














The Big Doors at Under the Hill, May 1, 2014

The Big Doors at Under the Hill, May 1, 2014

NATCHEZ, Ms.- It is hard to place a number on all the great things about drinking at the Under the Hill Saloon.

There’s the stunning sunset on the Mississippi River. The bar has a dwarf  bartender. As my friend Bill FitzGerald pointed out last night there likely is no other tavern so close to the Mississippi River.

Then there are the characters you encounter.

I meet them every spring on my way to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Last night was no different. (For my 2002 take on Under the Hill circle back to this site’s home page and click on the Mississippi River icon.)

Bill, his wife Kate and I had a few drinks with a posse from New Zealand who were exploring the American South.

They were excited to know that Sir Tom Jones recently performed at the Ryman Auditorium  in Nashville. They couldn’t wait to see  Bruce Springsteen Saturday at Jazz Fest and reassured us he is even “The Boss” in New Zealand.

They asked me why everyone in America talks about “The Cubs.”

I answered how it had a lot to do with hope.

We learned that one of the women is an attorney for News UK. That opened uo a can of worms. We talked about the difference between European newspapers and American newspapers, especially with the European commitment to long form storytelling. She seemed to be having a good time and said, ” I love talking to old newspapermen.”

She then blushed. Bill and Kate laughed.

This was the first time I really felt sort of like Studs Terkel. I had talked about wanting to embrace incongruity. I riffed on the common tactile thread in our DNA about reading printed books and newspapers and the undying love of vinyl.

The touch of real life.

We’ll be revisiting the conversation on storytelling May 9-11 at “Let’s Get Working: Chicago Celebrates Studs Terkel”  at the University of Chicago. This is a mind blowing tribute –can’t wait to see Manual Cinema’s new animation on StoryCorps oral history–and I’m humbled just to be a small part of this event. Please come by. Stories abound in high cotton. We pick them and pass them on with heart and dignity.