Around the clock chop: Mill worker Joe Johnson loves to cut

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 9, 2004

Ask Joe Johnson what he does for a living and he’ll tell you he’s a machine operator for Gulf States. But his real love is cutting heads.

Johnson is a barber. He runs the Look-N-Good II on East Washington.

He puts in 40 hours a week at the paper mill because it puts food on the table and pays the bills. But most weeks he puts in another 20 to 25 hours cutting heads for the sheer love of it. It gives vent to the part of him he keeps buried somewhere deep inside.

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“I love putting a smile on people’s faces,” is how Johnson explains it. “When I don’t do it for a few days, when I’m not cutting hair, I’m miserable.”

Johnson was still in the military when he went to school to get his barbering license 10 years ago, but he’s been cutting hair for a lot longer than that.

“My oldest brother was a barber,” he says. “Whatever he did, I always tried to do better – and the same with him. We just grew up that way. Competitive, but in a good way … no animosity.”

Johnson found he liked cutting hair, found he had a knack for it. Others thought so, too. Whenever they needed a haircut, just about everybody in his old outfit came to him. By the time he finally got around to taking the barbering test, cutting hair had become part of who he was.

Barbering school taught Johnson the basics. The ability to bring that little something extra to the job can’t be taught.

Observes Johnson, “In school they train you to do things a certain way, but if you stay in this business very long you usually end up putting your own little twist on it. You end up doing it their way and your way both. It’s all part of developing your own style.”

The original Look-N-Good is still located in Linden. “It always had a good reputation,” Johnson says, a note of pride creeping into his voice.

Time was, barbershops doubled as a sort of community gathering spot, a place to catch up on the latest news, maybe play a few games of dominoes. No more, Johnson says.

“Today it’s more of a business and less of a gathering place,” he shrugs. “I’ve even heard some barbers tell people not to hang around unless they’re getting their hair cut.”

He shakes his head in disbelief. Customers are welcome to drop in anytime at the Look-N-Good II to talk, to share a good joke or just to pass the time of day. There’s even a pool table in one corner of the room. “I’m not one to only want to see you when you got money,” Johnson explains.

Fridays and Saturdays are still his biggest days, but Johnson points out “you never know when you’re going to cut a lot of heads.”

The names of some of the cuts may have changed over the years, he adds, but the styles remain basically the same. You have your evens, where the hair is cut more or less even all over the head; your lows, where the hair is cut close to the skin; and your fades, where the hair is cropped close and gradually allowed to get fuller at the top.

It’s a fact of life that what’s hip one year is apt to be totally uncool the next in the barbering business. But Johnson doesn’t bother too much about trying to stay on top of the latest style. He’s been around long enough to know that what goes around comes around.

“A lot of people are afraid of change,” Johnson confides. “So they’ll go where they’ve been going for 30 years, even though they may not be getting what they should be getting. But they’re afraid of change.”

Johnson isn’t ordinarily given to philosophical musings, but he does offer one piece of advice to those who might be considering a barbering career: get yourself a good pair of shoes. You do a lot of standing on your feet in this business.

“You get the right shoes, it’s no problem,” he insists. “I can work 16 hours at the paper mill, come here and cut hair another eight hours no problem. I love it that much. The tiresome thing is waiting, waiting for customers.”

One of Johnson’s few disappointments with his barbering career over the years is that he’s never had the chance to cut the hair of anybody who’d qualify as being famous – unless you count a few Demopolis City Council members.

He ponders this fact for a moment, then adds, “But I’m cutting the hair of some ballplayers now that I hope will be famous some day.”