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Tony's clippers glide over Abel's head, buzzing his hair down to a close crop as the youngster scrunches his shoulders and tries to bend his neck and bury his head. Tony has kids of his own, so he's used to the battle. When he's done with the cut, the barber raises his right fist in exaggerated achievement. Abel giggles and mimics him.
"So what kind of design you want?" Tony asks.
"Transformers!" Abel says.
His mom laughs. They settle for what the 4-year-old originally pointed to: a cursive name. Tony has barely started the A in Abel, using the edge of the clippers, when Abel gets antsy. He moves his head to dodge the blades.
"You gotta be a big boy," Tony says. "C'mon, man. C'mon, brother."
Abel's mom steps over, offering to hold her son in her lap and cradle his head to keep him from struggling.
"It's no-holds-barred now," Tony jokes as Abel's mom slides into the chair.
He puts down the clippers and pulls out a straight razor for the more precise edging. He looks Abel in the eye and says, "Do. Not. Move."
The 4-year-old continues to struggle. Doritos don't help. Tony tries to get Abel to count with him. No interest. The haircut becomes a delicate, slow-motion wrestling match.
"Oh, that looks so cool!" Abel's mother croons when the job is done.
"I want to see," Abel says, straightening up.
He cranes his neck, looking over his shoulder to see his name etched perfectly into the left side of his head. His lips curl in a smile.
There's no computer on Alexander Harris' desk, just a Black & Mild smoldering in a glass ashtray. A rectangular air filter, perched on top of a plastic file tray, labors unsuccessfully to clear the stale smell. The whole office smells like a workplace from a different era.
It isn't apparent from the entrance — a dingy brown door stamped with the initials NACCC — what kind of work is done here. Harris' explanation starts with his own childhood.
When he was growing up in the 1930s, Harris says, African-Americans weren't allowed to live south of 19th Street. He slipped past that dividing line to find work. "I started in construction when I was 9 years old," he says. "After school, I hung paper in all those fabulous homes in Hyde Park."
His dad had a contracting business, but black-owned companies didn't get much business back then. Whites didn't want them working on their projects, and labor organizations were hostile. Once, he says, a union man kicked his ladder out from underneath him as he was painting, sending him 40 feet to the ground.
Harris says he was a hell-raiser during the civil rights movement. When Metropolitan Community College was built in the 1960s, the young man protested the exclusion of black laborers. "Yours truly was arrested, beaten up, locked up," he says.
Such agitation had an impact, Harris says. In 1968, Congress passed legislation — commonly called Section 3 — mandating that any project using money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development give some preference to small, disadvantaged contractors. The next year, Harris created the Mo-Kan Contractors Association, a group that, he boasts, made millions for the minority community.
But he didn't stick around full time. A genius on the trumpet, he toured with bands that needed some brass. He traveled on the professional bowling circuit, too. "The celebrity lifestyle — it's a glorious thing," he says. "But it's a hard thing."