Excellence in America isn’t hard to find.
Five-year-old Lorenzo Morton fiddles with the billiard balls along the edges of the pool table that greets customers at Hallelujah Anyhow Gospel Barber Shop on Pittsburgh’s North Side. His grandmother sternly warns him to stop; he giggles but obediently takes his seat to await a haircut for his first day of kindergarten.
"Shave some off the sides and give him a part," Lorenzo’s grandmother tells the barber who, she says, looks out for the youngster "like a grandfather."
"For the most part excellence happens here every day," says Earl Baldwin, the shop’s proprietor. He’s been at this location for four years.
Before that, he spent a couple of years at a location across the street — and before that, long stretches of time in the penitentiary.
"Twenty-two years, to be exact," he explains. "I was there for various offenses over the years — burglary, robbery, petty theft. … I was trying to fit in with the streets," he says of a life he’s left behind.
Earl Baldwin: barber, preacher, television host; playwright, street minister, community leader whose sister died of AIDS and whose brother was shot dead sitting in his car; father of a young man shot dead after a street fight, while Baldwin and his wife sat in church.
His shop is filled with joyful music — gospel music. It also is filled with young people, mostly young black children and teens sitting (for the most part) dutifully in the 20 or so chairs lining either side of the pool table at the front of the shop.
You get the sense that acting up and smart talk aren’t tolerated here, that low-hanging jeans exposing buttocks or underwear aren’t viewed approvingly. The mood is calming, the energy is positive; the aura around the man who runs the four-man shop beams respect.
Baldwin’s trust in God helped him to overcome the string of violent deaths that tore apart his family: "That trust led me away from the life of crime I was leading."
His role now, he says, is to preach to every young man who enters his shop to stay away from the allure of gangs, violence, guns and crime. "That is my ministry, that is what keeps me going every day. I don’t want these young people to make the same mistakes I did."
He wants the violence between young black men to stop. He painfully explains a play he wrote, "Sheets in the Streets," about how one dead young black man lying on a street, covered by a sheet, snowballs into an entire community symbolically lying beside him, all dying from the same senseless gang violence.
Life in Deutschtown — an old German-immigrant neighborhood now filled with middle-class and poor blacks, sprinkled with pockets of gentrified grand homes occupied by whites who once flocked to the suburbs — is, for the most part, genial; the business district hums with mom-and-pop stores, antique shops, a bistro, a Goodwill outlet, a designer bakery, several bars and an eclectic group of characters in front of the storefronts.
In front of Hallelujah Anyhow Gospel Barber Shop, idle barbers plop a chair outside on a sunny day and shout out specials, offering a free shave with a haircut, to hustle business.
True excellence in America is not something you brag about; it’s not big and shiny, or on a reality TV show. It’s not some new piece of bling.
Real excellence is your work ethic, grace under fire and, most important, doing the right thing while no one is looking.
"He is one of the good guys. We need more Earl Baldwins in this country," Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, says of the multifaceted 45-year-old who patiently waited for a county grant for a speaker system so he could spread his anti-violence message in the streets.
Baldwin sits in front of the mirror in his shop, gliding a bright orange pick through his hair while explaining the "anyhow" in his shop’s name.
"Whatever else it is that is going on in your life," he says, "praise God anyhow."
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).