At Billy’s Barbershop in Lowell, men come in for fades, comb-overs, and regular haircuts.
They sit in cushy black reclining chairs under bright lights, inhaling the scent of Clubman aftershave while the young barbers, hip in their baggy shorts and cotton T-shirts, buzz and clip.
And while music plays and images flash on a flat-screen TV, conversations often turn serious. Because in addition to giving the best haircut in the city, this barbershop was created to furnish hope.
“I’m not doing anything that hasn’t been done before,” says 45-year-old Billy Cabrera, now in long-term recovery from heroin addiction and incarceration.
Cabrera opened the business and an associated resource center two years ago, after five years of barbering from a rented chair at another shop in the city. He gives a free haircut to any man just released from prison. He hands out pamphlets about 12-step groups, treatment programs, and other social services. And he collaborates with a number of community agencies, including Lowell Transitional Housing, Lowell House Inc., the Merrimack Valley Project, and the Middlesex sheriff’s office.
And while roughly half of his clientele is struggling, everyone who walks through the door knows someone — a family member, a friend, or a friend of a friend — who has been affected.
“I was once where you’re sitting. I ran with a group, put a mask on it, was armored at all times,” Cabrera tells clients who are floundering, “I had to let go of the things that kept me alive, that saved and destroyed my life all in the same breath.”
He isn’t quoting from books or getting holier-than-thou when he encourages a man to get help. His own recovery depends on it.
“I wanted to use my craft to entice people to want to do better,” he says.
Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian says Cabrera figured out what professionals are just now realizing: that the likelihood of relapse or recidivism is directly related to the ongoing support a person receives after being released to the community.
“I wish I could clone Billy Cabrera, have 100 of him navigating our communities,” Koutoujian says. “I know we’d have safer and stronger communities.”
Cabrera was 5 when an aunt extracted him from his troubled family in New York and brought him to Lawrence to live with his grandmother.
The night he arrived, hungry and tired after the long car ride, his Dominican grandmother served him oatmeal sweetened with cinnamon and sugar. The next thing he remembers is waking, the aunt gone, his surroundings unfamiliar.
He was an angry kid.
“I was associating with kids behind the schoolyard, loners, smoking cigarettes,” he says. “To be a part of something, I did everything they were doing.”
Eleven years ago, depressed and self-medicating with heroin, Cabrera returned to New York to reconnect with his family. But instead of the warmth he’d imagined, he found awkwardness.
“I started using hard,” he says. “I was using to die, not wanting to wake up. But my luck was I kept waking up.”
He was standing at the corner of Lexington and 125th when his cellphone rang, his daughter on the other end, sobbing.
“Daddy, I thought you said you’d never leave me.”
He had been traveling light: a small backpack with a change of clothes, $40 in his pocket, and a prepaid cellphone with limited minutes, just nine left after speaking with his daughter.
He speed-dialed a number.
“Frank, I’m dying. I need to do something,” he mumbled into the phone, already heading toward the train station. “I’m taking the van back to Lawrence, getting dropped off on Broadway.”
“I’ll be there,” the friend said.
In admissions at a Massachusetts detox center, a nurse gently touched Cabrera’s arm and he collapsed, surrendering to the withdrawal that would continue for a week.
Afterward, the recovery began: 3½ months in a hospital holding facility, six months in residential treatment, 12-step meetings, one-on-one counseling twice a week, and eventually a studio apartment, barber school, graduation from the New England Hair Academy, a job, five years of barbering from a rented chair, and finally his own barbershop.
“I really wanted to do something more,” he says.
On a cold February morning, Cabrera and his son, Will, now a licensed barber at the shop, drove to Malden for the state master barbering exam. Will, who had let his hair grow for a month, had agreed to be his father’s model.
“Your model’s hair isn’t long enough,” a testing administrator pronounced after Will removed his cap. “You have 15 minutes to find someone else.”
Next door at the Orange Line station, Cabrera assessed his prospects.
“Sir, would you let me cut your hair?” he asked man after man hurrying toward the train.
A homeless man was sleeping on the floor, long hair spilling out of his hoodie, a foul odor surrounding him like an aura.
“Dude, I’ll give you twenty bucks if you let me cut your hair.”
In the testing room, the official balked.
“Is that your model?” she asked.
“He’s my model, and I’m cutting hair today,” Cabrera said.
First, he draped a cape around the man’s shoulders. Then, he checked for scabs and wounds and gently combed the knotted hair, taking extra steps to sanitize the work station. He reclined the chair and trimmed the man’s beard. He applied a warm towel to his face, then a shake of powder and a dab of aftershave. And finally, he shampooed the man’s hair, massaging his scalp and untangling more knots before proceeding to the haircut.
“That guy was amazed,” Cabrera says, remembering how when he was done, he removed the cape, spun the client in the chair, and with his son, Will, as escort, sent the man, $20 richer and smelling of Clubman and alcohol, on his way.
Outside Billy’s Barbershop on a recent July morning, the electric barber pole is spinning and a banner, printed in barber’s colors, red for blood, blue for veins, white for bandages, flaps in the breeze.
At the nonprofit Resource and Reclamation Center in the back room, Luis Resto extends a hand and offers a guest a cup of hot coffee. Resto, 48, has been a volunteer here for almost two years, starting after he completed a residential treatment program where someone told him, “I have to introduce you to Billy.”
It turned out the men had met before.
Both had grown up in Lawrence; Resto, who spent six years in jail, had started using and selling drugs when he was 13; the teenage Cabrera had been a customer.
Now they would be partners in another kind of enterprise.
“He gave me a safe place to be,” Resto says, “and I’ve been here ever since.”
Behind the barber pole
Billy’s Barbershop is the engine that fuels the Resource & Reclamation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping men reclaim their lives from the clutches of addiction and incarceration.
Men (women and kids are welcome, as well) who visit learn about the social service venture that operates out of the back room. Some ask for information and help; others make donations, attend educational programs, and volunteer.
The going rate for a haircut is $20. But haircuts are free for men just out of prison — no matter their financial situation — and for anyone else who is in transition or floundering.
Both Billy’s Barbershop and the Resource & Reclamation Center are open seven days a week, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hot coffee, trained listeners, and contacts in the recovery community are free to all.
151 Andover St., Lowell; 978-221-5827
Hattie Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .