I first started coming here in the 30s when I was 16. It was called Nick’s Barber Shop then. Haircuts were 35 cents. Now they’re $7.50. Still a good buy. Joe here has been cutting my hair since 1950. I’ve been a good customer. I get it cut every three weeks. If you can stand his bs you’ve got it made. That’s a lot of bs over 40 years. I guess that’s why I come here.
We are the Other - Dan & Melanie, South Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
Melanie and Dan are both small business owners on the same block. She “slings coffee” and he’s a body man. When I asked her to suggest someone she didn’t know well to be photographed with, she thought of Dan, who comes in once in a while for coffee. When the three of us sat in his small office and discussed the chalkboard questions, much of their conversation turned to the financial and aesthetic challenges of their respective trades.
Dan was hooked when he drove his dad’s Peugeot 404. That was back home in Jerusalem when he was seven. He then knew he wanted to work on cars the rest of his life. He was sixteen when he bought his first car, a blue 1973 BMW. German cars has been his specialty ever since.
After learning the trade from an uncle, he opened an auto body shop in Jerusalem 24 years ago that he still owns. He then started coming to Minnesota on vacations to visit relatives, but on one of the visits he fell in love with a woman, who was also born in Jerusalem, and decided to stay. They now have five children and he goes back home every couple of years.
Dan started working at Mill City Auto Body nine years ago near the corner of 38th and Chicago. I asked him if working on cars is different here than back home. “We did real body work there,” he replied. “Here they just change things.’ He explained that body parts were often not available there so he would have to, say, make a fender out of sheet metal, while here you just order the part. He was more of an artist then.
We are the Other - Hai & Melanie at Blue Ox Coffee Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
Melanie (pictured on the left) went through a litany of jobs (office worker, horse groomer, wedding photographer, Ritz Camera store manager) before she had the ambition to open a bar. Then she realized she didn’t like drunks and sticky floors and instead opened a “Third Wave” coffee house (the first wave was Folgers, the second wave is Starbucks) that brews coffee by the cup and treats it like fine wine.
“We have exact recipes for each cup of coffee for how long it’s brewed and with how much water,” Melanie says. “It’s all quality driven. We have relationships with our coffee growers. The beans, rather than picked by a machine are picked at the perfect moment of ripeness. We want to give you a satisfying and memorable cup of coffee.”
The first time Melanie spoke to Hai was when this photograph was taken. She had wondered about him since she opened the Blue Ox Coffee Company seven months ago, as she occasionally waved to him from across the street as he went about his daily ritual of sweeping the sidewalk and throwing cooked rice to the pigeons. She thought he might be Vietnamese. If he was, how did he end up on 38th & Chicago?
Did he grow up during the Vietnam War and witness atrocities? When a young man was stabbed to death last September just steps from the front door of her shop, she mused how ironic it would be that the barber came so far to get away from all that crap only to have this happen on his adopted corner.
Hai was curious about the Blue Ox too, and had been there once before, when Melanie wasn’t there, and bought a cup coffee. He hadn’t had coffee for a long time (and never drank it back in Saigon where the coffee is stronger), but he thought he’d give it a try and support his neighbor’s business. It kept him up all night though and he didn’t go back.
Hai’s chalkboard: When I come to the US, I don’t have not thing. With my bare hands and hard word I now own two barber shops.
This is the start of yet another concept in which I ask people to interact with someone they don’t know well (their Other) by discussing the chalkboard questions (see previous post). Then I ask the “Other” person to also approach someone they don’t know well, and so on, creating a “Chalkboard Chain.”
We are the Other - Charles & Hai at Tip Top Haircut, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
I don’t have much information about Charles, except that he’s a regular at Tip Top, lives in the neighborhood and has a passion for donuts, as do I. We excitedly discussed the merits of the holed pastries at Patisserie 46, A Baker’s Wife (my favorite), Wuollet Bakery (his favorite), SugaRush Donuts and The Donut Cooperative. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a passionate discourse on dounuts before, with a stranger no less.
I have another photo of Charles, almost exactly the same except that he has his eyes open. I couldn’t decide which one I preferred and asked several people for their opinions. One person commented that with his eyes open, what he wrote seems like a demand. With his eyes closed it’s more like a prayer.
We are the Other - Eric & Mike with Cup Foods Employees and Customers, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
Chalkboard Pairs: A concept where people who don’t know each other well answer together these questions:
What are you?
How do you think others see you? What don’t they see?
What advice would you give to a stranger?
What is your favorite word?
Describe an incident that changed you.
When do you feel that you’re different from the those around you? When do you feel you’re the same?
How has race affected you?
Mike (“Please”) is the second youngest of four brothers who own Cup Foods. Eric (chalkboard words below) is the second oldest of four brothers. They had not met before the taking of this photo.
Eric has lived in Powderhorn Park for twenty years and has always stayed away from Cup. I introduced Eric to Mike and when I asked them both the chalkboard questions a conversation between them ensued that touched on Mike’s passion for football (he’s a linebacker in the Minnesota Spartans, a minor league) and Eric’s passion as a photographer.
They were also pleasantly surprised that both had been to Jerusalem, albeit with contrasting experiences, what with Mike being Muslim while Eric is Jewish. But talking about their respective religions seemed more like they were sharing interesting, serendipitous facts rather than pointing out differences.
Eric’s chalkboard: “I used to feel intimidated by the people hanging out in front of the store but after spending some time here I feel comfortable.”
We are the Other - Hai & Sam, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
I’m introducing a new concept—Neighbor Diptychs—in which neighbors who don’t know each other well are photographed in each other’s spaces.
Tip Top Haircut is two doors down from Cup Foods. I have driven past Cup Foods hundreds of times over the years, but my first time inside wasn’t until shortly after I moved into my new gallery space across the street last May. From the outside it looked like your typical corner grocery store that just stocked convenience items, but I was surprised to find a butcher shop, 60-item deli, fresh produce, great selection of food items (including Middle Eastern and Spanish ingredients), a thriving mobile phone business, and The New York Times.
Samir, or Sam as he usually introduces himself, opened the store 23 years ago. He works six days a week and has 16 employees. “I care about the customers and my employees. This is my life,” he says. “It as an Islamic belief that when you’re in the womb and your heart starts ticking at 40 days, your whole life and destiny is determined at that time. Well, this is what I was meant to do.”
The constant bantering of customers and the loud sports announcing from the flat screen television is momentarily silenced for the late afternoon call for prayer. After Sam’s mother passed away 14 years ago from leukemia he decided to build a mosque in her honor in the basement of the store.
Cup Foods is the most visible business on a corner that has had a sketchy reputation. “The perception is getting better,” Sam says, who served five years as President for the 38th & Chicago Business Association, and is currently the treasurer. “But there is no perfect place. Even the Holy Land where I come from has the longest history of war. Things happen everywhere.”
We are the Other - Hai Singing, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
I asked Hai if he ever gets bored waiting for customers. “No,” he replied. “I sometimes sit all day and think about music.”
The 40 songs he’s written in 20 years traverse loss and migration, witnessing burning bodies in India, sights in Alaska and Wyoming, the death of his mother and the memories of his homeland of Vietnam before the Communists took it over. He was inducted into the South Vietnamese Army at age 20, served as a radio operator for 14 years, and was captured briefly by the Viet Cong, spending a week as a POW before escaping.
“I hated it,” he says. “I don’t like communism. I like freedom.”
Although he owned a barbershop in Saigon for ten years, he still had to get his barber’s license at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College. He held two jobs, working 14-hour days as a machinist in the morning and then onto Great Clips at night. With his savings he opened up Tip Top last year.
He said that in Vietnam the barber, not the customer, chooses the style of hair because back there you only had a scissors and comb while here you use clippers. Also because of communism people were afraid of choice and thought it better to leave the decision up to the barber and not argue. You make a fuss and they’d take you away or kill you.
“America knows how to build a civilization,” says Hai. “What better way to understand American culture than to make people look nice? My clients come from all over the world: Mexico, Laos, China, Cambodia, Russia, Africa. You don’t have to be a politician to affect a community. You can just be a small business owner.”
This is the beginning of what I’m calling a serialized photographic novel, where every Sunday (round midnight) there will be a new installment that often will be connected—directly or tangentially—to the previous one. I will allow serendipity to somewhat guide me as I spiral outward from the first photographic stone cast, following thematic, conceptual, and character-driven threads.
At times I will compel narratives by asking the various characters, major and minor, to interact with those they would normally not—their “Others” if you will. There will be eventual multiple story lines in different locations that may or may not coalesce. Also anticipate abrupt and disjointed asides, interludes & meanderings as I make my way throughout the Twin Cities, and beyond, capturing in content and form the epic ordinariness of who and what we are.
We are the Other- Tip Top, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
The View from the Window at Le Gras was the first successful permanent photograph, created by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 at Sain-Loup-de-Varennes, according to Wikipedia. The view from my storefront gallery window on 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis is Tip Top Haircut, where every business morning without fail, an elderly Asian man sweeps (or shovels) the sidewalk debris from this busy urban corner, his front door just steps from a bus stop.
In the nine months since I moved in I have managed to wave at him only sporadically and exchange a few brief pleasantries on the street. Sitting behind my desk I can spy him moving about his tiny tidy shop. Often, though, he’s sitting in his usual spot under the hair dryer, waiting in anticipation.
The sandwich board in front reads: ALL HAIRCUTS $9. He told me that he’d like to get 10 - 15 customers a day. But some days no one comes in. I took this photograph a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time I had been inside. If not for my camera I might have never crossed the threshold.