A deeper cut
Gang violence shakes a south Sacramento barbershop to its core—but it will take more than tragedy to keep its resilient, smack-talking owner down
It’s the eve of Thanksgiving inside the raucous Fly Cuts & Styles barbershop on the edge of Sacramento’s Little Saigon neighborhood, and the lunchtime dash is on to get pretty. All seven chairs are filled as a droning orchestra of clippers nags in tune. The only sound threatening to overtake the mechanical din is a steady chorus of laughter.
At the moment, shop owner Toriano Mason is being pitched by Tony X, a local entrepreneur bandying two long black belts slotted with dozens of vials of perfumed oils. Tony’s trying to close multiple deals. Mason asks for one he’s used before.
“You got that Player?”
“Player’s out right now—it’s called ’Play’—I’m gonna get that real soon,” Tony assures.
“Oh, man, it’s called ’Play’? You had me thinking I was a player all this time,” Mason says to crackles of laughter. “I was play-pimping! That’s why I get no respect in this game. They revoked my heart and fur coat. Maaan!”
This is the show, and it airs daily here at Fly Cuts, crammed between a taqueria and a nail salon on the forgotten corner of Stockton Boulevard and Florin Road. It’s fitting that Thanksgiving Eve is one of Fly Cuts’ busiest days in recent memory. This spot has much to be thankful for two years after a tragedy nearly made the south Sacramento business another casualty of the city’s growing gang violence.
Two years ago, the shop was the scene of a shootout between rival gang members. With all the speed it takes to exchange a few hard looks, guns were drawn and chaos erupted. The violence spilled onto the streets, where a 30-year-old woman fastened her infant son’s car seat. As the young particulars exchanged indiscriminate barrages, Monique Nelson smothered her 2-year-old and absorbed a fatal bullet to the chest. Five people were injured, and one of the alleged shooters died the next day, but Nelson’s son lived, and his mother became the poster victim of Sacramento’s fledgling gang-prevention campaign. Preliminary hearings are underway for the six alleged perpetrators in Sacramento Superior Court.
The tragedy rattled the local hangout and its devoted clientele to the core.
“A lot of those guys were really shaken up,” says a customer the fellas call “Coach.” “They were worried about people coming back.”
The burly Coach got his first high fade a year before the shootout and was one of only a few to return after. Indeed, Mason says a majority of Fly Cuts’ customers—especially females and the elderly—left en masse. For a long while, cops, reporters and community activists were the only ones filling the void. And for a neighborhood used to institutional neglect, the sudden outside interest was upsetting.
Several people told Mason to move and change the name of his business, but rather than listen, he doubled down.
“We couldn’t falter in the community,” he says. “We had to do more of what we were already doing and be more of what we were. All eyes were on us.”
A young boy of about 10 or 11 shoves a broom through the shop’s peopled corridor, snatching up tufts of hair as they drift to the checkered floor. For his labor, he’ll make a few bucks. Mason usually reserves this privilege for after-schoolers with decent grades, but sometimes bestows it on youths who need the positive male camaraderie. The tall, lanky Mason is serious about that. The constant smack talk bouncing off these walls may get a little ribald, but there are certain things Mason can’t abide. To the left of a pictorial display of historic African-Americans—a Barack Obama poster is flanked by small, illustrated portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—is a printed sign that announces this point:
“Effective immediately the ’N’ word is not permitted in this shop. Thank you for your cooperation.”
When a longtime customer the barbers call “O.G.” runs afoul of this rule, Mason lets him know.
“Yo, drop the N-word,” he says.
O.G., who was cutting up a 16-year-old Florin High School student with some braggadocian claims about money and women, quickly corrects himself.
“I don’t ever want to offend,” he says.
Mason first picked up the clippers at age 12, initially to stop his parents and sister from accosting him with uneven haircuts. He became so proficient at maintaining his own ’do that aunts and uncles started pimping his talents. At 15, he was lining up the fades of most of his high-school buddies.
Fly Cuts, which Mason’s owned since 2009, reflects aspects of his experience. When Mason refers to his staff, he says he has “seven barbers, two stylists and a whole community.”
That’s not hyperbole. The conversations exchanged on this day run the gamut from the silly to the philosophical. Tony is loudly debating anyone he can about the difference between knowledge and faith. Others talk about school or work, which family members are sick and which ones are being enormous pains in the backside.
Two older gentlemen are hunched over a small table in the back playing chess. Mason sometimes joins in and says it’s “an honor” to spend that time with his elders—even when they’re taking his queen.
“Your barber is more than just your barber,” Mason says.
He regularly takes that message outside the barbershop’s walls. This past summer, Fly Cuts hosted a neighborhood barbecue. At the start of the school year, the staff gave free haircuts down at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Sacramento. Today, a large container sits at the door waiting to be filled with toys. Closer to the holidays, Mason and his crew will top it off themselves.
“We’re all willing to pour in to the lives of our community,” Mason says.
Lately, the self-described “man of God” has been itching to go further. Mason wants to build a nonprofit that mentors kids in practical life skills. To make that happen, he knows it will take money. He also knows that one day he’ll have to leave Fly Cuts.
“You can only use the wrong tool for the right job so long,” he muses. “I can only do so much here.”
For now, however, Fly Cuts remains on the comeback.
Mason says a part of him thinks it will never reclaim its old luster.
Two weeks later, business is a little slower; those in the barber chairs and the people trickling in—mostly kids and older men—are all regulars. After considering the contented vibe around him, Mason allows that maybe his business has recovered, and it’s just him that will never be the same.
“For someone who opened those doors and has grown with it, it’s a part of you,” he says. He pulls up a gray shirtsleeve to reveal an inky tattoo of a clipper crawling up his shoulder to drive home the point. “It’s part of you.”
Just then, a regular wanders in out of the drizzle and pauses in front of Mason. The 38-year-old barber seats this extended “family” member in a low-backed leather throne and steps down on the hydraulic riser.
“The usual?” he asks.
The man nods.
Mason takes out a pair of long, silver shears and begins clipping away the worries.