Telling someone to cut their hair and get a job is an old cliche. But a Portland barbershop is doing just that for those who are down on their luck.
Farrell Griffith had his last full-time job about two years ago. He works in museum education -- youth programs and the like -- but he hasn’t be able to find steady work. He’s had a few contract jobs, but he’s run through unemployment, and is down to public assistance. And it has taken taken its toll.
“I spend all day pumping out resumes and resumes and resumes," he says. "It really grinds you down.”
When the long-term unemployed like Griffith do get interviews, it can be hard to project the sort of confidence employers are looking for. And it can also be hard to look confident -- literally. Going into a job interview a while back, Griffith knew he didn’t look his best: his straight brown hair was getting kind of shaggy.
"[I was] flat broke -- zero in the pocket," he recalls. "So I ended up Googling, I believe it was: ‘free haircuts unemployed Portland.’”
One of the first results to pop up was for the Modern Man barber salon.
Modern Man is not the usual utilitarian chop shop. It’s like walking into the 1920s -- all dark wood and leather and antique fixtures, with barbers in suspenders giving straight-razor shaves. And it’s a family business. Chris Espinoza runs the shop with his fiancé, and his parents tend a bar upstairs.
Since they opened about a year ago, he’s offered free haircuts to unemployed people with job interviews, using the honor system. About a dozen people have used the program.
“We don’t make a scene about it, we don’t tell the barber 'Hey, this is your freebie for today,'" Espinoza says. "They just treat them just like anybody else. And we’ll shake their hand, give 'em a little wink on the way out, and say 'Good luck, let us know how that goes.'”
Unemployed customers gets the full treatment, which doesn’t come cheap — a haircut is $24, and so is the straight-razor shave. There’s also a shot of whiskey, complimentary cigar, and a bit of old-style pampering.
Espinoza acknowledges that looking out for the people in his neighborhood makes financial sense.
“If there’s guys out there can’t go out and get jobs maybe because they don’t feel presentable or whatever, where does that leave me and my family?" he says. "I’m in the hair business. So if they can’t afford to come in and buy a haircut someday, I’m gonna be out with them.”
Of course, Espinoza would love for these customers to nail their interviews and become regulars. But even if they don’t, he just hopes they’ll pay it forward.
"The look on their faces when they’re leaving -- it’s a strange thing to be in a manly environment, in a manly place and see guys get emotional," he says.
Farrell Griffith felt that same lift from his free haircut. And he carried it into his interview.
“Even something as minor as a haircut can change a person’s day, change their attitude," he says. "Just a bit can be enough to push it over into the good. I think I said that to Chris on the way out, I said, 'You know, today you made a pauper feel a king.'”
You sort of wish Griffith’s story had a happy ending -- that he got the job and became a regular customer. Sadly, he’s still searching. But at least he’s looking good for his next interview.