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Sean Kirst: At an East Side barbershop, looking far past Tuesday's elections

Thomas Robinson began his Election Day by stopping at Tim Hortons. Long before dawn, he delivered coffee and doughnuts Tuesday to poll workers at the Pratt Willert Community Center, which he does each year to show his thanks for what they offer:

"You vote," he said, "so at least you have a way of speaking out."

After Robinson cast his ballot, he took a drive and collected his 5-year-old grandson, Dorian Jr. They headed for the Carl-Jeff Barber Shop on Jefferson Avenue, an East Side institution with roots going back into the 1950s.

Jerry Daniels Jr., a proprietor, was busy cutting hair. His dad, Jerry Sr., 85, a barbering legend in Buffalo, was feeling "under the weather," Jerry Jr. said, and didn't make it in.

You could hear the hum of the clippers as Jerry Jr., 54, worked on George Rance Jr., a customer and an old friend. That quiet atmosphere, the barbers said, was not typical of the occasion.

"Usually, on an Election Day, there's a lot more conversation," Jerry Jr. said. But the big decision in the city this year seemed to be an all but foregone conclusion, with Mayor Byron W. Brown – a three-time Democratic incumbent – a heavy favorite against his minor-party challengers.

So the talk in the barbershop, a Jefferson Avenue bastion, was less about who voted for whom and more about what the regulars saw as the core challenge for the mayor and all others who hold office in City Hall:

The ultimate judgment on whether Buffalo is truly coming back will be measured by the pulse and vitality of the East Side.

Robinson, 71, a Vietnam veteran and a retiree from General Motors Powertrain in Tonawanda, said he learned as a child to never take his vote for granted. He was raised in Georgia by his mother, who worked as a maid during a harsh era of legal segregation.

Thomas Robinson, with his grandson Dorian, 5, at the Carl-Jeff Barber Shop: An early day for a grandfather who brings coffee and doughnuts to poll workers. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

After serving as a door gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam, Robinson moved to Buffalo in a successful quest for a machinist's job in a factory. He said there is "no doubt" the hard times of his Georgia childhood cause him to revere the value of a vote, a revelation he wishes he could get across to more young people.

He met his wife, Willie, in Buffalo. Their family has been scarred by city violence: Robinson lost one uncle to a stabbing in a bar – the same uncle who paid for Robinson's plane ticket decades ago when he moved here from Georgia – while another uncle was murdered in a robbery.

Robinson could have left. His family chose to stay in the city.

"The East Side has been branded," said Robinson, who sees that sweeping reputation as unfair. Certainly, there are areas consumed by grief and struggle, but he said he still finds a sense of community powerful enough to hold him there.

On Cedar Street, where he and Willie have lived for decades, longtime neighbors who move or pass away are being replaced by young, committed families. Robinson has also noticed new apartments going up in some unlikely places.

And he brings his grandson to Carl-Jeff for a haircut because the atmosphere, the sense of home and welcome, is almost impossible to replicate.

Even so, the neighborhood needs more, Robinson said: More curbing, better sidewalks, better housing to replace crumbling homes as they're torn down. His wish for young Dorian is that the child will grow up with a sense of both community and mission, "that he turns out to be the best, that he doesn't listen to anyone trying to lead him down the wrong road."

If there was an Election Day theme at Carl-Jeff's, that was it. Longtime customer Jacky Coon, 83, spoke of how he's witnessed restoration in some buildings he never thought could be saved, but he maintained those apartments are too often built for high-paid professionals from outside the neighborhood.

Barber Jerry Daniels Jr. cuts George Rance Jr.'s hair as the two talk about the future of the East Side. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

He remains disappointed that the city chose against putting a rail station in the old Central Terminal, the massive art deco landmark whose uncertain destiny, to Coon, is emblematic of the fragile neighborhood around it.

As for the schools, Coon argues that students too often "get put through and get put out," that too many teens leave high school utterly unprepared for a world with few good jobs and much easier temptations. With little support, with no steadying influence, those young people are staggered, Coon said, feeding despair on many East Side streets.

For all those reasons, Coon showed up Tuesday at his polling place.

"How can I be part of this community and not vote?" he said.

When asked about the neighborhood as it was when he was young, Coon – in the same way as Robinson or Jerry Daniels Jr. – could look out the window and remember grocery stores and restaurants and other businesses once nearby, now long gone.

Yet Larry Kennedy-King, 27, has only known those streets as they are now. While Kennedy-King has cut hair for a few years, he said Tuesday was his first day of work at Carl-Jeff, an opportunity he described as "a blessing."

Kennedy-King said he was raised amid tumult. "There's a lot going on out there," he said in a quiet voice, describing threats and pitfalls he's witnessed on the streets. The ongoing danger, he said, is that young people raised without a strong, compelling influence will be drawn toward whatever source of comfort they can find.

Too often, those choices are disastrous.

So the idea of neighborhood renaissance, Kennedy-King said, is not only about sidewalks and buildings. The need is for a kind of emotional and spiritual investment that brings more men and women of vision and purpose to East Side businesses and homes, men and women whose presence as neighborhood mentors, as quiet examples, offers the potential for changing lives.

"A lot of these kids need someone to shape them, and they're looking for someone to shape them," he said. "Right now, they're out there living with a lot of voids."

On Election Day, he was asked: How do you ignite such change?

Kennedy-King said his own story illustrates the hope. As a child, he moved from foster home to foster home, feeling lost and without purpose. He was finally taken in by Bertha King, a foster mother who showed real concern for his well-being.

"She kept me out of the street and kept me alive," he said. "That's the miracle right there."

Jacky Coon, 83, at the Carl-Jeff Barber Shop: If you want change, he said, you have to vote. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

King legally adopted him, and he said he made her last name part of his own. Through her church, she introduced him to a string of mentors. That's how he made the acquaintance of Jerry Daniels Sr.

Tuesday, Kennedy-King was in charge of his own chair.

While he's worked in other places as a barber, he already likes the intimate atmosphere of Carl-Jeff. He enjoys the familiar give-and-take among regulars, the way a retiree like Robinson relaxed along the wall, shooting the breeze with the barbers, while Robinson's 5-year-old grandson patiently allowed barber Andrew Brown to cut his hair.

"A lot of wisdom in this place, if you listen," said Kennedy-King, speaking of the Election Day warmth, love and fraternity in the shop.

He just wishes it could be that way, across the whole East Side.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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