The Map of James

By Amy Whipple & Martha Rial

What’s weird about the Rankin town mural is that James Milton stands alone. The mural itself isn’t even a mural so much as it is a series of four portraits, and there James is, right in the middle of a gray-scratched street, dressed in dark slacks with bright suspenders, fingers curled around a comb and scissors as if he and that great big toothy grin have just waved you over to come on in. I’m headed there myself, he could be saying as he pivots on his back foot. It’s only a few doors down—Milton’s Unique Hairworks, that is. We’ll visit a while.

Join him, won’t you?

Mural of James Milton in Braddock, a neighboring city in the southeast of Pittsburgh.

By 1999, Milton’s Unique Hairworks was not just a salon. It was a ministry, an anointed place. He built it paycheck by paycheck after he worked his way through the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy. Most people in town were building bars in 1988, but James knew that something better would come of his work. He had two little girls to feed and people who thought he wouldn’t make it because he was from a run-down town or he was raised without his father or his skin was too dark or any of the other reasons that people have for thinking that young black men won’t make it. What those people didn’t know was that their lack of faith only fueled his motivation—and that God had his back. So he saved for chairs and mirrors and sinks, for combs and razors and towels.

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James was twenty-eight the morning he opened his salon. His clients from the previous salon were waiting, literally lined up outside the door. He brought on another young man and together they healed as they styled. People showed up for a cut or a set. People showed up for Bible study or to be prayed over. James and his business partner, as they saw it, just started changing lives. He opened another salon in Swissvale, a neighboring borough on the skirt of Pittsburgh.

Then he sat in church one Sunday and the scripture was from Genesis, where God said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” And God said to James, go to Cincinnati.

James does what God says, so, at thirty-nine years old, he offered the keys of his salon to his business partner and left for Cincinnati. Left the town where he was Jim or Jimbo or Ethel’s boy or Nell’s daddy or the barber in the town mural because God told him to.

People showed up for a cut or a set. People showed up for Bible study or to be prayed over.

He worked maintenance for the apartment building he moved into before stumbling upon a fully equipped—but currently closed—salon. All of that right there waiting for him because you can’t out-give God.

But you also can’t count on your plan and His plan being one and the same.

James’s wife wasn’t following. She put off moving and put off moving and then six months had passed. She had found someone new. Now he’d be three hundred miles away from his four daughters and first granddaughter, just as far as his dad was from him when his dad took off for Detroit when James was a toddler. James didn’t want to be that dad. He knew, even as a teenager, how easy it was to fall out of time and space. He was eighteen when Nell was born, starting his senior year of high school. Just knowing that she was alive helped him keep a good name. So he made the effort to stay involved—sometimes he thinks maybe over-involved—even all the way from Cincinnati. But better that, you know?

Eventually, he married again. The years passed. He became a grandfather again three times over. And then all of a sudden it was 2008. He was edging closer to fifty, a little rounder, a little grayer. His wife had cheated on him. That was over. He hadn’t received an explicit message from God or heard a weighted reading in church, but he knew, just knew, without those things, that it was time to come back home.

At six-thirty in the morning in the cold moments before the midnight blue sky shakes into dawn, Braddock, Pennsylvania, is the empty rattle of the 61B and the clank of semis rolling to and from Edgar Thomson Steel Works.

The sky was just lightening up around the edges when James pulled his white pickup against the curb. It hadn’t even been eight hours since he picked up his youngest daughter from the salon, who was having her hair done by his oldest daughter, Nell. By the time James got her home, it was after midnight.

At night, he keeps a black cover over the front door of Milton’s Top Notch Hair Design, shielding the insides of the salon from passersby. He walked through the absolute darkness of the salon, all the way to the back. The fluorescent lights overhead and along the tops of the styling mirrors flickered.

It gets better every time. James really does believe that. He bought a house in Rankin with a two-hundred-dollar-a-month mortgage payment. He got back in touch with Robbi, a sweetheart from his teenage years who had also felt the tug to come back home. She says you’ve just got to step out on faith. James acquired a vacant salon one borough over from Rankin in Braddock, right on the main drag, just blocks from one of the first hair gigs he ever had, and transformed it into Miltons Top Notch Hair Design.

While James had been at the Beauty Academy, Robbi had been at the Culinary Institute. Braddock doesn’t have a grocery store nor more than a few convenience store counters and a bar for hot food, so after the salon had been open for about a year and a half, James convinced Robbi to sell barbeque a couple of days a week from the grassy space next to the building the salon shares with a daycare center, though they did not have a plan for when autumn finally gave way to a relentless Pittsburgh winter.

By seven-fifteen both daylight and Robbi arrived. The man who owns the second-hand shop across from the salon told James and Robbi to take advantage of all the people they’d have at the estate liquidation sale out of the warehouse in the block behind Braddock Avenue—an invitation to sell breakfast and nudge people in the direction of the grill for ribs come lunch time.

With Robbi settled down at the warehouse, James returned to the salon to start the grill and to let in the first customers of the day. Saturday mornings are for the men. Buzz cuts and that quick swipe of the clippers around the nose, near the eyebrows, along the ears. Old man maintenance.

James’s salon looks like it could be part of someone’s rec room—piles of mail stacked on the desk, random papers scattered across the salon, a forgotten pair of children’s sunglasses next to the TV. Between the waiting area that’s sectioned off with a half-wall and the styling chairs on the other side of it hangs a small chalkboard with the dusty remains of a Mother’s Day special five months earlier. Everything just a little bit gritty.

ESPN was up on the TV, fighting for sound space against the gospel music playing from the speakers overhead. James worked on an older man’s almost-completely white hair. Buzz, buzz, buzz. “You okay, bro?” The man gave the slightest nod. Buzz.

A Cheez-It commercial. “What do you call cheese that’s not yours?” James finished the joke in tandem with the TV; his eight-year-old grandson told him this one before. “Nacho cheese!” He repeated the joke twice more.

Finishing up the old man maintenance, James handed his customer a mirror. The man squinted as he tried to check out the back of his head. “You can’t even see!” James reached for the man’s glasses off the counter. He lowered them onto his face, hooking the ends around his ears. “There, now you can see.”

James is worried—afraid, even—of losing himself. There’s just so much, and it’s noticeable in the tension of his shoulders and the red rims of his eyes. Even with the Bibles scattered about the salon and the illustrated scripture decorating it, he’s still not feeling like he used to, not feeling like where he wants to be with God. Braddock is different, too.

The news specials and a Levi Strauss advertising campaign focus on the neon-painted, boarded-up windows, the closed hospital, and the lack: lack of people, lack of business, lack of bars, theaters, and community.

In Braddock’s Jazz Age memory, the city is still home to 20,000 people. There are still store fronts to high fashion and culture around every corner. There is a raging steel industry that befits all classes, races, and ethnicities. How easily the romantic stories filter into the everyday conversations of Braddock’s current 2,000 residents. How angry the people who still aren’t living the sparkling life of the people who fled the soot-covered town generations before. They want their booming city back, even if they never had it in the first pace.

It gets better every time. James really does believe that.

The guy to save all this is Mayor John Fetterman with his seeming street presence, tattoo-covered arms, and big, bright sound bites. But he’s still pushing for a Braddock that looks more like its resuscitated neighbor, Pittsburgh. And the upper-middle-class, young urban liberals of Pittsburgh (and elsewhere, for that matter) love a project like Braddock, love a place they can make look just like them. A place that doesn’t honestly address race or class, crime rates or poverty. A place that doesn’t include the kinds of jobs James hopes to create by starting a beauty school. A place that ignores the community-rich atmosphere of Miltons Top Notch Hair Design or around the grill outside of it. James, Robbi, his daughters and granddaughters, the jumble of men and women who fill the salon—they’re the people not given attention by the media flurry trumpeting the promising future of Braddock.

“It’s gonna get better,” James told a friend inside the salon. “You know the end of the story.”

Like the mayor, James has goals, too. To start the beauty school. To build a new ministry. To grow in his family. To save a town he loves. All James wants, really, is to be included. What do we owe to the place where we live? Who is responsible for a place and how so?

If Braddock can be reborn, then who knows what else is possible in the shrunken towns that mark the miles along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and empty into Ohio and West Virginia.

What happens to James's goals?

beauty school, a new ministry, grow in his family, save a town he loves? what has he done since?

Do you know James? Do you live or work in Braddock?

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Story Credits

Writer: Amy Whipple
Photographer: Martha Rial
Editor: Barbara Klein
Web Producer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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