BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. – In a cinder block building on Bayou La Batre’s Shell Belt Road, Paul Nguyen is standing near his barber chair, gazing out the window.
“It’s so quiet,” he says of the October afternoon. “I don’t know where people go.”
Before the oil spill, he says, after 3 o’clock he might have four or five people in the shop lined up for his services.
“Now,” he says — looking past the words “Bayou Haircut” painted on the window — “everything goes slow.”
Nguyen was born in the town of Rach Gia, in what was then South Vietnam, 50 years ago. He started cutting hair when he was 16.
In 1980, five years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, Nguyen fled on a boat to Bangkok, Thailand, where he found safety in a refugee camp.
“I cut hair in the refugee camp,” he says. “Long, short, flat-top. I do what they want.”
Resettled in the U.S. by a refugee organization, he journeyed first to Boston — “It was too cold!” — then California.
He moved to Bayou La Batre to work in shrimping, then started cutting hair again.
On the wall he proudly displays his barber’s license and a certificate of cosmetology training in California.
In 1991, he met his wife, Du Lu, in the local Vietnamese community. They have two children.
“She works in oysters,” he says. “Since the oil spill, she has no work.”
His customer base is diverse.
“I cut the hair of Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, black people, Mexican people, white people. Before, a lot of Mexican people come over here and get haircut. Now they got no work, they go back to their country.”
Ninety percent of the Southeast Asians in the community, he says, are “seafood people.”
When the seafood processing plants closed for long periods of time, that slashed their wages. Some BP claims money helped keep the shop open.
“Things go down,” he figures of his business, “about 85 percent.”
He steps away from the window, takes up a broom and sweeps up some hair.
“Now, things go up a little bit,” he says. “You know why? People get BP money.”
Some shrimp boats are working again, too.
But, he says, shrimp aren’t bringing good prices. “People are scared,” he says. “That’s why shrimp go down.”
When the money dried up, some families simply took to cutting hair at home, he says.
He finishes cleaning, goes to a bench, sits, looks out. A few trucks rumble by. In the distance are the riggings of shrimp boats moored at the dock.
Sometimes, when too much time passes without a customer, he reclines on the bench and relaxes.
And he can still count on his regulars.
The door opens and a young, fair-haired man walks in.
Jonathan Butler, 23, says he lives in Grand Bay and works as a nurse in an assisted living facility.
He has driven 20 minutes for the haircut.
“I’ve been coming here for six years,” Butler says. “He can have you in and out of here in six minutes.”
As Butler settles into the chair, Nguyen springs to life, wielding his clippers, cutting and trimming.
“He shapes it to your head,” says Butler, pleased, reaching for his money. “Most people I went to before botched my hair.”
When the shop is quiet again, he lowers the blinds against the sharp, late afternoon sun, readies the shop for the next day, then closes up.
Tomorrow will be another day.
“People still worried,” he says. “Some people save money because they don’t know what will happen later.”