Lopez: Barber’s mission of healing in troubled times

The nearly 80-year-old man who cuts hair on the streets of West Los Angeles is not your typical barber.

Most of his clients are homeless and many are military veterans; the price is negotiable and can be paid in food (preferably fresh fruit); and no one with empty pockets will be turned away.

“Ringman!” The barber recently called a US Navy veteran who often pays for his haircuts in costume jewelry.

Ring Man – 32-year-old Omar Herrera – presented a set of rings and a few dollars as payment for a costume, and the barber immediately gave the money to a man who pulled up in a battered Nissan Sentra.

The driver, 78-year-old Vietnam veteran Wilbur Thornton, said he needed gas money and would pay it back soon, as he always does.

Barber Tony Bravo on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus.

Barber Tony Bravo on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“He listens, he understands, he doesn’t put anyone down,” Thornton said. “And he gives free haircuts.”

The barber is Antonio Bravo Esparza, also known to some as Tony Bravo. But most people refer to him by his favorite name, which is embroidered on the back of his western-style blue shirt: “The Dreamer.”

“I’m an Apache medicine man,” said the dreamer, who served six years in the National Guard, has a thing for veterinarians and throws an apron patterned with a US flag over them when they cut their hair.

A dreamer, to hear Tony Bravo explain, embraces Native American values. He sees himself as a shaman and shapeshifter on a pilgrimage of healing. His particular dream is that in the face of what he calls the most divisive times since the Vietnam War, human connections built on good deeds, mutual respect, objectivity and respect can generate a surge of positive energy.

“I think it’s time for us to realize that we’re in the same storm and in different boats,” said the dreamer, who believes it might help if we paddled together.

When Herrera partially paid for his haircut in rings, the dreamer presented one to my colleague Francine Orr and one to me. Once we put them on, he said, the three of us were connected, like power rangers whose mission is to radiate positive energy into the universe.

“Flexibility, magic, love,” said the dreamer. “Let’s have fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Bravo, known as "Dreamer," sits in the shade of two eucalyptus trees and waits for customers to have their hair cut.

Bravo, known as “Dreamer”, sits in the shade of two eucalyptus trees waiting for clients to have their hair cut.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The Dreamer was featured in a 2011 Times story by Martha Groves and Annie Cusack. He had started his hairdressing career in upscale Westside salons and some of his old clients still seek him out. But he took a detour many years ago and parked his trailer on the West LA Veterans Affairs campus to serve veterans and everyone else who walked in. When the pandemic struck, the doors of his “Freedom Barber Shop” were locked, but that didn’t deter the dreamer.

A reader named Alex Nicol saw him cutting his hair in a parking lot near Ohio Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard and was curious enough to stop and say hello. Nicol enjoyed chatting with Dreamer and suggested I do the same.

The dreamer is not one to answer a clear question with a direct answer. A typical reply winch through his thoughts on mysteries, the moon and the metaphysical, all of which fascinate him more than the literal world. He shared some of his background, but stressed that these details say less about him than his daily quest to communicate in the moment with the people he meets.

I can tell you he’s homeless, or at least kind of. As the 2011 story pointed out, the dreamer has property and relatives in Arizona, but even if he visits there regularly and travels by train, he doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping inside.

“I’m not good inside,” he told me. “The sky and the stars and the trees are my roof.”

Part of that stems from his childhood. He and his father left their home in Corona, California, and traveled the state as farm hands, fishing dinners out of rivers and lakes and staring at the stars from their campsites. The young dreamer picked walnuts in Chico. Plums in Colusa. Cotton in Corcoran.

“It was beautiful,” he said of his childhood, which he remembers not as bone-crushing work but as serving a vital need.

Bravo cuts Omar Anthony Herrera's hair on the West LA VA campus.

Bravo cuts Omar Anthony Herrera’s hair on the West LA VA campus.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“If you offered me a $2 million house in Brentwood, I’d say keep it,” said the dreamer, who told me he was sleeping on the street, in an upright position and facing east. That is the direction of the next event, he said, the next opportunity, the next dawn.

Many of the homeless he knows are suffering, the dreamer said, and he wishes there was more help and shelter for them, especially those with mental illness and those marred by struggle. He is there with and for these travelers, he said, and is happy to tell them that despite their circumstances, they are all rich.

“I have a different value system, you could say,” the dreamer told me. Success and happiness are based on conventional but misguided notions, he said, which is why the sign he puts up at his hair salons reads “Dreamer’s School of Unlearning. Apply within.”

“I tell my vets if you have a car and you get out onto the street and you cross a bridge that costs millions to build, that bridge is yours to use 24/7, whenever you want. You don’t think so, but I do. I am grateful,” said the dreamer.

I drove him to his shuttered trailer where he sometimes finds clients waiting for a haircut and tells them where to find him off campus. Two friends of his – both vets – were hanging around the trailer.

One, a homeless man named Paul, said the dreamer was good with scissors. The other, Keystone, who was serving in the Middle East Army and suffered a traumatic brain injury, was distraught over a controversial family drama and knew the Dreamer would help him through it.

“He is a poet; he’s a shaman,” Keystone said. “He’s busy every day. He has a ranch that he could go to, but he chooses to be here. to be of service.”

The dreamer who has a favorite playlist has his stereo on. He loves “Over the Rainbow” and “Impossible Dream”, Johnny Cash gets a lot of airtime and right now Patsy Cline is singing “Crazy”.

Bravo holds a sign while waiting for customers.

Bravo holds a sign while waiting for customers.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Keystone laid out the details of his grief and, fighting back tears, admitted that he had “returned to the weeds.” The dreamer told him not to let the drug be the “it” he thinks he needs and to find an object of power – something of deep meaning to both him and the relative he was at odds with – and let it be a healing force.

“There are good days ahead,” the Dreamer told Keystone.

We drove back to the Dreamer’s Spot in Ohio, where a client with a service-related mental disability was waiting for a haircut. The dreamer placed his Old Spice cologne, gel product and scissors on a rickety stool, lit his small generator, plugged in his scissors and got to work.

It wasn’t long before Keystone showed up with his guitar and an amp, playing his heart out before it was his turn in the barber’s chair — a shipwrecked office chair on wheels — to get his hair cut under a eucalyptus tree.

The Dreamer kept an eye on his work and carefully ran his scissors over Keystone’s scalp. He said that among the people he knows and cares about — the homeless, the confused, the wounded and even the wealthy — all are just trying to find their way home.


https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-18/lopez-column-barber-dreamer-west-la-homeless-veterans Lopez: Barber’s mission of healing in troubled times

Alley Einstein

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