Banned From the Barbershop

The quiet death of a fighter for civil rights

On the day that Rosa Parks's casket was on display in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, here in New York City the body of another battler for civil rights lay in the city morgue. Nobody seemed to notice that Marc LaCloche had died; 12 days after his death, his body was still unclaimed.

Marc never inspired a boycott or sparked a movement, but he fought for a precious, and seemingly simple, right: to work as a barber. The prison system had trained him to cut hair while he was locked up for first-degree robbery, and he'd worked in prison barbershops for years. But after his release in 2001, the state refused to allow him to work as a barber.

Few ex-prisoners who are rejected for a barber's license fight back. Marc did. An administrative law judge reversed the state's decision, and Marc worked in a midtown barbershop for three months until the state appealed his case and took away his license. He found a lawyer and brought his cause to State Supreme Court in 2003.

Marc's court battle attracted the attention of the local media. Few people knew that the state was training prisoners to perform a job they couldn't legally do once they were freed. The judge ordered the state to hold a hearing about Marc's application. At the hearing, he'd have to prove he had "good moral character."

Marc collected glowing letters from two barbershops that wanted to employ him, but the hearing officer still denied him a barber's license, insisting he "tried to minimize his guilt" when asked about his crime. (Marc's friend had killed a woman at the scene of the robbery, and over the years he had flip-flopped about whether he was in the room.)

At the same time that Marc was fighting for a barber's license, he was waging another battle, this one against AIDS. Very few people knew he was sick; one of the few who did was Ezell Turner (whom Marc called by his last name). The two men were unlikely friends. They'd met in 2001, when Turner was a caseworker at the city's Division of AIDS Services and Marc was his client.

Over the years, they had grown close. Marc phoned Turner once a week, to give an update on his life or ask for help. By mid October, when Turner hadn't heard from Marc in three weeks, he started to worry. He called Marc's new caseworker, and she told him the news.

Now, it seemed, Marc needed one last favor. His body would be buried in potter's field on Hart Island, unless Turner could find money for a funeral.

The first glimpse Ezell Turner caught of Marc LaCloche was through a Plexiglas window at a welfare office near Penn Station. "Marc had a briefcase with his barber's shop equipment and his important papers in it," Turner says. "Most of the people are nodding or cursing or fighting, but he was just a cool guy. He really stood out. He was very polite."

Turner helped him sign up for Medicaid, cash assistance, and food stamps. And he found him a room in an SRO hotel. Eventually, Marc moved to a basement apartment in the Bronx. He put a barber's chair in a side room, transforming it into a makeshift barbershop. Whenever he was broke, he called his friend. "Turner, don't you need a haircut?" he'd say. He charged $10 or $15 for a cut, but Turner always gave him $20. "He was fast and good," Turner says.

Over the years, Marc revealed bits of information about his past. His parents had abandoned him at the hospital when he was born, and he'd grown up in the city's foster care system. At one point, he'd had to fight off an adult's attempts to molest him. He aged out of foster care at 18 and started selling drugs to support himself. By 24, he was on his way to state prison. He stayed there until he was 35.

In prison he learned that he was HIV-positive, and after his release, he dated only HIV-positive women, most of whom he met on the Internet. Turner knew many HIV-positive men who had unprotected sex, but Marc was more ethical. "He was a very nice-looking guy," Turner says. "He could've just not even told the women he had it, but he wouldn't do that."

Even without a barber's license, Marc continued to cut hair in at least two Manhattan barbershops. Still, he desperately wanted the certificate other barbers display on the wall by their chairs. He needed a license not only to cut hair legally, but also to pursue his entrepreneurial dream. His goal was to use his haircutting abilities to help other young people stay out of trouble.

"All he wanted was to open his barbershop and to have contracts with foster homes and cut the little kids' hair," Turner says, "and they wouldn't let him do it."

After Turner quit his job and began working at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center earlier this year, Marc continued to rely on him. By then, Marc's biggest complaint was his apartment. The heat never seemed to go on, neighbors stole his electricity (sending his Con Ed bill soaring), and rats crawled over him when he tried to sleep.

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