When he was just 15 years old, Youssa Ben's family and friends and neighbors knew the best place to get their hair cut wasn't up at the corner barbershop, it was at Ben's house. More specifically, it was in Ben's mother's basement, where he began chopping hair partly because of his little brother.
"I picked it up because of him," Ben says. "I didn't want him looking raggity going to school, wanted to keep him well groomed. It just kind of went from there."
From there meant a word of mouth-sort of business that led everyone to the basement in Westpark and a future as a professional barber, even if his mom might have initially hoped her son would be a doctor or lawyer. But she saw her son making money and staying out of trouble, so he got her blessing.
Ben is 33 years old now and has spun through barbershops across Cleveland after getting his license about five years ago after finishing up at the All-State Barber College in Ohio City. There was Santana's barbershop and then Frank's, a shop downtown that shut down after police came looking for one of the owners on drug charges. "Yeah, I guess there was some drug money or laundering," says Ben.
No matter. By then Ben had pretty much figured out how to network and market himself, and though he works out of the B Loft Barbershop down in the Flats near Stonebridge, more often than not he's at his clients' homes making house calls to some names you definitely know.
"I started off with the social media, Instagram and whatnot, and I jumped on early and pretty much figured out how to network," Ben says. "The first person I was trying to get was Swish."
The first celebrity or athlete, he means. And Swish, of course, is J.R. Smith of the Cavs.
"He hit me up for a haircut when he came to town," he says, and thus Ben was introduced into the small network of folks taking care of Cavs and Browns players, the kind of work that has you keeping a travel pack with all your tools in the car and making odd-hour arrivals at their houses to keep them looking good.
"I've done Channing Frye, Kyrie once, Joe Haden once, a few of the Browns players," he says, including onetime Brown Phil Taylor.
He's basically working straight by appointment these days and trying to continue to grow his network.
But chopping up Joe Haden can't be the same thing as cutting your little brother's hair in a basement, right? The skills and experience are there, but the singular opportunity to do so and, however slightest the possibility, maybe screw it up. How nerve wracking.
Ben laughs when the idea is brought up. First of all, he's really good. And second of all, when you're that good, you know how to fix things so no one ever knows anything was wrong in the first place.
"Once you get to a certain point in the barbering game," he says, "you might mess up but there's always a way to fix it. To understand hair, how it looks and how you cut it a certain way, if you accidentally put a line in a fade, for example, there are ways to fade it right back out."
What's Ben up to when he's not cutting hair?
Well, first, "I'm always cutting hair," he says. "I'm up at 7 a.m. and I leave for work and I do housecalls after that and then I crash."
He's been working for the privilege of doing so for a decade and a half now. "The only thing, I think, that people don't understand -- they think I just started when I went to school four years ago and then started doing amazing shit. What they don't understand is I've been doing it for 16 years now. It's been a lot of hard work, countless hours of haircuts, pulling 12-hour days in my mom's basement. I just wasn't going to stop."