Warren Lewis still cracks himself up each time he offers to set a customer's hair on fire.
He giggles as they wiggle under the flames of his candles, their eyes darting back and forth, trying to see their hair go up in smoke.
"I ain't set but one man on fire, just one!" Lewis says proudly, standing tall in his North Memphis barbershop.
That's a remarkable achievement, considering Lewis cuts hair by setting it on fire.
At age 80, Lewis has been "lighting Afros on fire" for more than 50 years.
His antics have taken him all over the world, and even to Hollywood.
"It is just as fascinating to me as anyone else" he says. "I can't believe I do it myself."
Lewis strategically waves the flames at the ends of two long thin candles around the heads of his clients and burns their hair. He is quick to pat out the flame once the hair shrinks to the length that he desires. It grows out more evenly that way, he says.
The idea for burning hair stretches back to his childhood in Louisville, Miss., where Lewis helped pick cotton and dreamed of better days ahead.
Outside the tiny shack he called home, Lewis and his 17 siblings wrung the necks of chickens, watched them dance around in the yard and then singed their feathers off in preparation for supper.
Years later, after he became a barber and was looking for a way to cut a giant Afro evenly, he remembered those chickens and lit a match.
Lewis is mostly retired now. Sometimes he comes in just to visit with the folks who make a habit of stopping in to rekindle relationships and catch up on the latest hot gossip about an old flame.
With shorter hairstyles and a tougher economy, fewer people request his signature hair burning method these days. But when they do he has a reserved chair for anyone willing to sit still for a singe.
With the jukebox playing an Isaac Hayes tune, empty candy machines in the corner and the smell of burning hair drifting through the shop, he passes along his sage advice to people who have fallen on hard times — many whose lives have, well, gone up in smoke.
He tells folks to go to barber school and always have a job. There will always be money available for a shave and a haircut, he says.
No matter what, he says, "hair is gonna grow ... when it is too hot, the farmers crops burn up, when it rains too much the construction man can't work, but hair is going to steady grow."
Lights and sirens blare outside on the tough north Memphis streets in the neighborhood he loves so dearly. Lewis occasionally peers out the window to see who is coming and going.
"If I had my life to live over again, I would do the same thing" Lewis says. "I love my job with a passion."
By Karen Pulfer Focht/The Commercial Appeal Jul 19, 2012 ©