Beth Rooney for NPR
Increasingly, people are continuing to work past 65. Almost a third of Americans between the ages of 65 and 70 are working, and among those older than 75, about 7 percent are still on the job. In Working Late, a series for Morning Edition, NPR profiles older adults who are still in the workforce.
Some older Americans are passing up retirement in favor of starting businesses of their own. In fact, more than 20 percent of new businesses are started by people between the ages of 55 and 64. And one of those businesses is a barbershop in Calumet City, just south of Chicago.
It’s called Rich’s Den, and it’s where retired police officer Richard Piña, 69, starts his day. Even on a snowy morning, business is steady. It’s the “old-timers,” as Piña calls them, who come in early. They grab a cup of coffee and hang out before going under the clippers. Some of them have known Piña for decades.
That means they’ve known his daughter Alex, 31, for a long time too. She also cuts hair at the shop, throwing in the occasional wisecrack and supplying the accurate names and dates to go with her dad’s tall tales. She knows all of his stories. “They never get old,” she says.
One chair over, Piña wields the clippers and handles the customers as if he’s been doing this all his life. And despite having spent nearly 30 years on the Chicago police force, he has. He moved to Chicago and began training as a barber right out of high school.
“The town where I lived at was very small, very rural,” Piña says. It was in western Ohio, where the Piñas were the only Hispanics and the only Catholics in town. “They teach you how to be a farmer or work in a door factory, and I figured I’d have a better chance up here. Barber school was easy. It was eight or nine months, and you get out and make fairly good money.”
But when Piña got married and started a family, the police force offered more stability, a pension and health insurance. And, it turned out, the work was great.
“When you’re a rookie policeman, you go out there, I mean you don’t want to go home. It’s so much fun. There’s so much action, there’s so many stories you have. And after a couple of years, you’ve seen so much, you’ve done so much, you don’t even want to talk about it anymore — except when you go maybe to a cop bar with four or five cops and they start drinking, and everybody’s got stories,” Piña says.
He did a lot of plainclothes work, going after drug dealers, prostitutes and gangs. He was promoted to sergeant.
“I saw some stuff that people can’t imagine. I always said I got tired of seeing dead bodies because as a supervisor, if there was a death, I always had to go and you’d see it two to three nights a week,” Piña says. “After a time, that starts to wear on you.”
So he kept his options open. He had other businesses all during his police career — other hair salons, a taco stand, a rooming house.
“I don’t want to say I was an entrepreneur, but I was a hustler,” Piña says.
And when this barbershop came up for sale, he had the money to buy it. It had been a barbershop forever, and Piña didn’t change it much.
“Just kinda kept it like an old-time shop, and it’s kinda worked all right for us,” he says.
Piña has plastered the walls with sports and cop memorabilia. There are barber poles everywhere. A basic haircut is $13. It’s $25 with a shave.
“A lot of barbershops don’t do the shaving anymore. They don’t use the hot lather, the straight razors. They’ve just gotten away from it,” he says. “We always say we never cut anybody accidentally.”
Piña’s been retired from the police force for a dozen years, but he actually bought the barbershop several years before that. When he was still a cop, he’d work the midnight shift, then come straight to the shop and cut hair for a few hours. Now he still works that early shift, but just for four or five hours a day. His daughter Alex is the one who’s here full time.
In fact, all three of Piña’s kids work here. His elder daughter and his son are also cops, so they’re only at the shop a few hours a week. But all of his kids started cutting hair when they were teenagers.
Alex says she went to barber school but did her “clinicals” at her dad’s shop. “He would basically show me how or mess it up on purpose, and you’d have to fix it,” she says.
She didn’t plan to be a full-time barber. She has a degree in political science from DePaul University. But when she graduated, the city of Chicago, where she wanted to work, wasn’t hiring much. So for now, the barbershop is her career. As for her dad, Piña isn’t that concerned with making money for himself. Cops get good pensions, but he says you can’t buy this kind of time with your kids.
“What parent is lucky enough to be able to work with their child and interact? We talk, we joke, we laugh, we talk about her brother, we talk about her mom, they talk about my girlfriend.” They talk about politics, they talk about sports.
“It’s really, really neat,” he says.
But not perfect. Piña, a Southsider since he came to Chicago, is a White Sox fan. Alex roots for the Cubs. He shakes his head and sighs, “I don’t know where she gets that from.”