Barber Nicolas Martinez has been cutting hair in Richmond Hill for weeks now, putting skills he learned in the Marines to good use by giving something back to those less fortunate.
But he wouldn’t have been doing any of that here, had Martinez’s truck not broken down on I-95 near the Ogeechee River on Christmas Eve.
He’d hoped to be in Florida on Christmas Day, part of his plan to reconnect with veterans like himself, people who’d made multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and then had come home to find they’d lost their sense of mission and were losing friends and comrades along the way.
“I woke up one day and got some bad news,” Martinez said. “I learned that some of my military buddies had committed suicide. I couldn’t cope. I had some hard times. I felt like I could do more to reach out to help people.”
At the time, Martinez was living with his fiancé, Jane, and their daughter, MaryJane, who is now 10 months old, in New York. He’d spent the past several years cutting hair in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and had opened his own shop.
But then he closed up and went to New York City to cut hair while he and MaryJane prepared to raise the daughter who, at the time, still was on the way.
But something about cutting hair in the Big Apple didn’t appeal to Martinez, who said he’s tended to the tresses of everyone from celebrities — including former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani — to prisoners and the homeless.
“It didn’t really feel right,” he said. “I didn’t feel I was doing anything for the community.”
And then Martinez had the idea of creating his own mobile barber shop.
“There are a few of them in New York, they have that ice-cream truck look,” he said. “And that’s when I decided I want to travel the country and give people haircuts, and focus on veterans and everybody who needs one, and just try to do good by people.”
After talking to clients about his idea, an old Airstream trailer and truck were donated and Martinez restored them both. He and his wife saved money, got things ready to roll and headed out with the plan of doing it for a while to see if the project would pan out.
“We would stop by different military bases, a few orphanages, and see who needed help along the way,” Martinez said. “Then the truck broke down.”
After an attempt to get the truck fixed didn’t work out and left Martinez without funds, he found VFW Post 7331 in Richmond Hill and got in contact with post Cmdr. Fausto Tenon and Tenon’s wife, Saray.
That was Jan. 7.
“My wife and I met with him and his family the next morning. … We wanted to verify his situation and I made the decision to help him,” Tenon said. “We moved his property to a safe location. We reached out to Kristi Cox from Untied Way in Bryan County, and she has been a blessing.”
Cox checked out Martinez’ story as well, then connected the family with First Baptist Church in Richmond Hill. At the same time, Tenon and his wife solicited help from Savannah Christian Church’s Lighthouse Community Care.
Both helped provide Martinez and his family with food, baby supplies and clothing, and the United Way put the family up in a Richmond Hill motel. Then friends of Tenon’s paid for them to stay longer. At the same time, Tenon and a fellow VFW member took Martinez around to look for jobs, and he was hired as a barber by SPP Barber Shop in Richmond Hill.
Manager Mystur Cephus said he heard about Martinez from clients and after talking with the shop owner, they decided to give the New York transplant an opportunity. And Martinez can cut hair, Cephus said.
“He’s real good, actually,” he said. “You can tell he’s been doing it for years.”
And that’s been the thread that runs through the story. Nearly everywhere Martinez turned, he’s found help.
Cephus put it this way: “When you give out blessings, you get blessings, you know. That’s how I look at the situation.”
Tenon said the help the community has lavished upon the former Marine is heartwarming.
“We all have been helping him in everything we can, and I really thank the community of Richmond Hill for stepping up when someone is really in need,” Tenon said.
Martinez had a rough childhood in New York. He was kicked out of school for fighting, he said, and probably would’ve wound up as a statistic had he not been put in New Jersey Youth Challenge.
“I was a horrible kid,” Martinez said. “I gave my mom a hard time. I was kicked out of the public-school system. I emancipated myself at 14 and went to New Jersey and got into Youth Challenge. I went into the Marine Corps immediately after that.”
That was in 2004, still within easy recall distance of the 9/11 attacks.
“Nine-eleven happened in my back yard and it gave me an air of patriotism,” Martinez said. “Before, I didn’t quite appreciate this awesome country.”
He did two extended tours, one each in Iraq and Afghanistan, during his 4½ years in the Marines.
Because Martinez spent some of his childhood cutting his sisters’ and friends’ hair in New York, he cut hair for friends and fellow Marines.
Cutting hair for shipmates during duty on board a ship led to the chance to cut the ship’s captain’s hair, and afterward, Martinez was sent to the Navy’s Master Barber School.
He’s been doing it professionally ever since, and revels in the connection between barber and client and the way a good haircut can make a man feel better about himself. That’s important, Martinez said.
“Everybody feels better in their own skin when they have a good haircut,” Martinez said.
News of Martinez’ plight touched a number of hearts. He’s had much given to him, he said. And he’s now working on something that was suggested to him earlier this year when he told a client about his plan to go around the country, giving haircuts to veterans and the homeless and working at local shops.
That client, Martinez said, was a producer for the television series “American Pickers,” and he urged Martinez to film his journeys and then submit them for a possible series.
In the meantime, there’s thanks to give. In between stints at SPP and helping someone who donated a transmission and the labor to get his truck running, Martinez has cut hair for the homeless in Savannah through the Lighthouse.
Once the pickup is fixed, he’ll head further south, but perhaps not right away.
“We’re shooting for getting it fixed as soon as possible, but then it’s not going to be ‘head straight out of Dodge,’” Martinez said. “We have to go around and say thank-yous and do maybe a few more haircuts while I’m here.”