Two lives come together at an event for homeless veterans

Tramar “T” McCree cuts Kevin Caputo’s hair during an annual fair for homeless veterans.
Photo: Sam Morris
Kim Palchikoff

For 15 minutes, their paths intersected—a 52-year-old homeless man hoping for a free haircut and a 28-year-old cosmetologist volunteering at a makeshift barbershop inside a dilapidated military tent. Neither knew the other’s story, and it was a sure bet they’d never see each other after day’s end.

Kevin Caputo, a former Marine who had spent the night at a Catholic Charities shelter, sat in the chair with a plastic bib covering his shirt. Tramar “T” McCree was wielding the scissors at the annual fair for homeless veterans. For two days a year, he takes a break from doing nails at an upscale Summerlin salon and volunteers to cut hair for veterans who quietly trickle in to get that piece of irritating hair off their neck or those bangs out of their eyes. In the world of homelessness, free meals and beds are almost easier to come by than free haircuts done by real professionals.

Together, Caputo and McCree tell a story, about who’s been crippled by this economy, and who’s stepped forward to lend a hand.

Caputo says if his life were a movie, it would be the flipside of The Pursuit of Happyness, a tale about a homeless man who becomes a successful stockbroker.

Caputo grew up on the East Coast, enjoying a fancy-free life on New York’s Long Island. “Hung out with the guys in the ’hood,” he says. “We used to fight a lot, party a lot.”

After a major motorcycle crash, which left him with crush wounds on his legs and a large scar on his face, he figured a stint in the military would teach him some discipline and get him on track to a better life. “I figured there had to be something different than this crazy life on Long Island, so I decided to go into the service,” Caputo says. “I walked into a recruiter’s office and said I was ready to go. They were shocked. In those days, this was after Vietnam, the military wasn’t popular. Ten days later, I was on a bus to Marine boot camp.”

For all intents and purposes, the Marines worked. After his six-year stint, Caputo worked his way through college as a manager in the valet parking business. “It was hard sometimes, dealing with customers who got their cars stolen. I had to tell people at a nice dinner, ‘I’m sorry, sir, your car’s no longer here—there’s a lot of chop shops around Brooklyn.’”

Not all cars made it to them, however. One night, a customer’s car was stolen almost immediately. “He was really nice about it, said he didn’t need a ride home. Apparently he was a big name in the neighborhood. By the time he got home, whoever took the car must have looked at the insurance and seen who it was, because it was parked in front of his house, keys still in the ignition.

“I made a grand a night in tips, plus salary,” Caputo says. “I’d go to the bank on Monday mornings, deposit three, four grand from the weekend.”

In time he found himself on Wall Street with a million-dollar line of credit. He did well for 11 years, he says, marrying his girlfriend, divorcing her years later, burning out, seeking a change of pace and moving to Las Vegas. He mentions gambling in passing—poker, craps, the ponies—but doesn’t dwell on it. He worked for several years at a wedding chapel—taking photographs, developing a website, just about everything short of preaching and marrying. He also drove a limo and traded stocks.

He bought a home in Henderson and cashed out before the bubble burst. But his life was complicated by seizures that landed him in hospitals time and time again. Without family or friends for support, he found himself on the street, finding places to sleep at the Salvation Army, Las Vegas Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities. “I’ve had peaks and valleys,” he says.

Now he’s sitting in a chair with a stranger named T giving him a haircut. Caputo has no mirror to monitor the progress.

T has been quietly listening to Caputo’s story. Scissors fly, with the aid of an occasional squirt of water. Snip, snip, spray, spray. The haircutter seems to take up all the space in the room, in an outgoing, flamboyant, happy sort of way. Six days a week, the talkative 28-year-old from Kalamazoo, Michigan, applies acrylics, gels and tips for finely coiffed suburban women, chatting comfortably about what’s hot and what’s not.

He doesn’t normally do hair, but he learned it in school and when he heard of the need for volunteers to give haircuts at the homeless veterans event, he stepped up. “I wanted to make a difference for vets. They go into the service with these big promises, watch people getting their legs blown off, then they come back, get nothing.”

By the time this two-day event is over, T will have worked for 15 hours, giving more than 40 haircuts.

Then again, T never took life easy.

By the time he turned 18, he was a full-time high school student working at a fried chicken joint 40 hours a week. He speaks with the wisdom of someone who grew up too fast. His father was a bodybuilder on the road competing much of the time, so T was raised mostly by his mother. He says his parents’ forays into alcohol, then drugs, caused him to head out on his own.

After falling in love, he and his partner moved to Las Vegas, and now they are talking about marrying sometime, somewhere. They are raising T’s fiancé’s four children and a 3-year-old niece whose mother is in the military.

T’s passion is nails. He misses how it used to be, when glitz was in and the classics were out. “Oh my God, girl, puhleesse ... Back then doing nails was an art! It was big and people were, like, ‘Wow, you do nails!’

“For a while money in the nails was the big thing. I was doing a lot of escorts. They wanted me to cut up a $100 bill and put the tiny pieces under their acrylics. It was way hot,” T says. “I did a housewife—she was almost 80—who said, ‘You go crazy, put everything you could possibly put on it.’ I did everything in my imagination—painted murals on her nails—and they were gorgeous.”

Caputo sits in his chair under the scissors. Two men, two lives so different from one another, meeting ever-so-randomly for a haircut and listening to the other’s tales of wow and woe.

Fifteen minutes, and then they move on.

A version of this story first appeared in our sister publication, Las Vegas Sun.

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