Do Something for Nothing: Seeing Beneath the Surface of Homelessness, through the Simple Act of a Haircut
“Do Something for Nothing is no real reflection of the magnanimity of the project behind it. It is marketing for a product, and that product is a man—the only man in this book who is not in great need.”
Erica Jong, in her Inventing Memory, asks an important question: “What became of anonymous charity? Is charity true charity when it embellishes a rich name?”
“I bless the man who gives without a plaque,” she states, “to commemorate his giving.”
Even the most cursory of Google searches will return heaping praise for Joshua Coombes’ book Do Something for Nothing, in which Mr. Coombes might devote 216 pages to inform them of his greatness. And maybe he’s right: he’s become a leading voice, and face, for awareness of the unhoused both in the United Kingdom and around the world. Even the book itself spares no expense of ink to tell you how important it is that you buy it, with three celebrity recommendations, two author recommendations, and the publisher’s own endorsement. It’s hard to disagree with the generous blurbs of Morgan Freeman, the voice of God, or Nick Cave, the pen of God, or Joshua Coombes, the author of this book, who seems to think he might just be God.
As our own barbershop manners have always told us, however, we can. So let’s agree to disagree.
You can be spared the 216 pages that come of it: Mr. Coombes gives haircuts to unsheltered people. They look weathered by the street before, the illustrations remind you, and better after. That Mr. Coombes’ endeavor is noble is not in question; he is hardly the first to engage in this practice, which outreach groups have been doing for decades. He’ll not be the last. There is nobility in it, and it’s an important aspect of helping to build new lives for those most in need. Mr. Coombes is just the most visible of the herd, with 157,000 Instagram followers to praise but one young, handsome barber. “When you’re on the fringes of society,” the book’s back cover informs us, “being recognized can mean everything.” The same could be said of hair stylists.
The problem here, and it is insurmountable, is that Mr. Coombes’ book is not about the unsheltered, or even about their transformations and the good and sure effect—even if only to morale—that this project must have had for them. The problem here is that Mr. Coombes’ book is about one thing and one thing only: Mr. Coombes.
All of the book’s two dozen stories, ostensibly about others, are told in the first person; it seems symbolic that the vast majority of the chapters begin with the letter I. Each stands to tell the story of how magnanimous Mr. Coombes is—and, again, he is—in his efforts. The first person is correct; Mr. Coombes is the first person here, and in many ways the only person here, relegating the stories of the 34 unsheltered people he meets to supporting roles, a legion of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns on the streets of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Whenever characters reappear—not as often as one would like—to check in or provide Mr. Coombes and subsequently the readers with their progress, it is always, magically, in some way that praises him.
When Theodore Roosevelt released his self-aggrandizing memoir of his time with the Rough Riders, humorist Finley Peter Dunne quipped that the book might better be titled Alone in Cuba. Mr. Coombes’ effort here, in turn, might be Alone with the Homeless.
It is easy to understand the draw to the spotlight; Mr. Coombes’ efforts have been rewarded with coverage in a documentary by blurb provider Morgan Freeman, and no shortage of media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. These are clear rewards to anyone, and the attraction might be too magnetic to escape. What he’s doing—regardless of its originality—is good, and important, commendable and kind. But Do Something for Nothing is no real reflection of the magnanimity of the project behind it. It is marketing for a product, and that product is a man—the only man in this book who is not in great need.