MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.—It took Sam Jr. a few minutes to fully warm to my Yankee charm.
"I don't talk politics. It scares away the clients," he told me, establishing the terms of our relationship.
"But I am your client. And I'm the one who brought it up," I pointed out, trying to renegotiate our contract. Sam Jr. frowned in the mirror as he circumnavigated my chair and fastened the barber's cloth under my chin. "So what happens when a client wants to talk politics and asks for your thoughts?" I pressed.
"I tell 'em it's none of their business," he sniffed.
I would have to try a gentler approach.
I came to South Carolina to find out just how serious a problem Bernie Sanders has with African-American voters, especially younger ones. Apparently I was having some issues of my own. It wasn't an entirely unexpected reaction to a nettlesome, whey-faced stranger nosing into decent folks' political views.
Most of South Carolina's Democratic electorate was African-American in 2008, the last time the Democratic primary here was contested. Next Saturday’s primary is expected to be the Democratic candidates' first test in a state where a majority of the voters are a different color than they are. That could be big trouble for Bernie, who's polling way behind Hillary among black voters.
Bernie has started to collect some African-American endorsements, but it's most likely not enough to tip the scales in South Carolina, where Hillary recently had a 60-percentage-point lead among black voters. Bernie's best scenario would probably be to narrow the gap enough to make a respectable loss look like a win. On the other hand, if Hillary does put the smack down, it could be cause for serious pause among black voters in other states who are still considering Bernie's viability.
With all those exciting possibilities to consider, I went to South Carolina last week in hopes of finding some answers and getting a stylish haircut. But first I had to persuade Sam Jr. to talk to me.
The barbershop decor at Sam's Uni-Sex, which specializes in "afros & afro blowouts, perms, braiding, fades and curls," belied Sam Jr.'s reluctance to discuss politics. Posters of President Obama, Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and other African-American greats gazed proudly over the barbershop from all four walls. A TV in the corner blared an Obama press conference, and muffled conversations overheard from nearby barbers' chairs were unmistakably political.
"So you're the only guy in the shop who doesn't talk politics?" I asked Sam Jr.
"I just listen," he said, avoiding my narrowed eyes in the mirror.
Then a brief smile twitched the corners of his mouth and betrayed his reticence. I was making progress.
South Carolinians are slightly more guarded about politics than those chatty folks in Iowa and New Hampshire, who seem to take a garrulous delight in their outsized roles in picking presidential candidates every quadrennial snowfall.
In Myrtle Beach, there are few indications that voters are about to participate in what could be the most important primary so far this year.
With the exception of a few Trump signs littering the roadside, most of the political propaganda here seems to be limited to the confines of cable TV, which is incessantly aglow with hate-filled, fear-mongering political ads about how John Kasich is a closet Democrat, or how Marco Rubio is part of an international conspiracy to establish a caliphate in Charleston. The ads are always paid for by groups with ominous-sounding names like New America Rising, Americans for an American America, or Responsible Lobotomy Patients for Ben Carson.
Bernie doesn't have a big TV presence in South Carolina, but he's crushing it on social media. And that's allowing him get up close and personal with young black voters who otherwise don't run in the same circles as the loud man from the northern woods.
Older African-Americans I talked to seem to think Bernie is still too much an unknown—a mysterious ideologue they've never seen in the flesh. But younger people don't seem to be as mystified. After all, Bernie's all over their phones and social feeds.
"Hillary has got the bigger name, but I'm hearing a lot of Bernie among my peers on social media. That's who I'm seeing pop up in my news feed. I hear more about him than Hillary," said DeAndrae Preston, a 21-year-old music student at Coastal Carolina University. "I hear about Hillary from older people, but young people are feeling the Bern."
Curiously, most of the African-American college students I talked to seemed to identify with the 25% of young black people who said in a recent NBC News poll that they're voting for Bernie. The 64% who said they were voting for Hillary were harder to find.
The top reasons that young people I talked to cited for supporting Bernie are college tuition, legalization of marijuana, jobs and civil rights—and not necessarily in that order.
"No one should go to jail for a nonviolent crime," said 19-year-old sophomore Chantin Tolliver, who cited legalization of weed as his top reason for backing Bernie. "My mom is voting for Hillary and my dad is voting for Ben Carson, but I'm voting for Bernie. Bernie has our vote—the younger generation."
John Thompson, a biochemistry major who also lists decriminalization of marijuana and college tuition as his top priorities, says he, too, is voting for Bernie because "Bernie is pushing harder."
I did find one African-American student who said she's planning to vote for Hillary, but even she added, a touch noncommittally, "I could be swayed." Shannen Holliday, a 24-year-old grad student, says she's always liked Hillary's "aggressive stance on civil rights, education and student debt," but recently found out her 21-year-old sister is voting for Bernie, and is now intrigued to learn more about his campaign.
Back at the barbershop, Sam Jr., who's 32, says he "used to roll with Bernie" after first learning about him on the hip-hop website World Star. But he's since decided to back Hillary instead because he thinks Bernie's ideas are "too far-fetched" to get past "the old heads in Congress."
Sam says his biggest campaign issue is access to affordable health care. He's one of the millions of Americans who've recently started benefiting from Obama's Affordable Care Act, and he doesn't want that taken away by Republicans or tinkered with by an overly zealous social democrat. Sam thinks Hillary will be a steady hand on the tiller to hold the course set by Obama.
The idea of building slowly and steadily on the accomplishments of the Obama administration, rather than tacking left, is something I heard more from older African-American voters. While Sanders' ideology and passion attracts younger voters, Hillary's experience and hard work for the Obama administration seems to be appreciated by folks over 40.
"Hillary is vetted. She's the status quo candidate," says Rev. Joe Washington, who leads a non-denominational church in Myrtle Beach.
Washington says younger black voters in his church like Bernie because they think of him as "unbought and unsold." But many older black voters feel they owe Hillary a debt of gratitude for supporting Obama's nomination eight years ago, and then working for his administration afterward.
Equally important, Washington says, is that a Hillary presidency would be a "twofer" that includes Bill Clinton—a man Toni Morrison famously called "the first black president."
"When I think about her, I think about him," Washington said.
Others, however, think Hillary is plenty tough and qualified to do the job on her own.
"Hillary knows how to work the old boy network in Washington, and Bernie is a babe in the woods," said Cheryl Bell, a Myrtle Beach realtor who works for a local low-income literacy tutoring program called The Freedom Readers. Bell says she understands why some younger black voters like Bernie's idealism, but for older African-American voters like herself, Hillary's experience, toughness and pragmatism are what really counts. "We're all starting from different places," she says of the perceived generational split among black voters.
But on election day, the voters who vote count more than the voters who don't. And it remains to be seen whether Bernie's social media appeal among young black voters will translate into actual ballots in South Carolina. Or whether he can pull undecideds to his side before Saturday.
"I'm not into politics much," says 18-year-old high school senior and potential first-time voter Essence Smith. "I'm not for Clinton and I haven't felt the Bern yet. I'm waiting for my turn, when I can develop my own opinions about the candidates."
The clock is ticking for Essence. But for others, the clock has already stopped.
Sadly, there are many black people whose votes will never count. Though both Bernie and Hillary have denounced the systemic racism behind the United States' culture of mass incarceration, the people nodding the most vigorously at that message still can't vote for either of them.
Back in the barber's chair, I ask Sam Jr. if he talks about politics with his buddies outside of work, when he's not holding clippers to someone's head. He tells me it's a moot point with most of his friends.
"They're not going to vote. They don't qualify because of past felonies. They're not involved in the political process."