Kerry Baker returned from lunch to the chair he loved — the chair that had been the center of his career, the center of so many debates on sports or politics or the eternal question of what's wrong with kids these days.
Only this time, someone was sitting in Baker's chair. A skinny, baby-faced young man — 17, 18 tops, Baker guessed.
The barber's chair inside Alisha's Beauty & Barber shop, 4828 Ames Ave.
The young man was rotating the chair 'round and 'round.
“Boy, quit spinning in that chair,” Baker, then 40, said as he walked through the door.
“I'm sorry, sir,” the young man said. “I wanted to see if I could get a haircut.”
“Give me a minute,” Baker said. “I'll be right with you.”
Baker went through a glass door separating the front of the shop from the back and gave a shout-out to owner Alisha Webster and a few elderly women getting their hair done.
As he returned through the door to the front, the young man jumped him, shoving a gun in his face.
“Don't say nothin'. Get in the back!”
Baker's mind raced to the elderly women in the back. He swung — his left fist cracking the gunman's face. The young man fell but held onto the gun.
He then staggered to his feet — gun still in Baker's face. Baker lowered his head, hoping to tackle him.
The gunman fired. The bullet pierced the back of Baker's neck, crumpling him to the floor.
“As soon as it hits me, I know,” Baker recalls now. “I'm paralyzed.”
'He took two lives'
A year after the shooting, Baker can move his head and neck and not much else.
The bullet shattered his C5 vertebra and damaged two other vertebrae, paralyzing him from the shoulders down. The hands that cut so many people's hair — the hands that have written six books — are limp now. His left hand is flat. His right fingers are curled, as if he's about to crack his knuckles.
As he lies in his bed of sand — designed to help him heal from pressure sores — Baker's state is a stark reminder of the lesser-seen side of gun violence: those who are maimed but not killed. For every shooting death in Omaha — typically, about 30 a year — there are six shootings that wound.
Baker is one extreme example of that sobering statistic. One extremely forgiving example.
“I forgave him a long time ago,” he says.
He doesn't think, can't let himself think, that the gunman — 17-year-old Josh Provencher of Omaha — set out to shoot him that day. Never mind that Provencher twice shoved the gun in Baker's face. Never mind that Provencher took the time to turn Baker's pockets inside out — stripping him of about $200 in cash — as blood pooled around Baker.
Never mind that four days after Provencher shot Baker, he put a shank in the face of a 58-year-old real estate agent in Lincoln and demanded her wedding ring. When the woman refused, Provencher punched her in the face, knocking her down. He then stole her purse and briefcase before Lincoln police chased him down.
After that arrest, Omaha police connected Provencher, a gang member, to Baker's shooting. He eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree assault, robbery and gun use.
When he was sentenced last month to 45 to 95 years in prison, Provencher's face wrenched. He rose from the defense table, let out a long, quivering sigh and burst into tears.
“I actually feel sorry for him,” Baker says. “He took two lives: mine and his. And we're both still alive to think about it.”
One way Baker knows he's alive: the pain.
“People think when you're paralyzed you can't feel anything,” Baker says.
Not so. Baker describes the pain as if he's holding court at the barbershop.
“Sometimes it's like I'm lying on razor blades,” he says. Or with a “chain-link fence” wrapped around him. Or with a big flank of leather squeezing his torso.
“My feet. My arms. My chest. My stomach. My neck. My legs. All of the above.”
Adding infection to injury, Baker developed a pressure sore on the crease between his right buttock and hamstring. At first nurses tried to treat it by dressing it. Then a wound specialist ordered a wound vac to try to stop the infection's spread.
After eight months, the wound not only wasn't going away, it was growing — and threatening his recovery, if not his life. So he had surgery in early July. Doctors removed the infection and folded muscle over the wound.
Doctors recently told him the wound was well on its way to healing. In a few weeks — 10 total weeks on the sand bed — he should be on solid ground to resume his therapy.
That's where his wife comes in. Standing next to his bed, Andrea Baker talks about the cruel twists that have left them in this spot.
After years of being friends, they married on Nov. 1, 2010. She worked at Mutual of Omaha. He cut hair at Alisha's.
In late July 2011, Andrea Baker was laid off from her job. A week later, her husband was paralyzed. She had been mulling going to nursing school. Now she's gotten a crash course, caring for her husband 24 hours a day.
In perhaps the most humbling part of paralysis, Kerry Baker has to rely on Andrea to feed him every meal. Have an itch? She scratches it.
The other day, Kerry's hand slipped off of the bed. Without skipping a beat in her conversation, Andrea reached over, pulled up his arm and gently set it next to his body.
“If it weren't for my wife, I don't know where I'd be,” Kerry says. “She's been amazing.”
Andrea interrupts. “He's been the strong one through this whole thing. Really. He's been stronger than (the rest of us).”
And more forgiving. Andrea refers to Provencher and his accomplices — two others were prosecuted, one in district court, one in juvenile court — as “cold” and “heartless” and “animals.”
“She wanted them to rot in hell,” Kerry says. “And she's right, they were punks. But kids do stupid stuff. I really believe they had no idea what they were doing, how much pain they would cause.”
'It helped me grow up'
Maybe the reason Kerry Baker is so forgiving is because he has been where Provencher is going. Baker wasn't a gang member and he wasn't violent. But, he admits, he was after easy money. And he made dumb, self-destructive choices along the way.
Baker twice served time in federal prison for dealing crack cocaine — once in his mid-20s and again in his early 30s.
In the latter case, authorities alleged he was in a crack-dealing conspiracy in 2001 with a brother-in-law, Gary Lee Johnson. Baker denied it — saying he was dealing drugs, just not with Johnson or the informants who testified against him.
He fought the charges. A jury convicted him. A judge set aside his conviction, calling the informants unreliable. An appellate court overturned the judge. Baker eventually entered a plea deal and by 2007 was sentenced to time served. Six years.
Baker used those six years to write six books, loosely based on his life story. The first was “Playboy Mack,” a 300-page book about a bachelor's destructive lifestyle.
The opening scene, written years ago, describes a man shot and lying in a doorway — “bleeding, gasping for breath, trying to figure out what went wrong. ... Why? What did I do?”
His writing wasn't art imitating life. It was art initiating life.
“It helped me grow up,” Baker says. “Mature. I was tired of being away from my (seven) kids. I knew I had to make a change.”
The change paid off. Baker published the urban fiction novel through iuniverse.com in March 2011. He and Andrea did everything: edited the manuscript, shot a photo for the cover, designed the bound volume and the Web page.
He received an “editor's choice” award from the website. He had book signings throughout Omaha and, at the time of the shooting, was a few weeks away from a session at a Dallas bookstore that features African-American authors.
He was so pumped about his new side career that he scrawled a note to himself inside the first book he received.
"To Me! Good Job my guy. Congrats on writing the next best seller. See what you can do when you put your mind to it! Everything is Possible, now go and get that money. One love, K.B."
'I would have let them in, too'
Friends say Baker's attitude hasn't changed — nor has his love of writing, of meeting new people, of talking deep into the night.
One thing has changed: his voice. It's weaker — a couple of notches above a whisper — in part because he can't expand his diaphragm.
As a barber, the barrel-chested Baker used to greet customers with the force of his strong, sometimes-ornery voice. Andrea says his voice was “not Barry White-deep, but it was deep.”
He would dish it out and take it. Then he would clip hair — cracking jokes and waxing wise on sports, school, life.
“As far as Kerry is concerned, his advice is the advice,” sister Jennifer Baker says. “The only advice you need.”
Baker didn't heed the advice some barbers follow. In the cash-heavy business, some shops often keep their doors locked, and customers are buzzed in only if the barber recognizes them.
On that day, the door was locked at Alisha's. Someone else let Provencher and an accomplice into the shop.
“I would have let them in, too,” Baker says. “I never turned away a customer.”
And if Provencher had just sat in the chair, Baker would have talked to him — about finishing school, about the reality of prison, about making good choices.
His father, Bill Anderson, had heard Baker give those talks to teens. Even better, he saw Baker living those ideals.
“Everything was really starting to come together for him,” Anderson says. “And then this.”
In her letter to the judge, Andrea lamented that she can't make her husband's pain go away, can't fix his arms so he can hug his seven children (five of whom are adults) or hold his newborn grandson. Can't heal his legs so the former high-school sprinter and long jumper — he starred at Father Flanagan High School in 1989 — can walk again.
Can't erase his memories or his occasional reliving.
“I do wonder what I could have done different,” Kerry Baker says softly. “I wasn't fighting over the cash — he could've had that. The only reason I swung was because he scared me.”
'I've still got life'
A sign hangs on the wall above Baker's headboard.
“FAITH,” it reads, “makes things possible, not easy.”
Everything Baker wants to do, big and small, is hard now.
But with his pressure sore battle nearly over, Andrea says she sees her husband turning a corner. He works on his breathing exercises a half-hour a day, determined to strengthen his voice. Next he wants to flex his fingers so he can control his wheelchair. “I just wish I could move,” Baker says.
Three months ago, he was a groomsman at friend Ron Hoskins' wedding. Wore a tux. Posed for pictures. Celebrated with his five friends from childhood.
Those friends stop by — sometimes once a week, sometimes more — to mow his lawn, fix the plumbing, lift his spirits. Funny thing. They find him lifting theirs.
“Everybody's heart is still broken over this,” Anderson says. “He knows that. He always tries to be strong for us.”
On the dresser next to his bed, Baker has a printout of “Wildfire,” his sequel to “Playboy Mack.” With Andrea's help, Baker is polishing a final draft in the hopes of publishing it and supplementing their meager income. Baker's disability claim was denied after the shooting, and the couple live on Andrea's unemployment benefits and his minimal Social Security payments.
Despite that, they're pressing on with a much bigger project, a process started before Baker's paralysis: adopting a 9-year-old girl. The Bakers hope to finalize the adoption by October.
The girl's name: Justice.
“I've still got life. I've still got breath. We've still got goals to reach,” Baker says. “This past year has been a setback. But I still believe I can do anything I put my mind to. We gonna be all right. We gonna be all right.”
Indeed, his voice is softer, a bit raspier, as if someone turned down the volume.
But there's no less resolve.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1275, email@example.com