FILE - In this May 1, 2013 file photo, Michael Johnson, left, hugs friend Anthony Cymerys, known as Joe the Barber, in Bushnell Park in Hartford, Conn. For more than 20 years, Cymerys, 82, cut hair alfresco in Hartford for the fee of a hug. On Wednesday, June 13, 2013, Cymerys said as he was setting up, health officials and police told him and his friends, who hand out food to the needy, had to leave because they didn't have permits. Credit: AP
Hartford, CONN. (AP) -- An 82-year-old barber who has been giving free haircuts to the homeless in exchange for hugs for 25 years was granted permission by the mayor Thursday to keep working in a city park, despite orders to leave from police and health officials.
Anthony "Joe the Barber" Cymerys has been a fixture every Wednesday for years at Bushnell Park, where he cuts hair and his friends hand out food to the needy.
But shortly after Cymerys set up shop this week, he said, health officials and police confronted him and his friends and told them they had to leave because they didn't have permits.
"I thought it was a drug raid, honest to God," Cymerys said. "It was the peanut gallery on TV where everyone was watching."
City health officials said they ordered Cymerys out of the park Wednesday after unnamed local residents expressed concerns about the "safety and sanitation" of Cymerys' free haircuts to homeless people and his friends' food distribution. They also noted that Cymerys is not a licensed barber.
ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, MAY 13 AND THEREAFTER - In this Wednesday, May 1, 2013 photo, Colby Snow, 4, center seated, of Hartford, Conn., receives a haircut from Anthony Cymerys in Hartford's Bushnell Park. For more than 20 years, Cymerys, known as Joe the Barber, has been cutting hair alfresco in Hartford for the fee of a hug. Credit: AP
In this Wednesday, May 1, 2013 photo, settled between parking meters, client Aaron Peck, center, receives a haircut from Anthony Cymerys, known as Joe the Barber, in Hartford, Conn. Cymerys, who usually works inside Hartford's Bushnell Park, had to move his alfresco barber shop next to his vehicle in order to power his clippers after the portable car battery he was using stopped working. Credit: AP
FILE - In this May 1, 2013 file photo, Anthony Cymerys, 82, known as Joe the Barber, smiles as he works with clients in Bushnell Park in Hartford, Conn. For more than 20 years, Cymerys cut hair alfresco in Hartford for the fee of a hug. Credit: AP
A spokeswoman for Mayor Pedro Segarra said later Thursday that he granted Cymerys a special dispensation in light of his years of charitable work. The spokeswoman, Maribel La Luz, said the city will help Cymerys obtain a state barber's license if he likes.
Cymerys, who learned how to cut hair growing up and isn't a licensed barber, said he wasn't completely surprised by officials' actions because they've asked him before to leave the park and other areas.
He said he always takes health precautions including soaking his trimmers in alcohol.
"Twenty-five years I've been giving haircuts, and no one died on me," he said.
His friends questioned the city's actions, saying officials kicked him out of the park only a year after honoring him for his humanitarian work.
"It's kind of ironic that a year ago the mayor was giving him a citation for all the good work he's been doing with the homeless there and they kick us out," said George Pfuetzner, who gives out food at the park while Cymerys cuts hair.
Cymerys, of Windsor, began giving free haircuts to the homeless in the city around 1988, when he was volunteering at a shelter. He said he met a heroin addict named Arnold who needed a haircut, so he offered his services.
"I said, 'Geez, Arnold. Not only are you a bum, you look like a bum. How about I bring in my clippers?'" Cymerys recalled.
Cymerys, a retired businessman, said his father cut his hair as a child, and he took it up.
"It's all about inspiring people to do things for the least of our brothers," he said.