DOWNEY – Growing up in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles during the '80s and '90s, when gangsta rap was reaching unprecedented levels of popularity, there's a good chance Lloyd Vernis could have been swallowed by the gang culture that permeated the area at that time.
"That was sort of your destiny growing up there, to join a gang," Vernis, 28, remembers. "But my mom had a different vision."
His mother enrolled Vernis in University High School near Santa Monica. It was a daily 24-mile roundtrip commute, but the Westside campus afforded Vernis access to two things: a better education, and an opportunity to gain a glimpse of life beyond the concrete jungle he lived in.
The sacrifice paid off. Vernis kept his head straight and, five days before high school graduation in 2004, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
Only 17 at the time, Vernis, who grew up without a father, needed his mom's permission to process the paperwork.
"My mom has a really smooth signature, but that day I'd never seen my mom's hands so shaky," he laughed. "It was a culture shock. I went from high school to three years later in a combat environment."
Vernis spent eight years in the military, including deployments to Afghanistan and large swaths of southeast Asia. Along the way he discovered a talent that would prove useful later: an ability to cut hair.
Vernis was honorably discharged in 2012 but struggled to acclimate to civilian life. He dabbled with school and drove commercial trucks, but happiness was elusive. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
It wasn't until he threw his back out that he realized he was at a critical juncture in his life.
"I was 26 and had to figure out what I wanted to do," he says. "I figured let me go for my passion."
That passion was cutting hair. In the service, Vernis' talent was relegated almost exclusively to buzz cuts, but at barber school he learned other techniques.
His friend, Nick Velez, is co-owner of Bastards, the downtown sports bar and grill. Velez recommended Vernis consider opening a barbershop in Downey, preferably downtown.
"My first question was, 'Where's Downey?'" Vernis laughs. "He was like, 'Just come down the 5 Freeway, get off on Lakewood and find a place."
Vernis settled on a location at 8317 Firestone Blvd., just around the corner from Bastards. It was formerly a mattress store. The Pride Barbershop is now the second known veteran-owned business in Downtown Downey.
The barbershop itself resembles a man cave more than a commercial business. There is a regulation-size billiards table, five flat screen TVs and a PS3. The shop has a lions theme throughout.
"Lions are kings of the jungle," Vernis explains. "We're all kings, man. We're nothing less than that." The shop's slogan is "Where Kings Unite."
Original art pieces, provided by Stay Gallery, hang on a back wall.
This past Veterans Day, Vernis and his three employees donated their time by providing free haircuts to military veterans. Plans are in the works for additional events in support of veterans, schools and the community at large.
For Lloyd Vernis, his barbershop is more than just a place to get a haircut. It's a testament to the rewards of hard work, a solid plan and sacrifice.
He also has no more problems finding Downey on a map.
"I live here now," Vernis says with a smile. "It's my home."
This article was originally published in 2014.