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June 9, 2011 / dlw43

Free Haircut

Why does it hit you all at once that you are in state-of-emergency need of a haircut? Who and how become almost irrelevant in comparison to when. And when it hit me this time, I wasn’t in a position to justify paying for a decent one. Neither, however, was I up for the disappointment I get from the cheap ones. The urgency factor was thus kicked up just that much more. (It’s always the same: I think it’ll be the one time my haircut’s going to be great. From there I segue to magical transformation of my thin, frizzy hair. Then said great haircut somehow bestows me with a more attractive face, body, and, finally, a better life.) By the next day (or sooner), these fond rhapsodies are always followed by bitter, reluctant admittance that nothing’s changed much, especially my hair. To avoid the hair despair cycle this time around, I decided to cut it myself or volunteer as a haircut model. The monetary savings, my logic went, would sufficiently offset the probable disappointment.

Plan of action notwithstanding, it took serious self-restraint, as my haircut urgency cycle began to peak, not to tromp off to the bathroom with pulsating mean gleefulness and the all-purpose scissors. Somehow, I bargained with myself to do a search of craigslist’s free section first. One time, I told myself, then I’m going to town.

I got one hit for the word haircut: an offer for a chin-length layered bob haircut.  Jeepers, the exact haircut I wanted. Slightly calmed by having what appeared to be a little bit of luck, I renegotiated for an extra three days before I went the d.i.y. route. Reasonable time enough, I figured, for them to get back to me. After that, i swore, the world was going to see what a *real* aysmmetric hairdo was. harumph.

As it turned out, someone did email me within the three day moratorium, and as soon as I made the appointment, I began to fantasize what life as a person with cool hair would be like. Though I feel the ride beginning, as I always do, I don’t care to get off.

Funny thing, I almost didn’t go last night because I was tired.  But something in me–likely the thought of having to deal daily with my disheveled do–got me up and out of the house.  I arrived at the salon 30 minutes late. A stylist unlocked the door and let me into the salon. She was Carrie, the stylist whom I’d corresponded with and who’d be cutting my hair. She walked over to a table, picked up a water glass and said, “Let me get you a glass of water.” I declined but thought it was strange she didn’t ask me first if I’d wanted one. Then I thought she could’ve been specifically trained that way. Maybe it’s part of the salon “experience”.  Quick shrug, and she drank it herself. Then I was led to her chair.  There were about four other people there, including another hair model.

As I bent over to get my purse situated, another woman started discussing with Carrie whether I or not I should take off the turtleneck I was wearing. My neck length, hair texture, and height quickly became part of the discussion. This person, obviously Carrie’s manager and trainer, squinted at me with her head tilted up and her arms crossed in front of her.  Shorter than me even in heels, her facial expression was simultaneously impassive and domineering. I felt myself becoming immediately drawn to her. She continued on talking about me as if I weren’t there. Embarrassingly, I began to feel a little flattered by the attention. And even if I wanted to, which I absolutely didn’t, I didn’t have much right to get uppity with her. I was getting a free haircut precisely for having no say. 

I changed into a robe/drape thingy and sat down in the cutting chair where Carrie began the evening with a scalp massage. The irony was so thick I stopped her about five seconds into it. I could not figure out if she was doing a mock new age-y shtick to relax me by making me crack up, or if her hokiness was sincere. Either way, it was creepy.

Later on, it occurred to me that duality might be a pronounced part of Carrie’s personality.  She often, and perhaps unintentionally, seemed to use what, for lack of a better term, I would say was an impudent tone to convey the most neutral bits of information. Or, it could be that she was (and is) p.o.’d to be in her late 30s and training to become a stylist.

I was there from 7:20 until 9:50.  In those two and a half hours, my scalp was analyzed in inch by square inch parcels. Despite Carrie’s insouciance, the instructor had some classy gravitas going on.  It was obvious that she had the rare combo of digging something and being highly skilled at it as well. 

She gave a mini-lecture on the shape of my head and the architecture of cutting hair, individual waves were pointed out, cowlicks routed out and compensated for, and skull ridges and irregularities felt and duly noted, prominent occipital bones accounted for, asymmetric hairline and “whorl” (?) dealt with.  Carrie’s body, arms, and hands were repeatedly adjusted. In the end, I had a layered bob that was uber-customized to my specific head shape and hair. 

Both stylist and trainer spent equal amounts of time on my hair; sometimes they were working on me simultaneously.  The instructor went back and forth between Carrie and another stylist, micro-managing the proceedings with an intriguingly flat affect. She spoke not one a peep of beauty shop banter, unsurprisingly, and had petite, pretty hands. Down her inner arm was an elongated Felix the Cat-looking tattoo.

In retrospect, I realize her mastery bowled me over instantly, especially when contrasted with Carrie’s lack of it. Not only could she solve my hair problems, I was sure she had solutions for all my problems. I would get envious when she left Carrie and me to go over to the other hair model’s chair. I can finally say I completely get the whole hairdresser-cum-therapist dynamic. And actually, it was moving to objectively witness–let alone be the recipient of–such caring attention to detail. It’s rare. 

But of all the fascinating little excitements of the evening, the best ones were when the instructor would flip her shears outward and back again.  I believe she was probably taking the shears’ measure–testing their weight, getting their balance right in her hand.  She did this unconsciously as she proceeded through the haircut. She scrunched down for most of it, keeping her head jutted forward while taking in all planes, angles, connecting  points, and stationary leads that she had been lecturing Carrie about.

The scissor-flip move would hit me with a frisson of giddy surprise every time she did it. Now I think I understand why: it was a revelation of both her vulnerability and expertise, which is an astoundingly honest pairing of attributes to observe. The paleness and frailty of her inner arm, the arched position of her wrist, and the graceful way she performed the move shocked me. I saw so much of her, who she was, through that physical move. It encompassed her from animal instincts all the way up to highly-developed skills. That’s a lot to see in one person, even if you only see it a few times and only for half a second each time. A clear as water mantra was borne of the clutter in my mind every time she came at me: come closer, closer, closer…..

I went home and had my usual reckoning of disappointment, but I went somewhere else a week later and actually got a cut I semi-like. On that night though, the haircut–even as it was the only thing that mattered–was also the last thing that mattered.

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