Two months ago, after a dangerously quick Google/Yelp/Bing search, I decided to take my chances with a new hair stylist — we’ll call her Sam — because the woman who usually cuts my hair (and who has done so for the 17 years) had already left town and I was itching to be rid of at least a foot of the stuff before leaving for my Australian adventure. It was a Friday when I got this itch, the Friday before the Saturday when Irene was set to wreak havoc of hurricane proportions along the Eastern seaboard (which, as it turned out, was less havoc and more nuisance for us Northeasterners). So there I sat, as the winds whipped and occasional drops turned into a steady drizzle on the floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor of a brownstone-turned-hair salon, on that Saturday afternoon in the black leather swivel chair as, with each snip of the shears, I slowly began to recognize myself again in the mirror. So why, two months later, I got another itch to trim up the bob I’m not quite sure, but as I reflect on my latest trip to visit Sam the stylist, it is starting to become clear that the reason had little to do with hair…
Sam is twenty-one, self-described “pin straight” hair (that a wavy-head like me can’t help but covet), considers herself to be fairly hip and edgy and changes her hairstyle and color to echo and embody these identity markers. When I saw her this week, half of the jet black hairs had been saturated with the color of perfectly ripe pumpkin — “Halloween hair!” she exclaimed when I commented on the brightness of the orange. It was brighter when I first did it a couple of weeks ago, she said. I didn’t let her know that I had already seen the tiger stripe photo posted on Facebook. (As a rule I tend to err on the side of keeping my multifaceted, info-consumption practices fairly quiet outside of my immediate friends, who know this about me and seem to like me anyway, thank goodness!) She pointed to her roots and showed me where the color was beginning to fade to varying hues of blonde and, in some places, edging toward the color of a young tomatillo. Cool, huh? Sam asked rhetorically, as she swooshed the black drape around and fastened the snap buttons around my neck. In the spirit of polite conversation, I asked her how she was doing — actually, I asked how her day was going. This is where the morning took an interesting turn, transforming a regular haircut into something not quite nefarious, but far more engrossing and startling than I had anticipated.
Her morning, it turns out, had been anything but routine. Sam had spent the night at her mother’s house, which was almost 45 minutes away from where the salon was located in the city. I didn’t get the specifics on why she had decided to stay overnight instead of returning to her apartment that she shares with her boyfriend and which is only 20 minutes away. The reason didn’t seem important in comparison with what was troubling her at the moment. Her step-father, whom she later described as the “big guy, the protector” of the family, had left the house extremely early that morning. Sam became aware of this fact when she received a call from him on her cell phone at 9:00 am — her wake-up call. I couldn’t figure out why he was calling me instead of just coming into the room, she said as she pinned up my hair in three sections in preparation for the first cut. As it turns out he had gone to attend to her “crazy ass aunt,” her sister’s mother who had gotten herself into some kind of trouble — from Sam’s description, it seemed that the aunt had suffered what might be considered a psychotic episode, which her son, Sam’s 14-year-cousin, seems to have inherited. In fact, what began as mere small talk transitioned almost instantly into a compelling narrative when Sam worried aloud whether her young cousin was on the path to becoming a serial killer.
This initial set up of the story had taken up about 5 minutes, during which time an initial section of my hair had been cut in a manner resembling the “shorter than a trim” request I had made when we first discussed what was to be done to my hair. Much to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the feel of a bob that resulted the first time Sam had cut my hair — it was not a style that had suited me in the past but that I was embracing along with my newfound appreciation of my hair’s tendency to curl every which way. As she began to launch into the story of her cousin, however, I stopped paying attention to the cutting and my attention became instead ensnared in the various contours of this young man’s seemingly incessant dilemmas. His 19-year-old girlfriend was pregnant; he has a history of lying to family and friends and families of his friends; she described one incident that shocks me too much to document in writing; and has suffered consistent and unimaginable forms of abuse at the hands of his own parents. She paused, as if making the same connection I was in the same moment, and wondered aloud how such a boy was ready to be a father. Together in silence — I sat and she stood — we took in the weight of her question in the midst of the airy, light-filled space.
For the next 30 or so minutes I learned more details about this young man — about his older sisters who continued to carry the guilt of leaving for college while he stayed home with their mother and his father; about the grandmother who used to have some influence over him but who had also recently joined the ranks of the other adults in his life whose pleas and admonishments had little effect; about how he had gotten kicked out of more schools than she could remember; that even he knew that spending a night at Sam’s mother’s house was a temporary safe haven from the unsafe home he shared with his father; that he had begun to show signs that are associated, at least on television programs and other forms of popular culture, with sociopathic behavior (animal cruelty, steely composure). My only interruptions were to help her story along, to fill what threatened to become awkward silences of over-sharing with gentle, non-probing follow-up questions. Does he see his older sisters often? Does he go to school? Has he shown interest in any activity? Like my compulsion to eavesdrop at the slightest whiff of French being spoken, I am helpless to resist stories, especially about teens — stories about their complicated and complicating lives — helpless even, apparently, in a situation when sharp, shears are being used at lightning fast speeds in dangerous proximity to my head.
We eventually moved on to talking about the salon owner who was getting married this weekend and who was also busy opening up a new salon somewhere. She told me about a prestigious accolade she had received for her styling efforts. I learned about the new stylist they had hired and the endless search for another one to try and meet the demands of a growing salon. It was during this coda in our dialogue that I realized exactly how much of my already short locks she had lopped off. Sam’s giddiness, as she told me how much I was going to love this cut even more than the last, kept me from becoming too bothered that it was considerably shorter than what I had imagined. It is, after all, just hair and will always grow back. The same cannot be said of children who are robbed of their childhoods.
Early in graduate school, my friends and I would joke that after having peered through the specter of Foucault’s panopticon and seeing the world through kaleidoscope eyes, we could never [insert appropriate popular culture activity] without at least a glimmer of heightened awareness again. Likewise, it appears that simply “being” on sabbatical does not free up my inclination toward listening to the tales of others. I can no more turn off my deep interest in stories than my mother can resist forwarding to my email an endless supply of uplifting sayings and anecdotes. And maybe that’s ok.
I almost ended this post with the previous sentence, which would have been an incredibly self-centered thing to do and would have missed the real point that is less about a hair cut or the lenses we wear (that, if we’re open to the possibility, are also constantly evolving). What stayed with me from that morning of anything-but-routine personal grooming was the sheer force of our attachments and how we carry them with us, in both conscious and unconscious ways: the ways we embody them in how we move our hands (regardless of whether we happen to be holding very sharp instruments), change our breathing, in the dilation of our pupils, our postures — isn’t it just like our bodies to give us away. In sum, it was a humbling reminder that our stories are only partially our own and they very much live in the narrated truths and memories of others and vice versa (to very loosely paraphrase the much more eloquent sociolinguist, Charlotte Linde).