It’s a fact. If I’m stressed or in a rut, I run out and get my hair cut. Unintended awkward rhyming couplet aside, the fact remains that chopping my locks, however short they may already be, has a rejuvenating effect. And for those keeping count, it’s been a shameful four months since that last happened and thus the dreaded ratty ends seem to have exponentially blossomed overnight. But how could I ensure that I would not get so wrapped up in someone’s tall or tawdry tale that I forget to pull the reins if the shears start to snip too freely? Once again I started with a general internet search, I visited a nearby Aveda salon, and there might have been an online review that caught my eye — who can say for sure, perhaps it was just a feeling that led me to walk into Feel Soho (oh, I’m just full of puns today, aren’t I?) and cavalierly inquire about the next available appointment. 1:15p said the woman who greeted me at the slim podium. The clock showed the time as 12:39p and I was in between meetings. The timing was perfect; I hoped the cut would be, too.
When I returned to the salon after a short walk to run an errand, grab a cup of tea, and inadvertently walk through one of London’s mini red light districts — not once but twice — I was greeted by a tall man with a broad smile and escorted to the black leather sofa in the back of the simply decorated, one room salon. I had arrived a few minutes early and the stylist to whom I had been assigned was finishing up with another client. I didn’t mind waiting. The few minutes afforded me the chance to drink in my surroundings. Red leather seats with low backs, two parallel walls lined with mirrors, an efficient 4-chair shampoo station, and signage: styling promotions that encourage you to refer a friend and receive a discount; prices for the services offered at the salon, all fairly routine; and three or four stylists bustling about, all men with female clients. Only too late did I see the information for the wifi connection. The time also allowed me to gather myself a bit before letting a complete stranger have a go at my hair. And not just any stranger. A man. A male hair stylist. Ok, I may be the last remaining person on earth who hasn’t had a male hair stylist, but it’s true. (And I don’t count the “advanced styling student” who was given the charge of blowing out my hair before a wedding. He and I did not see eye to eye about hair volume; I wanted none and he wanted more, more, more!) All of the people who have taken their shears to these locks have been women. So Stelios — pronounced with much more loveliness in his native Greek than English script may allow orthographically — stood next to me as I sat in a consulting chair and we chatted for a few minutes. Relief washed over me as my few requests were heard and repeated back to me in a kind manner.
A young woman gave my hair a lovely shampoo and massage before walking me to a chair facing a mirror near the front of the salon. Instantly my mind went to a scene from The Artist in which Peppy writes a note for George on his dressing room mirror. In another in a string of beautiful scenes, George spills his drink onto the mirrored surface below him and we, the audience, see his image come through the dissipating liquid. What did George see? Was it the same as what the audience saw? Although I was looking straight ahead, what I was registering was everything that was reflected but my own face. Mirrors possess strange powers in how they allow us, beckon us, force us to see and what they cleverly obscure if we let them.
Stelios met me and we talked for a few more minutes before he began to snip with small and precise cuts, many of them, taking only a small number of strands in between his fingers for each cut. He switched to a second pair of shears midway through the process, freeing them from the thick, black case that held no less than a dozen different scissors of similar size. He took time and care and in the process started a conversation in the same fashion. We talked first about where I was visiting from and then, because I couldn’t help myself from asking, he offered responses about where he had emigrated from: Greece, a year and a half ago, and slowly enjoying London more and more as his network moved out of the realm of Skype and took more shape in the form of a community in his new town. We talked about economics and the decisions a nation makes in support of or against its citizens, who makes up nation state versus citizenry — and is “versus” really the right relationship? (no.) — and reflected with sadness about recent events in his homeland, including worry for family who are still living there. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to education. Funny how that happens. I have found it a simple explanation to describe part of what I do as being a “teacher of teachers” and today this led to a discussion of how qualifications transfer between countries. You see, Stelios has been cutting hair since finishing high school — making him, I later realized, nearly ten years my junior. Age epiphanies aside, I learned that after he received his initial training he then continued to study and was certified in his homeland as a trainer of stylists, although he has yet to put this training degree to use. So we talked about certification of qualifications, about vocational education and the value placed on various life choices, about what qualifies someone to be able to do something or to be someone. It seems as if we are always, everywhere, managing the ramifications of the power held by pieces of paper. As we talked, I sat in my red client seat facing the mirror and Stelios also sat in a metal, kidney-shaped stool, first to my right, then to my left, and then behind me as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I refuse to believe it was mere coincidence, then, that later that afternoon, while waiting for a colleague at a coffee shop, I read the following passage in Teju Cole’s Open City in which the narrator, Julius, relishes the comfort of a visit to the tailor following his father’s death:
The sensation of being in the tailor’s shop was, even in those circumstances, pleasant. I liked the smell of new cloth and, for me, the intimate wonder of getting measured for clothes was like that of getting your hair cut, or feeling the warm back of the doctor’s hand nestled against your throat as he checked your temperature. These were the rare cases in which you gave permission to a stranger to enter your personal space. You trusted the expertise proffered, and enjoyed the promise that the opaque maneuvers of this stranger’s hands would yield a result. The tailor, simply by doing his job that day, comforted me.
This is my third re-read of Cole’s novel. I can’t help myself from reading it. Whenever I have a few spare minutes, often while waiting for a meeting to start or the tea kettle to boil water, I tap the kindle app on my ipad and pick up where I left off. Each read brings new highlights as the text calls out in unexpected ways when before the same words were mere supporting cast. This passage, read on this afternoon, provided perspective, reassurance, explication of sorts — why the mundane is what we seek when our equilibrium is set off-kilter by disruptions both large and miniscule, in the hopes, perhaps, that the routines of others might catalyze some of our own.
From time to time, in between the other threads of conversations we held in parallel, my male hairdresser with curly, chestnut colored hair that complemented his amber colored buttoned-up vest, would check in to make sure he wasn’t veering too far off the haircut path we had charted earlier in the afternoon. He hadn’t and with each passing moment I felt whatever stressful ruttiness I had been carrying around just lift away until at the end I had my own bona fide fringe. I felt like a rock star. And sometimes that’s just what you need.