Saturday last was my every-fifth-week haircut. I usually go to a little place in my neighborhood, Fringe, and am coifed by the salon owner, Chana (pronounced: Shanna). Chana talks a mile-a-minute, she wears low-cut jeans and funky shoes and is an expert colorist. Chana is my fourth haircutter since moving to the city, and my second favorite. But Chana is out having her first baby, so I could not go to Chana.
My first San Francisco haircutter is still my favorite. Her name was Gina. She was at a different salon in my neighborhood (how trendy a neighborhood is can be measured in hair salons and shoe boutiques. I live in Hayes Valley. We have five shoe stores and four hair salons in the space of two blocks. I have trendy up my assand it feels so good!) and I went there because it was just around the corner and Molly said it was “a really great hair place,” and Molly frequently has really great hair so that was enough for me.
Gina and I got along great. She gave me “FlameHead” hair for South by Southwest one year, was always in a good mood, was hilarious, and complimented my shoes. It was a match made in hair heaven.
Then she got pregnant, and married, and decided that standing on her feet all day wasn’t something she wanted to do any longer, the selfish bitch, and I was left forlorn and searching for another person to trust with my hair.
Gina was all about a sort of attack posture. She would dive into my hair like a gardener faced with shrubs that had overgrown the verge and were threatening to hide the whole house. She spun me around on that chair to see every angle without moving herself, made me bend my head to and fro, backwards and forwards, arching my neck and scrunching my chin and basically took charge for the 90 minutes I sat in her chair. You knew good and Goddam well that you were getting a haircut and Gina was fucking giving it to you! Everything was cool, no matter what I asked for, and I always walked out feeling better.
What more can one ask of a haircut?
After Gina, I more or less gave up goofy hair crap. No more blue highlights, no more asymmetrical sides, just the basic “short back and sides” for me, but I was amazed at how many different ways to interpret that.
I tried several other cutters at that salon, had a few rather unfortunate cuts that made me look like someone else and not someone else that I wanted to look like until I found Nisa, a teeny tiny Japanese girl who spoke broken English but did wonderful things with a pair of ultra-expensive Titanium scissors and her own thin, elegant fingers.
Nisa was a hair artisan. She was precise, detailed and took every hair seriously. If one wouldn’t obey her, she’d make it obey. I didn’t really enjoy my time in her chair, since I often felt secondary to the artistic endeavor she was having with my coif, but I was never disappointed with the results and it was kind of an amazing experience to be among her clients.
She moved back to Japan, of course, and I was on the hunt again and thought I’d found my man at the cheap ($11.00) macho leather-barber shop on Market called “Male Image.” From the outside, one imagines that unless you wear chaps and sport a full beard and use chains for something other than your bike, you don’t belong in there. But I was desperate and they took walk-ins and they were cheap, so I set aside my backwards sense of snobbery and gave them a try. And my first time in, I batted .1000.
My barber was a thin, tattooed dude named Shane. Male Image is a no-nonsense, sit your ass down and shut up sort of place, unless you’re a regular. The regulars, I am lead to feel, went on outings to Mr. International Leather together and bought tubs of lube and latex and closed the shop for long weekends at Russian River. The walls are decorated with pencil drawings of handsome, hairy-chested men with cigars and motorcycle boots, and the experience is a little like I would imagine it to be if Tom of Finland had become a barber instead of a fetish artist.
My haircut was outstanding. I managed to get three haircuts out of Shane before he disappeared, too, victim (if what I was told was true) of a case of carpal tunnel from one too many haircuts. I again tried a couple more of the guys in there, but I felt like they couldn’t take me seriously without at least one piercing somewhere on my body, so I stopped going.
Chana was next. Fringe operates above the Hayes Street Grill, although you can never smell the heavenly scent of all their fish dishes surrounding you as your hair is washed and conditioned. Chana introduced me to the hair product I swear by and which I can only find at that salon. It’s from Japan and it comes in a large white tub with red lettering and has Engrish all over it about being cool and hip and it washes out easily and really handles my unruly mop, so I love it and now… she’s gone, too.
Which leads me to my next haircutter. I won’t divulge where he works or even his name (let’s call him Carlos) because the story I have to tell is so, so sad that I don’t want anyone who happens upon him at his place of business to berate the poor fellow.
I called Carlos’s salon on Friday to get a post-breakup haircut so I could be all cute and look stylish and handsome for all the guys who I just know are out there waiting for me. I didn’t know anyone at the salon so I just took the earliest appointment available — 11AM — with Carlos. That was all I knew.
The salon is typically San Francisco, with white-washed walls and arty touches and “funny” mirrors and a beautiful receptionist sitting behind an old iMac surrounded by shelves of expensive hair products in shiny bottles. Carlos was sitting in his chair awaiting me and he told me to take off anything I didn’t want to get “hairy” and put on a black smock in the bathroom and he’d meet me at the shampoo sink.
Okay, so, Carlos was cute. Too cute, really. Too young, too energetic, too “up” and too almost everything. What he lacked in tattoos he made up for in funky hair coloring. If I was trying out a new permanent stylist (until he moved back to Japan or had a baby or suffered from carpal tunnel) he probably wasn’t it, but it’s the haircut that matters, does it not? Why prejudge a man simply because he’s far too handsome to ever want me?
Anyway, one thing Carlos definitely knows how to do is shampoo and condition a head. It’s not the scrubbing, you know, it’s the scalp massage that masquerades as a shampoo. Carlos has strong hands and spent a good deal of time making me feel like I was slowly melting. I closed my eyes and decided to luxuriate under his expert touch, wondering idly if I should be more businesslike about this and stare at the ceiling as if I wasn’t enjoying it quite so much. Guilt, when will you ever leave me alone?
That done, we went over to his chair and he tied the extra large bib on me and he set to work. A weird thing occurred to me almost at once: Carlos’s station was immaculately clean. No brushes, no clippers, no combs, no gels or creams or spray bottles or anything. Chana’s station was an assembly of hair-oriented things piled on top of each other. To her left, all the styling tools one could ever hope for. To her right, a small wheeled filing system of products to straighten and curl and slick and wave and spike and anything else hair could be coaxed into doing.
Carlos had a pair of scissors and a small comb. Clearly, he was from the Nisa School of Immaculate Hairstyling. He was a purist, relying on nothing but his hands, his eyes and his scissors to do everything my hair needed. It was a bit daunting and I thought of asking him about it, but you don’t interrupt an artist at work.
I have learned how, in my life, to remain perfectly still in almost any position. This allows one to become invisible at parties, if one wishes, or to be ignored when it comes time to pick teams for dodge-ball, or to avoid the eye of that guy at the gym you have a huge crush on but would die if he ever so much as looked at you. So a haircut is a cinch. I keep my head still, it turns when it needs to turn, it locks back into place. I’m kind of a haircut machine, and I try to make the job as easy on the stylist as possible.
So it was a little bit surprising when, as Carlos finished doing the sides and started on the back, piling the top into a fauxhawk pyramid, that I felt a little pinprick on my ear. Now, I’m used to having hair pulled out by combs and brushes, I have a mole that’s hidden under my hair that sometimes gets sliced but quickly stops bleeding, and generally the people near your hair have sharp implements that need to be sharp to do their job. There’s a small but inherent danger in every haircut I receive.
Still, the warm wetness and sudden appearence of a trail of blood running along the edge of my ear and dripping into a quickly growing pool on my shoulder was… dismaying. “Hmm,” I thought calmly, “I have been cut.”
“Oops,” Carlos said, looking at my reflection in the mirror. “You didn’t even move! Did you feel that?” He was gathering Kleenex from someone else’s less immaculate station, shoving at the fresh red stain.
“No,” I responded, “it just felt like a pinprick.” He lifted the tissue away and examined his handiwork. “We need something to clot it.” That, I thought, was probably true. He asked me to hold the tissue to my ear, applying pressure to the slice, as he went to ask all the other stylists if they had anything for that. Shortly, they all looked over from their own customers at me — and since I love being the object of attention I sort of cringed and smiled — and some smiled back, some laughed, the salon owner came over to take a look.
The owner is a large, blonde, tattooed gay man with big arms and a thick neck and sandals. He looks, I thought, a lot like another guy I’ve had a crush on but would never actually do anything about, and I felt somewhat embarrassed as he looked at my bleeding ear. “I’ve done that before, don’t worry. It’ll stop bleeding.” He looked at me. “Does it hurt?”
I shook my head. “Feels a little warm is all.” Carlos took the red, wet wad from me and applied a fresh collection of Kleenex to my still bleeding ear. “I sent the receptionist to Walgreen to get something,” Carlos told me. “We don’t have any first aid things here.” The owner sort of grimaced, making him look even cuter, and I nodded.
Carlos, clearly, was at a loss. What would I think of him? Would I be mad? Would I sue? He would no longer look at me as I sat, quietly bleeding, in his chair. Another 15 minutes passed before the receptionist reappeared and they applied something that looked like a glass pen to my ear and I felt an immediate and strong sting, as if the pen was made of salt. “Now it hurts,” I said, as the blood did anything except stop coming out of my ear.
The owner stepped in again. I had now been bleeding for about 30 minutes. “You’re going to have to take him to the ER,” he told Carlos. “He can’t drive himself,” now would I, since I don’t have a car, “and it’s not stopping.” Both statements were clearly quite true. It wasn’t even slowing down.
Carlos literally ran out of the salon to fetch his Jetta and I removed the smock and wound up a new wad of toilet paper while I was in the bathroom and off we went together, driving through San Francisco, my hair stylist and I, to the emergency room.
Flash forwward two and a half hours, because that’s how long we sat on the vinyl seating awaiting a doctor on that holiday weekend, and for that entire time Carlos and I spoke few words. I had nothing, really, to say. I tried to make him feel better, since I had somehow in my own mind made this my fault, by saying that it wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to me that week (which was true) and that accidents happen all the time and no one really was at fault. Only, of course, he really was at fault entirely because he’d cut my ear open.
Once I was on the table, the doctor appeared and announced that I’d need a tetanus shot, because I couldn’t remember when my last one was and there was a danger of infection, and stitches to close up the haircut-induced wound.
Stitches! For a haircut! He took another needle and shot something numbing into the upper and lower pieces of my slice (and I can tell you that sliding a needle into the cartilage of your ear is not something you ever want to feel, unless someone has not already applied a salt-pen to it) and said it would take three stitches because, he said, “I always start from the middle, so my stitches always come in odd numbers.” I thought, that’s not true, but I was already into my ‘turn into a statue’ mode and could not actually speak.
I showed Carlos what his handwork had wrought and he looked like he was going to die. “I’ve been cutting hair for seven years, and I’ve never had anything like this happen.” Lucky me! “Wait’ll my girlfriend hears about this.”
Now, of course, we had to go back to the salon because I was not only the victim of a savage ear attack — I had a half-cut head of hair with a dried fauxhawk sitting on top like a haystack. “Are you okay to finish this? You seem kind of shaken.”
I meant that literally. His hands were shaking on the wheel as we headed back, and he was sweating. “I’m okay if you’re okay.”
The owner and a man I presumed to be his boyfriend/co-stylist came over to look at my ear and both clicked their tongues and sucked in air between their teeth. The receptionist asked “Are you all right? You look like you survived,” and I replied, “Three stitches.”
Carlos sat me down, put me in my bib and started exactly where he had left off, finishing the back of my head before attacking the top. All in all, when he was done, I had to admit that it was a very cute haircut.
A very cute, very bloody, ear-maiming 4-hour haircut.
Carlos and the owner huddled about how to handle my… anger? What could I do, really? Carlos said the cut was free (well, duh!) and I could come back for “a few more free ones,” if I wanted to. He offered me a bottle of “gentle shampoo” from Italy (retail value: $13.95) and I thanked him and walked out.
I don’t really have any big lessons to take from this story. I’ll probably go back and get “a few more” free haircuts because, you know, free haircuts. In San Francisco, that’s a couple hundred dollars at least. And I figure that this is a lot like that scene in “The World According to Garp,” where he and his wife are contemplating buying a house when a small plane crashes into it as they watch.
“We’ll take it,” he announces gleefully, as his wife looks at him askance. “But honey,” he says, gesturing at the plane embedded in their second-floor bedroom, “the chances of another plane hitting this house are phenomenal!”
June 2, 2005