I go to an inexpensive hair cutting salon for primarily two reasons. I can not justify spending a bunch of money on a hair cut, it is just not that important to me, and secondly, the beautiful, decked up stylists intimidate me. I like this particular chain of hair cutting salons where the stylists come primarily from South East Asia. I have been going there for the last 8 years. While I do have my favorite, I can’t always make an appointment with her due to our mutual schedule conflicts. When I get into her appointment book, I feel a joy comparable to winning a lottery. The joy, not because I will come back with a Vogue’s front cover worthy hair cut but simply because I love talking to this gentle, unassuming, kind lady from Vietnam. She always remembers my children’s name, their grades, she inquires about Sean. I like to know about her aging mother, her only son’s summer internship, her husband’s failing health. We are not friends, yet we share some meaningful slices of our lives with each other as she gives shape to my hair. I cherish that.
The times I don’t get her, we nod to each other conspiratorily as she looks up from whose hair she is styling and I follow the stylist I got that day. Every stylist I get, I get a story as well, a quick peek into another individual’s life, that they willingly share. I hear about a promising footballer’s high school football team, as his mother cuts my hair. I hear the hidden pride in the mother’s voice as she tells me he is a scholar athlete. We commiserate on parenting woes and both agree it is the toughest job on earth. I congratulate her on raising a great young man. Another stylist complains to me her husband doesn’t support her in teaching her biracial child her language – Spanish. She is from Colombia married to an American. A different stylish calls me ‘honey poo’ and ‘sweetie pie’ as I try hard not to stare at her HUGE false eyelashes. They don’t always give me great hair cuts, but I feel at home with them. And that comfort, to me, is important.
On a Saturday morning, I went to get a hair cut and found the place teeming with customers. As I waited, I played the guessing game, which stylist will I get that day. I knew all of them except one. She was elderly, somewhat stooped with age, frail with thick glasses, of South East Asian descent. She was at the front of the store struggling to understand the workings of the computer as she tried to take payment from her customer. The customer, a middle aged woman, was obviously in a hurry to be on her way, as she made certain gestures of impatience and mumbled under her breath, ‘oh dear Lord!’ The elderly woman was trying all sorts of keys and was getting increasingly flustered as the impatience of her customer rose. The manager finally came to help and I discovered her grasp of English was seriously lacking.
As I said earlier, I am not discerning about who cuts my hair as long as they have a license, yet I found myself wishing that I don’t get the elderly lady. I had already judged her seeing her lack of computer skills, her flustered demeanor, lack of confidence that I perceived. I got her, though.
‘Next!’ She said.
As I followed her to the chair, I thought to myself, so I will go home with a bad haircut. No big deal, my hair grows fast. It will be fine in 2 weeks.
‘Shampoo?’ She asked.
As she shampooed my hair, I started to relax under her gentle, yet firm massaging of my head. And like a predictable fairy tale ending,she gave me the best cut that I have ever had in that place! She didn’t speak much English, but that has never deterred me from conversing with an individual. In the course of 20-25 minutes, she not only gave me a fantastic hair cut, she also imparted life lessons like the purpose of life, selflessness, needs versus wants and that much sought after happiness that can be found in simple things. She said she had been a hair stylist all her life in reputed salons. But she doesn’t do it anymore because now she has a little grandson who needs her. Her daughter doesn’t earn enough to pay for childcare, so she gave up her career to care for her grandchild. She said there is no end to our wants and needs, and yes she needs money, yet she is not ready to trade the joy of watching her grandson over dollars. She is ready to go without. She opted for happiness at this point in her life. She takes her grandson to free library classes and playgrounds. She pushes him on swings and chases butterflies, she pets puppies with him and goes to pet stores to look at kittens, she cooks his meals and puts him down for naps. And she tells him stories. Life couldn’t be better. I saw her smiling through the mirror as she talked and I smiled with her.
‘Looks like you have a sweet young man to keep you company!’ I said.
‘Oh! He sweet! You see picture?’ She laughed with a young girl’s trill.
‘Yes please!’ I said.
She stopped cutting my hair midway, got out a picture of a chubby little 2 year old from her wallet and handed it to me. I cooed over it and the proud grandmother stood tall in her diminutive frame, smiling the sweetest smile.
She resumed her work, and I silently chastised myself for presuming. I strive not to judge, yet I fail.
As she swung away the protective cloth from my body she asked me,
She made me look good, very good.
‘I don’t like it. I love it! Thank you. May I have your card?’ I asked.
She handed me her card with a smile. She works just one day a week, when her daughter is home to take care of her grandson. I left a large tip, not just for the hair cut but for the life lessons as well. And, perhaps, atonement?