The metallic snipping sound of scissors on hair competes with the wail of a hair dryer. They’re both overpowered by Madonna’s Material Girl, which is playing on the in-house sound system. It occurs to me, as I sit there in the hair salon waiting for my stylist to finish up with her last client, that a Madonna song has probably been playing in a hair salon somewhere in the world for every second of my life. The Madonna of 2006 studies the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, which I think is appropriate for her. There’s a saying in the Jewish religion that although we may be scattered, with different customs in different places, to walk into any synagogue in the world is to read the same prayers and be part of the same great tradition. So too, Madonna is the thread that unites all hair salons throughout the known universe.
Her, and those weird sinks that they always have in the back, where clients awkwardly crane their necks backward for a shampoo and rinse. These sinks have actually been implicated as a rare cause of stroke in the young (which is itself rare). The odd position strains and sometimes tears the arteries of the neck. The body treats the tear like any other paper cut and begins to form a blood clot over it. Occasionally, the clot grows large enough to dam up the blood flow to the brain, or sometimes a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to the brain. This has come to be known as a “beauty parlor stroke.” These are the kinds of things that can keep people up at night. It’s really rare, however, so go ahead and enjoy that shampoo.
By rights, I shouldn’t be here. Someone of my age, sex, and financial means is probably better off at a Supercuts, the University Barber, or Ralph’s Scissor Palace. I’m here, in this place that bills itself as a “salon”, because I used to work in one as a receptionist. After a summer of free high-end services, I couldn’t go back to the simple ways of the barber shop. Haven’t you ever read Flowers for Algernon? Sure, I tried to go back to barbers, and it worked for a while, but then this one time my sideburns came out completely different lengths. Granted, all I had to do was point it out and the problem was easily shaved down, but the point is that I shouldn’t have had to ask.
Though salons may vary in size and quality, they all share the same essential features, like finches or human faces. As I look around the tiny salon, I see all the right DNA. There’s the sizable rack of hair gels, conditioners, and shampoos for sale, none of which ever seem to do much for my uncooperative hair. A basket of hair brushes. The weird sinks toward the back that might end up killing me. The swiveling chairs. And of course, the photos of people with impractically perfect hair, simultaneously casually tousled and yet meticulously beautiful. These photographs always feature people with the same squinty, vaguely seductive look on their faces, as if they’re trying to get your phone number before they go blind or the wind tunnel knocks them to the ground. I have never seen these types of photos in color. They are always shot in black and white, and always overexposed and slightly washed out. I had never given it much thought before, but it makes the models look almost perfectly white. Not Caucasian, but alabaster, like a statue. This removes the model’s ethnicity, and implicitly sends the message that anyone, regardless of race, could have this hair. At least that’s my interpretation.
Tonight the salon is busier than I’ve ever seen it before. Usually I can just walk in and get my hair cut, but tonight I needed a reservation. They’re a small place that used to be part of an upscale chain, and the neighborhood isn’t exactly conducive to the services they’re trying to offer. In spite of this, business is picking up. Good for them. It’s not a bad place, really. I can tell because of the floors, which are a clean, light wood that looks almost newly installed. That’s the real giveaway on the quality of the establishment. If the place doesn’t have nice floors, it usually means that the people who run the place lack attention to detail, which is never a good sign in the beauty industry.
Oh, and the prices here are reasonable. A standard men’s haircut runs me thirty dollars, after tip. A men’s haircut, by the way, should never cost more than thirty dollars at base price, assuming you’re a man with normal hair length. Limited hair means limited options, and there’s only so much you can do with a man’s cut. Contrary to what the more self-important stylists will try to tell you, a man’s haircut is a service, not the domain of artistes, and to charge more than thirty dollars for that service is robbery. It also should never take more than thirty minutes from start to finish. If it takes longer than that, the person who’s cutting your hair is an idiot, or possibly hitting on you. I’ve seen skilled stylists, when hurried, give a man a quality cut in as little as fifteen minutes. It really is that easy. Don’t delude yourself otherwise.
Another man is waiting for his stylist to finish up a partial highlight. He says, “I’ll be done in about five minutes.” This is a lie. Ten minutes, if he’s quick. My own stylist, Sally, is just about done with her client. Sally’s hair looks terrible today. Whether out of a need for experimentation or just simple boredom, stylists tend to go through different looks faster than Madonna in her heyday, and today Sally looks awful. Her hair is an ugly shade of brown, and it’s hard to tell if she used gel or even bothered to blowdry it. It conjures up images of worn shag rugs. A stylist with bad hair is another one of those tip-offs about quality of service, and I should know better. But I also know that you can only screw up three inches of hair so much. Most men will have maybe two truly bad haircuts in their entire lives, the kind that somehow doesn’t grow out right and won’t get fixed until the next trip to the salon. In a risk-benefit analysis, men’s haircuts would almost always come up as a safe investment.
So I screen out the threat of death from the sinks, the rack of gels that mock my stubborn follicles, the piercing gaze of the ghost with great hair, sit back, and resign myself to a haircut that, although there’s a small chance it could be awful, will in all likelihood turn out just fine. I take my seat, and Madonna magically warps forward a decade into Ray of Light.