The History of My Hairstylists

UCR Professor Christopher Buckley

UCR Professor Christopher Buckley

When I was in school at UC Riverside, one of my creative writing workshops was taught by Professor Christopher Buckley – a different, less famous Christopher Buckley than you’re probably thinking of. Anyway, one of the pieces that he would constantly refer to was something he wrote called “The History of My Hair.” I never read it, but I guess he was a little self-conscious about his balding pate. Nevertheless, Professor Buckley was a fine teacher and a credit to the profession. I only bring him up because I was thinking about the title for this blog post and synapses started firing in my brain, unlocking memories I hadn’t had the occasion to recall until now.

A friend of mine – she’s Black – made a comment recently about how Black people have a “special” relationship with their hair. Recently, I sympathize with them, because I can’t seem to get a decent haircut when I go to the salon. Finding a good hairstylist is kind of like finding a good mechanic or a good doctor: Once you find one, you really don’t want to let go of them, because this is a person who can handle your unique issues well. This is especially important for me since I’m Asian and I’m told that Asians are the second hardest kind of hair to cut since it’s straight and coarse. It’s the kind of hair that turns into annoying hair splinters that pierce the skin and dig under fingernails. With that in mind, I like to know that the person cutting my hair understands where my cowlick is and that the hair on the left side of my head grows faster than the right side, because I sleep on that side. I like the person to know that if we’re going short to keep the front of my crown longer than the back so I can spike everything up without looking like a porcupine. Sure, it seems obvious that I could just tell any random hairstylist these details, but whenever I do there seems to be something lost in transit from my mouth to their ears, because I never quite get what I want.

My first hairstylist was my Dad. I guess he was more of a barber, because he didn’t really do any of the things I’ve come to associate with hairstylists, like shampoo and rinse or ask if I wanted gel or blow hair splinters out of my eyes with a hairdryer. Furthermore, he used to cut my hair in the middle of the kitchen while I sat on rickety stool, trying to keep my back as straight as possible. Every few minutes he’d yell, “Stop slouching!” to which I would immediately sit up, usually driving the tops of my ears in between the scissor blades mid-cut. At the very least, he didn’t use a bowl. I’m pretty sure this spectacle repeated itself up until I was in the sixth grade.

I’m not sure what the exact reason was that convinced my parents to start taking me to a bona fide hairstylist, but they eventually did. I think my Dad realized that he wanted me to fit in and that contemporary haircuts were beyond his skill. So I started seeing this Filipino hairstylist and she introduced me to the amazing world of clippers. I always loved getting haircuts from her and then running my hand across the hairline on the nape of my neck all day. I think her daughter may have had a thing for me as well. She was probably a couple of years older than me, but I didn’t care since she was cute. She used to pour baby powder down the back of my neck and into my shirt to ease the itching of errant hair splinters. I don’t think she did that for everybody. She didn’t even work there, as far as I knew, but in the end it didn’t matter since I didn’t know how to talk to girls back then and was too busy affecting a standoffish personality, thinking girls were attracted to that since brooding anti-heroes always got the girls in movies.

The only really bad experience I had at that salon was when I had come down with shingles. I don’t know if you’ve had shingles before, but they’re almost like chicken pox except highly concentrated in grotesque clusters all over your body – at least mine were. In fact, I had an unsightly cluster just south of my neck hairline. So when this hairstylist would use the clippers, she’d cut right into that sensitive cluster. For a ten-year-old, the pain was excruciating, not to mention embarrassing. How could I brood for the daughter with tears welling up in the corners of my eyes? My Dad finally stepped in and yelled, “Stop being a sissy!” Afterwards, while I waited for my brother to finish getting his hair cut, I stood outside, head hung low, neck on fire, feeling ashamed, humiliated and ugly for the very first time in my life.

A couple of years later, my parents started taking me to the mall for haircuts. It was one of those department store salons – JCPenney’s maybe – when department stores still had salons. Maybe they do still. I don’t know. Anyway, I was in the eighth grade and starting to come out of my shell and I discovered the singular joy of salon banter. I loved talking to my hairstylist. I think this was due to a couple of things: 1. I’m too mature for my age, so I tend to enjoy speaking to older people rather than younger people. 2. No one really cared for what I had to say at home and it was nice to have an adult listen to me for a change. As a bonus, 3. I was a bit of a novelty item at the salon since I was young and opinionated, so the girls always let me talk if only to laugh at my naiveté.

This is about the time I started to shave the sides of my head, leaving the top as long as possible. My friend and neighbor, Dave, had that same cut and I liked its look. I eventually became a regular of one particular hairstylist. Her name was Mitra and I think she was newly immigrated from Palestine or somewhere around there. She still had an accent and so did her daughter who would spend time at the salon after school. I can’t remember her name, but she was around my age. She was also cute. So if I ever had to wait for another family member to finish, I’d pass the time with the daughter. We’d talk about school or whatever else preteens talk about and I’d smile and she’d smile back. It was nice. One moment was a little weird though. It was around Christmas time, I think, and she wanted to write a thank you Christmas card to one of her teachers. Since even then I considered myself a good writer, I offered to dictate a proper thank you message. She had the card out in front of her on the table that separated us and she asked me if I would just write it for her. I thought it was a little weird and felt that she might be taking advantage of me, but what the heck, I agreed. After I finished I told her that all she had to do was sign it. She said she’d do it later. I playfully prodded that she should sign it right then, but she insisted that she’d do it later, which I thought was a little odd since the card and the pen and the person were all right there. Why not just get it over with? Another haircut later, while engaging Mitra in salon banter and talking about where she’s from, Mitra told me about how dangerous her home country was. Apparently, it’s the kind of place where people plant bombs inside buildings on a weekly basis. Her daughter had been caught in a blast, severely mangling one of her forearms and hand. I wasn’t sure how to feel knowing that. I felt sorry for the daughter while my attraction for her fell off a cliff. I wanted to help her somehow, while knowing that there was nothing I could really do that wouldn’t come off as self-serving pity. Like most internal conflicts, it didn’t matter in the end. Her daughter stopped coming to the salon after that. So did I.

On an interesting side note, this all happened around the first time I witnessed my Dad possibly having doubts about how well he was doing as a father. We shared the same stylist and when Mitra was engaging him in salon banter, like, “Do you think it’s going to rain?” lets say, he’d respond with, “I’m a good father.” Then they’d be silent for a minute or so while Mitra cut his hair, trying to make sense of that response.

Throughout most of high school, I was set on growing out my hair and all I really needed was to have the sides shaved. Since my buddy Dave shaved the sides of his own head, I had him cut mine as well. So for the next four years, he was my hairstylist and my salon was his filthy garage that smelled like cat excrement. Throughout the years, however, he kept shaving the sides higher and higher to near Mohawk dimensions, but my long hair hid any of his mistakes. In my junior year, I gave my mom a pair scissors to cut my pony tail – which she always hated – as a Christmas present. I still went to Dave for haircuts though and he’s responsible for the very best haircut I’ve ever had. Beautiful girls I shared classes with would put their arms around me, stroking the back of my head, telling me how handsome I looked. Guys I knew would stop me in the hall and say, “That’s a great haircut.”

On a related note, during this time I let a girl I was dating cut my hair once. We went to Dave’s and used his equipment. After she cut my hair, the girl ran her fingers through it and said, “It’s got that get-up-and-go look.” Afterwards, people would stop me and ask, “Who cut your hair? It’s all uneven and the back doesn’t look finished.”

The only really bad experience I had with Dave was shortly after high school. I had gone through a terrible rollercoaster romance at the end of my senior year where I lost what I thought was the love of my life to another guy who was now living with her. So Dave’s cutting my hair with clippers, I’m talking about the girl and Dave says to me, “I hear they’re having sex every night.” That was probably the worst thing to say to me at the time. Back then I think I was like most people and when most people go through difficult times, like a breakup, a divorce or a death, the worst place for them to be is in their own head. It’s too much to feel for one person. That’s where friends come in: to get you out of your head in a non-destructive alternative to drugs, alcohol or bad poetry. By saying what Dave said, he put me in a reality where nowhere was safe. Still, I futilely tried to escape the reality. So with the vibrating teeth of the clippers firmly wedged into my scalp, I yanked my head away and defiantly cried, “No!” The clippers carved out a bald spot that must have looked awful, because Dave exclaimed, “Oooh…that was bad.” I stumbled down his driveway and collapsed in a pathetic heap on the sidewalk and wept.

"Just do whatever you think looks good."

“Just do whatever you think looks good.”

Dave couldn’t cut my hair forever, so I bounced around different chain salons, not really caring about the kind of haircut I got. My hair grows back pretty fast so I’m never stuck with a bad cut for too long. I used to frequent a Fantastic Sams in Corona, CA where the owner – a beautiful redhead named Kimberly or maybe Jennifer – would cut the hair of her seven children in the store after hours. I immersed myself in the salon gossip and found out whom in the store the rest of the girls hated and thought was full of shit. It almost reached Cheers levels where the girls would call out my name when I walked in. I had considered hitting on one of the girls there who was a temporary transplant from another store. She had big beautiful eyes and was studying forensic science because she wanted to get into CSI work. She also had a typical meathead boyfriend, so I never pursued her.

When I moved to where I currently live, they had just opened up a new Fantastic Sams. My very first haircut there was a terrible experience. My hairstylist was a Cyclops. I wasn’t sure at first, because she stylishly combed her bangs over her missing eye, but when I sat in the chair and got a good look at her – sure enough – mono-eyed. Now I’m not one to discriminate just because someone looks different or functions differently as long as that person is still effective. After all, the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm and he does fine. My experience was terrible because she was just a terrible hairstylist. It seemed like she didn’t want to touch me. You know how when hairstylists cut around your ears, they’ll typically use one hand to bend your ear out of the way? Yeah, she wouldn’t do that. The whole event left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t come back for months, but I’m glad I did.

Bar none, the very best professional haircutting experience I’ve ever had was at that same Fantastic Sams. Typically, when the hairstylist doesn’t speak fluent English, I don’t get the haircut I want. One of the things I appreciated about the Corona Fantastic Sams was that Kimberly (or Jennifer) had a rule that all of the girls working for her spoke nothing but English while in the store. So when I came back to my current Fantastic Sams, I was a little disheartened to get this girl that clearly didn’t speak English very well. Her name is Catalina and she’s cute as hell. I’ll go so far as to say that she scores high marks in every physical category that matters to me. On the other hand, her looks aren’t going to help her give me a better haircut and her inability to communicate with me effectively could only guarantee a worse one. As it turns out, however, the whole English thing wasn’t that big of a problem and the substance of the conversation quickly revealed that I would dig this chick.

When it comes to salon banter, like most conversations between strangers, I look for common ground. So my patter usually consists of asking if they’re married and have kids in order to bait them into asking me the same questions so that I can tell them I don’t want either. The stylist will then inevitably tell me how I’m missing out on a complete life and, in this manner, we have the illusion of conversation. When I put Catalina – who’s seven or so years younger than me – through her paces, she told me she had a boyfriend and a kid with him. When I told her I didn’t want a kid she agreed that that was a wise decision – how refreshing! – since kids are too expensive and too hard to raise. From there, things just clicked. We got to talking about our lives and families and our hometowns. We complained about our parents and work. Luckily for me, I know a bit of Spanish so she could openly talk about el jefe while he was in earshot. In short, I felt like I was talking to an old friend, but better in some ways because she was still new and still appreciated my corny humor. I was just happy that my humor came across at all.

What sold me on this girl, though, was the care she took with cutting my hair. I don’t necessarily want to say that it was intimate, but the haircuts she gave me definitely went beyond your run-of-the-mill professional haircuts. For one, she stretched the haircuts out for an hour just so we could keep talking. For another, she did things like tussle my hair to get a smile out of me or she’d use a finger to wipe away a strand of hair from my cheek or nose instead of a hairdryer. She’d give me relaxing scalp massages while she shampooed my hair. I’d take a haircut from her over a lap dance any day. I understand, of course, that many will probably think that these are all red flag indications that I’m just one lonely guy. My only refutation of that assumption is that I’m pretty good at comparing what I normally get from your average hairstylist and what Catalina gives. It’s night and day.

Regrettably, she quit, found work doing something else, moved away, who knows? So now I’m left with getting haircuts that only barely resemble what I asked for when I plop down on their stool. Recently, I asked the hairstylist to leave the front of my crown long, but I guess she thought I only wanted the bangs long, because she was quick to shave down the front of my crown. Maybe she thought I was going to pull off liberty spikes or something. These days I often resign myself to just asking for “Whatever you think looks good.”