My last haircut was November 14, 2011. My hair grows very quickly so I currently resemble Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
My mother would not be pleased with this development. Growing up, she insisted on a strict grooming regimen — haircut once a month, a trim every other week. She was also rather strict when it came to hairstyles — nothing trendy because you always regretted it later when you looked at old photos of yourself. “Same haircut your whole life” was her theory. “Same wig you’ll deny wearing your whole life” was her practice.
I veered from her instructions on one notable occasion. My barber, who sounded and smelled as if he’d taken a hit from a bong five minutes before my appointment, suggested “trying out” a new idea of his on me. Yeah, that’s how ignorant I was. I let the guy, who was barely competent when not high, use me as his guinea pig. I left the barber’s with what he called an “eggshell” — no hair around the sides and a zig-zag “eggshell” pattern on top.
When I got in the car, my father turned on the engine in silence and pulled out of the parking lot. A few miles later, he finally spoke: “What did your mother tell you?”
I lowered my head. “Same haircut your whole life.”
I felt bad for my father. My mother was basically CEO of Robinson LLC, and she’d delegated to my father the task of taking me to the barber. Despite years of more than adequate service in that role, once she saw my “eggshell” haircut, it was obvious that he’d be restricted to simply mowing the lawn and jiggling the TV antenna outside to get better reception.
After I graduated from college and moved to New York, I abandoned my mother’s strict haircutting schedule for
the more relaxed “every once in a while.” If I started to get too bushy, I would apply a fistful of styling product to my hair and simply comb it away from my head. This would usually buy me a couple more weeks.
When I did break down and get a haircut, I would frequent the barber colleges, where for just $6, you could almost lose an ear. Once, a particularly nervous student was working on my hair for about half an hour when his teacher stopped to have a look. He recoiled in terror and when I asked what was wrong, he said – his face bone white, “Oh, nothing. It’s… uhm, coming along.”
Then I worked up to the $10 barber chains where you’d point to outdated photos of recent parolees on a laminated value menu and say, “I’d like the number 2.” These were the kind of places that gave you a free hat with every haircut.
Occasionally, I’d stumble into seedy dives that reminded me of the “hospitals” that hoods in gangster movies went to because a real doctor would have to report their bullet wounds to the police — flickering, bare light bulb swinging from the ceiling, cries of agony from the back room, the barber/surgeon swigging whiskey from a flask before offering you some.
More than once, I’d receive the sort of butchering for which the only remedy was “an emergency haircut.” This is when you wake up the next day looking like a blind blues musician with the DTs cut your hair. No amount of hair gel can salvage it, so you race to the closest barber and say through your tears, “Look, I don’t care what this costs or what you have to do, but I can’t go on looking like this.”
The one thing these places all had in common was that they didn’t take appointments and if they did, it didn’t matter because you still wound up waiting for about an hour at best. It was like a doctor’s office but the only magazines were “Ebony” and “Jet.”
It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I discovered true, professional hair salons. I went to John Allan’s in midtown Manhattan for about three years. It was styled as a “gentleman’s club” where you could play billiards and drink a beer before your appointment or smoke a cigar while getting a manicure. I’d written a magazine article about John Allan’s, as well as the Paul Labrecque salon, so I was extended an “Editor’s Rate” that was just a few dollars more than the clown college barbershops but included a manicure, shoe shine, and competence. A trip to the barber was no longer a chore but a pleasant experience.
When John Allan’s technical director, Jesse Sweet (coolest name ever, by the way) left the salon, things began to go downhill. I saw a parade of female stylists, who while more attractive than Jesse were not as skilled. I was already on the fence about continuing there when I made an appointment at Paul Labrecque for a “deep scalp conditioning” treatment. This had worked wonders on my hair when I had it as part of the “research” for my story. It transformed me from Shaggy to Billy Dee. So, a return visit was my Christmas gift to myself. And that’s how I met Misti.
The only way to describe Misti to ask you to imagine your closest friend — how she’s always there for you, how she listens to your problems, comforts you in times of stress, opens her home and her heart to you and expects nothing in return. Now, the only difference is that your friend is just a friend and Misti is an amazing hairstylist. Believe me, the latter is far harder to find.
I knew halfway through our first session that I was never going back to John Allan’s. I lingered at the door for a moment before working up the nerve to ask her, “So, do you also cut men’s hair, Misti?”
“Men’s hair exclusively, actually,” she replied. “Sometimes women’s hair if it’s slow. Would you like me to cut your hair, Stephen?”
“Yes. Yes, I would.” A brief moment of doubt crept up: “You don’t use clippers, do you?”
“No way. I only use scissors.”
I knew we’d get along just fine.
Misti was punctual and cordial in the most Southern California way possible, but the best thing about Misti was her silence. I don’t enjoy conversation when I’m in the barber chair or really any other kind of chair. She even shampooed my hair for me rather than allow her chatty assistant to do it. During the Sighting of My First Gray Hair, Misti said nothing. She just leaned in close and whispered, “Looks like you have a stray hair here. Just a stray hair. I’ll just pluck it out. There, all gone.”
We went on this way — hairstylist and her incredibly vain client — until 6:37 p.m. on October 12, 2008 when Misti announced that she was moving, and… and… I’m sorry, I thought I could talk out it.
Misti’s chatty assistant was promoted to stylist. She was awful and strangely antisemitic. While trying to zone out during one of her never-ending monologues, I heard her comment about her upcoming wedding.
“So, it’s gonna be small, you know. Not too big. I’m not some rich Jew.”
I thought I misheard her — sort of like the “Jew, eat!” or “did you eat?” confusion from “Annie Hall.” Yet, the next time I was there, she started in again.
“I told my fiance – we gotta keep it simple. Not some big affair like the rich Jews would have.”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, suddenly remembering something else she’d rambled on about previously. “What’s your fiance’s name?”
“Isaac Goldstein. You know him?”
“No. Do you?”
I immediately switched stylists, preferring one without a shaved head or a white hood. For the past three years, my stylist was Pirrko, the salon’s artistic director. Originally from Finland, she divides her time now between Las Vegas and New York. She was actually the first person to give me the “deep scalp conditioning” treatment and I recall her saying, “Some men come in, they want to talk. Sometimes they don’t want to say a word and I understand completely.” That was just what I needed.
Pirrko cut my hair before the week before my wedding. She also introduced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the increasing number of “stray” hairs that Misti had battled. It wasn’t necessarily an “emergency haircut” but the approach was similar — “Do whatever it takes but we won’t discuss it.”
I said farewell to Pirrko in July of last year. During my travels in Europe, I had my hair cut in Vienna (“nicht schlecht”), Paris (“adéquates”), and Florence (“meraviglioso”). Did I hope to find Misti behind the barber chair at those salons? No, because I’m not a crazy person. However, now I’m back in the states and it’s time to move on. A friend has referred me to a salon in Portland. Unfortunately, the appointment is in two weeks, so my wife will have to put up with “Boom Boom” for a little while longer.