The International Writers Magazine
Hair Cutters Inc.

Hair Cutters Inc.
Dmetri Kakmi

True story: I’ve gone for a haircut; my head’s back in the washbasin. A pretty Vietnamese apprentice, let’s call her Daffodil, is splashing lukewarm water on my hair.

She is preparing my cranium for the delights about to be inflicted upon it by the premier coiffure, Rita, the girl who’s been cutting my hair for a decade. After the shampoo and conditioner, this pretty Vietnamese apprentice, Daffodil, she applies her expert self to massaging my scalp with fingers not too strong, not too weak. Her touch is cream, the perfect café aux lait.
‘You like?’ Daffodil asks. I mime pleasure, rolling my eyes round my head like a Mario Bava zombie.
‘This makes me very happy,’ she pipes up. ‘I give good head job.’

It’s like a bell jar’s descended over the salon. It’s gone primal quiet. The silence almost causes a sonic whiplash. Hair dryers wind down. The radio ceases transmitting pap. Plans for the big night out are cut mid flow. Even the traffic outside does a slow-mo and freeze-frame. From the front of the salon, there’s a rustle of ponchos. Half a dozen heads rotate to fix gleaming Japanime eyes on She Who Has Transgressed. Women are covering their mouths with their hands. They’re staring aghast. It’s not apparent if it’s the notion of bobbing for apples that’s caused the hubbub, or that a woman has declared her expertise in such a full-throated manner, so to speak. Someone wails, ‘What did you saaay?’ She sounds like the school bus driver with the birds’ nest in her hair from The Simpsons. And that’s the cue. People expel air, sniggering and laughing.

Rita glides across the polished floor as if she’s got wheels on her feet and gives Daffodil a kindly lecture on the vagaries of English slang. There’s no gong but there is one very bright red face. After a spate of more cackling, the social elastic is restored and the river of life flows on. With sealed lips and downcast eyes, Daffodil escorts me to a chair, ready for my make over. Daffodil has since moved north, never to be heard of again. When I go for my monthly haircut, and Rita’s feeling perky, she still receives me with the southernmost greeting.

Rita is, of course, not Rita’s real name. In the interest of anonymity, I’ll call her that because her Margarita is tipped more toward tequila than limejuice, if you get my drift. Nor is Sirocco the salon’s real name, drifting in the newly gentrified industrial suburbs.

Rita, she’s won a state championship award from the International Hairdressers’ Society. She’s at the top of the bouffant stack.
I ask her why would someone choose to spend all day two knuckles deep in someone else’s hair? It’s a pretty gross idea when you think about it.
‘It’s more off when clients have nits and you can see them jumping in their hair,’ quoth Rita. ‘Or they have bad alopecia.’ In the mirror, she pulls a Dame Edna face.
‘Does that happen?’
‘You hear about it. One time this guy went to a salon and he had masses of pimples on his scalp. Each time the poor girl tried to cut his hair she’d burst a pimple, covering the scissors with puss.’
‘It sounds like an urban myth, like the spiders’ nest in the dreadlocks.’
‘I’m telling you, these things happen.’
‘So, anyway, did the hairdresser throw out the scissors afterwards?’
‘No way! You get them sterilised.’ Rita wails, flipping open a case with an expert finger. It’s a squat black coffin for three scissors of varying sizes and a sharp-toothed comb. Peering at them, I’m reminded of the bizarre gynaecological instruments in Dead Ringers. There’s something eerie and clinical about them.
‘They’re the tools of the trade,’ she points out. ‘They go everywhere with you. You take them home at night and you bring them back in the morning. You don’t throw them out. They’re to be cared for the way some people do a fine pen or something.’

So, what motivates hairdressers? Do they wake up in the morning and go, ‘Man, I can’t wait to bury my fingers in all that dead tissue. Just the notion of teasing the cortex strengthened by a sheath of keratin, protein and an outer cuticle of scales makes me wet my panties.

’ Rita laughs. She goes, ‘Hair is secondary. First it’s about people. They bring their hair with them. They can’t leave it at home, except them that wear wigs and toupees. And even then, they shouldn’t have fake hair. It’s undignified. They should go bald, even the women. They’ll look great. Remember that woman in the Star Trek movie? Beautiful!
‘You meet so many different types of people. Every day is a surprise and you get to build different relationships with different clients. I don’t talk to all my clients the way I talk to you. Some of them aren’t interested. They just sit there. And that’s all right. The good ones trust you and you do your best to make them happy. If they trust you, they’ll come back, and it’s your job to look after them.’

That’s all very well, but nowadays hairdressers are expected to do more than trim hair. As ‘complete beauty care personnel’ they’re expected to wax bikini lines and give Brazilians.
‘Who else would do it? It’s part of the beauty industry,’ Rita shrugs, like it’s nothing. ‘It’s weird at first. Like when they want you to give them a mohican or do the inner flaps. Boy, that’s a tricky one. You have to be really careful. At first you go, “Oh, my God!” But you get used to it. You have to remain detached and make sure the client is comfortable.’
‘You ever do men?’
‘Sure. Backs, bums and the rest…’ She giggles. ‘You end up with bags of human hair. It’s gross.’
‘Does the hair get turned into wigs and merkins?’
‘No. They’re disposed. Burned, I think.’
‘You know some people get off on that sort of thing. I mean there are people who pay good money to be stripped of their bodily hair for sexual kicks, and there’s people that like nothing better than shearing people like sheep.’
‘I’m sure there are,’ Rita says, not wanting to go there.
‘Do people ever complain about your work?’
‘Sure. They come back and say I don’t know what I’m doing, that I made them look terrible. They looked shocking to begin with; I’m not a miracle worker. I can only work with what’s put in front of me. I tell them to get lost. I’m the expert here. Not them. If they don’t like it, they can take a walk.’

Personally, I can’t shake the impression that to most hairdressers every head is a means to outrageous self-expression, a gleaming dome on which to stamp their individuality, irrespective of the client’s needs or wants. Leave them to their own devices and you’ll stumble out the salon, looking like an eighties starlet, hair big enough to hide an arsenal of weaponry. No tired old moniker like ‘barber’ or ‘hairdresser’ is good enough for these self-willed coiffeurs. They’re ‘hair sculptures’, nimble-fingered artistes whose breathtaking extravaganzas will reign supreme over a Flock of Seagulls.

Do some hairdressers wake up at the age of whatever and there’s choir music and a bottle of Kerestaz conditioner coming out a cloud, pointing at a hair salon? Is the meaning of life to be found in fingering the bulbous root attached to the layer of live cells from which hair grows? In the mirror, Rita quits snipping, goes serious.
‘I’ll tell you something,’ she says. ‘It’s all in the hands. If you haven’t got it here,’ she twiddles her digits, ‘you can’t do this job. No matter how hard you try.’
‘Like a painter,’ I encourage. ‘If it doesn’t come naturally, you can’t force it.’
‘That’s right,’ she nods. ‘Unlike my cousin, I didn’t grow up around hair. Everyone in her family cuts hair, so she does too. Not me. I do it because it’s in my hands.’ She wields scissors and comb, as if they’re Freddie Krueger fingernail extensions.
‘Why did you choose hairdressing?’ I ask Nola, one of the young assistants sweeping hair.
‘Something to do, I guess,’ she shrugs.
‘How about you?’ I nod to Trevor, the only male prowling the floor.
‘Why does a man go into hairdressing?’
Trevor’s eighteen, lackadaisical. Pinning me in the mirror he says, ‘Me, I do it because I want to find out how women think. When I know that, it increases my chances.’ He wiggles his eyebrows.

The man’s a psychologist. What better way to discover where the enemy will strike next than to go behind the lines? When the guard’s down, out come them little nuggets of truth. For sure, I thought Trevor would display his colours by announcing he wants to make women look like how a man thinks women ought to look. Namely, like caterwauling prossies out of a Fellini film.

A few years back an incongruous figure worked at Sirocco. His name was Ned. Ned was big. He was solid as a eucalypt, the kind of strapping fantasy labourer usually found in pornography or home-renovation shows. His fingers were mini tree trunks. When he washed hair, there was always the danger of squashing the head to a pulp. He looked to be either a hyper-masculine homosexual or suffering from amnesia and possibly lost. It seemed almost obscene that someone carrying such sheer mass and volume would choose to squeeze himself into the constricting confines of a tiny hairdressing salon.

One day, he was washing my hair. ‘I’d rather be building houses,’ he confided, out of the blue. ‘If you cut a plank of wood too short or too long, you can throw it away and start on another. You can’t do that with hair, especially men’s. Cause it’s already short, if you stuff up, you’re really stuffed.’ He eventually left hairdressing and took up carpentry or something equally as blokey. All the same, for as long as King Kong worked at Sirocco, he pulled the male and female clientele like Fay Wray attracted peril. All he had to do was prop up his motorbike outside the shop and they’d come a flockin’.

‘Straight male hairdressers can diversify more than gay male hairdressers,’ puts in Annabelle, owner of Sirocco. ‘The straight guys cut men and women, and they keep confidences. Gay guys do the women, and they gossip something shocking.’ Could it be that while the gay man goes into the beauty industry to continue his childhood fascination with the mother’s grooming rituals, the straight man is more interested in contemplating the mystery that isn’t the elusive sex? In an ironic twist on Pygmalion, the gay man appears to be moulding Woman for the straight man to ponder.

So are female hairdressers studying their male clients on the sly?
‘No.’ Rita shakes her poodle hair. ‘That’s just the guys. They’d poke anything that sits in a chair and puts its face close to their genitals. Women have a different relationship with their male clients. It’s subtle, nurturing. It may be a little flirty. But it rarely becomes anything else.’
‘Bull,’ snorts Nola, sweeping.
‘Men want everything easy,’ is Rita’s observation. ‘Slip on shoes, hair they don’t have to do anything with in the morning. They’re easier to please than women. They rarely, if ever, come back to complain about a bad cut. Women think nothing of complaining. When a man sits in your chair, you know by putting your fingers in his hair if he wants to be left alone or if he wants to chat. They’re either little boys or grouches. With women it’s different; they’re more complicated. You can tell the minute they walk in the door. They give off something. You’ve got to work at it.’

‘Listen to me,’ Annabelle demands from the other side of the room. ‘Hairdressers fulfil a function. People come here to get a haircut, right? But they also come to relax, pamper themselves and open up. It’s time out for them. We’ve got this one lady, right. She comes in and reads magazines. We say to her, “Coffee, Kathleen?” and she goes, “No, thanks, love. I’m happy with me mags.”

‘We’re the cheapest form of plastic surgery there is. We should charge more. You think people just come in here for a haircut? No way! They come here when they’re about to take a big step, turn their lives around. A totally new haircut or changing the colour of their hair is a signal. If you know how to read the signals, you’ll know where their life’s headed. Some husbands, they don’t even know what hit ‘em. The wife gets a bob, dyes it red, and shoots through. People tell us things they wouldn’t tell anyone else. It’s like a confessional, a position of trust, and you have to respect it.

‘I’ll tell you a story,’ Annabelle funnels out the info. ‘There’s sometimes a pretty woman, okay? If she’s lacking in confidence, is socially awkward, she’ll go see a therapist. In the evening, she’ll take herself to a singles’ bar, right? She’s attracted to a man who goes there, but she can’t bring herself to approach him. She asks the therapist what she ought to do. The therapist asks her what she would like to do. The pretty young woman thinks she might like to talk to the guy; see if something will come of it. The therapist suggests that it might be the best course of action. After the therapist, the girl has an appointment with the hairdresser. She tells the hairdresser that tonight she will speak to the guy in the singles’ bar. The hairdresser tells her it’s not a good idea. She can feel it in her waters; it doesn’t feel right. Next week, the girl keeps her appointment with the shrink. ‘How did it go with the man?’ the therapist asks. “Did you speak?’ The girl shakes her head. ‘No, my hairdresser didn’t think it was a good idea.’ The therapist throws up her hands, exasperated. ‘That’s it,’ she announces, ‘I resign! You listen to your hairdresser more than you listen to me.’

‘See what I’m saying?’ quizzes Annabelle, doyen of Sirocco.

© Dmetri Kakmi 2006

DMETRI KAKMI is an essayist and critic. He works as part-time senior editor at Penguin Books Australia.

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