I’ve only had three different hairstyles that I can remember. I transitioned to my current hairstyle when I was a teenager, and I remember how it happened. One day, my mom took me to a different stylist instead of my usual barber. I don’t know if she had briefed the stylist on what she wanted for me ahead of time (I’m assuming that she did), but I went and sat in the chair when it was my turn, having no idea what I wanted or what was going to happen. The stylist began asking me questions using terminology that I was completely unfamiliar with, which made me nervous since I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. Fortunately, she phrased all of the questions in yes/no form, such as “Would you like me to do a…,” so I could fake my way though the conversation by confidently answering every question in the affirmative. About 20 minutes later, I looked in the mirror and saw roughly what I’ve been looking at for over a decade. To this day, I still use the same technique of always agreeing to whatever the stylist wants to do.
When I moved out to California, it wasn’t practical for me to go to the same places I went in Pennsylvania (in college I would wait until a trip back to PA to get a haircut), so for the first time I had to actually describe my desired style to someone. I had put off getting a haircut for as long as I could, because haircuts are awkward. When I arrive, I feel stupid when they ask how they can help me, and I say “I want a haircut.” What else could I possibly want? And then the waiting room is awkward, because there’s not really anything to do but pretend to be busy on the phone. Once in the chair, I don’t know where to look. Do I look at myself? The stylist’s face? The scissors? Other customers? And what about talking? Is it cold and unfriendly if I sit there in silence? Do I have to make small talk? Do we talk about hair? And then I always get an itch on my face, but it’s kind of a pain to get my hand out from under the sheet. Do I just wait it out? The whole experience is just horrible.
Since I had let my hair get pretty long before finally going in to get one for the first time on the West Coast, my usual “like this but shorter” wasn’t going to cut it as the style was a bit unclear after several weeks of growth. Anticipating this problem, I dug out my JHU student ID which had made it out to California with me. On the ID is my high school senior portrait, taken at a time when my hair was freshly trimmed the way I liked it. For the first few months, any time I needed a haircut, I brought the ID with me, showed them the picture, and told them to make me look like that. During that time, I picked up the first of three important pieces of information. That fact was the name of my hairstyle. Once when showing the picture to a stylist, he or she described it as “Caesar.” At that point, I was able to stop bringing the photograph with me. There was still some confusion around the length of the hair though. The stylist would often ask me how long it had been since my last haircut. I never had any idea. I don’t even know how long it took me to get to work this morning. This was before the iPhone had been released, so there was not even the possibility of looking up my last check-in. So, I would just tell them, “You won’t cut it too short,” since in many cases they’d leave my hair longer than I preferred. It’s like when I order pancakes and tell the waiter that the chef won’t cook them too much, even if they’re burnt. Finally, I picked up the phrase “finger length” when one stylist used it. So that’s two pieces of information: the style and the length. The final piece of information again has to do with length. One stylist asked me what size length guard I would like her to use for the clippers on the back and sides. I told her that I didn’t know, but described the length and told her to tell me which size she used, so I could specify it next time. She said, “Oh you guys never remember.” She used size #2, and I haven’t forgotten that. So now, I can confidently walk into any hair salon and confidently say, “I like it Caesar on top, finger length, with #2 clippers on the back and sides.” The only thing that still throws me off is when they ask me if I want it to be rounded or straight in the back. I always answer the same way, “Whatever you think looks good. I don’t have to look at the back of my head. Make something you’d want to look at.”
For the most part, this has worked out pretty well. Except for that technique I developed as a teenager: always saying yes to whatever the stylist asks. A few weeks ago, I went in for a haircut. As the guy was cutting my hair, he asked me if I liked it longer in the front. I had no idea if my hair was usually longer in the front; I figured that perhaps they layered it. Ever since I was very young, I have admitted that I don’t know how this stuff works, and that cutting hair is a special skill. When I was about five years old, I got some scissors and decided to cut my hair. I still remember doing this. I was sitting in the corner of our family room, and, just before I made the cut, I remember thinking to myself, “Should I do this? Is there any special technique to cutting hair? No, you cut it and it gets shorter. I can’t mess this up.” I messed it up. I didn’t cut any of my hair again until a few years later when I randomly decided to cut my eyebrows and eyelashes. I think that one freaked out my mom a little more. My point is that I don’t know about cutting hair. So when the stylist asked me if I wanted it longer in the front, I assumed that I did, and it looked fine. It looked fine until the very end, when he got out some gel, put it in my hair, and spiked up a triangular-shaped portion in the front. It did not look like my normal hairstyle. It looked like something a 14-year-old might ask for if he’s desperately trying to look cool. Of course at this point, there was already gel in the hair, so I assumed that it was too late to do anything about it. I got out of the chair, paid for my haircut, and even left the standard tip. I knew that I had to do something about it though.
Driving back towards my apartment, I kept looking in the mirror. I hated the way it looked. I stopped at Subway on the way, and noticed that the person who helped me, at a location where everyone is usually very friendly, was pretty cold and quiet. He wasn’t mean, but I think he thought I looked like someone who would be a jerk. I would have preferred a mullet at that point, and I almost explained to him what had happened. I didn’t, though, and went back to my apartment. After eating, I immediately headed to the bathroom mirror to figure out a solution. I thought that the best thing to do would be to cut the hair while it was still gelled up, so I would cut it properly to match how the finished product would look. After clearing the raised triangle, I realized that I had cut that area shorter than the rest of my hair. Not wanting to risk an endless series of adjustments or messing things up further, I didn’t cut any of my other hair to compensate. I figured a shorter triangle was better than a spiked triangle, and knowing that my hair fortunately grows quickly, figured I’d just wait it out and within a week or so it would be at the length where the difference wasn’t noticeable. I briefly considered going to another stylist to have things cleaned up, where my plan was to blame the bad haircut on my girlfriend who tried to cut my hair. (It’s not mean if she’s not real!) I didn’t get it fixed, and within a couple of weeks, it was at the point where I couldn’t really notice the difference in length unless I pulled up my hair with my fingers.
Today, I was due for a haircut. I was glad that the bad experience was over, and knew that I should refuse any offers to leave it longer in the front. Shortly into the haircut, the stylist, who was not the one who helped me last time, pulled up the front of my hair and asked, “What happened here?” I pretended that I didn’t hear her. “This area here is really awkward,” she said, “Why is it shorter? What happened?” I didn’t want to admit what I had done, especially since she seemed nearly disgusted by what she was looking at, so I simply said, “I think the last guy misunderstood what I wanted,” which, in a way, is still the truth. The next 15 minutes were spent trying to dodge questions about the situation, such as “You got your hair cut here last time?” and “It was a guy?” Fortunately she didn’t investigate too deeply into who had cut my hair last time, but I’m definitely going to have to avoid that location for several months in case she remembers me and wants to continue her investigation later by asking me to identify the culprit. But she still could not get over what she had seen, and said, “I had to ask because maybe you like it that way. Some people like weird things.”
One of the most awkward parts about all of this was that I knew I would have to blog about it, because I thought the whole situation was hilarious, but I didn’t want to have to explain all that to the stylist. So for one excruciating haircut, I had to fight back the urge to burst out laughing.