Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Caveman and the Beauty Parlor

I've never spent much time in the "salon" where I get my hair cut. I arrive, in twenty minutes I'm sheared, and I leave. But recently I had cause to spend an entire afternoon there. I learned lots of interesting things. I learned, for example, that when I was a kid watching TV and the ladies in Mayberry RFD or Leave It To Beaver where exchanging gossip while they sat under the hair dryers, that was all baloney. There's no way you can chat with anyone who's under a hair dryer. They make way too much noise. There are fans in there. You practically have to shout to make yourself heard.

Anyway, I was surprised, during this afternoon-long anthropological study, to find that my "salon" was in fact like the beauty parlors of old. Most of the people who came in knew the stylists (there are three stylists) and even each other very well, and they all chatted together, stylists and customers, about families and doings. A lot of the customers who dropped in weren't even there for service -- they were just in the neighborhood and stopped by. This went on all afternoon -- it wasn't a place of business, it was a rotating community or village center. I was impressed.

At one point, one of the stylists told the rest of us this story:

Years ago, when she was getting started at this shop, she received a call from a Middle Eastern man who was a graduate student at the local university. He wanted color highlights in his wife's hair. He specifically asked for the latest possible appointment. In the spirit of accomodating a new customer, the stylist made arrangements for an evening appointment.

The day arrived, and the other two stylists went home, and the man showed up with his wife. The man said that he wanted his wife to have blonde bangs. The stylist explained that this wouldn't be attractive, given her very dark hair and complexion. They discussed it, and in the end went with red and dark gold highlights.

The husband then asked if there was somewhere he could go to pray. The stylist pointed him to a small room in the back where there was a microwave and refrigerator, that they used for breaks. The man went back there and, in the stylist's words, "He set to prayin'."

The stylist worked on the woman's hair, and they chatted quite a bit. The woman seemed very nice, the stylist said. Meanwhile the man was "back there prayin' up a storm." The stylist and the wife discussed an additional, optional treatment. The stylist had already quoted fifty dollars for the color, and this option was eight dollars more. The wife said to go ahead and do it.

Finally, it was done. The husband came out from the back, the stylist moved to the small counter where they make appointments and keep the cash drawer. She told the man that the total was fifty-eight dollars. He said, "I will pay you twenty-five dollars."

The stylist was taken aback. "The price is fifty-eight dollars," she said.

"Alright," said the man, "I will give you thirty, no more."

"This is the United States," said the stylist, "we don't dicker over prices here. It's fifty-eight dollars."

The two began to argue. The stylist says that for some reason the man was "weirded out" by the fact that if was fifty-eight, and not fifty-five or sixty. But mostly he wanted to know how it could possibly be so much. The stylist responded that she had expenses: Her chair rental (these three stylists each rent their chairs from the person who owns the building), her chair tax (can you believe that the town charges a special tax on beauticians who rent chairs?), her supplies, all the chemicals she used on his wife's hair, her license, the classes that she went to to keep up with things, etc. The man responded by wanting to know exactly how much all these things were: How much was the chair rental, each week, and how much had the chemicals cost, etc. This went on for quite a while, and finally the man said, "I will pay you forty dollars. That is fair. That is the total of all of your costs."

"What about my time?" said the stylist, somewhat shrill by this point. "I spent two hours on your wife's hair."

The man replied (and this is where this long story has been heading -- thanks for your patience), matter-of-factly, that he would not pay her for her time, because she was a woman, and a woman's time was of no value. It was her husband's duty to provide all her material wants, and in fact she should consider herself lucky to have this business of hers to give her something to do, to keep her occupied and out of trouble.

The stylist was speechless. She told us she couldn't find words to say. She was struck dumb. And things went downhill from there: The man began acting "intimidating." This stylist is tiny -- maybe five-one and ninety pounds tops -- and it was late. The shop was empty, and in that part of the town they roll up the sidewalks at five o'clock, so the streets were deserted. The stylist felt frightened and ended up accepting the forty dollars.

That wasn't quite the end of the story: A couple days later the same man called back, to say that he really liked the job she did on his wife's hair, but he still felt the bangs should be blonde, and would she do that? The stylist yelled, "When you pay me the eighteen dollars you still owe me!" and slammed down the phone.

In the few months after that, two other Middle Eastern couples from the university made appointments for services with this same stylist. Each time, she carefully explained to them the cost, and that it was non-negotiable, and did they agree to pay it, etc. In both cases the husbands were offended by the stylist's implications, and in both cases the stylist told them her story. In both cases the Middle Eastern couples knew exactly who she was talking about -- this man was well known around the university. The stylist never had another customer quite like that one. "He thought this," she told us, gesturing to everything around her, "is what I would do if I just needed something to do? Ha!"



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