When the Customer Was Wrong

When the Customer Was Wrong August 11, 2015

Like most of the stylists on the floor, she was young – probably about 22. I patronize the place mainly because, at $16 for a haircut, plus an extra $5 for a shampoo, the price is right. I can’t afford to pay a lot, and rookie hairstylists can’t afford to charge a lot. But the service is mostly good – or good enough, anyway. I don’t expect miracles and try, generally, to be a low-maintenance customer.

But this woman and I got off on the wrong foot. I told her what I tell all the stylists — to imagine how my hair had looked two months ago, and to bring it back to that state. “Try to maintain the proportions, top, back and sides,” I said. “Sorry if I don’t know the professional jargon.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “About an inch, then?”

“Sounds about right.”

“Did the others use scissors or clippers on the back?”

“Some used scissors, some used clippers,” I said. “Doesn’t make a lot of difference to me.”

Then she told me to remove my glasses. I don’t normally wear them around town because they look like Barry Goldwater’s – that’s how godawful my eyes are. But I obeyed, and stared in the blur of the mirror as her clippers buzzed to life and began working up and down my occiput.

After a couple of minutes, the clippers went dead, and I felt the stylist’s fingers plucking at the thatch that grows just behind the spot on the left where the part begins. “It’s really poofy here,” she said. “Do you want me to try to trim it down?”

Her question caught me off guard – most other stylists had figured out how to work back there without asking my input. Fumblingly, I told her, “Uh, sure, if you want to try, go ahead. But that’s a natural cowlick – it’s always been there. I wouldn’t fuss with it too much if I were you.”

The clippers resumed their hum, their blade swept several times through the poofy patch. After another couple of minutes, I slipped my glasses back on and looked in the mirror. My head did not make for a welcome sight. The stylist had shorn the cowlick down to bristles, which – despite having been wetted down – insisted on standing up. Normally, the cowlick had added volume and created a kind of symmetry with the fringe that falls across my forehead. Without it, I looked ten years older and, it struck me, like a near relation of Hitler’s.

A groan escaped me, followed by a candid review. “Christ,” I said. “It’s all butchered.” Then, not wanting to sound too surly, I muttered, “Oh, well. Might as well finish it up.”

She led me to the back, shampooed my hair, and got to work on the top with scissors. How, I wondered silently, had this happened? Obviously there had been a communication breakdown: whereas I had meant to counsel caution, she had heard permission. But since I’d given more or less the same instructions to every stylist and barber for years, and none of them had made her mistake, it seemed to me that the greater fault must have been hers. That gave me the right to deliver some more honest feedback.

And did I ever deliver it. “The first thing I said to you was, ‘Imagine how it looked two months ago’,” I began. “That should have been enough for you to go on. Instead, you asked me questions I didn’t know how to answer. You had to get fancy. You had to reinvent the wheel. You had to be…” After groping for the right word, I found it: “An artist.”

I did not mean for this critique to cut all the way to the bone. My point wasn’t that she was a bad stylist, much less a bad person. All I meant to say was that she had given me less than her best work. In warning her against misplaced perfectionism, I was speaking as someone who’d made that mistake himself, though I hadn’t made that clear. Presently, I realized that I would never get the chance to make it clear, because something in the stylist’s eyes broke, and someone I took to be the salon owner was in my face telling me that I could either have someone else finish the haircut or accept it – gratis – as is.

I took the freebie and will be wearing ball caps in public for the foreseeable future. I would probably never have told this story if I hadn’t happened to read Leah Libresco’s contribution to the debate on whether virtuous literary characters can engage reader sympathy as readily as wicked ones. You’re darn tootin’ they can, Leah argues, because in real life:

Being Good isn’t a matter of choosing once and then proceeding on autopilot. It’s a lot of small, creative acts of resistance. It’s a lot of doing small, boring kindnesses that can secretly be a little thrilling because they don’t happen by default — they’re a matter of choosing or of building up habits of thought and action until caritas does actually wind up feeling natural.

That’s all true, but I would clarify even further. In the grind of day-to-day existence, Goodness is achieved just as often in the negative – by not doing, or saying, anything at all; by taking lumps quietly and waiting for the throbbing to ease. Dramatize that appealingly, who dares.

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