Tuesday, April 10, 2012

BEHIND THE EAR, and other scary things

I love my job.  I will be so sad when I finish school and have to leave the safety and security of the school's salon floor.  I should divulge that when I say "job" I do not mean the paying kind.  Not the paying money kind.  I work in the school salon on customers in order to get hours and credits in order to graduate.  It's still a job, I say.  If I could get paid for it, I swear I'd just stay there after I graduate and pass my state boards.  Sadly, that ain'ta gunna happn.

So anyhow.  I love my job.  I meet dozens of people every week, learn about their lives, their families, their history, their problems, and their plans for the future.  And then in a few weeks, those new friends come back for another appointment and so I get to know them better and better, while all along still meeting new people every day.

Sometimes, like today, I leave a little sad.  My last customer today was a very kind, wise gentleman named Ralph.  Ralph had a patch over one eye.  Generally men don't want their hair shampooed first like ladies do.  Men want to go straight to the chair, have a neck strip and a cape slung on them, a blended clipper cut, a square clean neck, straight sideburns, and cleaned up ear and eyebrow hair.  Then they want you to take that cape OFF of them, take them to the front desk so they can pay, slide you a good hefty tip, and GET THE HECK OUT OF DODGE.   Regardless of how comfortable you make them, how much you draw them out and get them to talk while they're in your chair, how much they like you, they STILL itch to get OUT of a salon.  It's a SALON.  

Ralph wanted a shampoo first.  To be accurate, Ralph asked me if I could shampoo his hair first.  "Of course!,"  I responded.  Got him to the shampoo bowl and draped.  He removed his eye patch.  Helped him lean back and get his head in the bowl and his neck situated.  Turned on the water and while I waited for it to warm up, started with my usual questions.  "Mr. Ralph are you tender headed?"  Most people say no.  In fact they say no, heck no, oh no, hell no, God no, or some version thereof which means 'put some muscle in it, girl, and scrub it good'.  Occasionally someone says 'sorta'.  Never, until today, has anyone ehhhhhhver answered yes to that question.  But Ralph did.  "Yes, verrrrrry."


"Very, Mr. Ralph?"

Yep.  'Specially this ear, right there (as he points to his crown), and right here (at his hairline at the temple).   Sumpn tells me I'm in trouble as I look down at this sweet man.  He looked back at me with his one good eye.  The spot on his temple is about a half dollar size, scarred and slick, a slight different color and 'finish' than the rest of the skin on his face.  The ear he pointed to (which was in the neck rest hole of the shampoo sink so I could only see it from the front) looked smaller and flatter than the other one.  As I placed my hand behind his head (like a cradle) to lift it up gently so I could look at his scalp, he winced.



"Sit up.  We need to talk, don't we."

"Oh damn, I reckon."



"What's going on with your scalp?  Why are you so tender, and what are the scars from?"

His eyes dropped, he clasped his hands, blew all his air out and sucked in a fresh batch.  "Skin cancer. Over 200 of 'em.  This ear?  The doctor had to take it off to get all the cancer out and then sew it back on.  This scar" (the one at his temple) "was the first one.  Since then there have been 199 others.  I actually don't even have a nose anymore.  This was all built for me" (as he circles the air around his perfectly normal sized nose with his index finger) "after they had to take my nose because of cancer.  The skin cancer, y'know."

"Is it going to hurt you when I shampoo your hair?"

"Not if you do it right" (great).  "Just go ahead.  It's dirty.  I just got out of the hospital.  Just whatever you do, don't TOUCH this ear. It hurts all the time.  Hurts if you look at it wrong."

My heart started beating fast and I could feel tears coming.  Ralph looked like someone's wonderful uncle, and he had come straight to the salon from a lengthy hospital stay to get a shampoo and a haircut.   WHERE was his family?

I shampooed his hair as if his head were a bird's or a butterfly's.  I got him back to my chair and without touching his scalp, combed his hair.  He looked tired.

"Use the scissors, would you please?  The clippers - well, we can't use clippers."  He sounded tired.

On a customer with no scalp issues, a haircut using shears takes three times as long as a clipper cut.  On Mr. Ralph, double THAT - so I had plenty of time to learn about Mr. Ralph.  He was from Nebraska, where he had been raised on a farm.  Moved to New York as an adult and began working construction.  Worked on the World Congress Center and ate lunch on top of it when the construction was complete.  Headed South, working construction all along the way, ended up here.  Mr. Ralph was a delightful man.  We talked about farm things - churning butter, head cheese (which he was thrilled I even knew about), using every part of a butchered animal, walking to school, and so on. We talked (or rather I listened) about his views on Obama, Social Security, and health care. We talked about "kids today", barbeque, and fresh corn on the cob. When I finished his haircut I wasn't satisfied with it because I couldn't get close to his ears or behind them.  What makes a men's haircut a wonderful, custom, impressive haircut that will get compliments and make people ask who cut it?  Around the ears.  Honest.  You might could prolly mess up the rest of a man's head, but if you pay close attention to the detail of the lines of his sideburns, around his ears, and his neckline, he's happy.  True story.

But I couldn't cut around Mr. Ralph's ears.  So even though he had a good haircut, he still looked messy.  Not a thing I could do about it.  I had used my longest, slimmest shears, braced my hand on my other hand and then on his shoulder so I could get in there and cut without bumping his ear, but there was only so much I could do.  I was not happy with it.  I wasn't finished.  It wasn't finished.  I couldn't finish.

"It looks great.  I'm happy with it," he said.  "Walk me up to the front desk."

So I did.  He paid for his haircut, turned to me and as he handed me a wad of bills and patted my arm, he said "You paid so much attention and gave so much effort to try to make my hair look perfect even with all THIS going on (as he raised both hands and pointed to his head with both index fingers).  I appreciate you so much."

I wondered if he knew how inadequate I felt as I watched him from behind walk out the door, curly burly unruly hair all behind his ears.  I hope I didn't let it show.

I hope Mr. Ralph comes back to visit me.  But boy.  I gotta say, I really hope somebody else cuts his hair.  I'm STILL a nervous wreck.