July 12, 2008

A Bad Hair Life

nightmares are made of theseI learned to hate haircuts early. Dad administered them himself, in the kitchen, with me on a piano stool and him running the electric shears.

These sessions usually ended with me in tears and looking considerably worse than before. Dad grew up around livestock, and his grooming skills didn't translate well to humans. I looked so awful after one of his hackings that the next day, I resolved to tell my schoolmates that my father had filed a lawsuit against the barber. Several of them believed me.

This went on until my junior-high years. I came of age at a time when longish hair was fashionable for young males. But there was only so much we could grow before running afoul of parental and school restrictions. At the least, we wanted our ears covered and a minimum of forehead showing. I had to settle for sheltering the tops of my ears and a swoop just over my eyebrows. According to my school pictures, I'd have been better off giving in to the Depression-era sensibilities of my parents.

Eventually the hair war reached a stalemate when I persuaded Dad to let me visit a local haircuttery. Barber shops had never appealed to me; I figured I'd emerge looking much the same as I did from the kitchen. But in the '70s, various social, legislative, and regulatory changes led to the birth of the unisex hair salon.

One night, a young, cherry-lipped blonde named Kayla entered our store

The first one I chose had walls of mirrors, raw wood trim, and young female stylists moving to the beat of Fleetwood Mac. Step one was leading me to a back room where my hair would be washed before cutting. That experience alone—of a sweet-smelling 20-year-old woman slathering my head with shampoo and warm water—had me hankering to return.

This was eroticism, something I was just beginning to learn about. I already had an idea about sex and didn't think much of it, but the surrounding imagery—which was all you could see on TV, after all—captured my interest. This was the time of Woodway Square, stewardesses as marketing tools, and Russ Myers movies on cable at midnight. I saw eroticism as the province of pretty young women (all of whom were significantly older than I) and of men with moustaches. The unisex salon confirmed my impression. Not only had I found something better than the disastrous haircuts of home, I'd found a doorway into adulthood.

one downside of the salon treatment was, they'd always lose my part in the wash. My hair parts anywhere, and its placement each morning plays a major role in how my head looks. If the line migrates 1/4 inch to the left, I get a shelf of hair hanging over like the fur of a shedding dog. Too far to the right, and I get a full-length cowlick.

tempting, aren't they?Perhaps I needed a scalp tattoo of a dotted line with the caption part here. Or at least to find someone who would cut the hairs on either side of the part to the same length.

Which brings up another critical part of cutting fine-textured hair: overall length. Too short, and it sticks up as if buffed by a balloon. Too long, and it droops. The key is frequent cutting to the same middling length, an expense that usually proves futile when salon-staff turnover means I get a different stylist each time.

I still went, just for the shampoo treatment.

once i got a motorcycle license at age 15, my territory grew. Driving past a strip-mall one day I noticed a sign for "Hairlines by Jodi," and something about that name intrigued me. I resolved to get my next haircut there.

Jodi kept a cold keg in the back and routinely offered a beer to each customer. Since I'd driven myself there, I guess she figured I was 18, or close enough. (I've written elsewhere about the casual, pre-MADD attitude toward the drinking age. In this case, Jodi probably regarded this as "just a beer," and because she didn't charge for the 16-oz. cup, that kept her below the liquor commission's radar.) I just knew she made me feel like a grown-up, and I came back every six weeks no matter what. Her haircuts passed my basic tests, anyway.

Kayla felt obliged to accompany me out in the summertime heat

At some point Jodi got hired to style hair on the set of Urban Cowboy, and her practice changed forever. She sold her shop and opened another behind her house, papering its walls with signed mugshots from John Travolta, Johnny Lee, and considerably lesser-known actor-types. Show business became her sole topic of conversation; I think she thought she'd hit the big time, and that her clients should be impressed. Simultaneously, the beer stopped flowing, and I didn't ask why. Things had changed with Jodi, and I began looking for a better experience.

that year i worked evenings at an auto-parts store. One night, a young, cherry-lipped blonde named Kayla entered our store, having lost the key to her gas cap. With her fuel gauge approaching e, Kayla's options were running out. This being a slow night, my boss suggested I go through all the locking gas caps in our inventory for a key that might fit. I lugged two armloads out to the parking lot, stacked them on Kayla's trunk, and opened them one-by-one, testing each key in her orphaned cap—a kind of blue-collar Cinderella mission, if you will.

Because we weren't charging extra for this service, Kayla felt obliged to accompany me out in the summertime heat. She stood close by and upwind. She smelled of body wash, fresh laundry, and 23-year-old femininity with just a hint of perspiration. (You may wonder why I still remember all this detail. If so, you do not understand teenage boys.) I began to hope the right key would be in the very last box I opened. It nearly was.

After we made the match and sold her the new cap, she gave me her business card, offering a free haircut in gratitude for my labor. I showed up at her chrome-and-glass downtown lobby storefront the next afternoon.

I will never forget her playfully bumping buttocks to the music

This place took my salon experience up a notch. Not only was it staffed by outgoing young women in the snug-fitting fashions of the day; Kayla's workspace had a glass wall by which all the office building's visitors entered and exited. I would be the focus of attention, personal and passing.

In the back room, Kayla worked the suds into my hair in time with music piped in through one of the clearest hi-fi systems I've ever heard. In the chair, she boosted me higher than I expected, which meant raising her arms over my head to work, accentuating her tiny waist in the mirror before me. Once she discovered I was still in high school, her forwardness diminished a bit. I don't recall whether she did a good job on my hair, but I will never forget her playfully bumping buttocks to the music with the young woman working the chair next to mine.

Again, you must know teenage boys to understand why I returned to that salon even after I'd left town for college.

after kayla moved out of state, I found Miranda in the Austin yellow pages, running a shop out of her garage. To this day, no one has taken more time getting my hair right than Miranda. She spent nearly an hour mowing my scalp side-to-side and back-and-forth in the precision lift-and-cut style, ensuring there were no rough edges anywhere. No matter where I parted it, my hair laid smoothly every time.

She quit the business six months later.

because i wasn't in the fraternity system, I discovered late that for clean-cut males at the University of Texas—which is to say, the overwhelming majority in the Reagan '80s—there was only one place to get a haircut: the Wooten Barber Shop. All the school's frat boys looked alike, owing to their allegiance to the three old men staffing the Wooten. I remember one was named Vern and he sported a jet-black pompadour. The other two looked as if they were born in 1949 at age 50 and hadn't changed since.

Vern and his associates worked with traditional implements, including a 110-volt trimmer to buzz your neck, and they would even get out hot towels and a straight razor if you wanted your face shaved the old-fashioned way.

like butter, you felt afterwardI grew to like those guys, though their repartee lagged. To make conversation, I once brought along a copy of a magazine with a World War II propaganda poster on the cover. My barber laughed in recognition, and we talked about how hairstyles had come full circle since the 1950s. I joked that business must have been hard back when the hippie look was in. Suddenly the old man turned red.

"It wasn't just their looks," he barked. "It was what them people stood for!"

I froze, and silently thanked God he wasn't holding the straight razor.

Once they'd sheared you, the Wooten barbers would strap an oscillating massager onto one hand and grasp your shoulders. The vibrations migrated through your neck and head, and the burdens of gravity and final exams and whatever else had weighed you down all morning simply evaporated. (If the salon girls had done this, I'd have married one of them.) About 30 seconds later, they'd shake out your shawl and stand by for cash payment. You emerged onto Guadalupe Street looking like every other male for miles around and feeling pretty good about everything.

As for the haircut itself, the Wooten had three styles: short, shorter, and Alabama State Trooper. By that time, however, I figured if I couldn't get my hair cut my way, I'd be okay with looking like everybody else, at least until graduation.

"Well, I'm glad I don't have to drug-test my employees"

my first job landed me in arlington, virginia, a short drive from Lt. Col. Oliver North's barber. Those of us who came of age in the '80s remember the "Ollie cut" craze, when we all watched Col. North put Congress in its place on national television. With my Austin-based "Woo 'do" expiring, I sought renewal at the hands of the man who'd groomed Col. North for his showdown.

The guy smelled like Indian food and couldn't stop giggling. He'd plastered the store with Col. North's pictures and posters, making the most of his 15 minutes in the spotlight. His comb chipped painfully at my scalp, and his scissors left me looking like … well, Oliver North. I never returned.

Later, I had a strange encounter with a Wilmington, Del., stylist who finished his work with thinning shears. My fine-textured hair emerged looking damp and lifeless.

by the time i returned to dallas in 1990, I'd resigned myself to a bad hair life. Frankly, I wearied of the search for a good cut and just resolved to spend the least amount I could on something acceptable.

"You got your hair cut," followed by the chilling question, "Who does it?"

My final falling-out with retail hair styling came that year. In my despair, I'd followed a young manager from one Supercuts to another mainly for her meticulousness, which didn't always produce the desired end, but at least she tried to get it right. Her patter also enlightened me on the quirks of the haircutting business.

One day she was snipping away when I mentioned I had applied to work at a company that required a pre-employment drug test. She responded, "Well, I'm glad I don't have to do that with my employees, or I'd have to fire half of them."

That told me I was essentially financing people's drug habits in exchange for a service which, if I only had enough nerve and mirrors, I could do myself.

a month later, i papered my bathroom with newsprint and took shears and a comb into hand. I had no problem lifting the dampened locks into position and snipping, just as I'd watched others do for so many years. The tricky part was the back, where I needed a third hand to hold up a second mirror. That, and I lacked the dexterity to switch quickly from comb to lock to scissors.

My first effort ended with a passable haircut, but before I was done I also felt like crying. It hurt to hold my arms up that long, but I couldn't stop once I'd started. I wound up with a messy pile of wet hair and newspapers, and a resolve to try something different.

Then I saw Flowbee.

haircut in a boxNot the infomercial. If I'd seen that first, I'd probably have dismissed the whole concept purely for the stink of UHF television accompanying it. Instead, I read about the company in The Wall Street Journal, and the device looked brilliant in both concept and execution: A concentrated airstream lifts a couple of square inches of hair at a time, straight into motorized blades which cut as precisely as any stylists' shears. You could operate it with one hand. What could go wrong?

Nothing, as it turned out. I bought one at a discount store and took it to my parents' garage, where they had a shop vacuum of sufficient strength. (Flowbee needs more horsepower than a household vacuum to pull hair straight enough to cut.) Mom couldn't hide her amusement; Dad was nonplussed. And, although I left the garage door open while I worked, the neighbors failed to notice ... fortunately.

that points to flowbee's only major obstacle: public acceptance. Flowbee challenges so many conventions that most people find it easier to mock than accept. Cutting one's own hair has always seemed a backwoods thing. The device itself looks like something sent to gather Martian soil samples. And the infomercial pretty much consigned Flowbee to our cultural margins along with scalp paint and ab rockers, an easy target of stand-up comedy.

Yet, for me, Flowbee's positives outweigh all that.

  • It does most of the work, including clean-up.
  • My cuts look neater than anyone's since Miranda.
  • I haven't paid for a haircut in 16 years.
  • Flowbee is maintenance-free; mine still runs like new.
  • The time savings alone validate the purchase price.

Here's how it goes:

Compared to the hour-plus required to drive to the barber shop or stylist's, wait for a chair, and sit through the process, I can't come up with a reason not to use this thing.

But I still don't talk much about Flowbee. I try to use it so frequently that no one I know comments, "You got your hair cut," followed by the chilling question, "Who does it?" There are times when I like to be the center of attention. Defending Flowbee is not one of those.

In this triumph of lifelong persistence, all that I haven't managed to do is restore eroticism to my haircuts. Perhaps I should install a shampooing sink in the garage, and teach Squeeky how to use the Flowbee. I've always said she bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Stevie Nicks.

Posted by: Michael Rittenhouse at 09:10 PM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
Post contains 2532 words, total size 17 kb.


Well you have me convinced..........um, not for me however, heck no. I'll stick with my 80 gajillion John Edwards haircuts, but I'd use it on my sons.

I'm curious if it's able to cut that skater 70's bowl look that's come back. The oldest has that haircut. This has me very curious as it would be worth it for the youngest two boys who just require short do's.

I can't tell you the trouble hubby and I have had finding a hair dresser when we lived in San Diego. She was the most perfect creature ever. Course I never got out of there w/out spending a minimum of $150. *cringe I know, that's an obnoxious amount, hubby's were cheaper, but by the time he tipped his were at least $50.

We moved here to Florida and have gone through a series of bad hair dressers. From one that was a former stripper who was so young and stupid she told me doctors prefer women to have brazilian waxes because it's hard to find the baby through all that hair, to one that pretty much made me bald.

Believe it or not, we actually found a hairdresser at Hair Cuttery that we like. My cuts are $13! And she's almost as good as my San Diego Tammy. She has a line out the door at that place and I always wonder if the other hairdressers are jealous because it's a walk-in place and they all want to go to Emma.

I'd rather not even pay the $10 it costs for kids, nor do I enjoy spending my entire afternoon at the salon for 4 kids.

You have me tempted.

If I buy one of these,  I will put a gnome in my front garden and my kitsch collection will be complete 


Posted by: pajama momma at July 14, 2008 07:40 AM (f3xJa)

2 One other suggestion here. Barber colleges. Cheap (set you back $4 to $5 bucks if you use a C student) and helping educate the young.

Posted by: mt at July 14, 2008 08:44 AM (UVJyg)

3 You are hilarious!! You'd think growing up with all those sisters you wouldn't have so much teenaged boy angst!!! loved it!!!

Posted by: DawgMom at July 14, 2008 12:33 PM (C4jqb)

4 If you're still in Austin, try Baldwins on south Lamar.

Posted by: megaire at April 29, 2010 07:39 PM (YPgwU)

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