Friday, February 20, 2009

The World According to the Protege

Being remade is a process of discovery. For my recent haircut, I put myself in the hands of a protégé.

“What’s a protégé?” I asked when the receptionist offered this level of stylist as the only opening of the day.

“It’s usually someone who’s new, they’re learning, training for our salon. They don’t cost so much, only 30 dollars.”

“Why not?” I heard myself say. "12:30? I'll be there."

A couple of hours later I swiveled before the in-training scrutiny of a woman named Kelly.

Kelly wore the black pants and white top of the salon, her black straight hair unexceptional, her black-rimmed glasses thick. She frowned at my visit sheet, where the progress of my hair is logged every time I come. I’ve always wondered what they write there: tricky coloring formulas? Or, more likely: “Keeps changing her mind.” “Watch out for this one.” “Doesn’t have a clue.”

“Just a trim,” I say, flopping the folds of my black smock around me as if it's the cloak of a queen. “It’s been a while, so go ahead and take an inch and a half off everywhere.”

Kelly and I exchange pleasantries through the wash and rinse, agreeing about water temperature and which line of hair care products to use.

But back in the chair, as I sit wet and dripping with anticipation, the first thing she does is apply a texturizing razor at the back of my neck. I feel and hear the scraping shear of the blade and the five-alarm fire sirens go off.

“What are you doing?” I ask. Demand imperiously, to be exact.


“No, not that, I’ll get a rat’s nest back there.”

“It’ll shape better.”

“A blunt cut. I don’t care if it bulges. I want a blunt cut.”

Kelly switches to scissors and begins again. Squinting, she moves around my head, trimming barely a 1/4-inch. An inch and a half! I scream inwardly. But I keep quiet. I’ve been here before.

Several years ago now, in Joe’s salon near my old job in north Seattle, he switched my hair part from the left side to the right side of my head without so much as a by-your-leave.

“I part it on the other side,” I said.

“I know. But you shouldn’t. Your left eye is bigger than your right. You should part your hair over the smaller eye. It balances the face.”

I’ve followed his advice, and frankly, it does look better. So I watch Kelly and hold my peace. Maybe, like Joe, Kelly has a good sense of hair style. Maybe by my next visit I’ll hear she skipped the "Team" level entirely, arrowed straight to “Master”. I break the stiff silence.

“I like what you’re doing,” I say.

Kelly leans toward me, unsure she’s heard me right. I say it again. Her face softens and she gets back to work. I practice relaxing my own features in the mirror, study my eyes to see if I can spot the bigger one. Take a deep breath. It’s like I’m her protégé; I might even learn something. In the mirror, I catch Kelly’s eye and we smile.