Ain't Nobody Hair But Me

He came out of nowhere.

There I was getting my hair cut, absorbed in the blissful experience of being pampered and beautified, when suddenly I noticed a tall, chiseled man in the mirror right over my head. Hello? But he wasn’t looking at me, he was scrutinizing himself, and he was talking to my stylist.

“So, Brigitta…” The stranger smoothed his almost nonexistent hair (which looked like a crew cut that could hardly be cut further) back above his right ear. With his head cocked, he continued to study himself in the mirror. “Do you think I’ll be ready to come back next week?” he said. “I do want the top to be—I want to have enough for you to work with.” Who the hell is this guy? Do salons need bouncers now?

“Ah, sure,” Brigitta replied in her elegant Latvian accent, “You will probably be ready, I think.” She paused in mid-air over my head while she gave him an obligatory scan. One of her hands held the scissors and the other the comb.

I gaped at the man. “Hey! I’m sitting right here!” I wanted to yell. He was still gazing at himself in my mirror, his face about two feet above mine, and he was turning his head this way and that, touching his hair. Brigitta started snipping away at me again, trying to ignore him. He was obviously a regular customer, so she could not very easily tell him to leave.

“But you see this here…” he said, and he brushed his hand over the top of his bristly head and smiled devilishly at himself. I looked pointedly up at him, my eyebrows raised as far as they would go, in what I hoped was questioning disdain. At last his eyes met mine, and I detected a faint hint of embarrassment. “I’ll come back,” he said quickly.

After he left, Brigitte apologized and said the front desk should have waylaid the man. But I couldn’t help wondering: What was it that made me invisible? Until I finally got his attention, I was just an object, like the chair. I do not believe he was acting primarily out of a sense of entitlement, like someone who butts in front of you because they believe their business is more urgent than yours. It was simply that he was oblivious.

Obliviousness is not uncommon in urban life. We’ve all had the experience of waiting for a cab when someone steps right in front of us and grabs it. But the truth is, most of these taxi thieves are not thinking, “If I move quickly, I can get that cab first.” They really do not notice the other people waiting. As New Yorkers we constantly need to cut out noise and stimuli or go crazy, so we develop tunnel vision, and everything nonessential tends to recede into the background—including, sometimes, other people.

Sometimes we can’t see others even when we really want to. Recently I heard about a friend and his wife who were both trying to meet up on 42nd Street. They were walking in opposite directions toward each other, on the same side of the street, yet they walked right past each other without realizing it. The crowded city itself affects awareness.

But certainly there are situations in which we are more prone to becoming invisible. When we hand our bodies over to be worked on—primped, trimmed, massaged, whatever—there is a sort of disappearing that happens, since we become almost entirely passive. We become a thing upon which something is being done. Isn’t this why manicurists talk to each other while they are doing your nails? And (ever more increasingly, it seems) why checkout clerks talk to each other while they are checking you out? You, the customer, are not real. You are a shadow, a blur going by.

Of course, I could (as is my wont) blame the salon incident on the insensitivity of our technology-saturated society—on the theory that everyone is so insular that others seem just a part of each person’s own reflection in the mirror. But I suspect it might be simpler: The guy was a classic narcissist.

Certainly, while my Narcissus was obsessing over his hair, his reflection and mine merged in at least one way. Whether it was because Brigitta was distracted by his interruption or she was influenced by looking at his cropped head, she ended up clipping away much longer on me than necessary.

So now, thanks to this short-haired interloper, I have much shorter hair than I wanted. And, funnily enough, invisibility no longer seems such a bad idea.

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