Washing Strangers’ Hair


I began washing hair when I was sixteen. Don’t get me wrong, I did other things — I swept, and I took people’s money and put it in the cash register; sometimes I stood next to a hair stylist and held a lock of hair in place while she searched for the perfect bobby pin. But, mostly, hair washing was my gig and I liked it that way.

That’s the way you make tips, after all, and that’s the way you get to explain yourself to clients. Because when the weekly perm comes in for a touch-up or the young business man stops by for a trim and sees you dusting shelves and sweeping up and washing towels, they form an opinion of you. And maybe when you’re a teenager that opinion isn’t so bad, maybe it’s just that you have a good work ethic and how that must be nice for your parents, but when you get to be a bit older, people become less generous with their assumptions. Maybe they think you don’t take yourself seriously; definitely they think they’re brighter than you — you with the fingertips stained with dye and the single dollar bills spilling from your apron. They think they’re brighter than the hairdressers who are learned in chemistry and they think they’re brighter than the salon owner because she wears plastic gloves to perform a part of her job. Of course they think they’re better than you, wash girl. That’s why it’s nice to have a chance to explain yourself.

You can adjust their head in the sink just so, and once you have determined if the water temperature is too hot or too cold, they will say hello and ask you polite questions and you can explain that you’re home from college and earning extra money for the holidays and this is your major and here’s what you plan on doing with it and you’ve also had several internships and yes, you’ve read that book and here are some arbitrary facts about politics-theater-sociology thrown in for good measure to prove you are better than they think you are. They will be happy to hear you have ambitions beyond washing strangers’ hair and they will tip you and, the next time you see each other, they will ask you how your studies are coming along.

Of course, you shouldn’t begin to explain yourself without provocation; some people would prefer that you listen to them talk about their daughters-in-law or their retirement parties or their grandchildren. That can be nice, if you are interested in gossip about people you do not know, which I usually am. Others prefer silence — for some people, the only quiet time of their day is spent with you; their busy busy heads quite literally in your hands as your fingers spiral their way over every inch of scalp. This is simple enough to learn though; we intuitively know when someone prefers his own silence to the sound of another person.

What isn’t as easy to learn is the actual washing part, because some heads fit into the sink better than others. Some people instinctively crane their necks upward when talking about things that excite them, twisting to make eye contact, and the hose sprays out into the open air and gets everything wet. When people are afraid to relax, their necks tense and refuse to rest in the space created specifically for them; when these clients rise from the chair, their backs are damp, little half-moons of sink water staining their shirts. And don’t get me started on hair dye; as soon as hair dye is involved, you are scrubbing ears and cleaning hairlines, and your charge refuses to leave the sink area until all traces of inauthenticity have been removed from his skin. This takes forever in some cases.

But eventually I learned how to wash any head. How intimate it is. You have to figure; I could see things they didn’t even know were happening to them. I could see pimples that had been scratched raw by way of invisibility, I could see scars, I could see patches of grey coming in like rainclouds — blacks and blues, bruises and bumps. Not only that, but I could see their faces lose shape as I brought them pleasure, as they let go, as they became clean. I was very good at this by the time I stopped working in salons for good, about three years ago.

Would it be strange to tell you that I miss it? It’s just that I’d become very good at the whole thing, the whole intuitiveness and listening and touching thing. I’d become good at working with the difficult ones, the ones who didn’t quite fit in the sink but needed my attention and expertise all the same. I became good at it all, and some days it feels like it’s going to waste. So once in a while I ask whomever I’m dating at the time, when we’re in the shower together, if I can wash his hair. And he’ll allow me to lather and scrub and massage — but the rinsing part, the part where I’d gently lean the head back and take special care to protect the eyes; each one always takes this step into his own hands, and each one does it the same way. Their heads tilt forward, the water passes through soapy strands of hair, and shampoo stings their eyes like it’s no big deal. Every time this happens, I can’t believe what I’m seeing; it’s like they feel nothing.

This post was originally published on Medium.