She is 83, but she doesn't know or remember that. I stand, combing out the tangled mass of her hair as she sings to me in a high soprano. I've put our Pandora radio on the jazz standards station, because I know it brings back good memories. Her tremelo is gorgeous as she croons along with Frank Sinatra. She was once on the light opera circuit. She was going to be a star. Now she's confused most of the time, and suffers from paranoia. Like Miss Havisham, she is fabulously tragic.
She's been bedridden for over 2 months, and her hair is a huge, single dreadlock.
Some stylists would cut it off(believe me, I want to) and not bother trying to salvage her hair. But, her hair is the last link to her youth. I understand how symbolic it is to this fragile woman with no one. It takes me three hours of combing and a bottle of conditioner to free the knots. During this time, I find out about the babies she lost, the men who did her wrong, and the depth of her delusions. As I dry her hair, she is giddy with the lush waves of soft grey hair now falling freely around her shoulders. I go to the back room after she leaves, and I cry.
I realize that sounds a bit dramatic, but our job is so much more than snipping off split ends and conditioning dry scalps. It's a job which is rewarding, back-breaking, and appealing to our right-brained short attention spans. We are there for our clients during their weddings, before funerals, and to listen as they pick up the pieces after a divorce. At Alchemy, Sa'dia and I have seen so many people come through our doors. We are blessed by them. They teach us many things.
I've learned to try not to judge people, and I've learned not to gossip. It's gross. Even though we're known for that in our industry, I've seen it sink stylists. People trust us. They trust us with their burdens, and those burdens can be heartbreaking. I've said it before, but I truly feel each cosmetologist should take an oath of confidentiality before they receive their license.
There is something about the power of touch which breaks down barriers in communication. I can't tell you, in the almost 19 years I've been doing hair, how many times a complete stranger will open up to me about their deepest secrets and fears. It is humbling.
I go home at night, and I'm very quiet. My husband wonders what is wrong, but it really isn't bad - it's just that I have absorbed so much, that my psyche is kind of like a drenched sponge. I have to have some time.
And that isn't a complaint! I wouldn't have it any other way. I love people - their quirks, their stories, their vulnerabilities and joys. There is a powerful story that I heard a Paul Mitchell educator tell once. There was a lady who came to his salon. She was dressed in her best clothing, and she asked him to make her as beautiful as possible. He went to work, and they had a great conversation. She left, thrilled with her hair. That alone is usually enough validation for a stylist.
Then, two days later, he received a thank-you note in the mail. The woman had come to him because she wanted to look her best. You see, she had planned to kill herself that afternoon, and wanted to be pretty when she was found. Something that this stylist said or did during her service was enough to change her mind.
And that's it, really. What I have learned more than anything else during my time in the beauty industry is this:
It is the best gift you can give another human being. We may not see the impact, but The Universe will see it. And the rest will fall into place.
Photo: Sa'dia Luallen