Seattle, USA - sometime in the 1980s
Disco had died and grunge was just getting started. The socially inept, and those of us pretending to be serious students, could still play speed chess at coffee shops like The Last Exit on Brooklyn. We sipped our coffee while skipping classes because we had far more important things to do like prove our intellectual prowess in endless polemical debates, and throw about whatever names we had picked up in the few classes we actually showed up for. If we could score at the same time, all the better. More than one scruffy long-haired gentleman or Birkenstock shod damsel did very well with the opposite (or same) sex on the basis of the ability to spin a good argument and reference the approved literature - mostly dead French philosophers.
People in Seattle were very serious about not taking things seriously. Tucked up in that little northwest corner of the United States, it was far enough from Washington and the Wicked East so that everyone felt pretty safe sticking their finger in the eye of authority and having some fun doing it. The real enemy was California and all those awful immigrants fleeing Lotus Land and driving housing prices through the roof. A columnist in the local newspaper led a campaign to convince them to stay home where they belonged; but his ire had a tongue-in-cheek tone to it and we all had a good laugh while we sold our houses to them for wildly inflated prices.
I worked at being a sexy Seattle student: I haunted the bookstores, smoked my clove cigarettes, and shopped at Goodwill (or Nordstrom) like every young female in my age cohort; but that didn't mean I was above resorting to animal-tested chemical products. When my Nordic genes lost the battle and my hair went from blond to dirty dishwasher brown, I started dyeing it. Following the code of not-so-serious delicious difference, I didn't just color it (so middle-class) I had to have a short flaming auburn do, a tail of many colors, and a white streak flowing along my bangs from the part to my ear highlighting the three fake gold stud earrings on each side.
The man who made this possible, who made me, in fact, look far better than I deserved, was my hairdresser at Chris' hair salon on Capitol Hill. The prices were good but the company was even better. Like the coffee shops, it was a place where the chatter never stopped and the clients and the stylists happily interrupted each other's conversations to make a point or a throw out a witty riposte. What the client walked out with was the result of a collaboration between the client and the stylist. I told Roger what I had in mind and then he gave me his opinion and we went back and forth until we were mutually satisfied.
"Relax. It's hair. It grows out." Such reassuring words for an insecure young woman with an intellectual superiority complex - one who wanted so desperately to be different like everybody else, but who also wanted someone to hold her hand while she was plumbing the depths of la Différence.
Suresnes, France- sometime in the first decade of the 21st century
Suresnes, a city of 45,000 people on the outskirts of Paris: a banlieue that was both too close and too far from the big city. Too close to afford a house and a garden; too far to be able to see a movie, go to a museum or have a coffee on a nice tree-lined boulevard.
Some of the architecture was interesting, most of it resembled upscale versions of the HLMs (low-income housing) in the poorer suburbs. The denizens all dressed alike. For work the men wore dark suits, and the women wore short black skirts and white blouses with blazers - the chador would have been a fashion revolution, and would have at least added an element of interest to this bleak and boring style parade.
It was a middle-class city which meant the worst of all worlds. A little more money would have bought luxury, a little less might have meant some fun. The middle gets neither of these things - just inconvenience, avarice and insecurity.
It was a place with a lot of implicit rules enforced mostly with sharp glares and sniffs. When that didn't suffice, the indirect agressive approach was used - the appeal to authority. Put the bike or the laundry out on the balcony and one could expect a visit forthwith from the gardien. Not his idea, but always the result of a complaint from someone in the building who wasn't brave enough to knock on someone's door and talk to them directly.
These rules, never openly outlined for a newcomer, had to be learned though torturous negative feedback. I removed all but one of the stud earrings. I bought black skirts, white blouses and heels in order to blend better. I learned to walk at a fast clip down the street, looking straight ahead and never smiling or starting a conversation with anyone. And when I was about to lose my mind in that intellectual desert, I went into Paris and walked the streets dreaming of coffee-houses and chess players.
One cultural academy where this young migrant picked up some of those unwritten laws was the hair salon. This is where I learned that the customer is an idiot. Here is the expert coiffeur standing behind the client who knows nothing and can be counted on only to make very bad choices and must be educated. "I'd like it short, please," says the timid young American woman with roots that must be covered before the job interview. "No, Madame! You'll look like a boy." cries the coiffeuse. "But I like it short, " says the American woman who has the mistaken impression that what she wants matters here. (She was also thinking that if having short hair meant she looked like a boy then the men she has met so far in France are gay.) "I won't cut it that way," snorts the hair stylist, and that was the end of that.
Yesterday in Osaka, Japan
Osaka is a big city in the Kansai region of Japan. Looking at it from above, it's a concrete jungle - grey and Stalinesque. Go down to street-level, however, and it's filled with shops and bustling, busy streets. Since it's flat walking is easy but watch out for the bicycles. These people are demon drivers and when one hears the "dring" of a bell behind, it behooves the poor pedestrian to move quickly to the left.
I've only been here two months which is far too short a time to say much more. But yesterday a haircut and color was necessary. My natural color of muddy-brown hair is only a distant memory now, and what remains when I dare to look closely is salt and pepper.
I made the appointment in the morning and arrived at 3:30 sharp in the afternoon. The receptionist whisked away my purse and coat and I was ushered immediately to a chair where I met the stylist, a very competent English speaker. And there I refound my whimsy and desire do things a little differently. "Red," I said. "And short, please." To my delight he agreed and then he deftly steered me to a color he thought was right for me.
Appeased, I stopped thinking and started enjoying the experience. It was beautifully coordinated with one person adroitly picking up where the other left off. At every step in the process I was asked if I was comfortable and was there anything I needed. I was a bit startled by this and couldn't think of anything. Sometimes just having someone listen is everything.
So now I'm a redhead with boyish short hair. It's not the same cut as I had in Seattle, but then I'm not in Seattle and I am not 20 years old. I'm here, loving where I'm from and trying to bloom yet again where I've been planted.