Sunday, May 3, 2009

Happy Endings

I don’t know what’s weird anymore. My instincts are all shot to pieces. Sometimes I think it's all just one long bedtime story. I remember once about ten years ago while teaching in Korea, it was the last Sunday of summer break and the new semester at Dong-Eui University started the next day. I’d been growing my hair long, down to my shoulders and with the coming of the first day of school, I needed a cut badly. So I went to see my buddy Rolf Potts. He’d had long hair before and I figured knew what he was doing. Well, Rolf took out a pair of garden scissors and just sheared off my back bangs and in an instant I went from cool Kurt Cobain to dorky Little Dutch Boy.
“What the heck?”
So we went looking for professional help and the only place open that afternoon was this little underground shop with red, white, and blue spinning barbershop pole. Looked okay. They had a lobby inside, reclining leather chairs, big mirrors. Legit right? How was I to know it was a secret brothel? I mean, really?
A woman appeared from behind a curtain, middle aged, wild Eartha Kitt purring voice. She looked like a bronzed lioness with penciled in eye brows and a skirt that opened all the way up to her waist.
“Can you fix this, please.” I innocently plopped down in the chair and pointed at the uneven line of hair on the back of my head like Charlie Brown’s sweater.
“That’s all you want?” Her voice was like a breathy prank call in the middle of the night.
“Yes, thank you.” I’m very polite, and because I looked like a disheveled Little Lord Fauntleroy, she probably took pity on me and cut right to the chase.
“You… no want… happy ending?” She opened up her skirt to reveal a long thin leg and pair of banana yellow granny panties.
Now, I’ve been to a lot of places. I’m no prude, but prostitutes have always given me the instant heebie jeebies. “Urrr, a Happy what?” I said, shrinking into the chair like a frightened turtle.
Instantly the woman became irate. Hands on hips, ravenous scowl plastered on her face as she snapped shut her skirt. “What, you… cop?”
I looked behind me in the same way I instinctively do when people address me as ‘sir’ thinking I must be standing next to my Dad. I tried to explain, “No, seriously, look at me. I’m a teacher I need a haircut.” But the next thing I know the woman is hitting me with a broom and telling me to get out. I make it as far as the lobby where Rolf is getting the same treatment.
“No, I’m just waiting for my friend,” he tells a young girl in plunging neckline. “I don’t want to buy you a whiskey juice juice.”
“These two … cops,” one prostitute yells to the other. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an enormous dude in gold chains is standing in the doorway. He has fists the size of kimchi pots, and a neck and head that sat on his shoulders like a perfect square bolder. Now, forget the fact that it was absurd to think of Rolf, a lanky professor’s kid from Kansas and me, a skinny track runner with a hundred dollars in late fines still on his Clackamas County library card, could be undercover narcs in the Republic of South Korea. I mean, just suspend that logic for a second, because we were suddenly on the wrong end of an immediate Korean pimp beat down.
Instantly we start explaining.
Our mouths are flying. We’re laughing, yucking it up like a bad Abbot and Costello imitation. Miming out how Rolf sliced up the back of my head and oh…. You know, wacky Americans. They bought it, luckily. But Odd Job with the kimchi pot fists stood in the doorway while Eartha Kitt angrily fixed the back of my head. Then they booted us out, quick, and closed shop. Rolf and I standing on the street corner afterward looking at one another like we’d just been abducted by space aliens and returned battered and bruised to tell the tale.
The next day I let my students have it.
“You mean I’ve lived here five years and nobody even bothered to tell me these little ‘places’ existed?”
Oh, Teacher Brian,” my students laughed and laughed. “You so funny. Everybody knows what that spinning pole means.”
“No. No we didn’t. But I do now.”
So, fast forward to modern day, and I’m living in Taiwan and getting a bit bushy on top and needing yet another cut. There is a high priced salon next to our apartment with big open windows and I see people in there all the time getting legitimate haircuts. So I make an appointment for Saturday night at seven.
I show up. They escort me to a chair. I think, okay. My Chinese is really rough, but I can mime this one out. It’s just a haircut, right? How difficult could it be? Then they drop the book in my lap. You know the one, with the pictures of all the young and hip hairstyles. Suddenly I’m in free fall. Here are my options: I’ve got my assortment of anime styles: Dragonball Z, Akira, and Spike Spiegel. I’ve got my Japanese Rockers with the wavy 80’s Flock of Seagulls bangs, and of course there’s the Zack Ephron collection, which yeah, I can pull that one off. I close the book and put it on the table. A crowd has gathered around me. Five young girls in aprons with cupped hands around their lips giggling. They push this boy forward.
Effeminate with eye liner and black colored nails, doffing a cut off Madonna ‘Like a Virgin’ t-shirt, he wears pink lip gloss and has a voice like a young Michael Jackson on estrogen. “Ah… excuse me, may I give you a shampoo?”
Decision time, people. Yes, shampoo, I mean, a rinse, I guess… I’m stammering. Too late. Next thing I know the young boy takes me by the hand and leads me back behind the curtain to the showering area. I think, did he misunderstand me? Who gets a shampoo before the cut? Oh, here we go again. I sit in a chair and he leans me back over the sink and whispers in my ear. “It’s okay. I take good care of you.”
I’m biting a hole in my lip. My whole body is tense. I know nothing is going to happen, but then I feel hands on my temples, rubbing, then pulsating fingers across my cheeks and neck. I almost sit straight up. This is not a shampoo, this is a message. Oh no. What have I gotten myself into? I’m alone in this secluded room and strapped into a chair, with a scented cloth over my face. The next thing I feel is warm water being sprayed all across my hair and shampoo being applied, and then the gentle rubbing of my head. It’s okay. It’s just a shampoo, I tell myself, trying to relax. This will be a good story someday. You know, the kind that start off disastrously but turn out fine in the end. Everyone has a laugh, but you end up with scars that prove your guts.
The funny thing is I love haircuts because they put me to sleep. The clipping scissors, the electric razor buzz. It’s soothing. It’s like Eliot’s Prufrock, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky. Like a patient etherized upon a table…”. A haircut can just knock me out.
It didn’t use to be this way.
As a boy I hated getting my hair cut. In my parent’s kitchen with the bright 1970’s yellow and orange wallpaper, Mom used to sit me on the big metal chair with two telephone books and literally bowl cut me into submission. I would throw a fit, naturally. Then she would tell me about the Indian Braves. The young boys who were sent out into the desert and tied to ant hills for days in the hot sun. How they weren’t allowed to squirm or cry out. How if they screamed or relented they weren’t accepted into the tribe.
“You don’t want to be an outcast, do you?” Mom would whisper in my ear. “You want to be a tough Indian Brave, right?”
What could I do, with that old school bowl cut and the little shavings of hair itching down my neck, I just had to endure it. I had to, or else.
The massage lasts almost twenty minutes. I check my watch after the second coating of conditioner just to be sure. After I’m finally rinsed, the boy tries toweling me off.
“No, it’s okay. I got it.” I grab the cloth from his hands and finish the job.
“Ooh!” He giggles softly. “Thank you, this way.” He takes my hand and leads me back to the hair cutting chair where the group of giggling girls is waiting. Scissors, blow dryer, brush, comb, clippers, the works. Now we’re talking. I slide gingerly into the chair and I am swiveled around to face the mirror. There are bright light bulbs in front of me, and two old women in curlers gossiping beneath dryer lamps. There is a window with the view of the park where I fly the panda kite with my daughters and snap pictures of old men playing chess. The street lamps suddenly flicker and turn on as if by magic with the coming of dusk. I am okay. I am smiling and passing dizzyingly off to sleep. Yawn. I’m ready for whatever comes next. Yawn. Oh, here come the clip, clip, clippers, and the buzz, buzz, buzzers.
“Now ladies,” I watch the giggling girls descend upon me like slow moving vultures through half open eyes, “Make me gorgeous, huh?”


  1. Brian, I saw the baby bath-time picture on flickr. I was expecting Zack Ephron, not I joined the army :)Can you take a picture of the salon and the employees to post on flickr? I'm curious.