Hair of the Dog


She's the long-haul girl.

After months of searching, I have finally found my hairstylist. She is adorable, talented, close by, organic, and--best part!--the cheapest I've found yet. I have a terrific haircut, the result of a fun afternoon spent sipping tea and chatting endlessly. (Mostly about me, so, bonus.) This woman knows more about my life story than some people I've known for months--but, then, I know a fair amount of her story, too, so I guess we're even. We laughed so much, and I helped her recruit a new client from off the street, and I just generally had a great time.

I can't wait to go back. This is the biggest clue of all that she's the One.

Even before I moved here, I worried about the hair question. Rocco had been doing my hair since I was 19, with a very few detours, mostly caused by geography. Even when I strayed on purpose, I always went back to him--nobody knew me or my hair as well as he did. Later, when he hired Biagio, there was the occasional crossover or joint project; when it came down to it, though, Rocco was my man.

Finding a new hairstylist is a lot like finding a new gynecologist. There's something oddly intimate about hair, and when you allow someone to come at you with a pair of scissors you're in a particularly vulnerable position. Your hair can profoundly alter your appearance, transform your sense of identity, affect your mood. People tend to have a lot of issues wrapped up in their locks, even when they seem (or claim) to pay them no attention at all.

So it was with no little trepidation that I searched for a new stylist the first summer I was here. I did a lot of Internet research, but didn't really know enough people in the area to ask for recommendations. So I finally dove in, right before a trip to Las Vegas in August 2004. That's when I met Bill.

Bill and I never really understood each other, I'm afraid. At that first appointment, I told him I wanted to look funky and chic for my trip. "Vegas, huh?" he leered. "Whatcha gonna do out there? Wait, don't tell me--what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!"
"Nothing so exciting," I told him. "I'm going to a conference."
"What kind of conference?"
"On Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

I think that was the moment I lost him.

For his part, Bill was extremely bent on making it clear that, even though he was a hairdresser, he was most assuredly not gay. So most of our conversations consisted of stories about his (highly entertaining, but also kinda sleazy) sexcapades, encounters with exes, one-night stands, etc. etc. He made it known that he was a red-blooded South Philly guy, but he "knew stuff." He traveled. He wasn't afraid of big words or intimidated by someone with an advanced degree. In short, Bill had a chip on his shoulder the size of a cheesesteak.

I am probably not a dream client for any professional. I'm so used to asking Rocco what's new, and mostly just letting him do whatever he wants, that I don't come in with a clear plan. I like to change fairly often, but I can't explain exactly how I want to change. Now, to my credit, I am very flexible and, I think, open to new ideas. But with Bill we never quite managed to reach an understanding.

For that first time, he cut my hair pretty short, and dyed it a few different shades of red. ("You were born to be a redhead!" he said.) The color really was fantastic, with lots of depth and interest and just generally terrific. I got a ton of compliments, for month. The cut, well, eh. It was... serviceable, but nothing to write home about. This would prove to be consistently the case with Bill: fabulous color, very dull cut. As a matter of fact, he gave me the exact same haircut every time, even though I repeatedly asked for a change. It was clear we were never going to work out.

So I changed. A little more Internet research led me to a salon on the lower level of a swanky Center City highrise. The place was a swirl of mixed signals: Williams-Sonoma upstairs, but you had to go through a food court to get to the salon; a pitcher of mimosas in the waiting area, but the stations (in a series of factory-like rows) were all fairly battered 70s-era relics; every stylist had his or her own personal minion, but the bathrooms looked like converted storage closets, and you had to hold the door closed with your foot. You get the idea.

However, I clearly did not get the idea until it was too late. When I called to make my appointment, the receptionist asked me a few questions that were, she said, supposed to help her figure out which stylist would be best suited to me. She gave me Natalie.

Now, Natalie is a nice enough girl. She is tiny, stick-thin, with very blonde hair (only a tiny bit on the big side) from New Jersey. She always wears heels, and has the face of a smoker. Or maybe just the face of a person who frowns a lot.

Her minion told me in a stage whisper that "Nat" was in a very bad mood. I assumed that explained the silence, and the slightly pissed-off expression. Once again, I tried to explain that I just wanted something "different," with a lot of vague gestures and probably even vaguer language. The result was another case of fabulous color, but not so great cut. I looked like a soccer mom.

But, I guess, a very well-heeled soccer mom. You know, I am willing to spend money on my hair. I'm just not a SuperCuts kind of person; I like a little pampering, and I like to use my hair as a... form of expression, wanky as that sounds. Anyway, the point is, I am not someone who expects a visit to the salon to cost $25.

On the other hand, I also don't expect to need a mortgage. I have never, ever spent so much at the salon as I did at The Place Behind the Food Court. It was over twice what I paid over at Bill's place, which was right in line with my expectations. For that amount of money, I would expect it to be the most amazing haircut of my life. I'd expect people in the street to stare and wonder who I was, clearly someone too fabulous not to be famous. Tourists might take photos.

Years of training in Italy held firm, though, and I was very cool about it. Instead of paying in cash as I'd planned, I handed over my credit card without a whimper (at least, not an audible one), filled the thoughtfully provided envelopes with tips for the four different people who'd fondled my hair, and walked out with an appearance of utter calm, like I spent ridiculous amounts of money on my hair every day.

There were other experiences, but all disappointing on some level, and even when I went back a second time it was always out of a sense of not having any other options, or not having the time and/or energy to seek alternatives.

Which is why I'm so thrilled that Julie decided to open her shop in my neighborhood this fall. She gave me exactly the cut I wanted even though I couldn't describe it. We talked about the other shops in the area and people we knew, at least by face. She got my jokes, and even went to grad school at my institution, although she got burned out and left before finishing. Her concentration was Eastern Religions--"From cosmology to cosmetology," she said wryly.
I predict we will be very happy together for a long time.