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…