For most women, hair salons are the modern-day version of the confessional. The wet-haired penitent sits in the chair, confronting the reflection of herself and her scissors-wielding confessor, happy to spill all her guilty secrets in return for some snappy advice and a newly clipped do. I've heard many a tortured love saga at Marie's salon, while ostensibly leafing through the latest issue of Marie Claire or Hair Now. If Freud had really been serious about understanding female desire, he need only have spent an afternoon at the local Viennese hair salon.
But is it the same for male clients?
I heard Cookie and Carrie before I met them. Every day, their salon, which was located across from my office, jangled with the clatter of their profession: the whine of hair dryers, the clanging bell of their extra-loud phone and then the hoots and laughter of Cookie and Carrie themselves. These sounds confirmed it was indeed a hair salon, because I'd had my suspicions. A steady stream of men -- mostly in suits, over the age of 40 -- came and went in 30-minute intervals. I'd run into them in the elevator, and those who were leaving all seemed happier and more relaxed than those who were arriving. When I finally poked my head in the salon to introduce myself, I was almost disappointed to see the two barber's chairs facing the floor-to-ceiling mirror, the shampoo sinks in the back and the magazine racks filled to bursting with Playboy, Penthouse, George and Sports Illustrated.
A few weeks after that, I sat on one of their '70s-style brown armchairs, under a fern, leafing through a year-old issue of Playboy. "What do you think?" I unfolded the centerfold, pointing "Penny" and her breasts in Cookie's direction. "Is it real or is it Memorex?"
Cookie was readjusting her multicolored turban, tucking in braids here and there. She stopped and squinted. "Real," she said. "See how they flop over? That's how you can tell."
"I never can tell," I said, examining Penny's breasts. "Then again, I can never tell if a man's wearing a toupee."
"Oh, God," Carrie said. She was sweeping up some gray bits of hair and leaned on her broom. "Ask Cookie about doing toupees for men." She shouted with laughter, "Ask her!"
"We had a little velvet-curtained area set up," Cookie said. "Like a private room. You put Saran Wrap on the man's head, and you tape it down, under his chin. Then you take a black marker and draw where the hairpiece is going to be, so you make a template, and cut it out! It is so funny. Then you send it off to the company, and when it comes back you have to style it and dye the real hair to match." She laughed again. "You can make a lot of money doing hairpieces for men."
"Do you cut hair for any women at all?" I asked.
Both women let out a phheeewww at the same time. "A few," said Carrie, the more discreet of the two. "But --" she wrinkled her nose.
"Women are a pain in the ass," said Cookie loudly. "They are so damn moody. Give me a man any day of the week."
I stretched out on the comfy armchair and propped my head on my elbow. "So -- what do men talk about when they're in the chair?"
Carrie nodded over to Cookie. "She gets the ones that talk about personal things."
Cookie groaned. "And I get the ones who still live with their mother. And Jews. All the Jewish clients come to me, I think because I'm black. Jews and blacks have this understanding, you know? Because we're both oppressed groups I guess."
Carrie, who's Korean-American, nodded. "I get the young guys. 'The new men,' I call them. The ones that are sensitive. They seem like they really want to understand women. The ones that cook and clean and stuff. But my clients won't tell me anything really personal --"
"Because you don't ask!" Cookie yelled. "I come right out and say, 'What do you feel about that?' I had one client who was going on about his secretary. About how he was having an affair with his secretary, and his wife almost caught him one night in the boardroom. I just glared at him and, holding my scissors up, said, 'Uh huh. You're lucky I'm not no Lorena Bobbitt.' He stopped talking about his affairs after that."
Carrie giggled. "Tell her about Irene."
Cookie barked, "That idiot!" She turned to me. "She was our manicurist. This guy used to come in to have his nails done and he said he'd take her on a trip, take her out to dinner, all this crap. She goes out with him once and -- boom! He's gone. Doesn't ask her out again. She quits soon after that. Then he comes in here recently and asks, 'How's that Irish girl?' He says he had a good time with her. Took her out for dinner, and then he goes, 'Afterwards, she brought me back here.' He's pointing to my chair. 'She gave me a blow job right in this seat.'"
Carrie chuckled and Cookie rolled her eyes.
"And then," Cookie continued, "there was the guy who used to rub my ass while I was working on his hairpiece."
"Did you slap him?" I asked.
"Ah, no! I let'm." She shook her head. "The poor guy was 80 or something. He was so cute! He lived with his mother. I could have gotten upset, but oh, it just gave him such a thrill. And I didn't really care, he just sort of had his hands on me. It wasn't a big deal."
"That happened to me too, with Mr. Watson," said Carrie, and Cookie nodded. "I was shampooing him, and he started putting his hand on my butt. I said, 'You know, I don't really like that, Mr. Watson.' He says, 'Well, Patty' -- that's our shampooist from about five years ago -- 'used to let me do it.' And I said, 'Well, I'm not Patty.' So he stopped. I could never figure out why Patty used to have so much money. Then she told me that she'd go hang out in bars in the Financial District and slip her card into men's pockets -- you know, put her hand right down the front of their trousers -- and say, 'Come and let us cut your hair.'"
"Patty really believed in marketing herself," Cookie said dryly. Both women chortled, and Carrie leaned over to press the Brew button on the coffee machine.
"Does Mr. Watson still come here?"
"Oh, sure," Carrie said, "he's been coming for 10 years or so. His son is a client now, too."
"We pretty much love all our guys," Cookie said.
As if on cue, a man in a wrinkled suit and a worried expression suddenly opened the door. "Mr. Robertson!" Cookie shrieked. "Robb-ey! Come over here. I've been looking forward to this all day. Is that a tan I see?" She grabbed his hand and led him across the room to the sink as I stood up and gathered my things.
"I've been in Bermuda with my wife and daughter and son-in-law," I heard Mr. Robertson say as I waved to Carrie and left them to their version of BoysTown. "It was, oh, not so great. I don't know what I think about that son-in-law."
"I'm glad you're back," Cookie shouted.
"Oh, so am I," he said, with great relief. "You have no idea."