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Before that fateful day last fall, I’d never completely understood the very real emotional turmoil that could be attached to the phrase “I got a bad haircut.” I usually dismissed that complaint as melodrama from women. Maybe I’d worried a bit about my hair in grade school and then high school—back when impressing the opposite sex seemed like a worldly and weighty concern—but as adulthood came around and life’s considerations became more complex, I saw hair complaints as something that only women continued to carry on with: it was gender-specific lack of perspective.

But still, there I found myself: thirty-seven and male, quivering in the wake of a slapdash salon occurrence. As I sat that Saturday morning in the front seat of my car—still parked just outside the salon—I used the rearview mirror to examine from various angles the recent tragedy that had befallen my head. I was suddenly struck by the fear that something irreparable had just happened to me. Like anyone who survives true tragedy, I realized my life was about to be different, divided into two epochs: Before and After.

How would I carry on in the post-trauma stage of my life? There were, after all, errands like grocery shopping to take care of that very day. There would also be work—the harsh spotlight of the office—in less than forty-eight hours. The world would see evidence of this tragedy everywhere I went, and they would certainly judge me all the more harshly for it. I sat crumpled in the driver’s seat—stalling—refusing to turn over the ignition and ignite the staring game from the rest of the world.

Just a half hour earlier, I’d been the unwitting victim of a bait-and-switch operation at a new startup salon tucked into a business park in the suburbs of Madison. The mailers I’d received from this salon had not only promised an affordable and professional haircut, but they had dangled an “experience” in front of me. They had promised a sort of bacchanalian environment where men my age would be pampered by a harem of luscious, young beautician goddesses offering grapes and sweet songs in-between shampoos and scissors snips. The goddesses at this particular salon would be wearing pinstripes: that was the gimmick.

You’ve probably seen a couple of these establishments creep up over the past few years: discount haircut salons that cater to a sports-loving male demographic by offering up costumed female beauticians and televising everything from NFL to NASCAR. The gladiator events on TV are ostensibly meant to distract our caveman attentions away from the uncomfortable process of getting a haircut. Little boys come into these salons, too, and the beautician goddesses in sexy referee uniforms coo at them and reassure them that if they “stop squirming” it will all be over soon. Us men that come into these salons are kind of like the little boys, really, still afraid of the scissors and uncomfortable sitting in one spot for so long. But us men are too old to be cooed at and told not to squirm, so we get sports on TV instead. And we get semi-erotic shampoos and massages in a private back area of the salon where the lights are dimmed to the level of those in a Tijuana brothel.

I’d actually been to some branch of this sports-themed salon once or twice before, and I was familiar with the massage-and-shampoo add-on that cost a few dollars extra and, in line with the sports theme, was referred to as the MVP treatment. I’d actually indulged in one of the softcore massages on an occasion or two, and it had always felt pretty much as dirty as the lighting implied it would be. Unable to totally relax during such liaisons, I’d look around to see the vacant eyes of the women as they put shampoo into balding heads and rubbed their battery-operated “massage-bots” onto flaccid, aging shoulders. The whole scene seemed to stink with the sadness of contrived affection that infects places like gentleman’s clubs or brothels. The beautician women always seemed to just be going through the motions for money, and their hearts and souls seemed a million miles away. Still, most of the guys getting “MVP”ed smiled (including me), even if it was nervously. We all told ourselves that it was different with our massages: ours really meant something.

On the Saturday morning in question, I entered this new salon with the MVP portion of the transaction still in the recesses of my mind: when offered, maybe I’d pony up the extra five bucks, maybe not. I was primarily interested in getting a quality haircut. I’d been feeling insecure and a little depressed all that week, and I was hoping that a fresh hairstyle could put a little confidence back in my step. I had important items to deal with at work in the coming days, and I felt I would be able to handle those items more assuredly with a crisp, neat head of hair that reminded people of Brad Pitt or Jake Gyllenhaal.

Looking back, relying on a haircut for self-confidence might not have been an especially masculine way of approaching life that week, but I think that God was blurring gender lines for me in order that I might experience a deeper truth about the vulnerability and codependence we all live in. More on that lesson at the end of the story.

As I took my seat in the “bleachers” of the salon’s waiting area that day, I was looking to distract myself from myself. The thoughts inside of my head were infinitely more scrambled and unruly than the hair on top of it, but I didn’t care to ruminate any further on things like the viability of career change and the meaning of my tiny life in the grander scope of things, so I did what many people do when overwhelmed by life’s gargantuan questions: I looked to the big-screen television, which was playing a college football game for the benefit of us waiting cavemen. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about either of the D-list teams playing that day, so I went to the magazine rack. I foolishly passed over several worn copies of Sports Illustrated and instead grabbed a copy of Fortune that depressed me even further. An article in the magazine was smugly talking about how retirement age should be pushed back to something like seventy-two if people really wanted to be “comfortable” in their golden years. I wasn’t in love with my job at the time, so the advice from these experts that I should work into my eighth decade unduly bothered me and sent quivers through my limbic system.

In my low emotional state I immediately recognized the Fortune article for what it was: government propaganda meant to get people used to the idea of working to the grave. Since we were all somehow beating the odds of “their” system that tried to kill us before we ripened and realized that our social security money had been stolen, “they” needed us to work more and then more until our hearts finally gave out. (I sometimes get increasingly suspicious and conspiracy-minded when I’m stressed or feeling down, by the way.) I looked up from the magazine and tried again to get interested in the football game on the big screen.

“Michael?” a voice called wearily.

I looked away from the football game, searching the salon for the face of the goddess who would save me from the depths of my madness with perfumed waves of her clippers and soft reassurances about my appearance and general wellbeing. But that goddess was nowhere to be seen. In fact, I wasn’t seeing any of the promised nymphs in pinstripes anywhere.

When I’d first arrived at the salon, I’d been too lost in my own mind to notice much of anything. But as my name was being called, I started to notice that the women working the chairs didn’t resemble the young, perky models in the flyers that had been sent to my apartment. The women working this morning were stocky and a little, dare I say, “over the hill” for this particular brand of salon. They had lines of aging around their eyes, and the one calling my name might have even had a little caterpillar of dark hair above the upper lip. She also looked sweaty, and not in a glistening sort of way.

This place had lured me in by promising me Selena Gomez in zebra stripes, but once I was safely locked into their haircut gymnasium they were giving me Rosie O’Donnell’s doppelganger. No, none of these women looked like what I’d been promised in the mailer. I started wondering why.

The environment at salons like this sports-themed one had always seemed a little sexist to me; a little bit like Hooters with electric razors and no chicken wings. Maybe there had been some sort of lawsuit? Maybe the company had been forced to hire dozens of backlogged “questionable” applicants, the ones who hadn’t really fit the young, petite, sporty profile of their now-illegal business model. What was next, guys behind the salon’s chairs?

But regardless of any legally motivated personnel changes the salon had endured recently, I’d come to this place with dreams of getting my head enhanced—repaired, if you will—by a professional, and I didn’t much care if the professional was dainty or Bunyanesque as long as she delivered the goods. So when I heard my name called, I came forward hopefully (a little bit like a lamb to the slaughter, as it turned out).

“So what are we looking for today?” asked my female barber, who we’ll call Jackie. Jackie seemed a little annoyed and rushed. Her eyeballs were streaked with red lines, and she looked sleep deprived and maybe hungover.

“I guess I’m looking to go short and neat,” I said, wanting the world from Jackie but not knowing how to describe it. “Um, maybe a tight razor on the sides and back? Finger-length clip on the top?” I pictured myself walking into meetings at work with a confident posture endowed from my new hair: people in an office respect finger length, I thought.

“Well, I don’t know if I can do finger length,” Jackie immediately said. “My hands are too big.” To prove this, she lifted a mitt in the air. Indeed, her digits had good girth.

After a little more hesitation about my request, Jackie eventually agreed that she would “give it a shot,” and she got to making quick work of me—no meticulous attention paid to the unique challenges presented by my cowlicks, no time taken to confer with me throughout the journey that we’d found ourselves sharing. She was rough with her motions and she didn’t say much. About five minutes later, she was done.

“Look good?” Jackie asked, holding up a mirror to the back of my head. She looked like she wanted to get rid of me. Surprised—not yet prepared to evaluate any “finished” results—I stalled for time. I pushed myself closer to the mirror and squinted, pretending I had vision problems. “I just need to get a little closer to check things out,” I said. “My eyes … the lighting in here.”

I really couldn’t tell if there were any problem areas I should point out to Jackie or not. Maybe things looked okay. Given my low emotional state the past week, I wasn’t really trusting my own judgement. I’d been counting on the fact that I would be able to trust my problems to a professional this morning. But Jackie wanted me to make the final call, and she was giving me a very tiny window in which to do it in. Point out any mistakes now or forever hold your peace, she seemed to be saying.

“So?” Jackie said, giving off an impatient vibe. “Are we good?” I think I caught her looking to the reception area, wondering how many additional morons she had to clip yet before she could get home to her fridge and get some hair of the dog in her.

I looked, squinted, checked my head from different angles … I just wasn’t sure.

“Looks like it should work,” I said. “Thanks.”

Jackie ripped off my cape without even offering me the MVP treatment.

After paying my bill, I power walked to my car to examine what had just happened without the pressure of Jackie’s waiting eyes. I looked very closely at my head from all angles. The whole process had seemed too quick and careless to have been quality. Sure enough, the sides of my hair weren’t blended with the top, the “finger length” clip looked shoddy and longer than anything I’d imagined, and the hairline at the back of my neck might have been crooked.

I looked at myself, devastated. How would I go into public with such a ramshackle cluster of poor cosmetological performance sitting atop this head that was already unsure of itself? Where would my confidence come from now? Would I have to call in sick to work for a few days? I felt like my world had been collapsed.

It all felt like a violation. I felt so powerless. It had all happened so quickly, through no fault of my own, but rather by the heedless thrust of Jackie’s slick sausage fingers. I shuttered to recall my silence as she’d had her way with my head. I shuttered to remember her evil eyes, lit up and flashing red like the cartoon demon on some pinball machine as she pressured me to cry uncle and vacate her chair.

I felt like going back into the crowded salon, threatening to rescind my tip, and then pulling Jackie aside. I’d tell her, “Listen, I know this is just a shift at a job for you. I know you’re just looking to plow through it all mindlessly until the clock gives in and ticks quitting time, but that was my head you were handling. I am scheduled to spend an extended amount of time with that head all next week. Can you apologize for your carelessness and find a way to fix me up so that I can still take a little confidence and self-respect from my appearance?”

Instead, I drove away from the salon and did what a lot of writers do, I think—I obsessed and wallowed and obsessed some more while I replayed life’s last situation in my mind. I hurried through a trip to the grocery store, sure that everyone was mentally commenting on my comical appearance, and then I hurried home to get a second opinion. I walked into my apartment and immediately started quizzing my wife about the mess atop my head. Did she think I looked like a particularly homely loser?

“Why didn’t you say something right away if you didn’t like it?” my wife asked. I didn’t answer. I hurried into the bathroom and might have tried to even up a few things myself with a scissors. Then, I survived Sunday mostly in the seclusion of my apartment and lumbered into work on Monday with dangerously low levels of self-confidence; I lumbered through a couple of days like that.

Finally, on Tuesday night I drove back to the salon. It was around seven o’clock, and the place was empty. Unlike Saturday morning, there weren’t a couple of dozen brutes weighing down the bleachers in the waiting area. In fact, there was no one at all waiting to get a haircut. The atmosphere seemed so serene.

A very unstressed-looking beautician, the manager on duty, was the only employee working. She smiled and asked what she could do for me. I still couldn’t believe how tranquil the place was compared to Saturday morning. Was this really the same, seedy location where my head had been abused just days earlier?

“Yeah, I was here on Saturday morning, and I think my haircut is a little uneven,” I explained to the manager, who was much more in line with the store’s advertised theme of young, peppy employees waiting to make men feel like All-Stars than Jackie had been. Had the salon’s parent company won a reversal on that discrimination lawsuit? Or was my head just a little calmer than it had been on Saturday morning, back when I thought I’d seen a gaggle of brusque and burly she-barbers waiting to do me harm? Over the years I’ve learned a lot about the drastic ways in which emotion and mood can affect perception.

“Sure, let’s go get you fixed up, no charge,” the manager said. And then she took me to a comfortable chair and compassionately proceeded to undo all the damage Jackie had done. “Oh, you were right,” she said wincing. “This line in the back of your head isn’t even straight.” I think she said the salon had received a few negative comments about Jackie on Saturday. I think she said that Jackie had been going through some personal stuff that week.

“Not a big deal,” I lied. And when I felt truly satisfied with the manager’s fix-it results, I hopped down from the barber’s chair, skipped outside, and then drove home with the windows down, feeling the breeze hit my perfectly clipped hair. I felt vindicated, handsome, and finally ready to face work and the rest of life’s challenges with confidence. Now why couldn’t Jackie have made me feel that way?

Lesson Learned About Customer Service: Even if your job seems like just a job, even if you hate it more than you hate your current hangover, please remember that the person who comes into your restaurant or store or salon might be vulnerable, and they might be counting on you for more than you realize. Even if you aren’t paid enough to fix their every problem, you can usually do a lot with even minimal effort. Just take a little care to not leave the customer actually hurting worse than he or she was upon entry into your establishment. That will go a long way.

Lesson Learned About the Differences between Men and Women: There aren’t always as many as we think there are. Things like “bad-haircut traumas” aren’t specific to women. They are specific to the human condition. When people are feeling emotionally low and vulnerable, they are more susceptible to having their worlds wrecked by something like a sloppy haircut, a burnt dinner, or a perceived insult. They are also more susceptible to having their worlds ruined by something like a demeaning day on the job, which is maybe why large-framed women who are asked to squeeze into tiny referee uniforms and give five exquisite haircuts per hour for minimum wage might stop caring about the quality of their work after a while. Maybe Jackie’s world had been wrecked by someone or something long before I even got to her chair that morning.