Monday, June 15, 2009

The (Not So) Private Lives of Mankatoans

Last week, I pulled into one of the far parking spots at the Mankato Wal-Mart. It was around noon, and most of the spaces were taken. Since the sun was out, the temperature fair, and my legs were in need of a good stretch, I didn't mind parking at the end of the lot. Two women in their late fifties, early sixties pushed a full shopping cart toward me—one was shaped like a lumpy sack of potatoes. Their car was across the isle from mine. They began loading up their trunk with groceries and whatnot, while I gathered my shopping list, coupons, phone, and keys. When I shut my car door, Potato Sack stopped the assembly line she and her friend (relative?) had going. She just stared at me, holding blue plastic bags at her sides.

This is Minnesota, and the people here are generally friendly. A little too friendly, if you ask me. At times, it borders on intrusive. Take my socially oblivious neighbor. The last time the cable guy dropped by to fix my oft-absent connection, he left the door open a crack. My neighbor took it upon himself to poke his head into my apartment and shout, “Cable guy? Is the cable guy in there?” I told him yes, he’s in here. So the guy walked right in. Didn’t ask if he could come in, didn’t ask if he should remove his shoes—this guy never even knocked. He just walked right in. He asked the cable guy to stop by his place when he was done at mine. Cable guy said, “I’ve got a schedule. You should call and make an appointment.” My neighbor looked at me, as if he was waiting for me to speak up, tell the cable guy to check his connection first. I stared blankly at him until he left.

In the Wal-Mart parking lot, I felt a little more sociable. Potato Sack had never invaded my comfort zone the way my neighbor does on a daily basis. For all I knew, she was a sweet old lady. Sweet, caring, personable—she was probably a saint. So when our eyes locked, I immediately acknowledged her with a nod and hello. She responded by squinting her left eye and curling the left side of her mouth. I couldn’t tell if she was having a stroke, or if she wanted to stab me. Either way, I began walking toward the entrance. Head down. It was after I passed her that she shared, or that I simply overheard, some personal information.

Her friend said, “Did you get everything you needed?”

To which she responded, “Yeah. Got my aspirin and shit pills. Those were the most important things.”

I tried to avoid glancing at her when I heard this. It felt like her eyes were still on me. I wondered if she said it just to see if I had been listening in. By forcing myself to not look up, I may have flinched. She probably saw it. So I sped up.

Lately, it seems like strangers I’ve met in this town have been a little too forthcoming with me about personal issues. In this case, Potato Sack didn’t divulge this information to me, directly. But she sure as shit said it loud enough for me to hear. She had to have known I was still within earshot. Maybe she didn’t care. I’d like to think it was a case of indifference. Who the hell cares if this chump knows I need shit pills. I’m just happy to know that in a few short hours, I’ll be regular again. In other cases, I think it’s something else. Sure, the I-don’t-care method is still part of it. But I wonder if there are other reasons Mankatoans feel it’s okay to reveal personal information with me.

This past Thursday, I got a haircut. Went to Great Clips, as usual. And as usual, the stylist was a chatterbox. Which bothers me. I don’t like talking to the person cutting my hair because it’s always the same conversation. She asks what I do, where I’m from, why I’m here. I smile, respond—it’s always uncomfortable. I feel like we’re both putting on a fa├žade in order to pass the time; it’s just another exchange where both parties are going through the motions. I’ve felt compelled to bring an index card with my basic information on it to avoid this banter. But I assume the conversation is more for the stylists than the customers. They’re the ones that have to stand all day, snipping at people’s heads. Maybe it’s one way they retain their sanity.

Ever since I began going to Great Clips in Mankato, I’ve questioned the validity of these suppositions. Reason being: every stylist who has cut my hair at this place moves from the checklist of public information to how much they hate their job. They need to vent—doesn’t everyone? It’s understandable. But why me? Is it because they feel comfortable with me, since we’re likely in the same age group? I wonder if they’re as forthcoming with other customers. Maybe I’m being a little presumptuous, thinking I’m the only who gets the truth out of stylists without ever asking for it. But how often could a stylist say the same thing to each customer each day?

One woman told me how much she wished smoking were allowed inside, while cutting hair. Another told me she dreads each new customer because, “some people don’t wash their hair,” and, “some people are boring to talk to.” That last part’s a trap. Stylists will do that to you. When one complains about customers being boring, she’s telling you not to be boring. That’s when I think, Great. Now I’ve got to be on for her or she’ll screw up my haircut. With that Stylist, I ended up asking her about greasy-haired customers—the ones that don’t wash. It kept her busy the entire time, talking about how she gives teenage boys free shampoos; otherwise, she wouldn’t touch their hair. I was just glad that I didn’t have to talk. Instead, I smiled and responded with the appropriate grunts and smirks. When it was over, she asked if I was satisfied with my haircut. I looked at the chop-job she did on me and said, “Looks good.” Then I ended up wearing a hat for the next few weeks until the uneven sections filled in.

But this past Thursday—whoa, what a doozy! The stylist looked like she may have had scoliosis as a child. She lumbered across the room with the grace of a drowsy ogre. When she spoke, her tone came out punchy and very matter-of-fact. It sounded like she was attaching a duh to the end of each sentence, without actually using the word. I almost sat in the chair, when she stopped me and said she had forgotten to clean after her last customer. Sure enough, little white hairs covered the black chair like scattered hyphens. Probably a buzz job. She gave two quick swipes with her open palm and told me to sit. Most of the hair remained, but I didn’t want to piss off the person who would be holding a sharp object inches from my eyes. So I sat, and she began talking. I didn’t even say anything to start her up. She just started rattling off complaints like we were old time buddies. “I hate my job [duh],” “I’ve been thinking about taking courses in the Cities [duh],” and then, “It’s not my fault some customers’ haircuts don’t come out they way they thought they would. I’m not a mind-reader [duh].”

This, here, is another trap. Get on the customer’s good side, make him think you’re allies. That way he won’t complain if you fuck up.

Why would she tell me, a customer, that other customers have expressed displeasure with her work—possibly on this day? She must have thought that I wouldn’t have the balls to ask for another stylist. And she was right, since I just smiled awkwardly and told her how I usually get my hair cut. She grabbed the clippers and began swiping it against my head with the same carelessness she used to brush off the chair.

So I asked her, “What do you do when you can’t stand a customer?”

She said, “I flick their ears like they’ve got hair stuck to them [duh].” And she began flicking my ears. This time I smiled, and it wasn’t such a front. “Helps pass the time, too.”

She said I was all set, and I hoped out of the chair, paid, and walked to my car. I didn’t know why she was so forthcoming about her secrets. What if I stopped in again, and she didn’t remember me? What if she started flicking my ears? I would like to think I’d call her on it. But in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t. I became hyper aware of other past haircuts. Had any of those stylists done anything to my ears or neckline as a way to pass the time, as a signal to her co-workers that she was messing with me?

I checked my haircut in the vanity mirror. It’s where I always check the stylist’s job. While I’m still in the chair and they ask me if it looks all right, I fake it. Tell them, yes, it looks great. I don’t want to sit there and inspect their work. I don’t want to gain this reputation of being a difficult customer. What if they do remember me? When I looked over her work, I noticed the sides were uneven, stray hairs poked out from behind both ears, and the front was crooked. Not too different than what I usually get there. Anticipating this, I had my ball cap on the seat next to me. When I pulled it on, I noticed it fit a little easier.


Anonymous said...

I know this isn't the point of your story, but be glad you can wear hats pretty much all of the time! I went to the Hair Cuttery on the recommendation of my roommate last week. I follow pretty much the same routine of checking my hair in the car after I leave, which is when I noticed how horribly butchered and much shorter than discussed my hair was. So after driving to the suburbs to have Joanna fix it, my hair is 10 inches shorter and I'm pretending like it doesn't bother me.

Luke said...

I go to Good Clips all the time. Usually it takes anywhere between 5-7 minutes. Yesterday it took between 15-20 minutes because my cutter was talking a lot. When silence ensues, I bring up the weather or I ask them what they did last weekend.

Er ist glaubhaft said...

Liz cuts my hair in the kitchen. I sit on a chair in my shorts while the cats circle. Then I get to take a shower immediately. No awkward conversation!

Are there no more barber shops full of old men who refuse to talk?

Jorge said...

When I did my 9 hours of sitting for my dreads, I was fearful of the awkward stylist silences and small talk. After two hours you get through all that.
We talked about how horrible the stylists are at the quick stop barber places. She kept telling me how people get their hair cut at Great Clips then come to her to fix it and all she can think is, "Well, you should have come here first. Costs a little more, but at least you get what you want." And I think she's right. I was always a Great Clips type of guy when I was cutting my hair. Or I found a real of those white haired guys with a rusty pair of scissors that somehow made your hair look decent. But it's worth it to go to the fancier places. I think the small talk is better there, too.
I witnessed probably 30 people coming in and out that long day and no one seemed like they were faking anything.