"So, are you going out tonight?" "Booked your vacation yet?"
Standard hairdresser questions in England, and for all I know, the standard questions of all hairdressers the world over.
Years ago I used to have a kind of fear of hairdressers. I don't know why, but I suppose it was much the same reason why some people won't go visit the dentist. To be fair, it wasn't so much a fear, more like an irrational aversion.
When I moved 'up North' I chose a Barbers shop in Liverpool City Centre. It was situated in a place called 'The Palace' which was a kind of den of capitalist iniquity, full of shops selling incense sticks, body piercings, posters of bands with guys looking angry or miserable, clothes that you thought looked cool until you saw someone else wearing them a couple of years or so later, and loud music thumping and thudding from every shop causing the inside of the building to throb and vibrate with no particular rhythm at all.
You didn't need an appointment at the Barbers in the Palace, you simply turned up and took a seat while you waited for one of the two guys who worked there to call you over and give you the royal treatment, so to speak. I'd leaf through the battle-worn selection of magazines deemed suitable for the clientele. Loaded, FHM, MaxPower, various other glossy magazines packed with page after page of barely clothed women, fast cars, cool computers, and various other boy toys. After a while, I would eventually realize that the magazine I was reading was the same one I read last time I was there and the only reason it looked different is because it was more beat up than before.
Eventually, it would be my turn. The guy would say "Do you want to come over?" as if maybe I had just been sitting there all that time for no reason and would say "No, it's alright, I'm just sitting here."
I'd step up to the chair, a huge black chair that wouldn't look out of place in a dental surgery. I'd take my seat then the guy would pump a foot lever that elevated me to a higher level. And now I'm in position, ready to be shawn like a welsh sheep.
We'd have a brief conversation about style and then the guy would simply give me the same haircut he just gave the last guy and the guy before him. Not a bad cut you understand, but in all honesty not a particularly good one either.
"So, you busy at work then?" he would ask, affording me an opportunity to launch into a conversation of dullisms.
"No, not really," I'd say, wondering how I could make that answer longer.
"Oh," he'd respond.
Snip, snip. Snip snip snip.
There would be silence while he worked and I starred awkwardly at my reflection. Then he'd make conversation attempt number two.
"Did you see the game last night?"
"No," I'd answer, wondering if I should tell him I hate football.
"Oh," he'd respond again.
Snip, snip. Snip snip snip.
Sometimes we would exchange a few sentences. We'd talk about music, the weather, holidays or something as equally forgettable. Then he'd remove the cape from around my shoulders, brush around my neck with this huge brush that looked like Tina Turner in concert. He'd show me the back of my head with a mirror and I would say "Great." to which he would put the mirror down lower the chair and I'd stand up and make my way over to the till.
"That's four pounds please mate"
I'd give him a five-pound note and say "Keep the change." To which he'd genuinely say "Cheers" and give me his 'please come again' smile.
It was a routine I kept for some years, even after I moved to my current apartment which is above a hairdressing salon. It took me nearly a year before one of the girls from downstairs cut my hair.
You see the barbershop in Liverpool was good because even though it wasn't the best cut ever, you knew it wouldn't be a long drawn out thing. Getting a cut there was like going on a military sting operation. You knew what you had to achieve, you went in, got the job done, and got out, pronto! Shorter hair, mission accomplished.
Paula was a baptism of fire for a man with a fear of hairdressers. Aside from being chatty and full of life, Paula was also much easier on the eye than my previous 'stylist.' But she came with two very big problems for male customers, and they were right on eye level once you were sat in the chair!
I'd have to sit there mentally telling myself to look at my reflection while she bent over me snipping away and asking me about something nondescript. Better men than me must have cracked under this pressure in the past surely. Now I understood why barbershops were invented. Though Bettie, the owner, once commented that Paula was 'good for business' in that respect.
Snip snip, snip snip snip.
Eventually, as I got to know the girls downstairs better they started to mess around with my never before styled hair. They've given me spiky blue hair three times so far, spiky green hair once, made me blonde quite a few times and more recently got me wearing a kind of messy Mohican kind of style.
These days the customers of the salon downstairs are very familiar with me, 'Simon, the lad from upstairs'. I go out on staff nights out and Christmas dinners with the girls, and more than a few people around where I live assume that I'm a hairdresser myself.
In fact, I've even helped out in the Salon on two occasions when they've been short-staffed. Washing hair and neutralizing perms. It's always a laugh because it's such a break from the normal routine for everyone when I've done that.
I'm not very good at it though I don't think. I get water in people's ears when I wash their hair, but having said that I made good tips on both occasions. Last time one lady even tipped me despite the fact I didn't even do anything for her. She just laughed and said the tip was for the sheer comedy value of having me there.
And in a final twist of irony, the last time I helped out, while I washed someone's hair I got to ask them a standard hairdresser question...
"So, have you booked a vacation for this year then?"