I got my hair cut today. Big deal, you say? It is a big deal when you are in another city, far from your regular coiffeur, and have to trust your hair to a complete stranger. Actually, Sheila, who cut my hair here in Chestnut Hill (a section of Brookline, Massachusetts), is not a complete stranger. About a month ago she cut my hair for the first time. I spend most of the year in Paris, where Michel, who knows me and my hair about as well as anyone, has been doing a great job for the past 17 years. One's relationship with the person who cuts one's hair is--or should be--very intimate. Michel is a great conversationalist, and after 20 years in Paris, my French conversation is not too bad either. Fortunately, we share the same left politics (I'm more left than him, but then I am more left than most everyone I know.) And when someone is rubbing his or her fingers through your hair, talking is the best way to reduce the sexual tension.

In the case of Sheila, I am somewhat ambivalent about wanting to reduce the sexual tension. Nevertheless, I don't put any particular interpretation on her own almost complete silence while she cuts my hair--she may be naturally shy or just one of those people who doesn't like to talk when she doesn't have anything to say. And I try not to take her taciturn demeanor personally.

The relationship between a client and his or her haircutter is built on a strange kind of loyalty. When I lived in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles, I went to a coiffeur named Steve whose boutique was in nearby Silverlake. Like many people who live in Silverlake, Steve was gay, and so were most of his clients (I was one of the exceptions.) We talked about everything from politics to sex, and when he moved his shop to the northern San Fernando Valley I drove the 45 minutes each way to his new location for a year. Then my girlfriend of the time told me my hair looked awful and dragged me to a very talented coiffeuse in Venice named Sally. After one cut, Sally proved that Steve did not know what he was talking about when he said I had no choice but to part my hair in a very dorky way (he didn't say dorky, but the mirror did.) So I abandoned Steve, never went back, never said anything, and have felt guilty about it ever since.

Until Sheila, no one else had cut my hair for 17 years--with one exception. A few years ago I went to Istanbul and did not have time to have Michel cut my hair before I left. I spied a coiffeur behind my hotel and wandered in, whereupon I was given tea (a ritual before anything else can happen in Turkey) and a haircut. The coiffeur spoke no English and me no Turkish, despite many trips to the country, but from a drawer behind him he pulled out a tattered sheet of paper with English phrases written on it ("where are you from, how do you like Turkey, how many children do you have") and proceeded to read from it. I am not sure if he understood any of my answers. But he did give me a pretty good haircut.

When I went off to Boston to teach this semester, I made sure to tell Michel where I was going so he wouldn't think I had flown the coop. I will be back in Paris for the summer, and then back in Boston to teach again in the fall. Michel will give me my next haircut. But I made sure to tell Sheila that I would be back in September. I wouldn't want her to think I had abandoned her.

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