"Ladies in their sensitivities, my lord,
have a fragile sensibility.
When a girl's emergent,
probably it's urgent
you defer to her gentility, my lord."
-- Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A friend of mine at work said something surprising to me this morning. "Your hair looks really nice today." We had passed each other in the hallway, and my hand instinctively went to my head. "Really?" I asked, genuinely surprised. I ran my fingers through the tangled mess. "Thanks." As we parted ways, my mind raced: "Quick, what did I do to my hair? Took a shower last night...let it dry for about an hour before taking the blow dryer to it...fell asleep on my right side..." I went into the bathroom and checked my look in the mirror.
I guess it did look kind of nice. And the Barber had shouted at me again. You'll recall, perhaps, that there is a barber shop on the next block over from my office. It faces the park across the street, where I had retreated this morning when it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn't look at my computer for one more second without clawing at the monitor. "Right. Time for a walk," I thought, and I headed out into the sweltering air. The man who had shouted at me as I walked home a few weeks ago was outside the shop again, this time in the middle of the morning.
"Hey!" he shouted. Hmm. He must work there. "Hey, hey!" He probably doesn't own the place; I can't imagine that the owner would shout at people like that from his place of business. "Yo! You! Hey!" He's probably a barber. "Hey! You!" Must be nice not to have to stare at a computer all day. "Hey!" At least there are trees between us this time.
Flattering as his cat calls are, I wondered if I should maybe wear a sports bra to work tomorrow, just in case I took another walk. But now my friend had introduced another possibility. I much preferred the idea that the barber's eye had been caught by my bouncing curls, so I considered his a professional endorsement and winked at my reflection before returning to my desk.
My hair has been a constant source of frustration. I've never been able to wrangle it into anything approaching a current style. In middle school, when my 634th attempt at constructing a lasting wall of bangs failed, I parted my hair down the middle and bought a pair of silver earrings in the shapes of little peace signs. "This Gulf War is just--well, it can't be good," I declared. "Peace, man."
My politics and my hair haven't really changed since then, though perhaps now there is less of a causal relationship between the two. Recently enraged over an email that was forwarded to me about the looming threat to the use of English in America, I glanced over the long list of addressees and felt the need to somehow balance the karmic scales. I enrolled in a class to train as an English tutor for recent immigrants and found myself in a room full of middle-aged do-gooders all gazing reverently at our instructor, who I despised within roughly ten seconds of her speaking.
She wrote her name on the white board at the front of the room but informed us that it would soon be changing, as she would be marrying a man I would come to picture as a large cat. That was the only way I could reconcile her engagement with the evidence before me. Any human man wouldn't have lasted with the wide eyes and the over-annunciating, the gesturing, and the constant reminders of her graduate degree in linguistics.
But, oh, how the rest of the class loved her. Imagine an Oprah audience as she interviews Deepak Chopra. Do you see them? With the knowing nods and the gentle "mm-hmm"s after every independent clause he speaks? There were four classes that were three hours long, with a 15-minute break every night just before the tip of my pencil reached my eyeball. I would spring from my chair and head to the soda machine down the hall. Without fail, someone would catch my stride down the long hallway. "Isn't she amazing?" they'd say. I quickly learned it was best not to hesitate the slightest bit in my answer. If I didn't produce a quick and hearty, "Absolutely!" there would be an inevitable, "Well, I would sure like to learn English from her; I can tell you that much," after which the devotee's pace would quicken and I'd be forced to wait behind them as they dawdled for a suspiciously long time in front of the Pepsi machine.
Much of the class concerned basic lessons in basic English that recent immigrants to this country would find very useful. It wasn't glamorous; that's for sure. There were lessons in how to read a phone bill, a prescription bottle, how to make an appointment at the doctor's office, the dentist, the barber. There were never any lessons that gave my prospective immigrant students the necessary vocabulary to construct effusive exclamations of gratitude: we were limited to ideas that could be communicated through gestures and pictures, and there were no pictures to go along with phrases like "word bringer," "she who shares meaning," or "there are many English words, and while you have taught me more of them than I ever dreamed possible, I do not now--nor will I ever--have the words to express my thanks."
No, the most we could reasonably hope for by way of communication largely involved pointing. "Does your arm hurt?" the instructor asked in one demonstration about a hypothetical visit to the doctor. In this scenario, we were supposed to communicate that we had a headache. She pointed to her arm. "No," we all answered. "Does your leg hurt?" She touched her finger to her thigh. "No," we said, waiting. "Does your..." her hand moved toward her head, and the class' breath caught in their throats. "...head hurt?" "Yes!" we all cried.
I've always ended up being friendly with the people from faraway lands. They're just so much more interesting than me. "So do you dream in Japanese?" I'll ask. "Tell me again about the time the monkey slapped your friend," I'll say. "What's Spanish for 'stalker'?" When I simultaneously got a perm and new coat with a fur collar in high school, a friend who had recently moved to America searched for the word to describe my new look. "You know," he said, "like a gangster's girlfriend." "A moll?" I asked, "A dame?" He looked confused, so finally I went there. "A hooker?" He denied that was the word, but I swear I detected the glimmer of understanding that comes when an idea finally matches a word you've heard but didn't understand until now.
And so no small amount of preparation went into the exchange I shared with a Middle Eastern woman in the health and beauty section of Super Target this evening. I had gone there for razors, yes, but mostly for the air-conditioning. It was more than 90 degrees in my apartment, and I grasped at any excuse to get into the cool air of consumerism. Yet here was this woman, swathed in layers of cloth: a floor-length dress and long scarf that covered her hair and fell down her back. I sweat just looking past her at the shaving gel.
I caught her eye, and she held up a bottle of Veet and pointed to the illustration of smooth legs on the label. "Is this for whole body?" she asked. Here was my chance! My mind raced through all my English tutoring classes. "No," I said, shaking my head. Crap! I remembered that shaking your head means different things in different cultures. I pointed to the drawing. "Just legs."
The woman's shoulders sank, and she heaved a sigh. I noticed then that she was pregnant. "I need whole body hair off," she said, pleadingly. Okay, I was surprised to be having this conversation in Target, but that wasn't going to stop me from showing this woman the beauty of America. You want all the hair removed from your body? We've got something for that, I'm sure. I pulled bottle after bottle off the shelf and read the labels carefully. "No, this one is just for legs," I would say. She looked a little confused, so I touched my finger to my leg. "Only legs." She picked up another bottle and handed it to me.
Warning: do not use on face, head, breasts, or genitals. Bottle after bottle contained this warning. I shook my head at her, and she raised her eyebrows. "Not whole body." But she was after specific information. With each bottle I put back, she wanted more details, and I got the feeling that unless I told her she couldn't specifically use it on whatever part of her body she was concerned about, she would be sold. And I hated my tutoring instructor all the more, because I knew she was right; I would have to point.
I raised my head to my face. "No face." She gave me a dismissive look, so I went on. "No head," and I ran my fingers through my hair. Still she looked expectantly. "No...chest," I said, congratulating myself on the quick substitution of "chest" for "breast," though I had to gesture toward my chest all the same. "Uh-huh..." her eyes said.
I grew a little desperate. "Not whole body," I tried again. But my eyes fell on her enormous belly under all those drapes of clothing. We were talking about the application of chemicals to her body, and I decided that it was unfair to this hairy woman's unborn baby to allow my puritanical aversion to gesturing toward my crotch in public interfere with the clear communication of this product's warning label.
I glanced around me; the coast was relatively clear. There were two other women at the other end of the aisle. "You can't use it..." The woman's eager eyes followed my hand. "Not..." Her breath caught in her throat. And it suddenly occurred to me that I was going about this all wrong. All I had to do was point to every other part of my body and nod. "Toes: yes!" "Legs: yes!" "Arms: yes!" But as I formulated my new plan of attack, a Target employee reached between the woman and I to place an item on the shelf. The woman seized the opportunity, turning to the employee and thrusting a bottle of Veet before her eyes. "I need whole body hair off!" she said. The employee sighed. "You're, like, the sixth person to ask me that today."
Here was someone infinitely more qualified to deal with this woman's hair removal questions, so I quickly replaced the bottle on the shelf and slid quietly around the end cap and out of sight. There would be plenty of other opportunities, I assured myself, to connect across the barriers of language with interesting people from foreign lands. Anyway, I had to get home and shower, let my hair dry for an hour, blow-dry it, and fall asleep on my right side.