valentine's treatment

For the tip you pay for a hair wash I’ll stroke your hair, while you tell me all the things that you can’t tell your lover.

New York, 2013

I have questions, and want to find answers:  What is “a relationship” ?  What is “a service" ?  What is "labour" ?  What is “trust” ?  What is “intimacy” ?

I walk into every hairdresser, beauty salon and barber shop on the Lower East Side. After 50 or more rejections a barber says "No, but I know a place you could try..."

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I come in and propose my idea. I leave my sign outside in the stairwell. The first guy I talk to looks unamused. Another guy, who introduces himself as ‘Big Mike’ says “Come back at 8 p.m., I’ll be your first client. We close at 9.30.”

I come back at 8 p.m. and Big Mike welcomes me in. I tell him I’ll give any tips I get to the shop, As thanks for letting me use their space. He accepts gladly, and points me to an empty barber chair and mirror set up. I place my sign beside it and stand waiting.

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Big Mike is not my first customer.  A guy who’s just had a shave comes over and sits in the chair.  he has no hair to stroke so i run my hands across his smooth skull. He decides not to speak about himself, instead he questions me. I tell him the deal didn't include me talking.

One of the barbers asks to take a photo of us. my client refuses. I begin to feel awkward so I tell him “That’s it.” He pays for his shave, comes back to give me $2, then leaves.

The man I presume Big Mike was referring to when he mentioned ‘The Big Boss’ comes over and introduces himself to me. His name, Don Fifi, is embroidered on his shirt pocket. He takes me aside and tells me that any money I make is mine and I’m not to give it to anyone.

Fifi doesn’t smile. So he says. i can't help feeling like i'm on a film set. 

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Several taciturn clients later, one guy does talk. He tells me he has a girlfriend and a baby. She’s crazy. The girlfriend, not the baby. He always thinks of nice thinks to say to her. But then doesn’t. he decides she doesn’t deserve it. When he does say nice things to her she takes advantage. He’d like her to say nice things to him but she never does. Tonight he’s gonna say nice things to her.

He tells me that she’s Russian. And that when other girls chat him up it turns her on. But only if they’re hot. If a girl that isn’t hot tries to chat him up, that makes her mad. She’s always mad. She cleans a lot so if he, say, comes home tired and puts his sweater down on the couch, she’ll scream. She’s mad when she doesn’t work. She’s mad when she has no money. He always thinks of nice things to say to her in the day. But when he gets home and sees her he decides that he doesn’t want to tell her. That's all he tells me.

I leave with $31.