John Kelly: Not Just a Haircut, a Relationship

By John Kelly
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Clariss and I have decided to see other people. That's how I'm looking at it anyway, even if it was she who broke up with me.

The woman who's been cutting my hair for the past five years is moving to California. I'd follow her, but I don't think my family would understand.

We seemed a perfect match: she the attractive, talented twentysomething hairdresser, me the unattractive fortysomething customer with a congenital condition that left him unable to grow sideburns.

I'll never forget the day Clariss persuaded me to try "product," the expensive goop you put in your just-washed hair to make it look as if it were dirty and you had slept on it wrong. Clariss was a master of product, able to turn my hair into a cresting wave or an alpine forest with just a few masterful strokes of her hands. Once, she pinched and pulled at my locks until they resembled a perfect miniature of Pickett's Charge.

Try as I might, I could never swirl and muss my product the way Clariss could.

It was a week ago that Clariss broke the news that she was seeking her fortune in L.A. We grow oddly attached to the people who tame the filaments of protein that emerge from our scalps. What do I do now? Should I, hermitlike, just stop cutting my hair?

I considered going back to Gerardo, but of course he had retired. Fifteen years we'd been together, ever since the day I moved with My Lovely Girlfriend into an apartment building near Van Ness. His salon -- Unihair (it meant unisex, but I always imagined him trimming one humongous hair follicle, like Jack felling the beanstalk) -- was the first I came to walking down Connecticut Avenue.

When I entered I quickly surmised that this was a place that specialized in mother-in-law hair: those frothy meringues of white and blue and purple. I considered turning around.

But Gerardo's station was decorated with framed photographs of classic Ford Mustangs. He saw me in the doorway and ushered me in. I like to think he was happy to talk to someone other than 80-year-old women.

And he was such a disarming fellow. He was originally from Italy but had emigrated with his family to South America as a teenager. Then he'd come to America, working first as a mechanic and then getting his hairdresser's license. Eventually, he was able to open Unihair.

Gerardo had a Belgian wife and an associate named Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre and Gerardo had worked together at another salon in the Seventies. What a time to be a handsome, European hairdresser in Washington! They both bought Corvettes, and it must have been quite a sight to see them roaring down M Street: "Boogie Nights" meets "Shampoo."

When he cut my hair, Gerardo and I would talk about cars -- he had restored many -- but mostly we talked about home improvement: the best insulation to blow into the attic, how often to change the oil in your lawn mower, how deep to sink a concrete footer for a deck.

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