The small sign in the window of a seen-better-days office building advertising $5 haircuts caught my eye. I was strolling around Annandale, Northern Virginia’s Korean enclave, doing some research for a story I was writing on the local Korean community for The Fairfax Times. I walked in and interviewed a couple of the Korean immigrants who run the Cosmopolitan Beauty School .
What I learned was this: A) yes, the haircuts really are $5, B) you can also get “shampoo and scalp massage” for “extra two dollah,” and C) business is very good right now because people are cheap and they don’t give a damn how they look anyways and the economy is a train wreck. Nothing Pulitzer-worthy, but I walked out vowing to patronize the place sometime soon.
A few weeks later, my four-year-old son and I turned up on a weekday morning to get haircuts. All of the students were Korean but the few customers were older white men, presumably skinflints like me. One of them, a fifty-something with a comb-over and a cardigan, struck up a conversation with us.
“Been here before?” he asked.
“First time,” I admitted.
“I love this place,” he beamed. “Where else can you get a haircut for five bucks?”
I could name a few places. A couple years back, I got a relatively awful $5 cut at a place in Chicago called Sylvia and Mike’s. And I’ve gotten loads of haircuts in other countries for far less than $5.
When I lived in Macedonia, I had a barber named Dime who gave a pretty mean cut for the equivalent of $2. I’ve also gotten cuts for less than $5 in Russia, Turkey, China, Lebanon and Uzbekistan. When it comes to cheap barbers overseas, I am so trusting, that I once allowed an 11-year-old boy to give me a shave with a straight razor in Turkey. He actually did a damn good job.
I gave a matronly Korean women twelve dollars- I was splurging for the shampoo and scalp massage- and she simply put it in her pocket. There was no sales tax, no receipt. Nothing.
After a few minutes, a Korean woman in her early 30’s and a Korean man, in his early 20’s, approached Leo and me. I wanted the woman to cut my hair, but before I could think of any polite way to express that preference, I was stuck with the young man, who had one of those Pat Reilly slicked back styles going for him.
By this point in the story, you probably realize that I’m not super picky about my hair. So when my student stylist, Peter, asked me how I wanted my haircut, I thought: for this price, just try not to fuck up too badly.
In between cell phone calls and Korean-language banter with his boss/teacher, Peter gave me a serviceable cut and Leo looked downright handsome. I had paid the extra $2 for the shampoo and scalp massage assuming that one of the women in eyesight was going to cut my hair. For some reason, I’m not big on having a guy washing my hair.
I tried to simply walk out, but the matron of the house said, “You already pay two dollah, you get shampoo,” and I didn’t really have the strength to argue with her.
Peter, as it turned out, was better at cutting hair than washing it. My eyes were closed, so I’m not precisely sure what the hell he was doing, but I came away from the experience soaking wet from the chest up. Peter and two other students hustled me back to the chair and all three of them started aiming blow-dryers at me. I felt like an overheated poodle backstage just before the start of the Westminster Kennel Club Show.
A few weeks later, I returned to the same place. This time by myself. I didn’t splurge for the shampoo and was assigned to a Korean woman in her mid 20’s with a name badge that identified her as Ji Young Woo. Ji had a lot of eye makeup on but still managed to look pretty conservative compared to the boss, a middle aged man named Kenneth with a greased up Pat Reilly haircut in the front and a silly looking, tightly drawn, fluffy pony tail in the back. He had on tight black pants, a white oxford shirt, and an oddly shiny royal blue tie, knotted but hanging haphazardly in the middle of his unbuttoned shirt.
I wear glasses but take them off for haircuts, so I’m often blissfully unaware of how badly a haircut is going until the deed is over. On this day, I was lost in the beauty shop’s wretched mix tape, which included a cover of One Night in Bangkok, Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach, and Garth Brooks’s Achy, Breaky Heart.
The unsettling part was that the garishly decked out Kenneth kept coming over to bark instructions/criticism/unrelated commentary to Ji in Korean. I had no idea what was going on, but when she was done, I slowly reached for my glasses, steeling myself for the task in the way someone might approach a nuclear reactor after a fallout.
The cut was hopelessly lopsided, so I asked her to even it out. After a few more snips and more instructions/criticism/unrelated commentary from Kenneth, I took another look. It seemed to be getting worse. I motioned for Kenneth to come back over.
He sauntered by and burst out laughing at the sight of me. Never a good sign. After collecting himself, he took the scissors out of her hand and forcefully smacked them down on her little table. He grabbed the razor and mimed mowing my hair with a lawnmower, row-by-row, over my head.
“Wait a minute,” I protested. “I don’t want my head shaved!”
“No, no,” she said. “No shaving head.”
She used the clipper to mow my head and, while it didn’t look good by any stretch of the imagination, eventually it was even. I was just about ready to deploy to Paris Island but gave her a $2 tip nonetheless. Ji seemed thrilled. I’ll probably be back at the Cosmopolitan Beauty Shop in another three weeks. Actually, make that four.