Quarantine Cuts, Pandemic Looks

by Larry Danielson

My sister-in-law Betty recounted during a recent phone conversation how she had met a close acquaintance and barely recognized her. The woman always appeared very prim and proper, her every hair in place and always the customary length. Now, however, the impeccable coiffure had vanished, its place taken by a look much longer and less ruly. With the closure of beauty shops, others among Betty’s friends were faring even worse. The colouring in their hair was fading, giving way to embarrassing two-tones, dyed and au naturel. The Clairol assurance had slipped. The mystery of “Does she or doesn’t she?” was now exposed. Only her hairdresser knows?  Now others do too.

In these pandemic times, unsightly hair is one of the minor side effects of closing non-essential businesses and mandating prolonged social isolation. Celebrities may be more accustomed than most of us to a managed image with professional services. Yet they too are posting on the Internet pictures of their home haircuts, desperate perhaps for the limelight even in the face of mishaps. One captioned the photo of her self-inflicted hairdo—“Slipped…fell on a shaver.”

Though we are focused on our physical survival and well-being, I confess I have feelings of deep empathy for all these folk, whether small-town residents or red-carpet luminaries. My shaggy hair, too, had become a concern. Even before our government leaders mandated the COVID-19 lockdown, I was overdue for a haircut.  I had procrastinated and missed my opportunity to get a regular trim by Cheryl at Nikki’s Beauty Bar. The shop may re-open soon, but it will be a while before either I or my wife Myra feels safe breaking our social isolation and going to a commercial hair dresser.

Today I persuaded Myra to cut my hair. It is only the second time she has done so. The previous one was over five decades ago. We had just moved from northern Indiana to New York City. 

In the American midwest in 1969, long hair marked one out. It was considered to be a “troublemaker hippy look.”  During that first summer of our marriage, I worked at Penn Control, a large subsidiary factory of Honeywell. I operated a drill press in an area of the plant that was not air-conditioned and consequently very hot. After my first week, I went to Lou, a local barber, and got what was called a “crew cut”—short on the sides with only a half inch left standing on top. To the plant brass and the old man who came around every couple of hours to inspect my work, I now looked “normal.” Thus they seldom found fault with my work. 

When we arrived in New York City, late in August, the reverse was true. Most men had longish hair and my flat-top appeared far from fashionable. I resolved to let it grow out, but in the process it looked even more unsightly.  It stuck out in all directions. I looked like the clown on Buffalo Bob’s “Howdy-Doody” show. 

“Who has fuzzy-wuzzy hair? Clarabell!”

“Hey, kids! What time is it?”

This was the late 1960’s. Buffalo Bob had left town and the Peanut Gallery had grown up. Howdy Doody definitely was not New York cool.

Finally, my hair reached a point where it needed a careful trim if I was to have any hope of being presentable at the Manhattan hospital where I worked as an inhalation therapist. 

Myra and I lived in a sublet apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I asked a workmate if he knew of a barber shop that was on my subway route home. He gave my brushy outgrowth a critical appraisal and grinned.

“You’re looking pretty rough around the edges.”

With some difficulty, I located the address of the place he recommended in lower Manhattan. The shop did not have a barber pole by its door, with its familiar red, white and blue ascending stripes. Instead, the ornate picture window bore the words “Gentlemen’s Hair Salon.” 

The moment I stepped inside, I could tell this was more upscale than Lou’s. It had a lobby with soft, high-backed chairs for waiting customers. I glanced into the adjoining studio area, a brightly-lit room, with large mirrors on the wall and a row of fancy swivel chairs. I spotted the nearest stylist, a modish-dressed man with scissors in hand, and he came to greet me. “You gotta a reza-vation?”

“A what?”

“A reza-vation?”

“Oh, reservation. No,” I replied. “Do you take walk-ins?”

He glanced at the appointments book. “We don’t got anyt’ing ’til T’ursday, next week.” 

His eyes surveyed my mangy-looking hairline.

“How much are your haircuts?” I asked, feeling a reservation of my own.

The man grabbed a small menu and thrust it towards me. 

I opened it cautiously and scanned the range of options. I was taken aback. 

For just a basic haircut the cost was more than double what it had been in Indiana. 

Yes, I now was better paid, but not that much better. 

I left the hair salon, sans reservation, and rode the Flatbush line toward home. We did have an electric clippers, a wedding gift from a relative anticipating our newly-wed need for thrift. Now was the time to use it, if I only could persuade Myra.

Not surprisingly, Myra was hesitant. She had never cut anyone’s hair or even had her own hair cut. 

“ It can’t be that hard,” I insisted. 

I reminded her that during my last two years of college, a Vietnamese student in my dormitory had cut my hair. Thien Nhân said it was not hard to do. Just “a few snips here and there.”

I retrieved the clippers from our bedroom closet, plugged it in at the socket, and handed it to Myra. I draped a dishtowel around my shoulders and sat down on a low chair in our apartment kitchen.

She stood, still looking uncertain.

“Start with the back,” I suggested. 

I wished I had paid more attention when Lou did the cutting, but maybe that would not have helped. This was not to be another crew cut. I could hear Lou’s laughing voice declare, “The only difference between a good cut and a bad one…is three days.”

I tried to remember the process from haircuts in my childhood.  On our Minnesota farm, Mother cut our boys’ hair every few weeks, usually on Saturday nights. She used an old hand clipper and too often it pulled our hair at the roots.


“Sit still!”

“It hurt.”

“Not that much. Sit still.

My brothers and I were pleased when we started getting our hair trimmed by Aunt Amy. After evening chores, we would drive up to Aunt Amy and Uncle Jewel’s farm place near Detroit Lakes. Amy had an electric clipper. Much faster and no pain. 

The change also suited my Dad well. Jewel had recently bought a television, one of the first in the area. Instead of going downtown for a Saturday night movie, Dad and Jewel could relax in the living room and watch the Saturday Night Fights. 

Even as we boys sat on a chair in the kitchen, waiting our turn to be shorn, we could hear the broadcast. 

“The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports is on the air! This is Jimmy Powers, speaking to you from Madison Square Gardens in New York City, and welcoming you to another boxing match.” 

I didn’t like all the jabs and punching, but I did enjoy the catchy Gillette theme song: “You look sharp, and you feel sharp too…

I tried to picture myself back in Aunt Amy’s kitchen. How did she do it? With clipper in hand, she seemed all business: buzz around the ears, trim up the sides, a bit off the top…job done. 

I heard a loud buzz and opened my eyes. 

Myra at last had found her courage and switched our clipper on. 

As I had suggested, she approached from behind. I felt the clipper head start at the bottom of my neck and go up. And up…and up.!

Suddenly Myra stopped. She was silent for a moment and then burst into laughter. Not a bemused giggle, as I was used to. This was hysterical laughter. Side-splitting howls of laughter. She could not stop. 

We were just months into our marriage and I had never seen this side of her, this over-the-top merriment. It was not a happy discovery.

I felt the back of my head with my hand. A bare swatch stretched from the base of my neck almost to the top of my ears. “Not good. Definitely not good.” 

“How bad is it?” I asked, when Myra finally recovered enough for conversation.

She said nothing, but just looked at me, on the verge of another outburst but hesitant since I was not smiling.

Time for damage control. 

“Just trim the rest up to about the same level.”

Bad idea! 

But…Myra obliged.

Hesitantly, I headed down the hallway to look in the bathroom mirror. I had not been optimistic, but the result was even worse than I expected. It was awful. Shockingly awful. As in “No-holds-barred, this-shouldn’t-be-you!” awful. 

If I thought the prices in the barber shop were bad, this was a hundred times worse. 

Normally I wore my sideburns short. Now they were five inches longer than the bottom of my hair line. 

Oh, I would have been grateful to go back to the “bowl-cut” look I complained of when Mother and her hand clippers had finished with me. Wasn’t cutting hair supposed to be in the feminine DNA? Not sheer bliss, perhaps…but certainly not this!

Throughout the evening, I agonized over what to do. I couldn’t go into work looking like I’d been sideswiped by a combine. My colleagues would razz me mercilessly. I would go from being the inconspicuous new guy to a rung even lower on the social ladder than Bardel. Until now, he had been the butt of all jokes. And what about the hospital patients I needed to visit on my daily rounds? Sick or not, they would have their own awkward questions.

Over and over, I wished I had booked a T’ursday appointment at the Gentlemen’s Hair Salon and spent whatever small fortune was required.  Yet now I couldn’t stay at home, waiting for my hair to grow out. Indiana Lou was definitely wrong: the difference between a good hair cut and a bad one could be…three months. I still was in the probationary period with my new job. And I didn’t have any sick leave accumulated. 

The next morning, I set out as usual riding the subway north from Brooklyn to to the university hospital in Manhattan where I worked. From the moment I walked into our eighth floor headquarters, I faced the incredulous stares, then the question, ever so predictable: “Danielson…What happened to you?”

I was ready. 

I stared right back and, with a straight face, asked: “Have you ever sneezed in the barber’s chair?”

I didn’t claim that I had, mind you…but my question was misleading and effective. 

Whatever may have been said behind my back, no further questions were asked. 

And after a couple of days, even the bursts of laughter subsided. 

Eventually my hair did grow out. And it grew longer. No more Clarabell. 

In the interval, I tended not to go shopping in any large stores. Almost immediately I would find myself being followed—Store Security, alerted to one tall and very strange looking customer. 

Since that time, I have had many haircuts and always at a professional shop. 

As the rates have climbed, I’ve noted the irony of paying more and more for less and less. 

But I’ve not complained or swayed from my practice. 

Until today.  

Now going to a hair salon might be not just a costly venture, but a deadly one. I would be risking my health and well-being.

So I dug out the professional scissors that I bought years ago to trim my sideburns and eyebrows. And, once again, I persuaded Myra.  Fortunately, this time we had the guidance of a twenty-minute YouTube tutorial: April’s “Hair 101”—How To Cut Men’s Hair with Scissors. April made the process look easy. Wet the hair and start with the perimeter. Trim around the right ear. Cut straight along the back, following the natural hairline. Do the same around the left ear. Trim around the front brow, then taper up the sides and back, leaving the hair longer at the top than the bottom.  The trickiest part would come on the top—blending the trim there with that of the sides. In my case, it was not a problem. Mother Nature did the thinning before Myra got a chance. 

These many years later, Myra still was hesitant and uncertain. But, as I sat on the low gardening stool on our deck, I was not worried. I didn’t have a job to go to, and for some weeks yet, we are not likely to socialize publicly. Myra would do most of the cutting with a scissors, not clippers, and whatever the result I would have plenty of time for the hair to grow out. 

Happily, the outcome today was much different—a reasonably good trim. A bit short in the back, perhaps, since I forgot to mention, as I usually do at Nikki’s Beauty Bar, “Just a half inch above the collar.” There was no power-cut swath up to the top of my ears.

When I finally do go back to see Cheryl, the gal who has trimmed my diminishing hair for the past 30 years, both Myra and I may feel relieved.  But for now I am celebrating the success that eluded us fifty years ago.  The story of my New York home hair cut has given us many laughs over the year, but this pandemic trim is much better!