9.11 The Usual

My office is in the Queen Street and Spadina Avenue area of Toronto and one of a few Chinatowns in the city. I love taking breaks and going for short walks around the neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago, I was walking down a quiet street and stopped to cross the road. An elderly woman, looking quite lost, stood on the other side of the street. She stared at me, catching my eye and motioned for me to come over. I looked around, confused - was she pointing at me? No one else was around and so I shrugged and made my way to her.

The woman pointed to a storefront at the corner - a hairstyling shop. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I come here all the time, but it is closed. There’s a sign that says, ‘Be back in 15 minutes’ but I’ve already been waiting here for 16 minutes.” I stepped up to the front door of the hairstylist and sure enough, there was the 15-minute sign along with a phone number.

“What would you like me to do about this?” I asked. “I don’t know, I just need to get my hair cut right now," she said. "Can you call that number? I don’t have one of those mobile phones.” I nodded, tapped the number into my phone, stepped a few steps away from her and listened to the ringing. A man answered, “Yeah?” I said, “I’m here at your hairstyling shop and there’s a little old lady who needs her haircut. She says she comes here all the time.” Without missing a beat, he said, “Tell her I’ll be there in 15 minutes. The front door is open, she can wait inside.” Before I could let him know that she had already been here for 16 minutes, he hung up.

I walked back to the woman and relayed my phone conversation. I went over to the front door, turned the knob and it was open. We stepped inside, closing the door behind us. “Okay,” I said, “I think my job is done here.” The woman set her bags down and sat on a stylist’s chair. Looking at herself in the mirror, she said, “Just the usual, please.” As she brushed down her hair, I looked around, again, wondering if she was talking to me. “Come on,” she said. “I have errands to run.”

I looked through the front windows with the hope that the actual hairstylist would come and save me. Some wires had gotten crossed when we stepped through the door and she thought I was the stylist.

The woman stopped brushing her hair and looked at me through the mirror. I stepped up to the chair she sat on and more to myself, said, “Okay, the usual.” I looked at the array of scissors and brushes and hair dryers. Sometimes you have to give yourself over to another power. Sometimes you need to have the confidence you can do something you have never done before. Sometimes a situation calls for you to step up and believe so completely in yourself that there is no room for failure.

The usual.

I picked up a pair of scissors and a comb. These tools felt comfortable in my hands. I stepped up to her head, took a small row of hair in my fingers, placed the hair between the scissor edges and slowly made the first cut. As they say, the first cut is the hardest.

From there, I was no longer pretending to be a hair stylist. I was a hairstylist. I don’t know where this came from, but my fingers were alive in the handles of those scissors. They had a mind and instinct all their own.

I learned more about the woman. She talked non-stop while I focused on her hair like nothing else in my life existed. Her name was Gladys and she had lived in the neighbourhood for decades. She fought alongside Jane Jacobs to stop the Spadina Expressway. She was one of the founders of the local BIA and advocated for small businesses like the one we were in. Her husband, Gus, had succumbed to cancer eight years ago and she had three children and five grandkids.

I stopped cutting when I felt it was time. Gladys looked up and said, “Perfect!” She walked over to her bags, picked up her purse and gave me $15, handing me an additional $2. “Now, don’t spend this all in one place.” She gathered her things and as we walked out, we met the actual hairstylist. “Gladys,” he said, “You don’t need a cut, you look great!” She smiled and said, “Your new guy here is a keeper.” And she walked away. The hairstylist looked confusingly at me, I shrugged and headed back to my office.

Paul Dore