Monday, December 15, 2014

Two socks

The girl nodded perfunctorily as I passed, but she didn't smile. We both had large baskets of laundry in our arms. She was being polite, acknowledging that our paths were crossing, that we shared a similar struggle, but nothing more.

She wore a yellow flannel shirt and the lower third of her jeans disappeared under the seem of heavy, black boots. A cigarette was tucked behind her ear.

Her face was plain: no lipstick, no powder and no earrings. She'd clipped her hair short and it was growing back unevenly --a home job. She'd probably done it herself in front of a bathroom mirror with a pair of twelve dollar clippers.

Almost every man I know has tried that same look one time or another. You argue that a pair of clippers from the drugstore, the big box chain store, the little box chain store costs the same as a haircut from the mall and you don't have to pay for parking or tip anybody.

How hard can it be to cut hair, especially if you're not going for anything fancy? Just take your time, keep your hand steady, start with the larger combs and work your way down. No problem.

The math is easy. After one haircut, the clippers pay for themselves, but unless you've got some kind of skill at cutting hair or are particularly desperate, by the sixth or seventh cut, you get tired of looking like an ex-con or a prisoner of war. You find a new barber, lie and blame your hair on the last guy or slink back to the salon at the mall.

If they don't ask any questions about what you've done to your head, you tip them better than they deserve. If they do, you still tip, but you never come back.

I wonder what it's like with women?

With 40 minutes to kill and only a book to keep me company, I watched the woman with the bad haircut and the work boots. She wasn't alone. Another woman was with her and the two of them shuffled wet clothes into the dryers, talked in short, awkward bursts, but never laughed.

The other woman was older, but blond and pretty. She wore officially licensed college football team sweats. They were clean and, like most sweats meant for lounging or doing mild chores, made her look vaguely shapeless.

I more or less had on the same outfit, though my sweats had seen better days. Most of my clothes have seen better days.

Still, there was a contrast here. Where the one woman seemed to have ditched the fashion magazine ideal of femininity, the other wore makeup to come to the grubby laundromat. She'd put some work into her hair --something I could not also cop to. A baseball cap covered the grubby nest of frayed wire on my head. I looked like someone who worked parking lots to be paid in spare change.

For the briefest of moments I thought they might be lovers, but then I watched the older, prettier woman fold a pair of boxer shorts. She looked up from her work, looked across the room, through the glass door to the parking lot.

The cigarette had been plucked from behind the younger woman's ear and she stood outside, watching traffic and smoking.

The older woman scowled, but went on folding cheap, sleeveless cotton undershirts, bleached the color of bones; white, athletic socks with red stripes; old t-shirts and a rainbow of flannel, work shirts.

All of it looked just shy of new, but well-kept, and she resented having to put her hands on it.

When the girl with the bad haircut came back, the laundry was folded and neatly stacked in plastic baskets. She grabbed the largest and led the way to their car.

We nodded again, as they passed. We all had our hands full. I tried to smile at her mother, too, a sympathetic gesture, but she didn't look up.  

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