A Portrait of Joe…


I knew about Joe before I met him. There wasn’t a yelp recommendation that didn’t glow about the salon and didn’t glow about Joe. And when I called to make my haircut appointment I thought, “This must be Joe I’m talking to.” He sounded … efficient.

I was curious to meet the man.

Star East Hair and Beauty is a storefront I pass nearly every day. Its front has blue trim with these blue half dome awnings over the door and windows that give it a kind of miniature effect. You’re surprised to look through the windows and see the space of the room. It’s bright and clean, with pink and white. I wanted to step through the portal into that cozy world and, so, I decided to give it a shot.

It’s been almost a year since my last haircut and the situation was dire. I have a hard time pulling the trigger on going to a new place and I was a tad nervous. When I arrived after a quick five-minute walk from my door, a young Chinese girl wanted to seat me right away. The man who must be Joe waved her off and dictated a different action in Chinese. I was seated by the front and a steaming cup of green tea was brought to me.

And then I met the man, a Chinese man of indeterminate age. The greyness of his hair and the comfortable wrinkles around his eyes implied he might be older. But his shirt was a blaring contradiction, an outrageous collection of brightly multicolored plaid and giant black letters and symbols that spelled out absolutely nothing running up one side. His glasses were either very old or all the latest hipster rage, so they were no help. And while he spoke to me about my hair and my habits, I decided no other person on the planet could have pulled off that shirt.

I passed the initial interview and he allowed me to be seated at this point. One of the girls followed his gesture and I was carefully wrapped, wrapped again, and yet again. Thus prepared, I was ready for Joe.

He began trimming in silence, which normally I would have preferred, but I was intrigued by this character.

I asked him how long he’d been cutting hair.

“A long time. I started when I was young and now,” he gestured to all that multicolored plaid, “I am old.”

I wondered what he wore when he was young.

He had gone to London to learn how to cut hair and had gone back to Asia and taught others how to do the same.

“My job is to make women beautiful,” he said, “It is a good job. Once, I cut the hair of a movie star in China. She had no makeup on. Hair is first. Even when you have no makeup on you still have to do your hair, see?”

I asked him about Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. He’d been in San Francisco for fifteen years now.

“What is your favorite city?” I asked.

“I like them all. Each city is a different culture. Singapore has spicy food, very nice, here is cold, air quality is better. The sky is blue.”

“How did you know you wanted to cut hair?”

“I don’t know. When you are young you don’t know what you want to do. I worked in an office for a week and then I knew I didn’t want to work in an office. The first time I worked in a place to cut hair I did not like it. But it was old, very traditional. The second time I said, oh, ah, this is better. There is many new things you can do.”

He cut and trimmed and played with great policy the delicate line of giving me what I asked for while giving me what would suit my hair.

“I don’t know,” I said at one point, “What do you think?”

“I think it will be nicer. I know hair. It is my profession.”

There were three other women in the room. Two were stylists. The other one, a young girl named Ling, was paged many times to perform the lesser tasks, like refill my cup of green tea and fetch flatirons. They didn’t speak, but to Joe in Chinese. When he spoke to them it was clipped. It startled me, but they watched him with something a little more than admiration.

I realized that it wasn’t a mistake that I was seated right next to the only other customer in an empty salon. Joe flitted back and forth performing the most important functions and paged Ling to do the rest. They watched him, like you watch your center, constantly checking proximity. When his hands worked they studied his motions.

He found my bangs which have been hiding for a while and he fixed the stubborn baby curl that has been robust enough to throw off the straight fate of the rest of my hair. He did more than a beautiful job, he was thorough.

When I paid he gave me my card back with the same two-handed gesture that my favorite Chinese barista uses, one hand holding the card, the other hand cupped underneath as if it was a fragile thing.

“Can I ask you a question?” I asked.

He bobbed permission. This particular question had been burning in my mind for a while. He’d answered so many, so readily, I thought he’d be a good candidate for this one.

“When you hand me back my card you used two hands. Is that a cultural thing? Is it a custom?”

“It is a politeness,” he smiled, “not a cultural thing. Two hands are polite. When I took my daughter to Japan she was surprised. Every time you buy something they come out from around the counter and hand it to you like this,” he mimed handing over a bag with two hands and the slightest of bows.

“I love that,” I said, “When should I come back for another cut?”

“When you feel you need it,” he smiled me away and I nodded to the other ladies who were watching our exchange before he bustled back to the other customer.

As I walked home I wondered how many other orbiting systems and Joe’s there were tucked away behind storefronts in this great big neighborhood of mine.  And I walked through the chill streets feeling lovely. Thank you, Joe.

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