January 27, 2011

You Getting a Hair Cut

 Düsseldorf, Germany
 What color is it going to be this time? Orange? Red again, or perhaps green?

You walk into the UniSex hair salon and see purple-haired Kevin sitting on the bench smoking a cigarette. You walk inside, and the glass door slams against the saloon-style ash bin propping it open. Ignore it. The door doesn’t belong to you anyway.

Kevin’s purple hair is standing straight up, and you can’t look at it without thinking of a troll doll. He says “Hallo,” and you say the same thing, staring too long at his plastic, spray-tanned face. Don’t worry. Anyone that has Sponge Bob Square Pants tattooed on his forearm is used to it. Thank God for people like this. You check out his left arm and see all three Power Puff Girls surrounded by stars. The details are dazzling.

He stubs out his cigarette and says “please sit anywhere.” It’s 10AM and every seat is open. The salon is 10 feet across and goes back like a bowling alley. Techno music is blaring, and there are wall-mounted flat screens between each chair. You sit down in the back, close to the hair washing station.

Kevin comes over and asks “Would you like a drink? Coffee?”
His English is terrible. Your German is worse.
“Nein, danke,” you say. “Wasser, bitte.”

Kevin calls out to the blonde with the fat ass. She stashes the broom and walks behind a curtain. There is an awkward silence. Kevin urges you over to one of the flat screens. He shows you pictures of men’s heads and says “What you like?” Except for the Turkish heads, the faces all look like you and Kevin: Skinny white boys. There’s a head that looks like it hasn’t been cut. The caption says ‘Surfer.’ You point to it, even though you don’t like to surf. Forget it. The blonde’s back with your water. You look her in the eyes and say “danke.”

Kevin wears plastic gloves that crinkle as he washes your hair. You didn’t shower before leaving the house today. Never mind. You’re going to shower when you get home anyway. Occupy yourself by looking at Kevin’s facial piercings. The ring on his lip seems like it would be annoying. Again, you’re grateful that not everyone is as boring as you.

You sit there facing the mirror. Fangs of moisture drip onto the nylon cape. Kevin slips into his rhinestone-studded holster. It is packed with razors, shears, combs, and scissors. He seems taller, moves faster. Kevin removes the scissors and spins them around his index finger like a gunslinger. You feel your body tensing up beneath the cape. Relax. You look over to a flat screen. A corpse is getting her hair cut before a live audience. The assistants had already pulled some paper mache guts from her belly. After each snip, the mad scientist pulls the scissors back and twirls them like a gunslinger. The crowd is going wild.

You look to Kevin's hand. He holsters the scissors, pulls out a straight razor. Your head leans as he pulls your bangs forward. His other hand is spinning the razor blade like a sideways helicopter. Bits of your bangs fall on your lap. Take a chance. You open your eyes just a crack, enough to see the letters tattooed across the back of each finger...

January 19, 2011

Ice Cream Boy

Istanbul, Turkey

The boy was standing under an awning just off the sidewalk, which sloped uphill toward the Blue Mosque. Short, and looking neither old nor young, the boy was holding an aluminum utensil that looked like a crowbar. Although it was December, the weather was sunny and mild and Takayo and I had talked about getting some ice cream earlier. As we approached the boy, he immediately began stirring one of the three holes in the big, metal box.

"Where you from?" he said. 

Since arriving in Istanbul three days earlier, I’d been asked that question at least 50 times. It was mostly slick-haired vendors waiting outside rug shops or restaurants. As a conversation starter, it has a singular knack for stating the obvious. Yes, we may be strangers on the street. But before I try to separate you from your money, let’s discuss race, shall we.

“I’m from the States," I said.  “Do you have chocolate?” 
“You from England?"
"No,” I said, “the States. Chocolate?”

I’m pretty sure I would have kept walking if he hadn’t looked so peculiar. I mean, nobody has ever stopped me in the street in, say, Frankfurt because they were dying to know where I was from. Then again, so long as I don’t open my mouth, I’m pasty enough to pass as German.

“No,” I said. “Not Australia.” I should have just lied and said yes, but instead, I uttered the one word I was trying to avoid:  “America." 

I don’t remember when it started, probably after moving to Suzhou, China, but if a salesperson asks where I’m from I’ll say “the States” instead of “America.” It’s not that I’m ashamed to be an American – far from it. I prefer saying America, but the fact is I’m tired of getting stuck with the America price.

In Istanbul, much like China, unless there’s a barcode, price is negotiable. A pair of underwear might cost as much as a tee shirt. And, depending on the mood of the shop keep, a tee shirt might cost the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries. I don’t know why, but saying “the States” is anticlimactic. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “America.” Coincidently, it’s the same sound a cash register makes.

The boy’s eyes lit up as soon as I said it. "Ohhh,” he said. “Ameeeerica.”
“That’s right,” I said.

Because there’s no single person to blame, I blame television. After all, TV shows are dubbed into every language. It seems silly to think that all Americans live like they do in sitcoms, but, when we hold up the mirror, is it much different than the belief that all Asians know karate? I’ve seen street fights that would have made Bruce Lee turn in his grave, but I haven’t stepped foot on American soil since Obama’s been president. Nothing against him or his politics; it’s more a matter of logistics.

            “Yes,” I said to the ice cream boy. “Obama.”
“Obaaaamaaaa,” he repeated, reverently. 
“Yes, Obama. Now make me a Chocolate cone.”

He used the crowbar and began dipping the ice cream onto the cones. He handed Takayo hers first, and then held out mine. When I reached for it, as a joke he pretended to drop it. The boy had a singular talent for making me feel uncomfortable. I stared at his hand. He had dirt under his fingernails. 

Next, he stuck the ice cream in my face like a microphone and said “here, taste it.” Perhaps this was some kind of ancient Turkish custom. Here, my brother. Let us lick each other’s ice cream.

In spite of tradition, I took my cone and paid him the equivalent of seven dollars. As we walked away, above the sound of passing cars and his crowbar clanging inside of the ice chest, I heard the boy softly chanting "Obama...Obama…Obama."