When you’re a man of a certain age, not getting a haircut for a few months, the thinning hair on top starts getting wispy and blowing around, the sides stick out all crazy. It is not a good look.
And it seemed beyond the help of a YouTube haircut video. So when the stylist who cuts my hair, Vincent Cox, told me that the salon he works at was opening up, I thought — “Well, I don’t know. What am I going to risk my health just for vanity?”
A few days later I’m sitting on the back patio of a salon in Boston with Cox’s scissors snapping around my head. We’re both wearing masks.
“I set up these stations outside, I brought the mirrors in from home,” he says. The salon owner has been receptive to his ideas for how to reopen the business as safely as possible. Cox says he works outside as much as possible.
He has been cutting hair for 45 years, and he’s had to improvise before. He’s cut rock stars’ hair on airplanes.
“Oh, yeah. I traveled with Aerosmith, The Cars, the Rolling Stones,” he says. “That was dangerous duty too, you know, in the ’70s!”
“A different kind of dangerous,” I say.
“A different kind of danger,” Cox says and laughs. “But it wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t like this.”
Cox says, actually, he and all the other hairstylists he knows were shocked to hear that hair salons were among the first businesses opening up in Massachusetts and some other states. He says it just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
“I mean, I would go work in an office,” he says. “The other guy’s six feet away at a desk. I’m not touching him and running my fingers through his hair.”
As Cox is telling me this he accidentally pokes my eyelid with his finger. Obviously, it’s impossible to social distance when you’re getting a haircut.
And as we talk, it becomes clear that Cox is pretty scared. He’s 65 years old, and 80% of COVID-19 deaths have been in people his age or older.
He says his dentist was warning him not to ever take off his N95 mask. His doctor said the same thing. “They’re worried sick about me,” he says.
But when the salon opened up, Cox couldn’t collect unemployment anymore, so he felt he had no choice but to come back to work. He’s sterilizing his chair and scissors, washing clients’ hair himself, working 13-hour days, worried about getting sick.
“It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I was almost in tears the first day — almost in tears.”
Cox says one evening after work the first week he was back he was kind of having a little bit of a breakdown. “And I talked to my friend, and he’s a retired Army general. He texted me and asked me how I was doing, and I went on a rant of about 10, 15 minutes. And it was really good because a general, when he gives you a kind of a word of advice, you kind of listen, you know?”
“And he says, ‘Vince, just remember your friends are behind you.’ And so that’s the best advice I’ve gotten.”
The salon owner says he’s comfortable with the steps to keep employees and customers safe — spreading out the chairs inside, cutting hair on the patio, the masks, the gloves. But Cox and stylists at other salons, too, are worried. They say they feel like canaries in a coal mine, like test subjects to see whether parts of the economy where you can’t social distance are opening up too fast.