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Present tense

What it feels like to shampoo a stranger


Andrea Di Projetto's shyness didn't keep her from a career in the service industry. She's a hair and makeup stylist at Hirsute Salon (50 Atlantic Avenue), where she's paid to lean over her customers at a sink, touch their skin and hair, and peer into their ear lobes. She talks with people for a living --- about their self-image, their insecurities, and even their intimate secrets.

It's a lot of responsibility, especially for someone with no formal training as a counselor. Di Projetto's aware that people are relying on her for advice, and even though she relishes the glamour side of the business, she really sees herself as someone who helps people.

Di Projetto is small. She has a couple of facial piercings and her sleeve-length tattoos look like colorful scrolls running down both arms. She's in her late 30s, but looks considerably younger. Seated outside Starry Nites Café during a recent break, she describes her last five years at Hirsute and the job that helped her find herself.

"I don't really have a title. I do hair. I do nails. I do makeup. Jimmy [the owner] cuts. I cut too, but he'll do the cuts and I'll do colors and perms. I don't know how people find us. They just do. They may know somebody, a friend or a relative. Someone will say, 'Oh, your hair looks really good. Who does it?' Or they might just walk in.

I used to cut my Barbie dolls' hair. I think I always knew I wanted to do this. I really didn't get into it until I started here. This is where I began taking it seriously. I was at another place and I was mainly the receptionist. They had nine or 10 stylists, and sometimes I got to do makeup for weddings or something like that. But I didn't do much hair there. And, one day, they told me I either had to cover up my tattoos or leave. So I chose to leave.

I'm glad I did, because I didn't think it was right for them to ask me to cover up my tattoos. I'm a lot more confident than I used to be. I really like what I do. People say I'm good at this, so I think the confidence shows.

You get to know people and they tell you things they really don't tell anyone else. It can get a little heavy. Like the other day, I had this customer come in whose dog just died. It was very emotional. I mean, I'm not a therapist, but I've had pets and I know how horrible that feels. There's always a lot of relationship stuff too.

It's a lot of listening. You have to listen to what people say and remember it next time. You have to ask a lot of questions because people often have a vision in their mind of what they want, and you have to draw it out of them. And, oh, if you make a mistake, it's heartbreaking. You always remember that person. You can do 99 people who love what you did, but that one person who hates it is the one you always think about.

Nobody has really ever said anything to me like: "Oh my God! What have you done? I hate it!" They just don't come back. Sometimes you don't know why they didn't come back and that always bothers you. Maybe they went to another salon where they have a friend working, or maybe something changed in their lives. Maybe they don't work nearby anymore. It doesn't always mean they didn't like what you did. But not knowing makes you think the worse.

You know when people are happy. Sometimes they hug you. You can see it on their face. They can't stop looking at themselves in the mirror, and it's just a really good feeling to know that you helped them feel that way. You did something even better than they expected.

I've come to think it's just normal in our society to obsess about our looks. It's true of both men and women. Men are becoming a lot more concerned with their image, and they want to know how to maintain it and what products they should use. But women are much more particular. I do a lot more color with women. Men may try a little highlighting, but they are not as adventurous.

I hate the topic of tipping. Hate it. Because it doesn't really reflect what people think. Somebody who is ecstatic may tip the same as someone who is just OK with it. And someone who doesn't like it all may tip pretty well. I think people worry that there is some kind of standard.

Don't get me wrong. I love the tips. I would notice it if they weren't there. You kind of do look forward to it. It's something extra. It's not just a courtesy, because after a while you do count on it. But I never want people to feel awkward about it. Are women better tippers than men? Oh, God. I don't know. I better not go there.

You have to go to school for 1,000 hours. It's difficult to get the hours in, because some people have to work at the same time, so they have to go at night. It's technical. But it's not hard. When you work on a person for the first time, it is so nerve wracking. So, so nerve wracking. That's probably the hardest thing, taking that step.

There is money to be made in this kind of work. I feel it's a very secure job because you can pack your scissors and take your gear with you wherever you go. You can take it on vacation if you want.

If I wasn't doing this I'd be making handbags. I love making handbags. But it takes me so long to make one I don't think I could make any money at it. But I still like making 'em."