Are you from Newton?

She sells the coffee I buy

The woman behind the counter at the Honey Dew Donuts says to me, “I like your haircut.”

My hair is very short, close-cropped. My hairdresser uses a number three clipper blade, which allows a hint of scalp to show for a week after a haircut. The cut is sharp, neat, and frames my face well.

“Thank you,” I say.

She lifts her Honey Dew cap. “Mine is short, too!”

I nearly jump back in surprise, and  mentally, I have leaped into an abyss of shock. Her hair, what she has of it, appears stuck to her scalp in buzzed patches  —  white and black and gray. For a woman with very little hair, hers is a mess. I eek out, “I like your hair, too,” because she seems so proud and pleased with her haircut.

“How much does it cost to get your haircut?” she asks. The woman is in her 50s, maybe her 60s, plump, cheerful.

I tell her my haircut costs $40 and when she asks how often I go, I say every four weeks.

“I go to the barber,” she says. That explains a lot. “It costs me $10 bucks. I can’t afford to go every two weeks like I want, so I go every four weeks.” She adds, “Are you from Newton?”

I’m dressed in a short winter parka and jeans, like anyone on a cold day in Massachusetts. But when she asks if I’m from Newton, I realize she thinks I’m rich; forty dollars for a haircut must seem extravagant to her. I tell her I’m from Stoughton, which is a middle-class town, about as different from “Snootin’ Newton,” as my mom used to call it, as you can get.

Mine is kind of like this but not purple

“Well, there are plenty of barbers in Stoughton,” she says. She wants to help me save money.

You may or may not find a woman with short hair attractive, but there is no denying that my not-quite-a-buzz-cut hair looks perfectly styled. There are no patches in my hair. It is clipped, shaped and textured expertly, and tapered in the back to add a feminine touch despite the short length.  I have a talented hair dresser, and that’s what I pay $40 dollars for – and because I can afford it.

“Hey, thanks for the coffee,” I say as I start to leave. “Have a great day.”

My house would be the small one in the middle. I wonder if she has a house.

As I climb into my car, something else she probably can’t afford – a good, newer model vehicle – I become aware of the great economic divide between us. We’re both middle aged, but she’s making minimum wage selling coffee and donuts and with a bad haircut.  I’m making a decent salary with benefits as a business analyst where I sit in a comfortable chair all day. Now I will drive home, to my house, a modest, but very comfortable and recently refreshed colonial with new paint, carpet, and furniture. I feel relieved that my status and quality of life are what they are. I’ve worked hard, after all, and for a second, I feel proud of all I’ve accomplished.

But…

I think of my parents who were solidly middle-class and who gave me every privilege: a house to grow up in, a good suburban education, lots of food, clothing, toys, and everything I needed to be successful in college and beyond. I imagine the Honey Dew Donuts lady grew up poor. Perhaps she grew up in a tenement or in a unkempt and broken house. Maybe people sometimes yelled out to her “Trash!” as she played jump rope in the yard. I could be imagining all this, I could be stereotyping her, but as I start the engine of my car, I feel no pride at all.

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