Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bartenders, Beauticians and Baristas

© 2010
by Joyce Mason
All Rights Reserved

We all know professional counselors by the fancy letters after their names—LCSW, MFCC, Ph.D, and sometimes MD—although nowadays “shrinks” tend to deal more with medication and leave the counseling to owners of the other initials.

But I’m not talking about Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Marriage Family and Child Counselors, psychologists or psychiatrists. I’m talking about those grassroots counselors we encounter in our everyday life, those folks in the title of this post—bartenders, beauticians, and baristas. Is there one among us who hasn’t told his tale of joy or woe or sought solace from one of these B-people? Even if it was only our custom-made Carmel Macchiato?

Now that I’ve really lived and for longer than I care to admit, I treasure in retrospect more than ever this trio of feel-better professionals in my life. They don’t all have degrees, but the degree they have positively influenced my life cannot be underestimated. I’ll bet the same is true for you. I’d like to tell you some stories about some of my most prized and profound encounters with each of them. Maybe I’ll spark some memories of your own.


My experience with bartenders is in a past life, as I have barely touched alcohol for decades, except for the occasional glass of wine with a special dinner at home or in a restaurant. Still, what a part “my friendly neighborhood bartender” played in my twenties. I lived in a small city where the local bar was where most social connections were made and perpetuated, and I was at an age where I wanted to “be connected” more than anything else.

I’ll call him Uncle Bucky. Buck was a middle-aged guy who could chat up a rock. Aside from the fact he was attracted to me and it wasn’t mutual, Bucky always had my best interests at heart. If he saw me sidling up to someone he thought was bad news, he would tell me gently—or bluntly, depending on his mood and my degree of gaga. He was married with daughters, and his paternal instincts were something he couldn’t turn off like the spigot on a draw of tap beer. What I loved about him: I could always talk to him about anything. I knew he cared and felt protective of me. And he created an atmosphere in his pub of close family, care, and concern. If anyone drank too much or was being obnoxious, it was handled. It was my own version of the TV show, Cheers. Everybody knew my name. It was home. At that particular time in my life when I was just a few steps in front of breaking away from my parents, Uncle Bucky’s provided a way station for the duration of my “psychological adolescence” in his hometown. He brought joy, comfort, and counsel to a lot of people. When I moved away, I missed Uncle Bucky. I never replaced him. I guess I outgrew my “bar stage” and turned the informal counselor role over to others.


Hairdressers hold a certain je ne sais quois for me, because I come from a family of them: mother, brother, sister, and sister-in-law. You could say my family could make your hair stand on end—or not—and it would be a completely accurate statement. I grew up with my mother’s beauty salon in our paneled, made-over basement. I don’t think I knew air without the smell of permanent wave solution or hair color. I’m sure the chemicals did something to my brain. People say I have a unique viewpoint. It’s probably just the fumes! They say the psychic oracle at Dephi was actually high on sulpher fumes from a nearby geyser. Same difference.

This family history is probably what makes me so loyal to a hairdresser. It’s more than a professional relationship for me; it’s personal. I’ve only had six hairdressers in 40 years, and it would be only three, if I hadn’t moved in two cases and if one of them hadn’t died.

Garry—More Than Hair-y. I want to talk about the one who died, Garry. This is in large part an homage to him, because he represents the depth to which a relationship that starts in the “hair chair” can evolve into one of great intimacy and family feeling. Garry has been gone for nearly 20 years, yet I still can’t think about him without crying. I have lost many family members—parents, siblings, nephew—and I don’t always tear up when I remember them. What is it about Garry that got to me in such a bedrock way? Why can’t I see this screen for drops of sorrow glopping on my keyboard?

In part, it’s who Garry was and still is in whatever dimension he now lives. He was from Kentucky and had one of those assets that can’t be bought or affected, an adorable Southern accent. Plus, we were so on beam with each other—both highly metaphysical, relationship and communications oriented. I don’t worry that he’d care that I’m sharing either photo or facts about him. He was a Gemini. He’d have loved it. He’d have been honored. He lived in the open and “out loud.” I remember someone once describing Leo Buscaglia as The Incredible Hug. Seeing Garry (left) and his partner Marty in this photo, you can probably see why I think he deserves the same title.

The bedrock piece is that Garry really “got” me. He grokked my essence. When I found my birth mom in 1986, he and Marty came to my getting-to-know-her party. I created a memory book and form where people could say how they knew me and their favorite things to tell my “new, yet original” mother about me. Garry wrote:

She is a total heart person. She comes only from creating peace on the planet. I love her. She is very warm and easy to be around.

Like I said, he really got me, and that gets to me.

When Garry was diagnosed with AIDS, he made lemons out of lemonade and always put spirit first before worry. My brother was also going through a potentially devastating illness, himself, which luckily turned out later to go into remission. He lived another 10 years into his early seventies and ultimately died from something else. Yet, when my bro was living on the edge, thinking he might not have long to live, it was Garry who reached out, had us over for dinner, and put us in the right frame of mind and in the right direction of helpful resources. You can’t buy that, either. Friends who share their shoes and tell you where the podiatrist and shoe repair are located.

Marty died about a year later and the memorial was at Garry and Marty’s home. Marty was an adorable, big overgrown kid who loved balloons. We sent dozens of them skyward in his honor. Their huge yard was covered with people and more love than blades of grass. I don’t think I’ve met two people more universally cherished.

To show who Garry really was, you’d have to appreciate that he was dying on the day his only daughter got married. He was too sick to attend her wedding—and he wanted her to go through with the ceremony. He wanted the show to go on, even though he couldn't walk her down the aisle and her brothers would have to do the honors. He was lovingly acknowledged by the clergyman in absentia. I cried a lot that day, too, but it was just a warm-up. He died the next morning.

At his memorial in the rose garden of one of the popular parks in town, I was still crying. You could have watered the flowers with my tears. Garry was my counselor, confidant, dear friend—and incidentally, my hairdresser. We connected on each other’s similar cosmic tractor beam in a way few people do. We treasured each other’s viewpoints and opinions on our lives. Maybe I sensed he’d die too young, and that made our time together so sweet. I remember once, he was worried about how he’d put away money for “his old age.” Turned out to be a non-issue. He didn’t have one.

I used to talk to Garry about writing a stirring play, based on our relationship. It would center on the Garry-based character doing the Joyce-based character’s hair one last time for her wake. It would be a flashback about all the life they’d lived together in the chair. He wasn’t supposed to die first. It wasn’t the play I had in mind, even though the ending was the same, roles reversed.

I just know that I’ll always love him and miss him. He must have done something really special and permanent to my hair—and heart—follicles.

“Tom,” the ‘Tweener. I actually had one truly temporary hairdresser, only for a year or two—but I went back to my ex, Tom. I was relieved to find Tom—I think Garry actually referred me to him when he was getting too sick to work. I left Tom the first time because of distance from home. The second time, that was still my official reason, but in truth, something changed between us. I was no longer comfortable in his chair. It was no longer the life-affirming, fun friendship we once had. He seemed impatient with me and no longer interested in my life. I have my theories about why it changed, but they don’t matter. I consider it similar to a marriage that didn’t go the distance. All totaled, we spent at least 12 years together, but when our relationship lost the personal touch, I knew it was time to let go. It was my signal to move on, because that’s my need. To work on my head, you have to be good for it—and my soul, too. Being in someone’s hair chair has to be a therapeutic experience, or it’s just not for me.

Liz, the Love. My current hairdresser, Liz, is a keeper! I was referred to her by one of my closest, most trusted friends. I like the way she cuts my hair, and I love how she understands me. As a single mom on a budget, she completely gets my current priorities in today’s economic climate. She not only understands that I need to color my own hair for now; she actually gives me tips on how to do it! We cut up during those haircuts and have the best time. It’s like a girlfriends’ PJ party without the jammies. Substitute hair smock.

Liz loves to see me coming. She’s so good looking and lively, she’s just fun to watch. I like a hairdresser who looks beautiful. She’s a walking, talking advertisement, which gives me confidence. Plus, at twenty years younger than me, it makes me tingle when she constantly tells me I don’t look anywhere near my age. Even if she were fibbing (not her style), the flattery is good for my soul. We connect. It’s two-way counseling. She’s way wiser than her years, and her zest for life is a booster shot of spirit every time I see her. We hug and speak endearments.

Given our age difference, I hope I can assume Liz will outlive me by a long shot. Quite honestly, I’m not sure I could handle another six-hanky tearjerker hairdresser loss.


Wake-up juice. For some of us, it’s mother’s milk—with a kick. When they know my personal preferences—my drink—I feel so nurtured! And sometimes it’s more than the barista; it’s the coffeehouse.

During my husband’s recent round of PT, I’d drop him off and walk over to the Peet’s across the street. What ambience! While my husband got physical therapy, I got caffeine therapy in a spa setting. Everyone was so friendly, and each staff person always remembered me. Service is prompt, courteous, and everyone in the entire place is upbeat—even the customers. The best part is the classical music. My cool insight? I spend too much time in silence and need to get out my huge classical music collection and start playing it again as background music when I work.

I have noticed that while there was the old expression soda jerk, which did not mean jerk in the normal pejorative sense, I’ve never met a barista that acted like a jerk whatsoever. They deserve that classy title. Baristas have something special. (My coffee!) Seriously, they make custom orders rapidly and almost always serve up drinks with a smile. It’s those little kindnesses in everyday life, especially during these crazy times, that remind me that I miss my mother …

… and Garry.


Photo credits: Bartender sits at bar © Pavel Losevsky | and a photo from Garry and Marty’s Christmas card, circa late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

PS ~ I’d love to hear your personal experiences with the three B’s.


Eileen Williams said...

I so agree! The Three "B" professionals gift their customers with so much more than their job description. Since I have had limited contact with bartenders and baristas, I'd like to leave my comment about beauticians.
Hair dressing comprises so many facets: the creativity of an artist, the willing ear of a therapist, the stamina of an athlete, and much, much more. I consider them miracle workers. There's no greater high than walking out of the hair salon, having just purged your soul and feeling great, and looking like a million bucks to boot! A great big hurray for the masters and mistresses of hair and heart--we LOVE YOU!

Pop Art Diva said...

I never had the close connections to any people in those particular professions but I did - and still do - have my own "informal counselors" in my network of friends.

And, when she was alive, my biggest "informal counselor" was my mother.

Joyce Mason said...

Hi, Eileen! I forgot the best part of the hair dresser's magic wand. Thanks for reminding us about feeling like a million bucks! (You can still get a cool mill even in the current economy!) They are truly an amazing breed of human beings.

Joyce Mason said...

Hi, Pop Art--Thanks for sharing! The core concept of this article is that much counseling in the world takes place outside the offices of counseling professionals. Friends and moms are in a class all their own in this regard, and I'm so glad you brought them up! There's nothing more valuable than a compassionate ear and loving concern. That's all a person usually needs to figure things out from there. Glad to be in your "network" and to have you in mine.