Saturday, March 14, 2020

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

A few years ago I stepped into an elevator heading to the top floor of a South Florida office building. There’s a certain elevator etiquette one learns to follow. It’s acceptable for the person already in the elevator to offer to push the button for your floor but after that the remainder of the ride typically takes place in silence. Riders stare straight ahead at the gray doors, or at the consecutively flashing floor numbers above them, or even at the floor but it would be a breach of etiquette to stare at one’s fellow passengers, let alone engage in conversation. These days, if a conversation does take place, it’s likely between a fellow rider and the unheard and unseen person at the other end of the small earpiece/microphone protruding from his or her ear.

So it was unusual on this particular day when I stepped into the elevator joined by another man from the lobby and the great gray doors slid together sealing just the two of us in the square car that he struck up a conversation. Not simply a perfunctory “hello” but rather an actual back-and-forth exchange as the elevator slowly made its ascent to the top floor. I don’t remember what we talked about, other than one comment he made, because it was mostly idle chatter to mark time until the gray doors parted like the Red Sea making way for Moses and freed us from our claustrophobic confinement.

His comment that stayed with me to this day was a favorable one about my appearance. People seldom comment (at least to me) about my appearance – oh, a few may remark on my dimples, and my dental hygienist always compliments my teeth but other than that my physical appearance tends to be rather unremarkable. (The only exception being when I’ve gained weight and people ask if I’ve lost weight, which is either a snarky dig or a kind way of saying “You don’t look as fat as you used to.”).

But this man was a stranger with no basis for comparison, no “then” and “now” images of me floating through his mind. He told me he liked my hairstyle and how good my hair looked, which made me wonder if I should cancel my hairstyling appointment that afternoon and if going through with my planned haircut might actually change whatever was making my hair look so good that a complete stranger would comment on it in an elevator.

It turned out he was an expert on hair and hairstyling, and had been a leader in the field since founding a revolutionary business concept in 1976. When he told me his name, I immediately recognized who he was because as a teenager I had heard him introduce himself and his business in countless television commercials with the famous tagline “I’m Sy Sperling, and I’m not only the Hair Club president but I’m also a client” while holding up a photograph of his bald “before” self. It was brilliant marketing that made him an iconic celebrity and catapulted the former swimming pool salesman and son of a Bronx plumber to enormous financial success: in 2000, he sold the Hair Club for $45 million.

Sy Sperling and I ended up walking into the same office, where he bid me goodbye as he walked off with his party. I said to the receptionist, “Do you know who that was?” She did, as he had visited the office previously, but always accompanied by someone. She remarked it was unusual for him to come in by himself, as he had a terrible fear of elevators and refused to be alone in one. Suddenly, the unlikely conversation we had shared in the elevator made sense. It had been a distraction to take his mind off the anxiety and fear of what is a surprisingly more common phobia than one might imagine. He had probably been dreading having to ride the elevator alone to the top of the building and the appearance of someone else, anyone else, was a godsend. I have my own anxieties and phobias so I know what that’s like. Yet, I’d like to think he sincerely did like my hairstyle. After all, nobody knew more about hairstyles than Sy Sperling.

Sy Sperling, 78, died February 18, 2020, in Boca Raton, Florida. He was a philanthropist who formed the Hair Club for Kids to provided free hair to children who lost theirs from chemotherapy, and left a portion of his estate to the Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON.

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