THE WASHINGTON POST – A year ago, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Salma Hasan Ali and her husband Arif Ali hunkered down in their house in Washington.
The days and weeks grew long. So did their hair.
Salma, 54, was used to getting hers coloured every couple of months. By summer, she was sporting a band of grey along her hairline – not ideal for a writer about to have photos taken for the release of her first book.
Then she saw a posting on a neighbourhood listserv about a masked man doing hair on porches and in gardens. It turned out she already knew him. Salma had been going to Henry Nguyen at nearby B Salon since moving to the neighbourhood in 2014. The salon had shut down when the pandemic began, but Nguyen had not.
“My clients needed their hair done,” he recalled recently. “They said, ‘Why don’t you come to my house and do the hair?’” He talked with his wife, and they decided it seemed safe as long as it all took place outdoors, with masks.
He started with one client, who told another, and word got around. Since then, he has attended to around 300 people, mostly in gardens and on patios. In addition to cuts for women, men and kids, he does color, highlights, straightening and blowouts. At the end of the visit, he uses a handheld vacuum cleaner to suck up the fallen locks, leaving the scene as pristine as he found it, like a Cat in the Hat with shears.
“No one knows how long this is going to go on, and the idea of being in a closed salon for an hour or over an hour… is something I don’t relish,” said documentary film producer Mark Finkelpearl, 53, who sat on a stool in his backyard recently as Nguyen snipped away. “I’m a cancer survivor, so I just try and be a little extra careful.”
“Here you go,” Nguyen said, handing Finkelpearl a mirror.
“Oh, look at that, I’m a new man!” he said, and then stepped aside so his son could have a turn.
That morning, Nguyen had already visited Adam Fulcher, 23, a recent Oberlin graduate who hadn’t had a cut since December 2019. “I kind of wanted to see what happened just to see, but then it got annoying,” Fulcher said of the thick brown mane that had reached his shoulders.
Nguyen lopped it off, thinned it out, and passed along his regards to Fulcher’s parents, brother and grandmother, whose hair he also cuts.
Then he drove a few blocks to the Alis’ house (a white brick Colonial once owned by the reporter Edward R Murrow). Standing on the patio, he pulled on rubber gloves, mixed some creams and began applying them to Salma’s roots.
“It just lifted my mood so much, to feel normal,” she said, recalling his first visit. “Everything else was so dire, you just want to feel good, and as vain as it may sound, a colouring and a haircut and a blow-dry just does that for you, lifts your spirits a little bit.”
Back in his native Vietnam, Nguyen, 52, used to cut his friends’ hair for fun. He and his parents and siblings moved to the United States (US) in 1991, following a brother who had come in 1979 by boat, fleeing the communist government. Now, he and his six siblings all live in Fairfax County, Virginia. He worked for his brother, a contractor, and then in a food truck at the National Mall, before training as a hair stylist in 2010.
Though the salon has re-opened, most of Nguyen’s work is home visits now. He drives all around the metro area seven days a week, as long as the temperature is over 35 degrees, doing an average of 40 cuts a week.
Sometimes it’s a lot more. Recently, he donned hospital protective gear and a shield to cut the hair of around 200 members of the DC National Guard in one day. He brought seven clippers, with his wife assisting (everyone got the same buzz cut.) “My hand when I got home was a little bit tired, and when I woke up – ow!”
Nguyen smoothed the last of the dye cream under Salma’s mask straps. Then she went into the house to let it soak in, and her 18-year-old son, Zayd, stepped out. In the middle of a gap year between high school and college, he was in town for only a day, long enough to get his hair cut.
Nguyen draped him in a cloak emblazoned with the American flag, and they chatted about Zayd’s recent travel to Costa Rica as he buzzed the sides. Zayd’s mask slipped down, and his mom popped out to say, “Cover your nose!”
Nguyen chuckled. “My fault, my fault!”
Next up was Arif, 56, whose grey hair was looking a bit fluffy.
“The older one gets, the more important one’s haircut gets,” he said, settling into a patio chair. “Henry does what I call a strategic cut – he knows how to keep what needs to be hidden, hidden.”
Above his mask, Nguyen’s eyes crinkled smilingly as he snipped.
Luna, the Alis’ nine-year-old mini goldendoodle, sniffed around in the thin winter sunlight as the two men chatted, immigrants of the same generation whom political tides and a global virus had brought together at this spot.
“It’s so fabulous to sit outside and listen to the birds,” said international arbitration lawyer Arif.
“Yeah,” Nguyen said. “I love being outside.”
“When I was a kid in Bangladesh, we’d be stuck under a tree and we’d all be lined up, and the barber would come, and we’d all get the clipper cut, and then the grown-ups would come and they’d get the razor cut,” Arif said. “Once a month, on a Friday, after Jumaah prayers.”
Nguyen snipped Arif’s eyebrows and was done. Arif put his glasses back on and looked in the mirror. “Thank you, sir. It’s perfect, as always.”
Salma came out, her hair wet from the shower, auburn down to the roots. Since Nguyen has been coming, she has learned more about his background, and why he said clients are friendlier outside.
“It’s much more casual in Vietnam; people know each other, visit each other’s homes,” she said. “It’s more formal here; you can’t just drop by people’s homes. And now, he comes to people’s homes, they have his cell number – and they like Henry.”
Before switching on the blow dryer, Nguyen glanced at his phone.
Fourteen messages and two missed calls. “People just keep calling and calling.”