Last week the world lost Ninh Nguyen, the sweet gentle soul who cut my hair for about 15 years. For 30 minutes every three weeks we would talk while he cut my hair and it’s surprising how much you can get to know about each other in short encounters like that.
If you’ve met me, you know that my hair does not present much of a challenge. I would describe myself as 50% bald and the biggest challenge is to keep what hair is still there short so that it doesn’t draw attention to the front half of my head where there is no hair!
Still, Ninh would always take great care as if it was the most important thing he had to do. I could have walked into any military barber and been out in minutes but Ninh had a method that used a combination of electric clipper, scissors, and comb (I don’t even own a comb!)
The funniest part was that in the salon where he worked, he was known for his skill for up-do’s. These are the ultra-fancy braids and buns and almost “sculptures” that you see in weddings, on the Oscars, and on models. On a Saturday morning he would have entire bridal parties there for his talent. It cracked me up that this master artist who was trusted by a bride on her wedding day would also take great care with me for what was essentially a crew-cut.
We talked about a lot of things; we both love reality cooking shows. We both watched Top Chef and would always be rooting for–and against–the same contestants. “Did you see what he did with those scallops???”
We talked about religion. Ninh was Buddhist and he once explained that part of his belief is that everything that happens is meant to happen. He believed that the journey from his homeland of Viet Nam to a hair salon in Arlington, VA was all for a reason and one of those reasons was so that our paths would cross.
I found myself looking forward to haircuts and would often arrive with a list of topics to discuss. Ninh would often be waiting for me with a list of his own.
I told him my father had flown in Viet Nam for the US Air Force and Ninh encouraged me to visit Viet Nam one day. We both enjoy writer, chef, and TV travel show host Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain has long been enamored with the food, the people, the culture and the natural beauty of Viet Nam and Ninh echoed everything he said.
One result of Viet Nam’s colonial history is that Ninh spoke French (along with Vietnamese and English). From time to time he would talk to me in French so that I could practice a very rusty skill not used since college.
Over time, another stylist in the salon, Ben, joined the party. Ben is from Morocco and in addition to Arabic and English, he too spoke French. Ninh had been out of the shop for a couple months before his death during which Ben cut my hair. We would speak French and talk about Morocco, and his religion of Islam, and the best food of North Africa. When I think about Ninh’s belief that everything happens for a reason, I think maybe his departure will serve to foster yet another friendship. You have some big shoes to fill Ben!
My whole family gets their haircuts at Cassianna Day Spa. Ninh did my daughter’s up-do for her prom, he chatted with my wife when she came in for a manicure, he was, truly a family friend.
Ninh told me about his brother who lived in Colorado. He had served in the military and found the transition from Vietnam challenging. Ninh was worried that his brother was unhappy. Then, the brother and his wife decided to move to Boston to be near their children and grandchildren.
On the drive across the country they stopped for a few days in Virginia and visited with Ninh and other family. I came in for a haircut a few days later and Ninh was so relieved and happy. His brother had apparently begun to make peace with his new life in the United States and they had a wonderful visit with lots of laughter and stories and great food. Later when I asked, Ninh felt he was doing much better in Boston.
At the funeral home I asked Ninh’s niece to introduce us and we talked. I wanted him to know that Ninh had worried about him and talked about him and loved him. I would want someone to do the same for me, and the brother was clearly touched.
We all have multiple circles of friends, whether neighbors, school friends, work friends, etc. But just as important are the connective fibers of our daily lives. I calculate that Ninh gave me approximately 250 haircuts which is funny because I’m not sure I have 250 hairs on my head but they were the greatest therapy sessions!
I know Ninh will be sorely missed by his family at Cassianna Day Spa; but, the void he leaves behind will also be felt by people like me, by bridal parties, and by the many people who called him friend. At the end of every haircut Ninh would gently put his hand on my shoulder and humbly say, “Thank you Tony”.
You are a gentle caring soul Ninh, I am grateful indeed that our paths crossed and I will not forget your friendship.