I was walking through the newsroom the other day when my cellphone jangled in my pocket.
"Mark, this is Wanda," said the woman on the other end of the line. "I just called to tell you that I am retiring."
"Well, shoot," I said, stifling a more salty expletive.
"That's what everybody says," Wanda explained, laughing. "They say, 'Shoot!'"
For the last 20 years, Wanda Brown has cut my hair, which is a prosaic way of saying that she is my friend. Wanda sheared me through thick and thin -- literally and metaphorically.
When she called a few days before Christmas, it hit me hard. Afterward, I went into my office and slumped into my desk chair. I'm too old to break in a new barber, I huffed.
Wanda knows how to tame my cowlicks. More importantly, she counseled me on the rocky road from bachelorhood to fatherhood.
She was the first person to cut my two sons' hair. A few months back, I found a shock of blond bangs from my 11-year-old son's first haircut more than 10 years ago in my camera bag.
I was loyal to Wanda. I followed her to five different hair salons, most recently Mane Image in Red Bank.
In turn, she was good about finding 15 minutes in her appointment book whenever I needed it. "When do you want to come?" she'd always ask when I called.
She is great at her craft. In my case, she didn't have much to work with, as over the years my receding hairline and my bald spot raced to meet in the middle. Then, there were those danged cowlicks that grow as fast as privet.
Wanda let me vent about work, and she always got in a few shots about how the crossword puzzles are unreasonably hard late in the week. I told her she could always call me, and I'd cheat and look at the next day's answers. But she never took me up on it.
We had lots of laughs together.
I left the Mane Image on my last visit and spent five minutes trying to force my keys into a car that didn't belong to me -- in my defense, it was exactly the same model and color as my sand-colored Camry. I rushed back inside to tell Wanda, and she bent double laughing.
I think I'm like most men. We all need someone to cut our hair who is a good listener. If we find somebody who is sensitive to our moods, we hang on for dear life.
Wanda could read my mood in an instant. If I was stressed -- as I often was during all those lunch-hour hair cuts -- she would be circumspect and quiet. If I was chatty, we would cut up and laugh.
Wanda, please enjoy your retirement. You deserve it. But also, please know, that all your loyal customers will miss you dearly.
I might just buy a Flowbee.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...