It’s not just civic leaders who leave a hole in a community when they die. Michael O’Neill, who passed away June 19, knew more about the lives of a long list of local residents than political leaders know about most of their constituents. I’m talking about people who spent half an hour or more with him every five to six weeks talking about their families, jobs, favorite sports teams, struggles and successes, while he cut their hair.
I believe that most stylists know how to cut hair well and that skills alone were not what drew clients to Michael. All who parked themselves in his chair knew that the time they spent there was going to make up for a bad day at work, an argument with a spouse, or a letdown they’d just experienced.
A repository of anecdotes he’d collected over the years, he parceled them out one at a time, a guarantee that customers would come back for more. My favorite stories were ones he told about himself, including the one that follows.
Up to the end Michael talked with his hands, the same hands that held a pair of tiny scissors next to a client’s face. I always closed my eyes and squeezed hard when he was in the middle of a particularly engrossing tale, worried that the scissors would clip my forehead or strike an eyelid, but they never did. At one point, though, he confessed that while my worry was unfounded at this stage in his career, years earlier his scissors had grazed the skin above the eyebrow of a client and drawn blood. She was angry and he was embarrassed, not only while they were in the salon, but later that day when Michael’s boss took him to a local restaurant for a consolatory beer. As it turned out, there was no chance that alcohol was going to help Michael forget his traumatic experience since the same client, now wearing a bandage on her forehead, worked as a barmaid and was assigned to their table.
Michael loved all sports and knew the Las Vegas odds for and against every team in any sport. He’d offer me “four to one odds with a three-point spread in favor of the Seahawks next Sunday” and then have to translate what he’d just said. I think he designed this pastime more for his male clients, but didn’t want to exclude any potential donors, which I was when I bet against him once and lost four dollars.
Michael wasn’t just a talker. He listened with appreciation and commented on everything I said, something I’m sure he did for all his clients. Beyond his gifts as a storyteller were his kind heart and a genuine interest in hearing about other people’s lives. All of us who found a friend, who happened also to be a good hair stylist, will miss him immensely. It would be worth it to lose a few more dollars in a bet if we could see him again.