Sep 9, 2020

How Accurate Are Those Hair Salon and Restaurant Thermometers?

Returning from the dead for a quick trim and lunch

By Ed Goldman

Somewhere between my home and my haircutter, I evidently contracted hypothermia.

How else to explain why, when my longtime stylist and friend Sherry Ngai, owner of Shapes for Hair, took my temperature at her salon and it was 94.5 degrees? (This was before beginning the process of trimming my hair, of course—something Ngai does every six or seven weeks, involving the deployment of shampoo, ointments and garden tools.)

Through our masks we tried to determine what had given me the data but no symptoms of someone on the verge of frostbite. She was using one of those thermometers that became best-sellers when the world went into pandemic hibernation last March: the kind you press lightly to the recipient’s temple or wave in front of them, which, when olive oil is introduced, can resemble the administration of Extreme Unction.
This Last Rites optic, combined with my temperature registering so low I could be cast as a background penguin in “Frozen III”, caused some alarm. On the drive home from the salon, I experienced little hypochondriacal twinges that made me think the reading had been accurate: a slight increase in my pulse rate followed by a moment or two of slight dizziness.

Sherry Ngai. Photo by Donald Satterlee

I’ve joked from time to time that the only thing left unsaid in the disclaimers on those three-minute commercials for healthcare products is, “Call your doctor if you think you’re dead.” Now I thought of pulling over and doing so.
When I got home and took my temperature, finding it was my usual 98.4 (yes, I’m just a little cooler than normal, Babe), I remembered I’d inhaled several cups of very strong coffee on the day of my haircut; ergo, the twinges, which soon ebbed.

The next day, Ngai said she found out she was using the thermometer incorrectly. As we were both laughing about my formerly impending doom, she said, “Maybe people should start bringing their own thermometers.”

I was thinking about how that idea would probably never fly with a county health agency when my Icelandic epic resumed. I went to have lunch on the rooftop of a private club and the maître d’ similarly administered Extreme Unction as I entered the dining area. He glanced at the thermometer, nodded, then showed me to my table.

“Just out of curiosity,” I asked, “what was my temperature?”
“Ninety-one,” he said. “Will your guest be arriving soon?”

“Ninety-one!” I said, loud enough for bystanders to think I was shouting out my real age, a favorite remembered year or—conveniently, considering the crisis we’ve been in for months—the Jewish psalm that reassures us God’s on our side when things get dicey. It was allegedly written by Moses on his way up to or down from Mount Sinai. So it could have been intended as a host gift to God and to say “Thanks for getting my people and me out of Egypt in one piece”—or, more likely, as a reminder after the visit that he was still expecting trouble and wanted to know God would still have his back. Moses had good political instincts.

Anyway, the maître d’ explained—very quietly, no doubt hoping I’d follow suit if the chat continued—that with the huge wind machines and army of umbrellas the club had installed on its roof, and the fact that it was a surprisingly clement day for summer in Sacramento, the thermometer was picking up the outdoor ambiance as well as my body temp. Oh.

Ngai and I have subsequently talked about creating our own line of pandemic gauges. The ad could be something like this:

“The next time someone invites you to a potluck party and says, ‘BYOB’ (bring your own booze) tell him you’ll also ‘BYOT’ (bring your own thermometer).” And why not? It’s the perfect icebreaker.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).