Interviews With People Who Have Interesting or Unusual Jobs
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Stephan Horvath Picks Out the Lice.
[Originally published September 7, 2010.]
Q: Tell me about your job.
A: My title is “Head Lice Technician.”
There has been a big movement recently for the luxury service of lice removal. Lice checks aren’t mandatory in New York’s public schools and if they send your kid to the nurse they won’t touch them—they’ll send the kid home.
We offer discreet lice removal service. We come to your home and give the child a full shampoo and take the lice out of their hair. We’ll check the furniture, the stuffed animals, coach the parents, and try to sell our shampoo.
Q: How much do you charge?
A: Others charge more but our founder wanted it to be more acceptable. We charge $100 an hour and there’s a two-hour minimum. We can’t tell you how long it will take, though it can take eight to nine hours, especially if the kid has thick or curly hair.
You have to complete the process every day for two weeks. We’ll do a reduced rate on subsequent days. If the kid wants to keep their hair, you have to do this, and wash their bedding like a million times in hot water.
Despite what I might tell you in your home, the shampoos are only mildly effective. It’s really just a process of picking out every single louse and nit you find in the hair. Elbow grease is more important than any conditioner.
Q: What are nits?
A: Nits are the little eggs that lice lay. You can feel them but usually they’re microscopic. If you picture a magnified version of the hair shaft, each shaft has four sides. You have to go through each shaft four times to get ALL of the nits.
Q: How does someone get lice?
A: If kids rub heads or share combs, that kind of thing. But lice don’t jump, they let go when they’re frightened. So they end up on the backs of chairs, on stuffed animals, on the sheets.
Lice tend to come in waves, like five percent of the class/school/neighborhood will get it.
Q: How did you get involved in this?
A: For me the best part of grade school was the lice checks. You got to put your head down and people came and gave you head massages. My friend sent me the ad from Craigslist and I thought, “What better way to give back to my community?”
Q: Wow. So you show up at the parents’ house and then pick the kid’s hair.
A: Yes. We’re very discreet. We wear all black and little black aprons. It’s not like we drive up to their house in big vans with our logo or anything.
I always tell the parents, “This isn’t because you’re dirty or clean. Lice are older than the pyramids.”
We are sure to reassure the parents that it has nothing to do with their position in society and that all the other members at the country club will have had the little buggers too.
Q: Have you ever had lice?
A: I never have but I tell all my clients that I have. It’s sort of a way to relate—like you’ve been through the worst and come out the other side.
Q: What kind of training did you get?
A: It wasn’t really formal. Essentially we read a bunch of internet myths and discussed why they’re not true.
Like there is an urban legend that lice killed a boy scout. But when you look more closely it turns out that this kid got lice, his mom treated him with the over-the-counter shampoos, and he later died of cancer. Of course, for the story to work, you really have to be dedicated to the idea that correlation is, in fact, causation. But it’s great for generating business.
Q: Any other myths?
A: Let’s see… that lice can jump—that’s the big one. That you have to use harsh chemicals (my company makes organic shampoos used to remove lice). That you can only get it once and then never again.
At the training we had to practice on someone and because I had short hair, people practiced on me. When they did, I was renewed in my enthusiasm that this was the job for me. I think it’s the coolest thing—there is nothing more primal than cleansing your fellow humans.
Q: Do you wear gloves?
A: We’re able to wear gloves if we want but I don’t because I find my fingernails are useful for getting out the nits.
You can only feel the nits usually, and the lice are exceptionally hard to see. The lice are translucent, though once they feed they are full of blood so you can see them. They’re about an eighth of the size of your pinkie fingernail.
Q: How do you know when the lice are really gone?
A: You never really know. The life cycle is seven to ten days, so if you make it past twelve days you can be reasonably sure they’re gone. So for the first week or two it’s really just waiting.
I’ve seen extreme cases where there are bugs crawling on the kid’s forehead, but that’s relatively rare. Usually there are 7-15 live lice and maybe triple that in nits.
Lice don’t cause any medical issues—besides scabs on your head where they’ve bitten you.
Q: What if you do nothing about the lice? Just let them breed?
A: That is an experiment I have never really considered. I guess they’d continue to get larger and larger. They take the path of least resistance. If they have a safe and steady source of nourishment then there is no need for them to move on. They won’t eradicate themselves, if that’s what you mean.
I advocate shaving the kid’s head, but the parents are concerned about their kid’s ability to make friends. It’s not the parents who shave the kid’s head that call us.
Lice affects everyone and not everyone can afford $600-800 for professional help. I don’t mean to poo-poo their kid’s social standing but…
Q: What age are the kids?
A: It’s third to sixth grade usually.
Q: And are they well-behaved?
A: They don’t ever freak out because of the bugs, but it is a LONG time to sit, and the comb is sharp and it pulls your hair, hurts your head.
Q: What is the longest removal you’ve done?
A: Probably about five hours with fifteen minutes on either end for setup and pack up. We take quite a bit of care to make sure we don’t contaminate the combs and we keep our traveling bag as clean as possible to make sure we don’t take lice from house to house.
Q: How does it pay?
A: It pays pretty well. I’m not full-time because I’m in school, but maybe I could be if I were in a bigger organization. It’s definitely a great job for a student.
Q: Do you ever feel like you itch? Like the first time you did it, if you had an itch, weren’t you afraid to scratch it?
A: Yes! The first three or four times it was a real concern and my roommates were scared I was going to get lice. But that’s passed. I’ve been doing it for almost a year and I’d say I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. Well, maybe that’s a little extreme but I have no plans to stop.
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