Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beauty School

One recent rainy morning, I dragged my reluctant self to Rudy’s for a much-needed haircut. I was half-asleep in the chair when Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun” came on. And suddenly…it was 1979 and I was back in the old orange-and-brown, potted-plant-flocked hair salon where it all began.

After a dreadful experience in which my adorable little sister was given an unwanted and most unfortunate bowl chop, our mom was extremely selective about who cut our hair in our small town. We tried some locally famous guy’s salon at the strip mall, where I got my first-ever Dorothy Hamill. But then he got to be too much of a big shot to do kids’ hair. We found another place that worked for awhile, until our stylist moved to Texas. She referred us to a new place that was supposed to be great.

It wasn’t at all like the kiddie salons of today, with their pony-shaped chairs and smoke-free environment. This was a grown-up salon, and it was the late 70’s/early 80’s, baby! My new hairstylist was – from my childhood frame-of-reference – like Johnny Fever meets Sam Malone meets Vic Ferrari. He was proudly single, clever-ish, gregariously self-absorbed, maybe just slightly on the seedy side. My mom respected him, though, so I felt compelled to at least try to figure out what I was missing. What was there to like about this guy?

Maybe it was simply his talent. No bowl chops at that place. This guy knew what he was doing. When he got a job at another salon, we followed him there. (Goodbye orange and brown, hello royal blue and gold!) And then, in the late 80’s, he and his fellow stylists started their own place. (Hello mauve and white!)

I never felt entirely comfortable in any of the venues. I didn’t like feeling obligated to talk to him, trying to make the kind of conversation he wanted to have, trying to somehow pass as the hair salon version of “normal.” Meanwhile, your mom’s standing over your shoulder telling him to give you a haircut that’s easy to manage because of your obvious hygiene and basic-personal-care failings. Jokes at your expense, always, and the sense that you had to go along and somehow see the humor in it…or at least pretend that you did.

And the hair, more often than not, was some dreadful version of early Princess Di. I wanted long hair. “But what will you do with long hair?” my mom would ask. I never had an answer to that. So, Princess Di it was. Well, Princess Di with giant 80’s glasses.

As if the mother/daughter growing pains and introverted adolescent discomfort wasn’t enough, there were some real eyebrow-raising moments going on at that salon. There were jokes, probably intended to flatter, about our developing bodies and hypothetical boyfriends. There was the time our stylist showed up very late for a morning appointment, complaining about what could only have been a hangover and detailing how he’d finally managed to get the vomiting under control. (And then proceeded to do my hair. Ew.)

One time a teenage girl with Farah hair and a long, flowery dress showed up with her dowdy friend in tow and hovered around his chair for my whole haircut, flirting and begging him to join them on some adventure. Before they finally left, she actually kissed him on the lips. Twice. I saw it in the mirror. The stylist was clearly embarrassed, politely trying to deflect her and cut my hair at the same time. I was deadly embarrassed too – not for them, but for myself. At age ten, I felt so dwarfed by her; so ridiculously late-blooming. (What’s wrong with me? I should be dressed up and flirting with some old guy instead of stuck here with my mom. I’m so lame.) My mom, for the record, was mortified. But she blamed it entirely on the teenage girl, and we kept going back.

And then there was the stripper! Yes, there was an honest-to-Zod stripper there one time, right while I was sitting under the heat lamps letting that perm solution do its work. The other stylists had hired her for his birthday as a hilarious surprise. She was older, very heavily made-up, with hair like Gwen Verdon and a sparkly tux. She barely stripped. Just took off the jacket, hat, gloves, and boa; did a bawdy-ish dance to some poorly-recorded show tune on her boom box. Afterwards, unraveling the perm rods from my hair, the stylist told me how uncomfortable it made him, and how he found the whole stripper thing kind of sad. I couldn’t tell if it was sincere or not, but I appreciated the effort. My mom was off doing errands and missed that one. I’m pretty sure I never told her about it.

I have to say, though, the guy wasn’t so bad. He did tasteful perms (well, tasteful by 1980’s standards). He had some interesting stories to tell. He had his own version of “telephone,” making up ridiculous urban legends to his clients to see how long it would take the story to get back to his chair. He mellowed a lot over the years, eventually getting married and talking mostly about his step-kids and horses.

I changed, too. As I got older my mom stopped hovering behind the chair, relieving me of the awkward-daughter persona, freeing up a new version of self to explore. Grown-up conversations became a pleasant challenge instead of a cringe-fest. I was proud of myself as I worked to figure it out, learning how to fake interest in some totally uninteresting story, how to intuit a person’s sense of humor and make a joke that they’d like, how to sound happy and chatty when you’re actually bored assless and getting a headache from the smell of perm solution and cigarette smoke, how to playfully deflect teasing, how to act like you’re okay with it when a man stops the conversation to flirt with another woman in front of you, how to pretend you think Don Johnson’s sexy, how to guess what they want to hear and then say it…how to act like someone who enjoys getting her hair done.

For better or for worse, I came of age under those dryers and in front of those mirrors. My hair went from Princess Di, to tidy little perms, to lush huge perms, to a sleek early-90’s bob. It was my go-to salon all through college, all through grad school. I was well into my twenties before I finally cut the cord and went to a different place (although there was plenty of DIY henna and Clairol happening in various apartment bathrooms before that). And years later, for my first Christmas as a new mother myself, my mom’s gift to me was a cut and color at the old salon.

I don’t really do salons anymore, unless there’s a special occasion or a gift card to Habitude involved. But I love how they’ve evolved into these nurturing spaces with a peaceful, healthy vibe. And I’ve finally realized that you really don’t have to do the inane chatter thing with the stylist. Just let them know you’re there to relax and bliss-out, and they’ll let you.

No, there’s not much to miss about the old smoke-and-Top-40-infused salons of my youth. But somehow, sitting there in Rudy’s hearing that old Fleetwood Mac song, it made me so happy to remember those awkward hours spent in that chair. I was peering into the adult world, gradually trying it on for myself, taking it more seriously than any actual adult ever would. It all seemed so dangerous and out-of-my-league at the time. So illicit. And now, somehow, it seems downright innocent.

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