Monday, May 31, 2010

Donnie's Place

It was a neat looking little place, the hairdresser's that opened up around the corner from me. It had a slightly contrived shabby chic look with its gilt-edged moldings, its curly-cue framed mirrors and its hammered copper ceiling. I could see it all as I passed by the big plate glass window that fronted the store. I didn't have a regular hairdresser at that point. I wasn't working at the time. I was recently married so I wasn't 'looking,' wasn't dating. And I had just had a baby. Keeping my hair up wasn't high on my list.

I kept passing this neat-looking little place. And I needed a haircut. But it looked like it might be a little expensive for me. Though I didn't have too much experience in these matters, at least I hadn't for a while, not since I had frequented "Leon's Beauty School" in Greensboro, North Carolina along with many of my other college classmates who wanted to get the poodle perms and stretch a buck at the same time. Except for the occasional chemical burn that might happen, Leon's wasn't too bad. But I was five hundred miles and almost as many years away from Leon's.

And I needed a haircut.

So I stopped in, finally. They were friendly there. And it wasn't overly fancy, really. I made an appointment. I didn't ask the price for a haircut. I figured I could get a haircut there once, and if I liked it and if it wasn't too expensive, then maybe I'd go back. And if I liked it and it was too expensive...well, maybe I'd go back anyway. And if I didn't like it....well, you get it.

Donnie was the owner. Donnie was tall and sort of good looking. He had nice hair, that's for sure. Blond and wavy. Donnie was gregarious in that way that serves people in the service industry very well, especially service industries that cater to women. Women like to be fussed over. Donnie had worked at another local place and partnered up with another gal there, Mary Anne, to open this place. It was luck of the draw, really, that when I made my first appointment, I got Donnie. I hadn't asked for anyone in particular.

And so it went for years. Through short cuts and shoulder length cuts and cuts with bangs, cuts without, but only one perm. Donnie wanted so badly to give me a perm. But I considered myself done with perms. "Your hair is so straight in the front and so curly in the back, you don't see that too often. I could make it so perfect." Yeah, right." But it seemed important to Donnie, so I finally let him give me one. It's no small deal, a perm. It takes hours. There are a lot of rollers involved, and you'd be surprised how heavy all those little rollers can be when they are on your wet head all at the same time. There's two or three sessions of waiting, then rinsing....oh, it eats up an afternoon, to be sure.

The perm came out all right. It wasn't too curly. Donnie had promised the technology was better and that it wouldn't be too curly and he was good to his word. “I don't want one of my eighties poodle perms,” I had warned. No, he did a good job. It was nice, lightly wavy, and perfect for the extended trip that Peter and Everett and I took to England. I was tied to my blow-dryer at the time, as many of us in the eighties were, so it was nice to not have to worry about that as we alternate-current folk travelled around in the land of direct.

And no chemical burn!

Everett was introduced to the high-fashion haircut one record-breaking wintry day. The snow had come down so hard and so long that it had closed the schools and even stopped the US Postal Service--that “Neither rain nor snow” motto be damned. We were home and I was heavily pregnant with Zack when little four-year-old Everett toddled into my bedroom, Barbie in one hand and scissors in the the other....

“Look Mommy, I cut our hair!” “Our,” meaning Barbie and herself. I barely gave Barbie a passing glance as I saw the strip-mining haircut Everett had given herself. That Everett, normally a smart girl, was actually proud of. No semblance of symmetry. No semblance of a style that anyone who had an IQ of over 85 or had ever passed a Rorschach test or had ever looked in a mirror for that matter, would come in and exult over. Just a disaster.

I called Donnie. I didn't really think in all the weather that anyone would answer, but he did. I told him the story and told him I had to bring her down right away. “OK,” he said. “We're just leaving for the day, I was crazy to even come in, but bring her in tomorrow, and I'll fix her right up.”

“Noooo,” I wailed, hormonal lunatic that I was. “I have to bring her over now, Donnie. Oh please. Pleeease!” Donnie consented, bless his heart. I hustled over there in the blizzard, in the knee-deep snow with little Everett, and Donnie sat her down, crossed his arms, pressed the scissors to his lips and thought about what to do. I hovered and fussed, but he chased me away and went to work. When the dust settled and little blonde hair snippets did too, there was Everett. Sporting the coolest Louise Brooks nineteen twenties flapper-do you ever saw. It wasn't like anything else you ever saw on a four year old girl. And while four year old girls like to conform and aren't know for pushing the fashion envelope, Everett looked in the mirror. Turned her head to the right and then to the left.

And proclaimed it a success.

Everett was a tough customer, even as a four year old. But Donnie understood her.

After a couple of years, Donnie and Mary Ann moved the business around the corner and down the block. To a bigger place on the more well-traveled main street running through the neighborhood. There were more chairs in the new place and more curly-cue framed mirrors. It took more stylists and more staff to keep the place running. I missed the old place just a little, but moved upward and onward to the new place and was happy to see Donnie and Mary Ann's business to do well and grow.

Donnie liked to talk. He'd stop occasionally while cutting my hair (“You're hair is so thick,” he'd sometimes complain. “I'm going to be here all day!”) He'd stop to talk to someone who dropped in, or go out to talk to someone who walked by, and he had a business to run, so occasionally he'd talk to someone on the phone who might be giving a hard time to the girl at the desk. He also liked to talk about his past. How he used to ice skate and play hockey. How he was a big rock fan back in the sixties and seventies and used to get in the back door at all sorts of the Beacon, at the Fillmore East, at Carnegie Hall back when they had rock promising free haircuts to the bouncers. He'd lived sort of an exciting-sounding life, full of ups and downs and some hard-livin', yet he also proudly displayed his daughter's photograph and bitched mildly now and then about his ex-wife.

He was a big baseball fan too, Donnie, and what a shock it was to hear one summer day when I walked in to make an appointment that Donnie had had a heart attack at the Hall of Fame game up at Cooperstown.

“Jesus,” I said to Grace, who I asked to cut my hair in the interim. “Is he OK?”

“He's OK. He'll be back in a month or so,” said Grace. “I'll convey your wishes.”

Everett asked me, when I told her about it, “Heart attack? Why? Did his team lose?” Donnie laughed heartily at this when I told him upon his return while he gave me what had to have been the second-worst haircut I had ever received in my life, second only to a cut I got down in Greenwich Village several years before from which I travelled home on the "1" train, crying at my reflection in the subway window because I looked like nothing so much as the prom queen of 1965, or perhaps, Marlo Thomas on "That Girl."

But Donnie had just gotten back, and was obviously a little off his game, so I said nothing and dealt with it and went back the next time (maybe a little sooner than usual) and got my cut again, and all was fine.

And we carried on for a while.

One afternoon, as I sat in my chair for my cut, the chair closest to the front, closest to the reception desk and to the entrance so Donnie could keep an eye on everything, a little old lady wandered through the door. Donnie prided himself on having a business that catered to everyone. His place wasn't known as a "hip" place, a "kid's place," an "old lady" place. Just a good place.

"Excuse me," Donnie said to me as the little old lady came in. He laid down his scissors and went over to her as she stopped at the front desk and looked around. I watched in the mirror in front of me, not having to turn my head. She looked addled, but then relieved when she saw Donnie approach and lean down and talk to her gently. He spoke to her for a few moments, then led her to the couch and said a little something else, and gave her a magazine. Then he went to the front desk, looked up a number, dialed, and had a brief conversation. Then he came back to me and my damp, half-cut hair.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"It's OK," I replied.

It was a customer of his who lived across the street and had Alzheimer's Disease. "It's just her and her husband," Donnie said. "He's too old to manage it. He does the best he can, but sometimes she slips out. But when she does, she always comes straight across here, thank goodness. She likes it here. I sit her down and call her husband, and he comes over to get her."

Sure enough, a couple of minutes later an elderly gentleman loped in, full of relief and full of thanks to Donnie for calling him over. He gathered up his wife, who pulled back on his arm and paused to look at herself in the mirror, turning her head to the right and then to the left as if she were assessing a new hairdo, nodded approvingly, and they walked out the door.

"It's amazing," Donnie commented after they had gone.

"What?" I asked.

"That impulse. Poor Mildred doesn't know where she is three quarters of the time, but when she's here, she knows she's in a salon, she knows me, and she knows to check her hair. I'm sure that's the last instinct that will leave her, or most women for that matter."

He was probably right, I thought, and I marvelled at his insight at the same time that I hoped I'd have some place like Donnie's place to wander to in the future when I completely lost my marbles.

Donnie used to tease Everett mercilessly, which was OK with me, since someone had to do it, as far as I was concerned. "I used to have a friend named Everett. Everett Pickett," he said once. "Everett Pickett?" I asked. "Why, 'Pickett' was my good ol' southern grandma's maiden name. Maybe they're related!" Since we were not genealogists, we never pursued it, but that didn't stop Donnie from yelling, "Everett! Everett Pickett!" loudly and over and over, every time she graced him with her presence. She'd glower, and he'd be delighted, and shout it even more. But it didn't bother me, her mother, as one would think it might have, because I meant what I said.

Someone had to do it.

But Everett took a shine to Grace, who was always there, the nice little Italian gal who cut my hair when Ronnie was out. Grace could take a while to complete a haircut as well, not because she had business matters to attend to or phone calls to take, but because she was Italian, and accompanied her storytelling with lots of hand-waving and gesturing.

Grace doted all over Everett when she came in and would stand back anxiously as Everett assessed her haircut, turning her head to the right and then to the left, before nodding her approval.

Everett didn't even remember by then that Donnie was the first one to give her that Louise Brooks "do."

Grace started cutting my hair again soon after that.

Donnie had had emphysema for years, and had struggled with the other ills that cropped up along the way, ills that he obliquely alluded to. The heart, of course. But mainly liver problems. “Oh I deal with them, you know,” he'd say somewhat ambiguously. “I have a great liver guy down at Columbia.” I was happy to know that, and never pressed for more, it was none of my business, even though it was always Donnie who brought up the subject. I was always just comforted to know he had a “great guy” who was "taking care of things."

But then he was out again. And I had Grace cut my hair once, and then twice, and then again. I'd ask about Donnie, and get a different answer every time.

“He's doing good. He's home from the hospital, resting. He's hoping to be back soon.”

“He had a little setback, he's back in the hospital, but not for long, we hope.”

“He's home again, but he's not sure when he'll be back at work. May be a while yet.”

I didn't like to pry and I stopped inquiring at all until I walked in on an impulse one afternoon to ask Grace how he was doing.

And she just shook her head sadly.

And then it was in the obituaries of the local paper, a couple of weeks later. Accompanied by a big photograph. Our local paper is a publication of some note, a Pulitzer-prizewinning paper. It carries obituaries of all locals, big and small, but rarely with a photo and rarely with a write up as long as Donnie's.

We had just come back from Cape Cod when I picked up the issue from the week before and read it. Seeing Donnie's face when I was just lightly perusing the paper to catch up on the news was a shock, in the ways those things are even when they shouldn't be. Poor Donnie.

It was a nice write-up.

And a good photo. He would have liked it.

And I stayed on. Many more years, it has been, and Grace has done yeoman's work with my straight-in-the-front, curly-in-the-back, too-thick head of hair.

Grace helped me through my alarming, sudden, yet temporary, alopecia—that's “hair loss” to you folks who have never had it happen to you and have never turned to Google and WebMD in a panic to do your research—she gave me just the right cut to cover those bare spots along the left side of my head. That thick hair Donnie had complained about stood me in good stead during that period, and I would have reminded him of that with glee if he had been alive to fix it for me.

Grace did Everett's hair for her prom, and was as anxious about getting it right as she was when she first shored up her flapper bob so many years before. Everett looked at her updo, turning her head to the left and then to the right, nodded her approval, then headed off in the limo with her prom king for the night of her life.

Everett is off at college now, so the high hair drama is over. I still get my cuts from Grace. I was getting color and even highlights too for a while. I was looking sharp and thought about how Donnie would have enjoyed my foray into the next chapter of my hair-styled life, for the love of it...and yes, for the income it generated....but mainly for the love of it. I did eventually have to give up the highlights as well as the color. Some things can be done at home. Maybe not quite as well, but nearly as well, and we have tuition to pay.

Then Zack stopped me the other day when I came in late from work. I was lucky that he was trying to redeem himself from some missed homework fallout from the day before, or he might not have bothered to remember at all, but he did, that Grace had called me. From her new place.
New place? Grace left Donnie's place?

Hairdressers do sometimes, for sure, and when they do, they take their client's phone numbers with them, so that can call them and let them know where they are. If you pay attention to these things, you can also see signs in salon windows, “So-and So (previously of 'Pretty Perfect) is now at 'Hair Affair!'” Clients are loyal, and will follow a stylist, especially if they find someone who can cut their hair well.

Especially if you have straight-in-the-front, curly-in-the-back, too thick hair.

So, I need a haircut. I'm visiting some old friends soon. I need to look good. These things don't get any easier as you get older. You gotta stick with what works, even if what works...changes.


I think Donnie would understand.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

WHAT's for Dinner??

I decided I wanted to try rabbit.

"If you're going to cook rabbit," said safety agent Seabrook, "then you should really make a stew. That's the best way to cook rabbit. But don't bring in any for me, please."

"Have you ever had rabbit?" I took an informal poll of my co-workers, and came up empty.

I put it out there on Facebook and got a comment from an old southern friend and we had a back-and-forth about rabbit and brunswick stew and how if your drunk uncles made it in the big vat in the backyard then it probably had rabbit in it, and maybe even squirrel. "My father told me that my grandmother used to say eating squirrel was low-rent," I wrote, and he agreed.

My friend Kate's husband Bubb hunts and cooks squirrel. He said the best way to make it is into burgers. "Yeah, yum, squirrel burgers," said their teenaged son Ethan when he overheard the conversation. "But it does take a lot of squirrels," specified Bubb, "and squirrel meat can be kind of tough, so after you skin them, it's better to boil them a little bit first, so you can pull the meat right off the bones. The you can ground 'em up, put in a little filler, throw 'em on the grill...don't let anybody tell ya that ain't good eatin'."

After I recovered from the visual image of ten to fifteen hairless squirrels boiling together in a big pot I turned to Kate. "Are you going to tell me that's 'good eatin'?"

She shrugged. "I tried it once. I didn't die."

I don't think that's for me. Squirrel is just a little too extreme. I mean, c'mon, that's a rodent. Though, of course, it's all in your point of view. Bubb would probably say eating sashimi was "extreme," and if he did, he'd be no less right than I am.

But for some reason, I got it in my head I wanted to try rabbit. Let me cut to the chase and tell you that I haven't done it yet. I got as far as picking up a shrink-wrapped package of it at the local Stew Leonard's. It was placed kind of close to the chicken,though they didn't place it in the most obvious, easy-to-find spot, near the boneless breasts or the wings. It was sort of up and off to the side with the less popular items--the chicken hearts, gizzards, chicken feet for making soup. I once went with an old southern (why is it always southern?) roommate to visit her widowed country dad, and was met with a big pot boiling on the stove with eight or ten chicken feet, claws and all, sticking out of the top. Which was, by the way, hours later when it was finally done, some of the best soup I'd ever had.

I saw the chicken feet and allowed myself a minute or so's reverie and then snapped back to the task at hand. Rabbit. I looked at the package in my hand. It looked as innocuous as the chicken. It was cut into quarters. If I gave in to my imagination just a little bit, I could have almost been holding a package of chicken. And they say rabbit tastes like chicken. I know, I know...they say everything "tastes like chicken," but I googled this on several websites, and had become convinced that in the case of rabbit, it was actually true.

I pondered on the rabbit. Though I am a very courteous shopper, I made extra certain to move my shopping cart well out of the way of the flow of traffic--and if you have ever been to a Stew's you know that 'flow of traffic' is what it's all about--because I knew I was going to take a while. I wasn't going to be able to toss the prepackaged rabbit into my cart like a thigh/drumstick combo or a pound of ground round.

It didn't look like "a rabbit." It didn't look like anything more than any other chopped apart and processed type of meat did in that big long meat department. It looked no more like a rabbit than a pork chop looked like a pig. It looked less like a rabbit than a whole chicken looked like a...well...chicken. It looked like something you were supposed to pick up and marinate or stew or grill or do whatever you wanted to do to it for dinner that night. Case closed.

And as it turned out, I wasn't able to toss it in my cart at all that day.

Oh well, next time. I don't give up that easily. "And you know what?" I consoled myself. "Everett was the only one who said she'd be willing to eat rabbit with me, so I may as well just wait until she's home again, that makes the most sense." Everettwill be brave with me.

I find it interesting that while I've had a bit of a hurdle with turning our furry rabbit friend into an evening meal, I had no trouble sampling alligator.

Yep, alligator. At the New York State Fair a few years ago. I put Zack in the car and took the drive up to Syracuse, a good four hours away, for a two night stay. He must have been nine or ten. He wasn't as impressed as I was with the giant butter statue, nor was he intrigued by the dental exhibit with the giant tooth and the giant toothbrush you could actually pick up and brush it with. The cooking demonstration with the miracle non-stick pots held his attention less than a nano-second, and I could not arouse any enthusiasm from him to see Sha-Na-Na that first evening.

Day two was going about as well, and Zack really started to rumble as I steered him toward an exhibit of prize-winning quilts. But after the quilts, we bypassed the watermelon judging and went into one of the halls...the "New York State Agriculture" Hall, or maybe it was the Hall of "Stuff You Almost Never See Outside of a State Fair." We might have been back with the butter statue.

"Look, Mom! Alligator!"

Not an alligator. Fried Alligator. You could get a plate with coleslaw and french fries for $5.99, or if you just wanted to sample an "Alligator McNugget" it was only a dollar. Actually, they didn't call it an Alligator McNugget...could you imagine the lawsuits if they had??

"I wonder what it tastes like," said Zack.

"Do you want to try a piece?" I asked him.

"Nooo, no," he said. Zack has never been mister adventurous. If you give him a bowl of jello any other color than red, he starts to get shaky.

"Oh, c'mon, Zack. You'll never know if you like something until you try..." It was pointless, really. Zack had always had Peter's genes as far as eating went. "You're so hard to cook for," I'd used to complain to Peter. "No, I'm actually easy to cook for," he would always respond. "I like four or five things? How easy is that?" I guess when I said "hard," I actually meant "boring."

"No, try it." Zack said.

"If I try it, will you try it?" We moms never pass up a chance to teach a little self-righteous lesson.

"No," said Zack. Ya gotta give the kid points for honesty.

But by now I was intrigued and figured it could still be a lesson, if only a successful lesson when looked back upon sometime in the future. You never know. We moms take what we can get. "Well, OK," I said. "I want to try it anyway. I think it looks interesting. I think it looks delicious!"

Well, OK, I was about to eat a reptile. "I've had some sort of reptile before, haven't I?" I wondered as I approached the not-too-long line at the alligator stand. "I must have. I'm forgetting something really obvious. Have I had frog legs? No. Fish aren't reptiles, are they? No, of course not." I was getting a little ditzy with the anticipation now. The anticipation of eating my first-ever piece of reptile.

Reptile. Yig.

I handed over my dollar and was given an unceremonious little paper plate atop which sat a brown crunchy nugget with a toothpick stuck in it. The toothpick didn't even have that cute little colored cellophane decoration on the end.

Do they skin alligators, or does this nugget have that black scaly rubbery surface that alligators have? Are there alligator fillets? Alligator steaks? Alligator burgers? Perhaps I have to educate myself a bit more before I go tearing into this nugget....

"Eat it Mom! Eat it!"

I looked at Zack as I held the end of the unadorned toothpick with the overcooked nugget on the end. He was having the best time he'd had since we'd gotten up there.

So I played it up for him. I scrunched up my face, took it to my nose back and forth a couple of times, closed my eyes....wait, was I playing it up for Zack, or was I going to do this?

I popped it in my mouth.

I crunched down. It was very crunchy. In all honesty, there didn't seem to be much meat inside, just a little. ("Is it meat? Is it black rubbery skin? Don't think about it, don't think about it.") It was very greasy. Very greasy. Of course, we were at a state fair, where grease is a major food group; fried dough, fried sausages, deep-fried Snicker Bars. I had stayed for five days at the New York State fair as a teenager with the 4-H organization, had eaten all that fair food, and it had taken weeks for my digestion to get back to normal. But the alligator...was it greasy because alligator was greasy, or was it greasy because the state fair was greasy? Whatever, it was too late to worry about it now.

I chewed, I swallowed. I made an appropriate face and made Zack laugh and made his whole trip worthwhile.

And all told, it tasted a bit like chicken.

I tried it once, and I didn't die.

Maybe Zack will one day try something once and not die.

Hey, maybe it will be rabbit.