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.

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