Braiding salons are a fixture in the Harlem community and so, anybody knows that you can go to that town located in the uptown section of Manhattan, if you are interested in enjoying the luxuries of professional hair braiding.
I was acting on my instincts when I made the decision to get braids, thinking that those same stylists who create awe worthy braid styles for the bulk of their customers would be able to do the same for mine.
Braids are both convenient and fashionable. It is the crown a woman does not have to take off for a long time while protecting her own growing tresses. I often look for ways to alter the appearance of my hair and have started to appreciate how nice braids are on me. And so, I decided that the next time I got my hair done, I'd get braids.
Each time you go and sit in a stylist’s chair and come back for her services, you strengthen the bond because it is like saying that you trust her work. If you use the same hairdresser all the time, they have a way of bringing out your individual beauty to your own appeal and so, it matters who you go to when you desire to transform the way that you look.
I, on the other hand, did not know who the stylist would be that would be sculpting my hair to my liking. I just knew that I would be soon sitting in one of the salon chairs at a hair shop in Harlem. I got up on that glorious day in June and was on my way to getting my hair did.
Everybody knows that the quickest way to get to Harlem is by taking the A train. At least that was what Duke Ellington told Billy Strayhorn when he asked him to be his songwriting partner and Strayhorn came from Chicago to become part of Ellington’s team.
I walked ten minutes to my nearest train station, pushed through the turnstiles and went down into the landscape of tracks and graffitied subway walls to wait for the next train to Harlem. The A train came rumbling through the tunnel and all the passengers crowded into the subway car.
There were people from all over the world on the train playing games on their cellphones and reading books on their e-readers and engaging in conversations and listening to loud music overspilling from their headphones, all trying to get to their random destinations. With each stop, folks piled off and new eyes and floods of diverse individuals entered in. Finally, I heard the conductor scream out, “next stop, 125th Street,” and I was more than excited to get off when the train screeched to a halt and the doors of the car opened.
If you have had the opportunity to sport braids and you have been to Harlem before to get your hair done, then you know that even before you climb the subway stairs at 125th Street and wade into the litter-strewn streets of Manhattan, there are hairdressers standing in the train station waiting to beckon potential clients for service, screaming out, “hair braiding Miss?”
African Hair braiders in the subway station are as aggressive as the taxi drivers that stand outside of Madison Square Garden hoping to get their next passenger. A stylist got my attention after she said, “hair braiding miss” and we were on our way to her shop on Langston Hughes Street.
It was just about a block away. We walked past vendors selling Shea butter, jewelry and CD's. Jazz music blared through that street and made me want to sing along.
"Music everywhere feet are patting putting tempo in old Manhattan."
I smelled the aroma of incense mixed with shish kebabs in the the air. The latter made me feel a little hungry but the main objective was for getting my hair done, so I followed as she lead me to the hair shop.
"Everybody is out high hatting. Spreading Rhythm around."
My hair dressers name was Lisa. Lisa lead me into a quaint little marble-floored shop. The walls were all painted purple with ten mirrors aligned evenly on each side before salon stools. I saw a variety of different heads of hair being styled.
Lisa directed me to sit in the fourth chair. She handed me a few magazines and asked me to take a few minutes to look through the range of styles adorned on each of the pages, so I could give her an example of the style that I was seeking to get. I found an aesthetically pleasing image of a hairdo that called out to my heart, showed it to Lisa and said, “this is the one.”
Lisa said, “I can do it.”
I agreed and was excited at the idea of what my hair would look like after the extension of the hair style idea was completed. Lisa rose up out of her stool to go and get the hair that was needed to complete the requested style. She got two packs of African silky hair, pulled it out of the plastic and started detangling it to get the hair ready to braid into my tresses.
I usually carry my own styling accessories so that the stylist can comb my hair using my own wide tooth comb for detangling and then my rat toothed comb for sectioning off my hair to add the braids.
“Lisa, how long do you think this will take”
Lisa said “Four hours.”
Before she got deeply engaged into the process, I pulled out a novel and my little notepad from my bag thinking that I would have the opportunity to get lost into the crisp pages of it and jot down some of the brilliant phrases I’d be reading, while Lisa catered to my hair needs.
I did for a bit but with every new person entering in to sell socks, DVDs or coach bags, the distractions took me away from the juicy story that I was trying to read. I was almost convinced to buy one of the packs of socks and initially said yes until the seller tried to take the security tag off the socks with his teeth which made me change my mind.
Lisa braided tighter as the minutes ticked by, and I sat there trying to be in an agreeable position for her to easily work through my head with her heavy hand. Suddenly, I had a memory of my mother’s expert hair care.
The scene changed from the purple walls and marbled floors to my mother's bedroom where I was sitting in between her legs as she braided away my natural locks for school the next day with a gentleness that only a mother can share.
She used the aromatic Blue Magic grease to moisturize my scalp before using her fingers to braid each section of my hair. My thoughts got lost into those good old days, until my daydreams were interrupted by Lisa picking up her cellphone.
"Hello. Yes! I want ten. Can you bring them please?"
It would not have really bothered me if it did not continue to happen throughout the whole ordeal.
"Yes. Hi Michael. Okay, what time are you gonna come?"
"Hello Judith. Tell Mommy that the remote control is in the kitchen."
"Bobby, what time you want me to meet you there tonight?"
"Yes Mommy, I'll order you a pizza."
"Dominoes can I have two cheese pizzas delivered to . . ."
Lisa braided tethered to her phone. She worked my hair and then said, "one minute," so she could text her cousin. She braided from the birthplace of my hair down to the roots and past it and then said, "one minute okay," so she could go on IG and bubble with laughter at the stories being shared. She braided another braid and then used her phone to turn on a selection of melodies for us customers to listen to as she started shout singing in my ear.
“There is power in the name of Jesus.”
Normally, I would not care about someone singing because I love that song, but I was seeking instant gratification and now five hours later, I was sitting in that fourth seat at that little hair shop on Langston Hughes Street listening to this woman screaming in my ear, playing on her phone and not honoring the mentality of the workplace.
"To break every chain. Break every chain. To break every chain."
It almost sounded as if she had a bull horn next to my head how loud she was singing.
"I hear the chains falling."
I’m not sure if she even realized that she had fostered discontent in me. I started to get angry at the ordeal when the sixth hour caught me still sitting in that chair with soar gluts and my hair not yet completed.
At least she knew not to braid too tightly along my fragile hairline, but I can’t say the same for the rest of the head that was so tight, I was in pain. And after hours of continuous misery, Lisa was finally done with my hair. I was in such an emotional quandary that I just paid her and evacuated with a quickness.
I walked down Langston Hughes street to the Lenox and 125th Street station. I climbed down to the subway platform and I couldn’t help but feel my head type heavy. The hair was so tight that I could not really feel the enjoyment of the beautiful style that was being presented to the world.
I wondered if she had paid more attention to the person sitting in her chair than the virtual people on her phone, would the braids had been a bit looser. I also wondered if I had gone to my original hairstylist Dinah, would my experience had been different.
I could barely grasp the situation as I piled into the south bound train to Coney Island and took a seat by the window. As the train rode along, I couldn't help but to look at the graffitied walls of the subway tunnels via Brooklyn while trying to hold my throbbing head up, catching chills through my opened hair pores every time the subway doors were ajar.
At the next stop, a tall good looking man wearing a gray Armani suit and black Stacey Adam Shoes boarded the train. He was built like Mike Tyson and held a soft gaze toward me. He walked closer into the subway car, came up to me and said, “hey, nice hair.”
You too probably would have forgotten about the whole experience and the tightness of the braids, looking at that gorgeous face staring back at you. Positivity took over my mind just thinking about the trend being set by the creativity of my hair. I had to smile.
It felt good to be able to say, "thank you, Carl" amongst other things. Matter of fact, we still talk about that special day that we met on the train, even twenty years later and I still blush at his gaze even harder than when my hair was so tight my face was red on its own.
Perhaps getting my hair done that day was that thoroughfare to love that I was meant to be on because we have been together ever since. But I'll say, that day when we met was one day I'll never ever forget.