“When are you going to change your hair style?” asked the man, whose name I no longer remember. He was my hairdresser, and this was 1989. It was not a good time in my life. Sometimes a major change in hard times is necessary. Refresh, recharge, start over again. Sometimes that’s a bad idea.
“What’s wrong with my hair?” I asked him, thinking Jesus what isn’t wrong with me? I could go through the list. I had been let go-oh hell let’s not sugarcoat it. I was fired because I didn’t have the experience my boss wanted. My feeling about that, rightly or wrongly, was I’m just out of college what the hell did you want? My new job wasn’t going much better. I still didn’t have very much experience in my chosen field of prosthetics and orthotics. That is, artificial limbs and braces. To add to my difficulties, one of my coworkers was sexually harassing me. One would think he’d never seen a woman before. There was no HR to go to, no one above my boss. I didn’t go to him because I knew he wouldn’t care. It was rumored he was sleeping with the secretary or she wanted him to. She secretly saw me as competition. For the first time I worked with someone who was kind to me while she put the knife in my back. For toxicity the place was like the ground zero for the Spanish flu, the plague, or the Corona virus. I was living with an elderly cousin removed I don’t know how many places, but she had what we would now call OCD. Another cousin had told me after she mopped the bathrooms, she’d make her children go to a gas station until the floor dried. Whether that was true I didn’t know and didn’t want to find out. I was shy, very anxious, and usually cold in the New Jersey winter. I was also, as far as I was concerned, a failure. According to Rose, my OCD cousin, I couldn’t even do laundry correctly. I didn’t separate my colors. I washed underwear with towels and to her that was a mortal sin against God and cleanliness. It was disgusting to her. I was timid but I also didn’t care. I just wanted the laundry done.
“Your cut needs to be modernized,” said the hairdresser, who I will refer to as Lucifer. “It’s old fashioned.”
Back then I had shoulder length hair which was layered and brushed back in the style of the seventies and eighties. It was wavy but not curly. I didn’t see the problem with my hair. I had gone in for a trim not for any major changes. On the other hand, maybe this could be the change I needed. I could be more sophisticated, more fashionable, a success. “What would you suggest?”
“We should do a perm,” he said.
“But it’s already wavy.”
“This will make it nice and curly. Give it body. Right now, you have an old woman’s cut.”
I was twenty-two years old at the time. I didn’t want an old woman’s look. Besides there was another problem. I had come from a small Florida town although when I left it was growing. We actually had a mall now. A friend of mine from Miami had come home with me at Christmas time. She laughed and said it was the only mall she’d ever seen where she could see both ends at the same time. Nevertheless, we had a mall. In high school our idea of a good time was going roller skating or bowling. Perhaps riding trucks through mud after drinking beer. So, although I am originally from NJ I grew up in a small town. I was a country bumpkin as far as these people were concerned. Rochelle Park isn’t far from New York City. In short, I agreed to the perm. After all what was the worst that could happen?
I should have asked that. I should have asked questions. I have learned since then to ask and if they don’t want to answer leave. Always ask. That goes for mortgages, medical treatments, and signing legal documents. It especially goes for haircuts. Unfortunately, I suffered from what my youngest son does and probably my oldest. That is, I had a horrible fear of asking. Matter of fact I realize now what I didn’t then. I have anxiety disorder. I’m sure of it. My youngest son Alex especially has to work himself up to asking. I’ve seen and felt his struggle. It’s fighting the worse enemy of all: oneself and the demons that tell you how moronic you are. I hate that I know the feeling and see it in him. I tell him don’t make the mistakes I did knowing it will do no good and maybe even does harm. How can I be angry with him when I personally despised asking for help or admitting I was unsure of how something should be done? I’m not stupid; I’m sure now that was half my trouble at my first job. I should have admitted my ignorance and asked for assistance.
I began to worry when I saw the size of the rollers. They were small. I had a perm once when I was fourteen. At the time I thought the style was fun. My hair was tight and curly. To best describe it, think an Afro on a pale white girl with brown hair and hazel eyes. A few years later I looked at those pictures and shuddered. What was I thinking? I knew enough about perms to know the size of the curlers mattered. Small curlers meant tight curls and large rollers meant loose waves.
“Should we use larger rollers?” I ventured to ask.
Lucifer raised his eyebrows. Who’s the hairdresser here? “Don’t worry,” he said. I recall he was in his thirties and blond. Not handsome but slight and had delicate hands. I had liked the haircuts he’d done for me before so I imagined I would like this one. Still, I was nervous. Small curlers are what they had used at my last perm. He rolled my thick hair and began applying the chemicals. I remember that sharp, chemical smell. If the smell could speak the message would be what are you thinking putting this against your skin? It doesn’t burn your scalp but by the smell it should. Well, I thought, it’s the smell of change. Now I had to wait for the stuff to do whatever magic it would do to my hair and to me. This was the feather to give flight to an elephant. I'd be confident, no longer afraid I was a screw-up. It’s amazing what rides on a hair style. Clothes is one thing. You buy an awful outfit you return it and move on with your life. A haircut can mean the difference between you feeling sophisticated and feeling like you should crawl in a hole for about six months. I needed this feather too. I hated going to work but I didn’t want to quit this job. I needed a year’s experience so I could get board- certified. It doesn’t look good on a resume to job hop either. I can compare this to surfing. Getting past the breakers was difficult for me. I’d feel like I was paddling forever to get to the nice rolling waves. I would get exhausted. This was how I felt now except I couldn’t eat. My stomach tried to send me a message that said please don’t go to work. It tried to expel the pain most mornings and I’d get sick. Notwithstanding all that I wanted to keep the job. I tried to read a magazine. Cosmopolitan and their discussions about sex and more sex. Not what I wanted to read, so I daydreamed.
Last week I visited my aunt. I told her about my coworker.
“Is he at least a good-looking Negro?” Aunt Madeline asked. She was in her eighties. She looked like the sweet grandmotherly type. She knitted and crocheted, very old woman hobbies. Underneath those grandmotherly types is a lifetime of doing and thinking the unexpected. Of bending whatever rules they can. I don’t know what rules she bent but now I realize by her comment she might have contoured a lot of them. We were drinking wine. This was a mistake on my part. She could drink me under the table. Nevertheless, I matched her in drinking and complained about the man, whose name was Leroy. He never put his hands on me, but he constantly propositioned me.
Your boyfriend is back in Florida. What will he know? Plus, he let you come up here alone? He doesn’t deserve you. On and on. And it was a tiny place. He was hard to avoid since I didn’t have my own office.
“No,” I told her. “He’s ugly and much older than me. Also, married.” I don’t know what Aunt Madeline would have said if my answer was yes, he was good looking. This was New Jersey, not the south and we were both in our cups. Most likely she would have said “at least he’d be good on the eyes.” I don’t know and never will. Today she laughed and said that was a shame and he needed a punch to the jaw. I laughed too and agreed. I knew and probably she did too that I would never be the one to deliver it. At least after the visit I felt a lot better and although I shouldn’t have driven home, I made it in one piece. God bless snow tires.
Bzzzzzzt! I almost dropped the magazine. The timer.
“Let’s wash your hair and put you under the dryer,” Lucifer said. At least the shampoo was relaxing. My hair did look curlier but otherwise I couldn’t tell much. I would know more once it was dried. I remember it was evening and I was hungry for once. I hoped it wouldn’t take much longer. I anticipated my new look. And I was anxious. He had used the small curlers. As it turned out, I was right to be afraid. I looked in the mirror and stared. Not happily. I stared at this woman looking back at me who apparently wasn’t twenty-two but fourteen again. I hoped I wasn’t seeing what I did. But yes-I did. My hair was kinky curly. It wasn’t even ringlets. I could have handled that. No. It was an Afro. I would need to buy a hair pick just to get through it. I could never brush it out. I knew better than that. If I did, I’d look like Bozo the clown.
Maybe it’s not that bad, I thought.
A voice deep inside said, “Who are you kidding?” I shoved it down. Way down inside my brain. It piped up and I stomped on it.
It’s not that bad.
“Nice, isn’t it?” asked Lucifer. Now looking back I’m pretty sure that wasn’t permanent solution smell but rather brimstone. I’m positive he cackled. I had displeased someone. God, maybe, for getting drunk too often at college parties or for riding in a car stupidly smoking pot with my best friend. I had apparently sinned and now I was in hell.
“Great.” I said. I’m sure I sounded like a kid about to go take finals when he hadn’t studied. These days I ask myself why I didn’t tell him to fix the damned mess he created. But I knew why. I didn’t trust myself very much anymore. And even if I did-well who am I kidding? I was shy, timid and most of all, probably an idiot. The only thing I was good at was talking myself into thinking It’s not that bad.
It was my mantra all that year.
For this particular idiocy I believe I paid eighty dollars, a lot of money back in those days. A lot of money for me to spend on my hair even now, but more in 1989. I paid it and meekly went home, swearing to never set foot there again.
Rose’s daughter liked it. She’s about my age and tried to be nice to me. Kim is her name. “It looks nice,” she said.
“Thank you,” I told her.
My coworkers the next day were a different story. There were two of them, Linda and Leroy. And my boss Gene. As I recall he said nothing about it. He didn’t want to get Linda, the secretary, angry with him by paying attention to me. Linda, for the record was a tall, heavy set white woman with mouse colored, thin hair. Gene seemed as wide as he was tall at five foot six and balding. Leroy was African American. He was an oddity and even more so back then. There simply were no African Americans in the prosthetic field, at least, not that I saw. Maybe that was half of his problem.
“What did you do to yourself?” Linda asked.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Your hair! What’s up with your hair?”
I held my head up and looked her in the eye. “I got a perm.”
“Are you trying to be Black? Leroy! She’s trying to be like you!” She laughed because Leroy himself had an Afro.
“She is,” he said and laughed too. Now I wonder if he was offended by Linda’s comment on my hair. I hope so. That’s truly a terrible thing to think. But I was and am still angry with him. So, I hope he was offended. I was. No, this wasn’t what I wanted. Still a curly afro shouldn’t mean anything other than I ended up with a bad perm.
“In your dreams,” I told him and walked away.
I think about that now when we talk about African American women embracing their curls, their Afros, and their dreadlocks. Malcolm X once described trying to straighten his hair to look “white.” He had used chemicals that actually burned his scalp. One of the ingredients was lye. The pain of trying to fit a mold he thought he should. Then there was my own anger over her comment about “appearing Black.” Why was I angry? There should have been no reason for that. I wish now I would have said “so what if I want an Afro or if I look Black or biracial? It’s my hair. Since when is an Afro a statement of race you stupid fool?” Of course, I did not although a reckoning with her would come.
I don’t remember what started the fight. We had one and it was very bad. She accused me of what she wished herself. I lost all fear. told her she was crazy if she thought I was doing anything with Gene. He heard it. I got fired. The next day I went back. I told Gene about the harassment and that he fired the wrong person. Of course, that didn’t do any good in the grand scheme of things. These days we have the #MeToo movement. Those days I just wanted to get back home. Saying my piece did allowed me to leave with most of my dignity intact. I left, Afro and all, silently packed and left for Florida. My boyfriend didn’t like my hair either. With him I wasn’t so timid. I told him get over it. Eventually I got it cut and for a very long time went back to my layered, usual look. I also learned to speak up and to control my anxiety. I found a company willing to teach me and so with that my confidence grew.
Over the years my hair curled more and more as if trying to go back to that permed state. I grew the layers out and that helped. It is curly now, soft ringlets around my face, frizzy if I don’t use products in it. I have a son whose hair is very curly and if he grows it out it does form an Afro. Natural beautiful Afro in a boy with blond hair and blue eyes. For a while he wanted to straighten it. I said, “Don’t.” I told him embrace the curls. One should, race or creed be damned. Now he likes his hair. And I can look at him and think maybe my perm wasn’t as awful as I thought it was. Maybe it was just my life, my circumstances, the fact I put too much pressure on a stupid hair style. Maybe it was awful. We all make mistakes. I don't know. I have no pictures of myself with the perm.
One day I had a stylist dye my hair and style it. She blew it out straight. I looked at it and sighed.
“All the curl is gone.”
“You didn’t want it that way?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. The straightened hair was only temporary. “The dye job looks great which does matter.” She smiled at that. So, I paid and gave her a good tip. I went home and asked the boys what they thought.
My oldest son Andrew said, “you look like a Karen.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You look like someone who would complain to a manager and cause a scene over some stupid issue. You know, those uppity rich women who treat cashiers and waitresses like garbage. They’re Karens. This is their hair style.” He showed me a picture of “the Karen cut.” It’s short in back, long in front. I frowned.
“I think I look like Hillary Clinton.”
“That’s no better! She’d complain too.”
I said, “I don’t like this look either.”
Alex said, “Please tell me this isn’t permanent.”
To tease him I said “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll keep it this way.”
I laughed. “I will be back to normal tomorrow after I wash it out.”