"On the main floor of the salon, hair stylists and hurried assistants scuttle for hurried clients--throwing them into gray muumuu smocks, fetching them coffee and then shampooing them while smearing the clients’ first makeup application of the day. The clients then surrender their hair to be twisted into tin foils or plastic rods doused with chemicals, after which the stylists will hack at the completed synthesized product. For a final polish, it’s wrenched around aluminum brushes and torched with supernova heat from dryers and curling irons. During this temporarily unsightly beautification process, it will be a contest between service person and client to see who gets more talking time. That‘s what we stylists do. We talk. This is a social job.
It was Saturday morning, at the crack of 10 am, and I was in the lab where we stored our hair supplies, which was also where we ate and relaxed amongst bottles of peroxide-based “magic potions” that made blondes out of mouse-burgers and gave full-body to those who previously had only wimpy wisps. The lab is where we could freely talk about our clients without worrying about being rude and shrinking our expected generous tips. “Can you believe what she was wearing?” “Her husband slept with my mechanic.” “Stretched tight as a drum…” As this day had only begun, there wasn’t a lot of high-quality gossip yet. It wouldn't take long. I could wait. I had nothing to do but skulk by the water cooler. My first client didn't show up for her scheduled appointment and had a called-in forgivable excuse of “my dog ate my Valium.”
Paco was a cross between Iggy Pop and Ichibod Crane: skinny and usually ornamented in too many zippers or ruffles. He was the salon manager, a proper fair and fey guy and our resident Master Stylist. Paco was rinsing his gloved hands under the tap in the sink after applying a color. On the opposite end of the lab (and scales), sat stylist Carmen Scraper, who was eating a plain grapefruit with a spoon. Carmen's large form always looked cramped in the modest staff booth amidst the shelves of perm rods.
The coffee I was drinking was basically espresso with the liquid filtered out, and seeing the stains at the sides of my mug reminded me that I had just spent two weeks of evenings bleaching my teeth by soaking them in lethal-tasting acid-filled plastic trays. Liz-Beth, the new receptionist, had made the coffee, and worse, she had been slow to catch on to our fast-paced salon ways. My boss had hired Liz-Beth just because “Liz-Beth needed a family.” I thought she needed de-programming. Liz-Beth was a New-Ager who didn't drink coffee or any other “toxins,” hence her lack of coffee-making knowledge, and she was always muttering astrological nonsense. According to Liz-Beth, my moon was “in Saturn,” so that meant I shouldn't make any sudden decisions. So, I thought, slowly, how I was going to repay her in-kind for the russet color that, I‘m sure, was now my teeth.
As I was contemplating adding a fourth spoonful of Creamora into my cup, Brooke McFarland, my boss, came whooshing by us all, grocery bag in one arm and her neon lime Hyper Color coat sliding off her opposite shoulder. Brooke, a former professional beauty pageant contestant (she never placed but always won “Miss Congeniality“), was always running in late for her clients. She was what one would call over-committed. Brooke spoiled her son and daughter, put up with her ogre husband, fawned over her five dogs, ran our salon, and constantly tried to fix all of our personal problems. In literal, yet true, martyrdom fashion, Brooke’s only personal time and hobbies consisted of buying and doing her own makeup, which was extreme or, what I liked to call, four-dimensional.
“Jessy,” she said, while trying to catch her breath, “what are you doing just standing there?”
“I had a 9:00 no-show,” I said, hesitantly. “And then I had a 9:30 that did show. But she was bad for me.”
"You dismissed another client?"
"I ‘dismissed’ her taste in haircuts. We couldn’t agree."
Brooke put a plastic-covered bowl of what looked like baby diarrhea into the small refrigerator and spun around to face me with one hand on her anorexic hip. Archeologically speaking, my boss looked quite amazing. She had to be at least 40 but she never missed an aerobics class and she ate little-bird portions of puréed healthy foods which, I recently noticed, gave her a fabulous glow that managed to radiate up through her layers of foundation.
"I can't just do a trim,” I explained to her. “I have a reputation at stake, ya-know. I mean, she was going to, like, wear her hair in a ponytail for God's sake! Barf me out."
Carmen stopped eating grapefruit to butt in. "And you let her go? Nice."
I was less distracted by Carmen’s interruption than I was to see her eating something natural. Carmen usually only ate microwave popcorn and Herbal Life products. The latter for which she was a distributor/"pusher." That is not to say that Carmen's figure didn't belie at least three thousand calories a day.
Paco snapped his reusable gloves off of his milky white soft hands.
"Well," I said, "I offered to cut her hair so it looked like it was in a ponytail. You know, like, shave it around and leave a Hari-Krishna thing? That would be kind of cool, but not a ponytail! She lacked individuality and style. Let her go to Polly’s Pretty Palace.”
They all stared at me, the misunderstood artist. Pissy, most would say.
“You are a shit, Jessy,” Carmen said, “Your head wouldn’t fit in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.”
I directed a squinted eye to the fatty in the booth to imagine what else wouldn’t fit where. Carmen growled and then pounced all her attention onto Brooke. “Brooke, I apologize, once again, for recommending the little monster to our salon. If it wasn‘t for me, we wouldn‘t have to put up with Jessy’s insolence.”
I hated how Carmen’s shoulders raised when she said “insolence.” But it was true. Carmen had got me my job at Beautious Maximus and I should have been more thankful. And, at one time, I could have been more thankful. But that all changed when I realized out that she had once slept with my boyfriend.
“Don‘t use big words in the morning,” Brooke said, exasperated. “And please, just get along.”
Paco, the most rational and "matured" one of us (sometimes he wore leather ties), chimed in with his usual coolness. "Jessy," he said to me, while wiping his perfectly arched eyebrows with the tips of his spindly middle fingers, "I don't care how much you play at being the Hollywood Hairdresser, you are not that cruel. Nor do you own a tiara. You are a nice young man and I do not believe that you would intentionally hurt someone's feelings."
"Okay, you know me,” I said, smiling demurely, “I just told her that I didn't think I should be paired up with her. Doing someone's hair is a two-way street.” I nodded my point home. "I have to be comfortable with her hair as much as she has to. Besides, rubber band." I experienced a touch of vertigo even thinking about a ponytail.
The way I saw it was that this place where I worked was a SALON. Pronounced like the French: SAAALon. We offered foil color-weaves (not caps), hair extensions, spiral perms, manicures, fake nails, pedicures, facials, makeup applications, and massage therapy services. Our name said it all: "BEAUTIOUS MAXIMUS - A Full-Service Salon."
I was the youngest stylist. But I was one of the best and busiest. Our saaalon catered to a high-rent clientele in Naples Island, California, and I was young. Impressionable. So, naturally, a little of our clients' high-brow attitude would rub off on me. Besides, stylists with bigger personalities always made more money.
Brooke looked at me and shook her head.
“You better get that ego in check, Mister,” she said.
I nodded non-committedly.
Brooke heaved a relieved sigh like she had just settled the war in the Middle East. That was one of the things that I loved about Brooke being my boss. No stomach for discipline. If I ran this place, I would have fired myself. But Brooke decided that she had had enough quality time with all of us, her children, so she started toward the swinging doors of the salon’s main floor to her waiting client. She paused only long enough to gaze at what I was wearing. Today: white Reeboks and black parachute pants. Punk fashion had morphed into New Wave. I had successfully side-stepped Preppy. But it was my sleeveless white sweatshirt which had a Japanese flag printed on the front that Brooke disapproved of. In sunburst rays were strategically cut slits to show a teensy-teasing-bit of my beach-tanned torso, yet none of my excess baby fat. (It had been a few weeks since my last gym visit. This was due to a few busy work weeks and home stress, which begot hamburgers.)
Brooke flung her wedgy bob of copper red hair off her face and looked up at the ceiling as if to seek divine guidance. She reminded me of my real mother and I couldn’t help but feel a rascally wave of accomplishment.
"Would it save any time if I just went insane now?” she asked. And, before she left, she informed all of us that "there's homemade cauliflower soup in the fridge for everyone. Dig in."
I chewed on my coffee and said, “Someone better check the linoleum after lunch to see how much I liked the cauliflower soup.”
Carmen took a bite of her sour fruit and pointed a fork at me. “Your ego is out of control,” Carmen slurped.
"’He's the ego-monster,” I protested as I pointed at Paco. “He makes his clients wait for hours, teases them like hell and then charges them an arm and a leg.” Paco smiled proudly. “After all that,” I said to him directly, “they tell you how wonderful you are!”
I really loved Paco and he had been my mentor since I began working at Beautious Maximus. Paco also made more money than Graceland and had an endless clientele list who waited weeks and sometimes months to get an appointment with him. He owned a fabulous condo and two convertibles and traveled all over the world on his vacations. I worshipped him. This was L.A. A million-dollar home, an E-type Jaguar, and a platinum American Express Card were compulsory. The whole population was “pauper-impaired.” But how long would I have to work on my feet to get the Barbie Dream House too? I was 21. Paco had been in the business for 25 years!
Paco put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Jessy, it’s time you and I had a talk. After your last client today, hmm? We‘ll call it a meeting.” His smile was both teasing and condescending. “For now, let me say, my dear boy, you are mistaking age and seasoned campiness with youth and boldness. We are alike in that you are a wonderful artist, and a good listener, but you must wear your abrasive behavior with an air of humor. You see, clients just want to be able to feel like they are in capable hands and then when one provides that security, they are very, very thankful. Even I find it difficult to keep a grasp on reality when every client tells me that I have saved their life simply for doing their hair. You must try."
"Yeah," Carmen said, between chomps of a dry looking rice cake she pulled out of nowhere. (Her ass?) She must have been onto yet another new California diet. I wanted to mention that I didn't think it would work, but Paco struck a pose to change the subject. He was wearing all white except for a black vest that was made of rubber, and his bony mass mingled with our space-age/Art-Deco wallpaper to look like checkerboard tiles after a 7.5 earthquake. He claimed he was one of the first Caucasians to ever have bleached-out colorless hair and he left his beard its natural Irish red. I didn’t know where he got the name Paco, but it was essentially cool to have a single name, ala Cher, Madonna, and Sting. Bonus cool if hyphenated, such as Ann-Margret. He was a hairdresser so, to me, that explained everything.
"I have a juicy piece of Scandatatattle,” Paco said. “If you beg me, then I must render it you, my fanzzzz."
When a group of hairdressers get together to casually talk about other peoples' lives and secrets for judgment and desecration it is not simply called gossip. We called it “Scandatatattle”: a little bit of scandal, data, and tattling. Paco made it up and it was a Beautious Maximus exclusive. I knew it wouldn't take long to get some dirt on someone this morning.
"Okay. I bite," Carmen said half-heartedly. "I saw your driver’s license and I'm going to tell everyone your real age if you don't tell us what you know."
Paco feigned exasperation, then shot off, "I lied on my drivers license. But I have three words for what I found out about a certain silly someone... Fab-u-lous!"
"Spill it will you?" Carmen said, with her usual tact and grace.
Paco pretended to be offended. Paused. Then lithely flew to land and perch beside her.
"Wee--ell,“ Paco lisped, “remember my last client, Peter?”
"The drag queen?" asked Carmen.
“Honey, anyone who wears a uniform, baby-blue eye shadow, pin-stripe suits, has a cartoon character tattoo, or talks Valley Girl is a drag queen. Anyhoo, he, I mean she was out at the Red Onion last night. You know, that breeder place where girls have fried perms and you can’t get a decent white zin?”
"Carmen goes there,” I said. “A lot.”
"Oh hisss," said Paco. “Well, Peter, I mean, Muffy, was dressed in a blue beaded number. It sounded gorgeous.”
"Isn‘t Muffy a lesbo name?" asked Carmen. “Lesbos can’t be drag queens.”
"Anyhoo! Muffy saw and set her sights on, none other than, our Donovan."
Paco rolled his eyes and clicked his tongue.
The Scandatatattle had taken an ugly turn. Donovan, another stylist, started at Beautious Maximus about the same time I did and he was my best friend. Donovan was originally from Australia, a little older than me, but we both came from Catholic families and liked to go out drinking and dancing, and we both worked extra hard to make it big as stylists. Our professional differences were that I learned my craft from Paco, such as cutting, coloring and styling, and Donovan learned just enough to pick up girls in his chair. When we went out, that’s when he worked his hardest. But what he was working on would be trying to convince girls that he was straight once they found out he was a stylist especially if he was hanging out with me, someone who is transparently and categorically gay. And my poor Donovan was extremely heterosexual. A man-slut for the ladies. The thought of Donovan in a bar, probably after a few beers and near a seemingly willing female, allowed my imagination only one conclusion.
"This is goood!" Carmen cooed to encourage Paco to keep going with his Scandatatattle.
With a smirk on his face, Paco took a deep, energizing breath before he went in for the kill. “Muffy,” he said, “told me that Donovan kept on buying her drinks before inviting her to his Porsche for a little surprise. When the heroine of the story finally did get a wobbly Donovan into his love-mobile, she said he began to get very amorous with his hands. Muffy began to fear that Donovan might find out her true identity. Her un-Muffyness, if you will. But she wryly played the offensive and decided to cop a little feel herself and, low and below, Donovan has a little dick.”
"Aaahh!" All three of us yelled.
In the main part of the busy salon the continuous hum of uninhibited chatter and blow dryers suddenly dropped a decibel or two because we were yelling so loud.
"Yes!" Paco exclaimed, “Indignant, not knowing what to do with such a small portion, Muffy stormed out of the Porche and went back to trolling inside the Red Onion.”
Paco, flung his wisp of a wrist and snapped his fingers triumphantly.
"That does explain why he doesn’t have a lot of repeats…” Carmen said, rubbing her chin. “He does drive a Porsche.”
These were the days before Viagra and clipping your pubic hair to make your penis look bigger. And Donovan was my buddy. I had to say something in his defense.
"That is totally bogus," I said. "Donovan does not have a little dick."
Once again, my co-workers turned on me.
"Well, call me Nancy Reagan!" Paco exclaimed as his pinkies swept sinuously over his clavicle. "I doth hear protest regarding genitalia girth fromith best friend!"
I looked at Carmen for a little help. Some support.
"Don't look at me, Jessy," she said. "You're walking on tar again and we might have to ask you how long is Don Juan's schlong?"
"I wouldn't know!" I said. "I mean, I've never seen it! I just don't think he has a little one."
Almost on cue, Donovan walked into the lab, returning a "roll-about" with tint cups and foil strips. He was humming and then stopped to look at all of us, who were looking back at him, only lower.
In his low-rent Aussie accent he rhetorically asked, "Did ya guys see the cute little blonde chicky oim doin'? Oim makin' her even more blonde than she was before. Gawd, I love this job!"
What was he doing going out without me, his main mate, looking for chickies? “What’s your damage?” I demanded. “Why didn’t you call me last night?”
“Mate,” Donovan said, “you were in my heart, just the same.”
Not caring how I knew he went out last night, and totally oblivious to our scrutiny, Donovan whistled as he left us to go back to his chicky client.
"Bummer," I said, unconsciously.
Paco and Carmen busted up laughing. Again, at my expense.
By 5:45, my 5:15 appointment was officially another no-show (an old excuse of “caught in traffic,” which was called in from a mobile phone, a new phenomenon), so I thought I would just go home and see if I could catch a glimpse of my boyfriend before he had to run off to his job. I was pulling the plugs on my blow dryer and curling irons when Liz-Beth shuffled over to my station with her head down, like a puppy who had wet the carpet.
“Uh, Jessy, I know how you feel about no-shows,” she said, “and this is your second one today, but there’s a man up front and he needs a haircut.”
“I don’t take walk-ins,” I said, struggling to stay focused on getting home and trying not fixate on the moon and star design printed on her hemp peasant blouse.
“Yes. Um, I know. But everyone else is all booked up right now, and this man can't wait.”
If she had any idea how much her words and blouse were stinging my senses, I would have totally respected her for it.
"He said his limo driver has just enough time to get gas and fill up the bar if you can cut his hair," she said. “He wanted someone really good.”
“Well …” I said, re-plugging in my irons and blow dryer, “if he wants someone good ...”
Just then, Donovan walked from the reception area with one of his whorey looking clients.
“He does look like your kinda client.” Donovan said to me, “Obnoxious.” Then he slipped me a less backhanded compliment as he passed: “But I wish I could have half yer confidence, mate."
"If only you could have half of my -- nevermind,” I shouted.
Twirling around, I turned my attention back to our receptionist.
“What's it going to hurt to have one more new client?” I said to Liz-Beth. “I'm a Gemini, as you have pointed out, and I can let my benevolent twin rule today, hmm? Tell him to wait for me, Liz-Beth. I can't have him thinking that I need a new client."
I turned my back on her again.
"Yeah. Right," she said, behind me and with a just a hint of a patronizing tone.
She was making fun of me. I immediately coiled, ready to strike with my provoked fangs of payback, when my shoulder was strongly tapped from behind.
“Ahem,” came a man’s voice into my ear.
Startled, I turned around to chastise whomever had interrupted what would have surely been a glib and slightly cruel comment on Liz-Beth’s peasant blouse, but I was instead shocked to be face to chest with a mutantesquely tall man. The man steadied me from falling backwards on my hot irons by grabbing my right hand. Behind the big guy, I could see Liz-Beth shuffling and chuckling back to her front desk.
"Heeey, bud-buddy,” the tall man billowed, “are you Jeffery?"
I caught my balance as my hand was vigorously shaken and released. As any stylist would, I backed up and took the offensive and smiled in my most “you are putty in my hands” way.
"I'm Jessy," I said, through gritted teeth to make it obvious that he had slaughtered my name. (I had not yet legally chopped off my last name like Paco, but to the clients I had no last name -- and no middle name. There was no reason to fuck it up.)
"I really appreciate you taking me on such short notice," he said, belying a softer personality than his girth would suggest.
"Well, I guess I'm ready for you now," I said, motioning for him to follow me. “I'll shampoo your hair. All the shampoo assistants are busy, with scheduled clients.”
As the man followed me to the shampoo lounge, I tried to fire a glare at Liz-Beth as we passed near the front desk. But she would have none of it and never looked my way, and I realized that the bitch might be acclimating faster than I thought. We had all better watch our backs or we might end up being booked with a highlight at 7PM on a Sunday by “accident.”
He was wearing a black satin jacket with the latest Star Trek movie logo embroidered on the right pec and a centered, much-larger version on the back. It was one of those jackets a studio gives to the staff and crew that had worked on the set of a movie. The tall man looked like a producer. A time-is-money type, anyway. Not so much artsy but antsy. This guy, I sensed, was probably a little pushy and, in my opinion, successful people probably had to be. I’d make sure I got a new client card made out on him if he tipped well.
After shampooing his hair, I commanded him to follow me to my chair. As we passed Brooke, she was combing out one of her geriatrics who looked either asleep or dead. Paco’s chair was empty because he went home, half way through the day, due to coming down with a cold. I made a mental note to self to call him. Then, on second thought, I made a mental note to scratch the last note because I remembered that we were supposed to have a meeting, obviously canceled, about my attitude after work.
When I walked by Carmen's chair she was telling the same blonde joke to her latest client that she had been telling everyone else (except the dumb blondes) all day. "You can tell that she owned a vibrator because of her chipped teeth!" This time I heard only the punch line but it finally tickled a nerve so I laughed and she glared at me like I had spitefully eavesdropped. Geez.
Donovan seemed to be consulting with Whorey on what he was going to do to her hair. But I knew he was just toying with her as he massaged her head before she put on a smock or a cutting cape. Donovan once told me that massaging women’s heads made their tits pointier. As I passed him, I experienced a slight flash of rage at his unprofessionalism.
When we got back to my station, the tall man sat in my styling chair as if he owned it. He moved the products on the counter so he could see more of me and the whole salon in the mirror, as if casing the joint. Then he adjusted his cape so not a pinhead size of clipped hair would fall on his arms or clothes.
“I've got a real important meeting tonight, Buddy,” he said. “Real important. So just trim it into what I already have, but shorter. But not too much shorter."
“Okay,” I said, as I jumped right into the haircut. “But are you sure that this is just a business meeting? Could it be a possible date? It sounds very important."
After I realized that he hadn’t replied and I saw that he was squeezing the arms of the chair, my scissors stopped cutting. Instinctually I backed my torso away from the wrenched arms of the chair and looked up to see that he was glaring at me through the mirror. I eeked out a smile.
"Heyee," he said, and then finally laughed. "You are a wise guy! Hey-hey. I think I'm going to like you, Jess-boy. Yeah. You're all right."
I exhaled, feeling as if, for a brief moment, I had been in real danger for moving in too personal, too fast. Regaining my mental balance, I continued to trim his dirty-blonde hair into the surfer look that he came in with.
"My hair is very important to me, Jessy-boy," he said. “I gotta warn ya, the last guy who cut too much of my hair off, got somethin' of his cut off. Hey, hey, hey."
Male clients always came back to me because I never cut too much and I always clipped the hair on their ears and eyebrows without asking and I never made their hair over-poofy. So I wasn't worried about cutting his hair too short but I kept more of a distance from the arms of the cutting chair.
This guy was they type of client who let me do most of the talking, which I was happy to do after a day of mostly listening. He seemed like a nice dude who liked to laugh and paid attention to my chatter well enough. And he must have been okay with my forwardness at our introduction. But he loved his finished haircut because he tipped me with three crisp one hundred dollar bills. When he slapped them down in my palm, my jaw dropped in happy surprise and for the sting in my hand.
"If I didn't like it," he said, "I would have given you ten times that much and then run ya down in the street just so you couldn't spend it." He always ended his sentences with the same smirky laugh. "Hey-hey-hey."
"Say, Buddy,” he said, “I have an associate, who, just might need your services. To do his wife’s hair. She could use your help. Mind if I pass on your good name? You'll make a lotta dough."
"Sure," I said, still rubbing the sting in my hand. "Any friends of yours are friends of mine.” And any associates’ wife’s hair that will make me a lot of dough are definitely friends of mine.
Before he walked out to his gassed-up limousine, I invited the new big-guy client to fill out a client card at the front desk and to grab one of my business cards."
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