Photo by bobbi vie
I stepped up into the crowded entryway of the loud and confusing room. A bald man with remarkable muscles was standing near the cash register and he yelled, “What d’ye want? Cut? Color? Women kill for hair that color already.” This was my second visit, so I knew enough to holler back, “I want the $10 special.” A young woman in a tattered t-shirt with spiky hair dyed a rich burgundy handed me a slip of paper with the time noted on it, indicating my place in line. The others milling around appeared to be friends, groupies, hangers-on. I wouldn’t have to wait long. The bruiser scanned the dozens of salon chairs, each piloted by a man or woman flashing thin shears. Their swift clipping and sure moves formed a free-style choreography that matched the urgency of the Patti Smith song wailing from speakers suspended from the ceiling.
“Excuse me, is it possible to get the same person I had last time? I think his name was Sal,” I said. “He gave me a great cut.” “Oh…sure, sweetie,” said the big guy. “I’ll see if he’s free.” He walked a few steps toward the corner of the room, and then spun around. “Come on, the paisan’s just sittin’ there. He’s all yours.” I headed in the direction my escort was pointing, but realized immediately the portly man was not the one I remembered. “That’s not Sal,” I said. “Sure it is. Salvatore, I got one for you,” he announced as we got closer to the barber. “But,” I said, “I was downstairs last time.” The man called Sal said, “Joey, wait a minute. She means Sally-boy. That’s who she wants.” “Jesus,” said Joey. “Wouldn’t you know it. You’re outta luck, honey. Sally-boy ain’t here today. Go with Sal, he’s the best. Been here a hunnert years, right Sal? Guaranteed. If you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.”
I settled into the cracked vinyl chair. Sal draped a thin white towel around my shoulders with a professional snap, and looked at me with a practiced eye. “Coupla inches?” “Sure,” I said. “That’ll be okay. I’m just curious…does Sally-boy always have Thursdays off?” I was uncomfortable having to say the oddly effeminate nickname, but I wanted to know. “Forget it,” said Sal. “He’s not coming back. He ODed. He’s done it before. They’ve had it with him. Late half the time, outta his gourd half the time. Yeah, he could cut. Everybody knows that. But he’s history.”
What did that mean? Didn’t OD mean you’re dead? Could paramedics have saved his life? I sat there, while Sal snipped and combed, and thought about the man who had cut my hair before. Sally-boy was younger, probably in his late thirties. He was slim, not too tall, and graceful, as though in another lifetime he had danced in the beautiful smooth, sliding way of a Fred Astaire.
Since I’d lived in New York, I’d gone to dozens of hair salons and beauty parlors. I sought out the experience for some reason that wasn’t clear to me. I didn’t use cosmetics, and although I loved clothes, I was a thrift store shopper. I was not interested in looking pulled together or chic. But I loved to have my hair cut. It may have had something to do with the underlying theater, this feeling I had on entering a beauty shop that anything was possible. A whole new life could blossom from one commonplace occasion. I also liked being touched, liked having someone else wash my hair, stroke my head. I liked the way they’d guide my shoulder lightly when they wanted me to turn.
Sally-boy hadn’t chattered to me, as some hairdressers do, nor had he ignored me and gossiped with the others as they rotated around their clients. One reason Astor Place was so cheap is that they moved people through at a smart pace; the skilled cutters could do a shag, a buzz, or a fade in 15 minutes. Sally-boy had walked around me slowly and looked at my face and my hair, touched first one earlobe and then the other, tilted my chin in a fleeting caress. Then went to work.
I had a small cyst on the top of my head, about the size of a lima bean. You couldn’t see it unless you stood right over me and stared down at my scalp, so I rarely thought about it. Only when I went for a haircut did it become anything of consequence. Then, it loomed in my mind as though it were the size of an eggplant. Some hairdressers would flinch slightly when they noticed it. I would watch them in the mirror and know when the moment had come and gone. Sally-boy saw my bump as he was parting my hair into neat sections before he started to cut. “My mother has a cyst like that,” he said, as though it were a special sign, a precious gift. He moved the comb with care as he tucked my hair gently to the side. I asked him if he cut his mother’s hair, and he said, “Of course.”
I imagined him now, recuperating at home, living in the guest room of her compact house in Brooklyn or Rockaway, too broke from his heroin habit to live anywhere else. His mother would be larger than her son, well fed and sturdy, ironing his white shirts for work, and playing cards with her friends in the kitchen.
Sally-boy would lie on his studio-couch bed, with his shoes off, fully dressed, and smoke one cigarette after another. The smell of tobacco and basil and garlic wafting through the rooms. Small beads of sweat trembling on his forehead and glistening like rhinestones. Like St. Sebastian, his face holding the sorrow of all eternity.
That first time I’d had my hair cut by Sally-boy, I’d met a friend for dinner afterwards. You look great, she said, as though the possibility had never occurred to her, as though I had become a wholly unexpected beauty, as though I’d been reborn. “Who did your hair?”
“Some guy,” I said, “at Astor Place. Only ten bucks.”
Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals. For love of the genre, she is managing editor of the online literary journal for and about memoir, Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie (run-to-the-roundhouse-nellie.