On the subject of beauty salons I am in need of a tutorial. A very remedial tutorial. I never know how to behave. I don’t understand the culture – I feel like an Inuit anthropologist in the Amazonian rainforest. How much am I required to chat, or not to chat? If I do chat, what do I talk about? And whom am I supposed to tip?
Thanks to my mother’s scissors, I never darkened the door, or sat upon the twirling chair, of a beauty salon until I was in my 40’s. And that was thanks to my brothers and the sixties. Many decades ago, in order to ensure that my brothers’ hair would, though long, be neat and well-trimmed, because my mother likes all things to be neat and well-trimmed, even hair, she convinced the local barber to teach her how to cut hair. She was an apt pupil. Since that time, she has cut the hair of all her children, their friends, their spouses, her husband, her nieces and nephews, her grandchildren, and on occasion, her great-granddaughter. Once a year she sends her hair-cutting scissors to a special sharpener in Montana. It seems amazing that she has to send them all the way to Montana, but it would never occur to me to actually question this practice.
If any of us dares to touch or misappropriate her haircutting scissors, we will be met by my mother’s wrath. Not unlike her wonderfully predictable wrath should any of us use take the name of her omelette pan in vain.
So it was only, and with great reluctance, that sometime in my 40’s I realized that four hours was a long way to drive for a haircut, and there were times when I really did need a haircut. So I went to the local beauty salon. Over the years I have been to several; I am clearly not one of those women who form lasting friendships with their hairdressers and share life stories with them, and then, if either of them moves, fly across several states to visit them. I just want a haircut, and I don’t like to have my hair blown dry because I think it is a waste of time and then it looks stupid, and then I want to go home.
My current hair salon is a five-minute walk from my house. It could not be any closer unless my mother and her scissors lived with me, and I think we can all be glad that is not yet the case. The women at the salon are all Albanian, and I am sure you know that Albanians, on account of the many years of Hoxha’s draconian Maoist rule and the country’s virtual isolation, developed a highly sophisticated and unique haircutting technique unmatched in the civilized world.
Another advantage of Albanian hairdressers is that they all speak Albanian and quite reasonably I cannot be expected to converse in Albanian, since my vocabulary in that tongue is limited to a brief exchange about buying green gloves. But even so, at times a few pleasantries are expected. Today the ladies were discussing their favorite Albanian dish, cabbage boiled up with dried pork ribs. They explained this to me, and we all agreed that the addition of pork fat was definitely likely to be a good thing for the cabbage.
Snip snip snip. Then, in order to contribute something to the mix, and because the hairdresser was using precut sheets of aluminum foil to highlight my neighbor’s hair, I mentioned that aluminum foil was first made - that is to say – was first rolled out, in 1910, in Switzerland. Before that it really was tinfoil, and I still call it tinfoil, but it’s really aluminum. It didn’t come to the US until 1913, when foil was used to wrap Life Savers. I cannot say that this interesting fact was met with unmitigated enthusiasm, but Vera did ask when foil was first used for hair highlighting, and I had no idea. I felt like I had failed in some essential rite of passage of womanhood.
I had thought the subject of tinfoil would be more generally interesting than any mention of my book, The Black Swan, by Thomas Mann, which really is amazing, which is in fact blowing my mind. It is a short novel about a middle-aged widow who goes through menopause, then falls madly in love with her son’s English tutor, a 24-year-old American from the Midwest. Rosalie, the widow, is besotted, and confides of her passion to her older daughter, a painter who was born with a clubfoot. The daughter is concerned. When Rosalie’s menopause appears to be reversed, with the return of her menses, she informs her daughter that she is experiencing “the Easter of her womanhood”. Clearly a phrase that warrants some trumpeting.
Perhaps I was wrong in choosing tinfoil over Thomas Mann’s gloss on menopause. Which brings us back to the point, that I need guidance in this arcane culture of the American beauty salon.