Even though she could not see her, Cookie just knew Miss Fran was waving her arms. Miss Fran was complaining about the heat. It was early spring, not quite sixty degrees outside. “I don’t know if it’s the heat or my womanhood but I feel like I’m in an oven,” she announced to the hair shop occupants. Cookie’s nose picked up the familiar scent of the Mum underarm deodorant Miss Fran never left home without.
Now don’t get me wrong, Miss Fran didn’t have B.O. In fact, Cookie loved how the smell of the ever popular Evening in Paris colognemingled with the scent of the paste deodorant. EP was her favorite cologne. She always kept an extra twenty-five cents for a squirt from the perfume machines in the ladies rooms at the RKO, Paramount or Branford movies houses downtown. Most of the time, she caught part of the misty blast just below her ear as she stood on her tippy toes and slowly pressed the perfume plunger.
“Maybe you ought to get some of that Lydia B. Pinkham’s stuff they talk about on the radio,” the new operator offered with a smirk. Several ladies laughed while the older ones took exception to the remark made by Crystal the young, shapely girl with the big legs. Miss Fran stretched her eyes and put her hand on her hip.
“Maybe you ought to pay attention to the head you shampooing. You got more water on the floor than in the bowl,”
Miss Linda, the operator in the second chair and a contemporary of Miss Fran gave her finger an imaginary lick and chalked one up for the older girls. Crystal ignored the gesture and turned her attention to hair washing.
Ms. Fran’s forehead glistened. Beads of sweat generated by her mane taming expertise, trickled past her freckles and settled under her chin. Every now and then she patted them dry with the end of a terry cloth towel laid across the shoulder of her pink smock. She moved about efficiently combing and prepping Cookie’s wet hair mass for the second beauty step, the drying ritual.
The length and texture of the customer’s hair determined how much she pulled twisted or braided handfuls of thick, thin, coarse, wavy or silky strands into equal sections creating temporary designs destined for a heated encounter a heated encounter with the “Mandogoose.” Cookie’s hair was on the way to respectability. Things would soon be straightened out.
The “Mandogoose,” a hair drying contraption, was a big silver thing supported by wheels. It resembled a cross between a mandolin and a goose’s neck. The adjustable trunk emitted a stream of hot air that was aimed at targets of semi-wet hair squares or rectangles. Beauty shop technicians had to move and reposition the dryer and the customer as the process progressed. To the delight of most hairdressers it was eventually replaced by the bonnet hood, and later, hand held dryers.
Anyway, Cookie knew what getting one’s “hair done entailed.” She sat still and tried as best she could to maintain a neutral expression throughout the ordeal. There was no way she would show any sign of discomfort. Any such behavior could possibly damage Miss Fran’s reputation as a “hairdresser’s hairdresser.” After all, she was purported to have coined the phrase, “If your hair isn’t becoming to you, you should be coming to us.”
Plus, Cookie had an obligation to be a positive role model for her sister, Ann. Nevertheless, she frowned and shook her feet, discretely, to ease her pain. Ann, who was next up, watched from her seat, terrified. Anyone who experienced getting your hair “done” knows it was not easy. However, no one would say so; it wasn’t worth voicing, at least not in public. For the average girl, the ends justified the means. Simply put, it was worth the wait. There were two places in the neighborhood that, eventually, everyone had to go, the undertaker parlor and the beauty parlor. One of the places was gender specific. Almost every girl in the neighborhood went to the beauty parlor at least twice a year, for Easter, Christmas and sometimes on your birthday, if your folks could afford it. To complain about the difficulties surrounding the hair ritual was almost sacrilegious and jeopardized your chance to experience one of the coming-of-age experiences of the 50’s and 60’s. Who wouldn’t want to, “look real pretty when your hair is done?” In fact, if your family couldn’t afford it, someone always paid your tab or credit was graciously extended.
Getting one’s hair “done” was a big deal― a luxury. For the most part, neighborhood women gathered in their kitchens to take care of hair. There was no conditioner or cream rinse to tame the tresses. Madame Walker’s products, as well as Posner, Apex, Murray’s and Dixie Peach pomades were staples under the sink keeping the hot comb and curling iron company. In the absence of expensive dryers one’s hair was braided and allowed to dry before the application on heat.
“Lord, I could go for an ice cold soda pop!” Miss Fran announced as she finished drying Cookie’s hair and stopped for a well deserved break. Cookie happily volunteered to go to the store. She too, needed a break. By her face was framed by a thick mane that looked like cotton candy.
“Now child, you know you can’t go out in the street with your hair all over your hair. Your sister can go next door for me. Can’t you Ann?”
Ann answered the call, immediately. She was eager to escape what appeared to be the torture of her sister and the sticky red plastic covering on the waiting chair that stuck to her thighs. Before Miss Fran folded the money in a piece of newspaper and placed her order, Ann already knew she was going to buy a bag of potato chips, two Squirrel Nuts and a couple of Mary Janes with the remaining reward. For generations the reward for community couriers (children who ran errands was the ever welcomed phrase, “Keep the change.” The Change! Under no circumstances was Cookie and her siblings allowed to accept money from adults, known or unknown. However, protocol did allow for keeping “the change” or accepting soda bottles to exchange for monetary deposits. Perhaps the elderly, tired and overworked of this neighborhood unknowingly invented private shopper services.
“Do I have to write it down for you, honey or can you remember? I want a bag of salted peanuts and a Royal Crown cola.” She never drank her RC without an added bag of salted peanuts.
“No ma’am…I mean…Yes ma’am…I can remember. I bag of peanuts and a Royal Crown,” Ann proudly recited.
Ann trapped a giggle inside as Miss Fran said, “Get something for yourself with the change.” Cookie’s eyes widen. Although she knew her sister would surely share the treats with her, Ann stuck her tongue out, made a face and hurried outside. The beauty shop was sandwiched between a small grocer and a barber shop. Both places carried the same pop brands but she felt more comfortable going to the grocer’s. Besides, the grocer’s son, Reggie was her fifth grade classmate…and she liked him a little, too. He rushed to reach into the soda box and select the RC from among the bottles of Nehi, Yoo-Hoo and other brands surrounding an island of ice sitting in a pool of water. They both smiled, shyly.
“Thanks for getting the RC. That water must be very cold.”
“Naw, not really. I do that every day,” he claimed with a slight air of machismo.
His mother noticed they were at a loss for words. “Reg, don’t forget to put her purchases in a bag,” she gently reminded. So mesmerized was Ann that she almost forgot to get something for herself with the change. Her memory returned just as she put her hand on the door handle. The Change! She turned around and walked pensively to the glass case filled with all sorts of sugary delights. She reached her own chips on the stand next to the counter, and then she placed her order. This time Reggie’s mother waited on her and dropped each selection into the brown paper bag. Ann remembered she had the extra ten cents her father slipped her earlier. She decided to surprise Cookie with BB-Bats and a pair of wax lips.
Ann walked back into the parlor with an air of accomplishment. She noted how Cookie’s face appeared more relaxed, her foot wasn’t shaking and her shoulders were lowered.
“That’s my girl,” Miss Fran complimented her on her efficient peanut and soda pop pick up.
Cookie was rolling her eyes at her and had that I’m-gonna-tell-ma-you-didn’t-share look. Ann casually walked to her sticky seat and slowly removed the red cellophane belt from her Mary Jane’s with the cadence of a stripper. Her eyes met Cookie’s. She popped the entire piece in her mouth and savored it with closed eyes just to make Cookie mad. She waited for Ms. Fran to turn the chair then, she unwrapped the other one. That way Cookie could not see her how much she enjoyed the flavorful blend of maple and peanut butter on her ten year old palate. The taste was enjoyable. So much so, she had to use her pinky finger to wipe away the Mary Jane juice seeping from the corner of her mouth.
Cookie was livid. “Girl, you gonna look real pretty when I get through with your head.” Miss Fran fluffed the heretofore stiff bulk of protein. Now the part she dreaded, no matter how many times Cookie held her ear, the straightening comb would find some spot to leave something for her to remember, if the ear didn’t get it, the scalp did. She braced herself and thought how a piece of candy would have distracted her, a bit.
Since it was the Saturday before Easter, a time when the beauty shops were full. Cookie recognized three school mates anchored to the cushy revolving chrome and leather chairs, holding onto the plush arm rests as if their lives depended on it. Pained expressions accompanied the desire to look pretty. The experience so terrified a few, the attending beautician had to cover the station mirror with a towel. That way, the tender headed ones, those who flinched at the sight of a hot comb or curling iron, would sit still. Cookie and Ann never needed the mirror covered. Miss Fran was patient. She always checked their comfort levels, “You alright, baby? Let me know if the comb gets too hot.” Cookie, many times, wanted to ask, ‘Have you taken a look at my expression?’ She didn’t though she always answered, “Yes, Ma’am, I’m fine.”
The glob of Dixie Peach hair grease remained centered on the back of Miss Fran’s left hand. From time to time she scooped a dab to apply to a swatch of hair. A stream of pungent smoke spiraled into the air as she regulated the temperature of the hot straightening comb by blowing on it. She then wiped it across the damp towel at her station. Next, she set the metal comb to a section of hair near the scalp and like magic, fluff turned smooth. Cookie knew the end results would be worth the pain. Miss Fran pressed hair to the point of silk. Cookie’s hair felt lighter. She began to relax. Miss Fran took a step back to admire her work.
“Y’all know I can do some hair. The child’s hair is pretty! Check out them edges, not a one out of place,” she proclaimed in a proud exaggerated southern cadence.
A few of Miss Linda’s patrons waiting near the front shot bored glances across the room in response to the beauty parlor owner’s boasting. In their eyes, their hairdresser was far superior. Miss Fran was oblivious to their silent disdain. Miss Linda smiled if Fran wanted to try and sound like Scarlett O’Hara, so be it. It didn’t take a dime out of her pocket; she had just as many customers as Miss Fran.
The mound of bramble rendered smooth, bone straight and ready for the final touch, addition of curls or braids. Today, Cookie was getting curls, Shirley Temple curls. Miss Fran dug into the jar and replaced the pomade glob on the back of her hand with a glob of curling wax. The curling irons were heated to a safe temperature.
Cookie relaxed as her nose alerted her, the end of the process was at hand. After the fragrance of shampoo and pomade, the sweet smell of curling wax seemed to ease all tension. She could hardly contain the anticipation of the flurry of compliments, looks of approval, and smiles she would receive from the ladies in the shop, her sister, and especially her parents. Miss Fran took few unnecessary breaks, the only time she left a patron was to pay the insurance man, order from the Fuller Brush or Watkins man or put in her lucky numbers for the day.
Curlers clicked and clacked as Miss Fran put her masterpiece together. The final touch, a wide tightly rolled bang spanning the space between her left and right temples topped off whatever the rest of your hairdo, whether braids or curls. The ever looming bang situated above the forehead was standard until such time, you were deemed old enough to sport a “cut bang,” a swatch of hair spread out like a fan, positioned the same distance as the regular bang and brushed flat onto the forehead.
Cookie’s grimace was replaced with a smug smile. Her ordeal was finally at an end. What a price we pay for beauty. She couldn’t wait to get out of the chair to sport her new “do” and see what, if anything, her sister Ann had left in the candy bag.
“Give me your ribbons baby,” Miss Fran cooed.” (No self respecting mother sent her daughter to the hairdresser without them back then.) And then it was done. For some reason hairdressers always ceremoniously wiped the mirror before handing it to the patron. Mirror in hand cookie studied her reflection. Miss Fran swiveled the chair slowly so as to give the little girl a three hundred and sixty degree view of her work.
The beaming smile on Cookie’s face answered the unasked. She felt she looked beautiful. Relieved, she relinquished her seat to her tender headed sister. She shook her head just enough to feel the movement of the curls on the back of her neck. Ann passed the bag with the remaining goodies and timidly moved toward the styling chair. Cookie rolled her eyes at her sister, made a face and took a seat. It was her turn as spectator.