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While recently waiting to get a haircut in a typical contemporary salon, I watched as a girl in her early teens came in with her mother. A salon assistant offered the young lady a choice of beverages including a selection of nearly fifteen organic herbal teas. The girl texted, tweeted, and Facebooked from her phone until her "stylist", dressed from neck to toe in sleek black clothing, came out and escorted her to the shampooing area. There, she received a five minute head massage using high-end, organic, all-natural shampoos and conditioners, while her back and feet rested comfortably on an ergonomic chair. Finally, she moved into the styling chair where her beverage was refreshed and she received a professional, age-appropriate haircut and blow out. I sat across the room staring at her, wondering if she had any idea how lucky she was to be getting her hair done in the 21st century. I knew that she likely had no concept of the hair salon trials and tribulations of young women who came before her — and she was better off because of it.
My pre-teen and early teen haircuts were left to the professionals at The Hair Lair, located in a suburban New York strip mall back in the late 1980s. When you walked into The Hair Lair the first thing that hit you wasn't the beauty or the serene environment, instead the first thing that hit you was the smell. In the late 80s, in a predominantly Italian-American town, there were two types of hair — big and bigger. Those not blessed with curls compensated by perming the hell out of their naturally silky locks until the hair's texture transformed into something similar to a pad of Brillo coated in shellac. Those of us who had been blessed with curls took advantage of both our natural texture and lack of knowledge about the depleting ozone layer and used enough aerosol hairspray to ensure our hair would stand tall and firm should we sustain a nuclear blast.
Mixing with the hairspray and the perm-solution smell, which was a scent akin to simultaneously inhaling an uncapped package of Sharpie markers and carton of rotten eggs, was the intense smell of cigarette smoke. Today the idea of smoking just about any place indoors, let alone a salon filled with volatile chemicals, sounds ridiculous. However, back in the late 1980s, a hair salon rivaled a Las Vegas casino in terms of second-hand smoke.
The pool of local "hairdressers" all had first and last names that contained multiple syllables and ended in vowels. Gina, Tina, Lisa, and Theresa were a few that I remember in this place that seemed like a rotating door of ladies with attitude and big hair to spare. I remember being in awe of these women who, to me, all exuded the style and cool confidence of Olivia Newton John at the end of Grease wearing the black spandex catsuit and smoking a cigarette.
These ladies had nails that were at least three inches long and painted with intricate patterns of stripes, spots, splatters, and sparkles. They wore outfits that epitomized 1980's style with linebacker-sized shoulder pads, bold-colored sweaters and jackets, and stretch pants representing every color of the rainbow. These women were my real life equivalent of badass idols like Joan Jett or Nina Blackheart. These women intimidated the hell out of me.
"Who's first today, ladies?" a receptionist would ask.
I'd look at my mother wearing her Tootsie-sized glasses and round bouffant hair and mentally try to figure out which hair washer would be up next. I was always significantly shorter and smaller than other girls my age, meaning I looked a good two to three years younger at times. Ordinarily this caused only subtle embarrassment, like when I would be handed the "kids menu" at a restaurant. However, when it came time to be judged on whether I would get the "kids-themed" plastic protective smock or "plain adult" protective smock at the salon, I went into panic mode. Being spotted wearing a plastic cape with rubber duckies on it was pretty much social suicide when it came to one's junior high school career.
The teenage girl with the asymmetrical haircut chomping away at the gargantuan wad of Hubba Bubba grape gum was typically a good bet for giving me the proper cape. If she was working, I would jump at the chance to go first, but if not I would hang out near my mother as she got her haircut and make sure I loudly dropped hints about my age in the vicinity of the shampoo area.
While modern day salons often have sinks with padded neck rests and adjustable chairs, back in the late 80s, as a short-statured female, I simply had to resign myself to the fact that I would leave with a bruised head and bent back as I tried to contort my body to get my hair to reach into the sink. My hair would then be cleansed with products heavily infused with coconut and strawberries, so that it could emerge from the sink to be encased in a layer of smoke and chemicals from the air. I would be guided to a chair and pumped up to a height at which the hairdresser could create her masterpiece.
My most memorable and bold haircut occurred when I was in the seventh grade and got what I had hoped would be something reminiscent of the hairdo sported by Joan Cusack and Melanie Griffith in the movie Working Girl. This style featured a large lion mane-type bang area with long hair extending through the back and was extremely popular amongst the most fashionable at my junior high. However, looking back on it now, I believe the style would be called a modified mullet.
"So what are we doing today?" the hairdresser of the day would ask.
Painfully shy and intimidated, my mouth would open and I'd often hear my mother's voice come out of it like a fantastic ventriloquist act.
"How about something like this?" she'd chime in.
My mother would hand over a large, tattered, hard-covered book from the waiting area that contained pictures of popular and extravagant hairdos.
"But maybe not so high in the front."
The hair dresser grabbed some of my hair between her fingers, assessing its compatibility to the hair in the picture. Her exceedingly long fake nails made a scratching noise on my scalp that could be heard over the sound of multiple blow driers working in tandem.
"Definitely," she'd say. "But don't worry," she'd wink at me, "I'll give you a little bit of height in the front."
In a town where most of the residents looked like they were ready for a casting call for a 1980's mafia movie, hair height was something of a coveted trait.
From this point forward, I sat in the chair like a stone, trying not to cough from the smoke smell as this woman slipped her fingers through the scissors and went to work. As she came around to trim the hair near my face, I was in awe of how she could do anything, much less use scissors, with her ridiculously long nails.
My mother was one of those people who could talk to just about anyone about nearly everything. Ordinarily I hated this because it meant trips to the supermarket or deli took extra long as she greeted and gabbed with everyone she knew in various aisles, but in situations like this, I found it to be a blessing since her chatter meant I didn't need to think of something to say.
Talk usually turned to the hairdressers' boyfriends whom I soon learned usually fell into the "bad boy" category of men. These ladies liked guys with long hair, who rode motorcycles, and played in heavy metal bands. The hairdressers went out drinking and partying, telling my mother how they had to call in sick because they were too hungover to make it into work. I would sit there, stunned, like a little Nancy Reagan with a Working Girl haircut, wondering how these people existed in real life. The biggest stresses in my life involved math tests and junior high dances.
When it came to my blow-dry time, I would be instructed to flip my hair and head over so that she could blow dry it from underneath to get the most volume. Being the height of a thimble, with large amounts of curly dark hair, volume wasn't something I normally struggled to get. When done, it would be sufficiently sprayed, and I looked like a small stick wearing a Muppet head. My mother would flash a smile that signified that I was to be polite and thankful, but if I thought she was going to let me walk out of the house with my hair this big on a normal day, I was crazy.
My mother's hair cuts were another beast altogether because without her Tootsie-sized glasses, that she was asked to remove during the cut, she was nearly blind. Many a time, I saw my mother put her glasses back on after having a haircut and blow dry, look into the mirror, and then fake the tightest lipped smile she could. My mother worked in the library, she had no intention of looking like someone who would call into work hungover after partying with a motorcycle-riding boyfriend.
When it was time to leave, my mother would hand me two rolled up small bills and tell me to give it to the hairdresser and shampoo girl as tip. I hated this part of the process. I would have to walk to the back of the salon where all the women hung out between appointments. If I was able to find the hairdresser and shampoo girl through the thick cloud of smoke, I would likely have to interrupt an ongoing conversation they were having that I sincerely hoped wasn't about me.
"This is for you," I would say meekly as I tried to palm the money off to the right person, usually dropping it on the floor and making a fool out of myself.
"Thanks, hon," she'd smile as she blew smoke out of her nose. "Your hair looks great, it really suits you."
Ecstatic to get a compliment from someone as tough and intimidating as one of the Hair Lair hairdressers, I would duck and dive out to the parking lot to avoid my mother's attempts to push my mane down.
"It doesn't matter," she'd say. "We're gonna have to shower when we get home anyway, our hair is huge and we both reek of smoke."
As the young ladies of today leave hair salons across America with flowing, nice smelling, Facebook-picture-worthy locks, I would hope they will take a minute to remember those who came before them. And for those of us who suffered exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, smoke, hairspray, and crimes of style to pave the way for the modern salon experience, I say have an extra cup of herbal tea whilst waiting for your appointment — you deserve it.
Jen LiMarzi is a professional medical writer and the author of two books Fingers Crossed, Legs Uncrossed and Making Dead Ends Meet. She, and her husband Eric, operate the vintage eyewear shop jeneric Vintage (www.jenericVintage.com) and contribute regularly to The Vermodernist (www.Vermodernist.com), a blog they co-founded in early 2011. Originally from New York, Jen currently lives in Winooski, Vermont with her husband Eric, Black Labrador Guinness, and a giant cat named Zoe.