On The Fringe


I never enjoyed school.
October 21, 2009, 7:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I wasn’t a good student. I had anxiety about everything. I’m sure that if I had been a student in this day and age I would have been diagnosed with some kind of learning disability that would have forced me to ride on a small yellow bus .I had never made it through elementary math, as soon as the fractions inverted I was lost all the way to algebra. Luckily a kind hearted  teacher advised me to give up on math so I did.

The day Cindy Johnson and I skipped a class (to smoke in the girls room) we ducked into a dark auditorium to avoid a teacher roaming the bathroom looking for snuffed out butts and their owners. We were hard to catch and no one had seen us sneak in, so we slithered to the back of the auditorium where we quietly sat down. I guess you could say this encounter was divinely inspired, because the end of the sentence that I  heard  was leaving high school at 12:30 to attend Vo-tech.

“Hmmmm, Vo Tech”, I wondered.  “What is that?”

“Who cares?”, Cyndi said, “ We get out of school!”

Yes, there is a god and my first blessing had arrived! I would have had any excuse to get out of school. In the 70’s, everyone was getting high, smoking pot and skipping classes.  I tended to be bored with the high school curriculum.  It may have been the marijuana first thing in the morning that created most of my confusion, but typing first period high and looking forward to lunch was not preparing me for an academic carrier.

The next thing I knew I was on a bus heading for Steel Valley Vo-tech School. Cindy and I decided that it would be much cooler to learn to cut hair than to cut class.

My family members and friends came from the white ghetto, in the south part of the city.  My dad was smarter than most and he became a plant manager for a can company. Uncles and aunts worked for the steel industry or  Heinz, the other big Pittsburgh employer. Back in the day, the Heinz Company used to hand out “pickle pins”. Young kids adored them, and they stayed in jewelry boxes for years. My friend Joyce Stacks had quite the collection.  I met Joyce on the Vo-Tech bus along with all the other kids who were trying to get out of high school. Joyce thought she could use the pickle pin to get a huge laugh. Her plan:  all the girls in our cosmetology class would wear a plastic green pickle pin on their lapels.  Mrs. Kova, our junior cosmetology instructor, bore more than a small resemblance to a pickle; she was a mirror image. The girls nicknamed her “Mrs. Pickle”. She was short-legged, wider through the middle and had sprouts for arms that were set a little too high. Her head and her hair came to a strange pickle-like point that was the perfect shade of green. Her bark was loud, but she was fair and she liked me. I respected her, but I must  admit, I was part of the pickle pin club . My membership to the club lasted until I took beauty school more seriously.  After all, this was the first time in my academic career I passed with straight A’s. Joyce was a beauty school drop-out, placing herself in a real  pickle, and  Mrs. Kova ended her beauty career respectively.

I had no idea that cosmetology theory would be so much like the first year of nursing school. Learning about muscles and bones and memorizing all the nerves in the face, hands, neck and eyes.  Although, regardless of what I had to do, I wanted no part in bagging groceries or higher education. I wanted a career that would make some money fast so I could participate in the culture of consuming.  Our second year was the beginning of assaulting patrons. They were either too cheap to go to a real salon or they really didn’t care about their hair. They would line up on Friday afternoons after our theory class like lambs to the slaughter. They were assigned to students who had been cutting hair for less than a week; I hadn’t any clue on how to hold scissors, let alone how to cut someone’s hair!

The beauty school text was the same as it had been in the 1930’s. We had to learn finger waving roller sets, pancake makeup, eyebrow waxing, manicures and massage. Most of this was useless, but you needed it to pass your state board examinations and have a career. “Passing the boards” was the phrase that the instructors used to  intimidate the students into practicing in the  clinic . The boards, your license, your life. So we practiced and practiced…if not on human subjects, on dummies that we carried around the hallways under our arm pits looking like we where working for Henry the eighth.

Finger waving day was hard, and I may have been able to make them if I  had any idea what they looked like.  After all,  my grandmother wore this look  in the 1920s.  When I actually figured out how to create these waves I decided not to practice as much as Janice, who’s fingers locked up in a muscle spasm from dilengently  practicing longer than anyone.  She was unable to take the finger waving test because of it, but she had  perfected  a look that no one was ever going to wear in this century.

I preferred to concentrate on the “uni-perm”. I must have foreseen the afro that would be all the rage by 1978.  I placed the permanent wave rods in my patrons’ hair and applied the solution, which was stronger than battery acid and made the hair into chewing gum. Placing hot clamps from a  medieval  torture technique assured the patron of either having very curly hair or no hair at all. I was a witness to the destruction of these poor unsuspecting patrons. One woman’s  hair was left on the rods instead of her head. She was elderly and never noticed once I placed the remaining twenty or so hairs onto the rollers. As long as it came out looking like a fluffy Q-tip they were always pleased.  That machine destroyed more hair than all of the students in the two and a half years that I attended school. There was an abundance of devastating hair incidents happening in those formative baby beauty steps.

In fact, there were many hair and skin tragedies. One that stands in the forefront of my mind was the day we learned to frost hair. Isn’t that what happens to cake?  Is Betty Crocker teaching this class?  I wondered.  The word ‘highlight’ had not yet been uttered, so frosting, as in cake, was on the agenda for the day.  This was due to the resemblance of bleached hair to the white frosting on a dessert. The model (human of course) was placed in front of the mirrored station area.  Shirley was always willing to be a model for any new procedure that the class needed to learn. If you were lucky enough to be chosen as the model you received many benefits. The whole afternoon you were excused for participating in the hands-on events. Shirley  tended to be lazier than most of the gals. She was a heavy smoker who insisted on relieving herself quite frequently–and we all knew for what. She was a chain-smoker who had to have a hit of nicotine every twenty minutes. Shirley loved a good lazy afternoon. Volunteering to model was her idea of a perfect day in cosmetology clinic.  The first student began to prod at her from under the frosting cap while she winced and contorted her face into an obviously painful state. With each poke she grew more restless, and  continued twisting and  turning like a chicken on an electric floor–receiving jolts of electricity. The rubber cap with holes was placed over her head like a condom over a penis. Shirley looked ridiculous as she held on to the flimsy flaps that covered her eyes. Each student would step up to her head taking turns pushing the metal crochet hook through the hole fishing for a lock of hair. Getting the crochet hook through the rubber hat was hard enough, finding the scalp and the hair that had to be pulled through was often impossible. Students would take turns poking blindly until Shirley would cry out in pain. My turn came and amazingly it didn’t take me 4 or 5 tries, I was successful on my first  stab! Suddenly I heard a blood curdling shriek and Shirley nearly jumped to the ceiling before I could reveal my lock of hair. I held her to the chair, steadied her, then Carla exclaimed, “She’s bleeding!” Sure enough, blood trickled out from under the rubber hat, onto the side of Shirley’s creased face. Everyone gasped and we all laughed so hard we forgot Shirley was under the cap in need of an emergency room!

Haircutting class lasted a little longer than frosting class. The first brave group would be models. The next day, the models would have their revenge. You hoped to pair off with someone you liked, and who hopefully liked you. I remember girls crying for a long time about bang mistakes. One girl’s bang was so short she had to sport it through the winter until the following autumn.  Curly hair couldn’t be trusted. Just when you thought it was the right length wet, you realized you forgot the “shrink factor”. Curly hair looks one way wet and another way dry.



A Beauty-full Beginning.
October 21, 2009, 4:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It all started with beauty school.  Now, nearly thirty years later, it’s become more about the people and the life behind the chair.

Here you can read excerpts from my freshly finished book; a chronicle of life inside a salon and the people who unknowingly revealed my own shortcomings.