07 July 2009


In my world, you do not rush a hair salon visit.

I called my salon yesterday, a place called Napps that I trust enough to deal with my not-quite-dependably-locked-up hair. The girl who answered the phone had about as much of a professional air as my fifteen-year-old sister, but she assigned me an appointment for 11am today.
“Do you have a stylist?” She asked.
“Um. The last time I was there, I spoke with Ansa?” I replied uncertainly, and not quite truthfully. The last time I was at Napps was when a dear friend of mine—we’ll call her Blue—was toying with the idea of dying her blonde hair blue. I can still remember the way the staff looked at us when we stopped by, their gaze skittering across her bright, blue-eyed curiosity to land on me, asking did I want to make an appointment? For answer, I pointed at Blue, who was studying the weave display with all the innocent inquisitiveness of a kindergartener learning her colors. Then, I gave a slight, apologetic shrug, and they seemed to understand, but I’ve felt vaguely guilty about it ever since. Don’t blame me, my shrug said. My clueless white friend insisted on dragging me in here. You know how they are. She thinks we’re having an adventure. Which wasn’t quite true, since I had been the one to tell her there was a hair salon down that way. It was the same old story with us; part of me wanted her to get a glimpse of my world, to both share it with me while yet appreciating its strangeness, its utter difference from her. Leave it to me to want the impossible. I wanted her to be a part of me, yet retain my own, distinct and independent identity.

None of this, however, was relevant to my conversation with the girl on the phone yesterday. “Ansa has some openings after 10,” she told me.
“Can I make an appointment for 10:30am, then?”
“Umm…make it 11?”
“All right. Perfect. Thank you.”

The first time I ventured inside Napps, I was maybe seventeen, and with my mother, as we perused books of hairstyles and she and Ansa—who had offered us her time, gratis, for a consultation—tried tactfully to talk me into a real style. I had masses of hair, then, wavy and split-ended and wild but long, damnit, which was what I had been working so hard for. I had lusted after long hair all my life, but the permed styles were too much work for my tiny stores of patience, and now they were telling me that, if I wanted to wear my hair natural, the first step was to cut it all off and start over from the roots.

To say that I balked would probably be an understatement.

Ansa, bless her heart, suggested a compromise. I could get cornrowed braids for awhile (like regular cornrows, only instead of ending at the nape of the neck, mine continued for about a foot in thin, neat braids), wearing them until my hair to grew out enough that cutting it wouldn’t be such a drastic change.
So I got the braids. I wore them for about six months, then took them out, and came back to Napps for my cut. By then, I was 18, and off to college in a matter of weeks. The haircut wasn’t so scary anymore; it seemed like an appropriate change, since I was going to be all Mature College Lady soon, right?
That time, my appointment was with Kelly. I strode into the small storefront as confidently as I could, walking right past a t-shirted man who turned out to be Kelly. After the initial awkwardness, he led me up to his barber’s chair and went right to work asking exactly what I was looking for. He was kind. He could obviously sense my nervousness, and didn’t make fun of me for trying so hard to be offhand about it. Also, he talked on his cell phone almost the entire time he was cutting my hair, leaving me free of the pseudo-personal barbershop talk that I wasn’t that good at yet. An hour later, I walked out the front door with three inches of hair and a new, confident spring in my step, free as a bird and feeling, for the first time in a long time, happy with the way I looked.

I look back at those pictures now and wince. I’ve never been very photogenic, and that mini-fro I was sporting back then, while comfortable, did pretty much what it wanted from day to day, based on what side of the bed I got up on and whether I put conditioner in my hair. I didn’t do much, if anything, with those three inches, besides wait impatiently for it to grow out long enough to get twisted. December of that year, Aunt Fran took care of just that, and seven months later, I walked into Napps for the third time, at 10:54am on a Tuesday morning and with all the time in the world to indulge my hair. Ansa was there to twist my ‘locks for me (or rather, grown-up twists…I don’t know that they’re entirely locked yet), and she even remembered me. I sat down in her chair and listened to the salon chatter, mostly consisting of these deft-fingered Kenyan and Senegalese women passing judgment on the Michael Jackson memorial service happening on the flat-screen over my shoulder. I read a magazine, talked to the stylists, even dozed off once or twice under the hairdryer.

Time saunters by in a black hair salon. I don’t know, maybe it does the same thing in the mainstream ones, too, but given what I know of my race’s timekeeping habits, probably not quite to the same extent. Nobody hurries. Nobody has anyplace else to be that day, or if they do it’s not any time soon. Ansa paused in her work several times to answer the phone, to finish with another client, to make conversation—even to greet a young Kenyan woman, apparently new to the neighborhood, who had come in because she had heard there were native women here with whom she could entrust her hair.

Even with all of this, I was in and out of the salon in under two hours, having tipped Ansa generously and obtained her business card for the next time. My head felt cool and a little tight from the fresh twists, and going back out into the bright, hurrying world was a little bit of a shock at first. But I carried peace with me. I held my head a little higher, feeling my locks brush around my ears, and thought happily of the long, beautiful hair I’m going to have someday.

Unless I feel like cutting it off again.

Or doing something else entirely, depending on when and how the mood strikes me.

I am, after all, a Mature College Lady, and quite at liberty to do as I please.

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