“I can’t do this by myself anymore.”
We’re in a family meeting, called by Tony on a Saturday night.
“When we opened three years ago, I saw Tonto as a family business, but it really isn’t. It’s me, I’m doing it all. I feel good about providing a place for people to earn a living. The salon is beautiful and it’s doing really well but the business is not sustainable, not the way it is.
“I need your help.”
Tony’s mother claims her fourth child came out of the womb self-sufficient. If the last six years are any indication, I’d have to agree. It’s probably one reason this marriage is working. If the man had arrived needy AND with kids in tow, I’d have been hauled away by the men in white coats before our first anniversary.
So I’m paying attention. I study the husband sitting across from me, hardly a stranger but revealing a new side, one I wasn’t sure existed. His eyelids droop. He’s pale from no exercise and too little rest. He stares at his hands, folded on the table, fingers moving while he talks. He allows the back of the chair to support his weight. I notice his left shoulder rises higher than the right.
Sometimes life can’t be more clear.
“The kids and I will hatch a plan,” I hear myself say. He looks up now, those blue-green eyes wanting something he has no words to describe, other than to say things need to change.
He stands, pushes in his chair and starts to leave the table.
“I’ll take Pierce to Adam’s,” I offer. “He’s spending the night.”
In the car, I’m the one to bring it up.
“What about what your dad said?”
“I dunno. I guess he needs our help. I’m already cleaning on Sundays.”
“How about you add Wednesdays. There’s no Ultimate practice. You could put in a few hours after school. What do you say?”
“What’s Tess going to do?”
Ah yes, the concern about what will be asked of the sibling, this relentless desire on both their parts to ensure that things are even, that life is fair, that one doesn’t do more, get more, be loved more than the other. There was a time the competition drove me crazy. Now, not so much.
“I’m thinking she goes in on Saturdays. So what do you say…can we make Wednesdays work?”
I find Tess sprawled on her bed, watching an episode of Lost on her laptop.
“How about spending part of your Saturday at Tonto.”
“What if I have homework? Or play practice?”
“You’re right. School comes first, but you have Sundays for homework and hardly ever rehearse on a weekend. I’m thinking 4 or 5 hours?”
“OK. Dad looks really tired.”
At dinner the following night, we lay out the family plan. Pierce on Wednesdays and Sundays, Tess on Saturdays. Ali agrees to go with the flow and not give me a hard time about being less available. “As for me,” I say, “I’ll come in 3 or 4 days a week to help at the front desk. I don’t really know what else I’ll do but we’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work.”
He doesn’t cry but looks like he could. I clear the table and wonder what I’ve just agreed to.
For the last decade I’ve sought quiet places to write. On the contrary, a busy salon is like a popular bar without the drinks. I’m on my feet most of the day, and I’m talking…a lot. Some of the people I know. Others I’ve met once or twice. Some are complete strangers but I’ve heard their story. So I stand there, saying hello, trying to remember if this is the woman whose hair caught on fire the night she intended to give her husband an anniversary gift he wouldn’t soon forget but instead relaxes into the flame of a candle sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Her husband enters the steamy room, lets out a screech to wake the dead and shoves her under water. So much for romance.
Keeping the stories straight isn’t the only challenge. The phones are techy and I’m no geek. The retail software runs on a PC—I’m an Apple gal—and the amount of time each hairdresser allots for particular services varies. The acronyms are consistent—HCT, PC, FS, BT, BD, TU—but not everyone works every day, or charges the same prices. Thankfully, they’re all patient and kind and grateful for whatever help I can give.
It’s fair to say my first week belonged to the ego. I felt under utilized. What was I doing, answering the phone and hanging up coats and folding small towels into tidy rolls? I hold three college degrees for god’s sake. I’ve written books and given presentations in large auditoriums and run my own business. Once upon a time, I worked for six figures at a fancy magazine on Michigan Avenue. And another thing, what I’m doing here feels a lot like home… I’m taking care of people. Again. Still.
I give myself pep talks: Change takes time. You’ll find your way—you always do. Already Tony is lighter in spirit, happier, not so tired. And you, the independent one, is behaving like a partner; this is good for you. Week One turns into Two and Three. I hang on to my anchors—morning pages, yoga, sitting practice—as if my well-being depended upon them because of course it does. I play around with schedules. I develop a feel for what works. A client asks Tony what I’m doing there. “She’s our new manager,” he says, and shoots me a smile.
The other afternoon 80-year-old Joann leans over the desk and confesses from a mouth outlined in cherry red, “I never had children.” Her voice is low and raspy, testimony to decades of smoking. “Tony’s like a son to me. I’ve known him since before the kids came, before he was even married to that crazy Holly.”
I hear a lot of this. Genuine affection for a man his clients have known for ten, fifteen, twenty years. He’s a fixture in their lives, the keeper of their secrets. No one makes them laugh like Tony, they tell me. “He’s a good man, a really special human being,” they say.
Yes, he is.
He also does this weird puffy thing with his mouth as he’s falling asleep that makes my falling asleep impossible. He has the memory of a gnat, and wrestles the lifeblood out of a decision before landing on one side or the other. Next time a client pulls me aside to wax eloquently about the man I married, I’m tempted to ask if she’d like to take him for the weekend and try her luck at keeping him awake past nine.
On Saturday afternoon, after the receptionist leaves, I park at the front desk, feeling the fullness of the day relax into quiet. A peacefulness settles over the place as the light shifts to make room for dusk. I unwrap the new issues of Vogue and Self—magazines I worked for in the 80’s—book a few appointments, sell a bottle of Moroccan oil to a man named Tim, and think about Elizabeth.
She’s old now but has been coming to one of our hairdressers for years. I didn’t know Elizabeth in her prime, but I imagine beautiful and petite, with bright blue eyes, a woman of class and sophistication. No longer able to stand fully upright, Elizabeth walks with a cane and wears sensible shoes to stabilize her tired, old bones. She can’t weigh more than 90 pounds. She doesn’t hear well, and speaks in a whisper. Putting herself into a chair resembles a fall more than an intention to sit. Getting out requires her to rock repeatedly until she gains the momentum to shift her weight onto the cane and slowly rise as if for the first time.
Elizabeth approaches the desk with newly permed and coiffed white hair. I take her coat from the closet and guide the stiff, frail arm into the lined sleeve. She says something. “Pardon me?” I ask, and bend down to align my ear with her mouth.
“Could you call a cab please? I don’t drive anymore. 777-7777.”
Standing slightly taller than the desk, Elizabeth hands me her credit card, tells me her address. I watch her lips move yet hear nothing. I step around the desk, hold my ear to her face, and repeat back to her the street address she has now told me three times. We both smile.
Satisfied that a car is on its way, Elizabeth inches her way to the chair closest to the front door, drops her tiny self onto the leather, and waits. Ten minutes go by. She turns to get my attention.
“Does it usually take this long?” I ask. Her lips move. I walk to her.
“He’s driving around the parking lot,” she whispers, and points to the door.
I catch sight of the back end of the yellow cab and step outside to flag him down, something I haven’t done since my days on Michigan Avenue. I take Elizabeth’s elbow and together we walk baby steps to the taxi. I confirm the address with the driver and guide his passenger into the back seat, tucking the coat against her child-size body. I touch her bony shoulder, think of my dad, and say goodbye. She smiles.
Inside I pick up the wrappers thrown on the floor by the four-year-old who helped himself to the the candy bowl a few hundred times while his mother had her hair cut. Earlier that morning, a wedding party was here for up-do’s before the two o’clock ceremony. The mother of the bride has been Tony’s client since before her daughter was born. A businessman and a psychiatrist came in for haircuts. A proud dad ran the video camera while his teenager’s hair was cut and gathered for Locks of Love. A lawyer, mother of two, relaxed in the shampoo chair as a pair of strong hands slowly massaged her workweek into oblivion. And Elizabeth had a perm and a blow dry she won’t touch for a week.
We’re not saving people’s lives or investing their money or educating their children. No breakthrough discoveries happen in our midst. Perhaps life-changing insights occasionally occur in our chairs, but we can’t be certain. We perform services and nurture people in small ways throughout the day. We laugh, listen, connect. We hear their stories and share our own. Our clients leave with great-looking hair, softer hands, painted nails and radiant complexions, feeling prettier, younger, cared for. I like to think we help to keep them grounded—a claim I could never make about that job on Michigan Avenue.