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About the Author
Kristin Hunter Lattany is the author of Kinfolks, Guests in the Promised Land, which was nominated for a National Book Award, The Landlord, which became a motion picture, and a bestselling young adult novel, The Soul Brothers & Sister Lou. She received the Moonstone Black Writing Celebration Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
EVERYTHING IN AMERICA is arranged to make us feel ugly. Day and night, the machine cranks out propaganda about the glories of silky hair and milky skin.
I’m a beautician, and since women want above all to be beautiful, I really have my work cut out for me at my beauty shop, Zena’s Curly Girl.
Zena is short for Zenobia. I asked my mother why she gave me such an ugly name instead of a soft, pretty one like Rose or Lily or Violet. She said, well, we were living in the projects at the time, and in our neighborhood it would be a definite disadvantage to be soft. Her strategy worked, too. I almost wore out a pair of fists making my classmates say my name right without snickering. Now I like my name, especially the short version I call myself, Zena. It’s different. I own it. I like that.
Sometimes I think I have spent my whole entire life struggling against the notion that you have to look like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Di to be beautiful. None of the women who are being worked on this morning in Zena’s Curly Girl looks like Marilyn or the princess, but when they walk out, each of them will feel beautiful. Each will feel that she looks better than Marilyn or Di, and it’s a sure thing that she will. For one thing, my customers are all alive. Marilyn and Di, on the other hand, are probably not looking so good by now. I used to hear people say after funerals that So-and-so made a beautiful corpse, but I never agreed with them.
That advantage aside, the difference will be in the art and skill we use to bring out the best in each customer’s looks. That, and the psychology I personally use to make each customer feel special. Every woman is an individual. You have to consider her face, her hair, and her personality.
For instance, when Ann Worthy, who is president of my club, the Downtown Divas, settles herself in my chair and says, “Give me something different, Zena,” I know better than to do as she asks. The slightest deviation from her usual small overall curls, with a blue rinse to set off her gray, and she would have a nervous breakdown right there in front of my eyes.
Fanny Davenport, on the other hand, is in show business, and there is no style too wild for that child. Last month she wanted her hair sticking straight out, in stiff silver spikes. She got what she wanted, too. She walked out of here looking like the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes I wonder what she will think up next. When things get dull around here, we can always count on Fanny to liven them up.
The rest of my customers are somewhere in between Ann and Fanny—middle-of-the road, not too daring, not too conservative. Not too beautiful, either, but they all come in hoping for miracles, and we do our best to make them happen. I encourage my customers to be daring whenever I can. Right now I am encouraging them to be bolder in an Afrocentric way, with racks of colorful robes, displays of beautiful earrings, and pictures of Afrocentric hairstyles—braids, dreads, and twists. I am so crazy about African art these days, I even brought in my Ivory Coast masks and hung them in the waiting room, though they are not for sale.
The women are buying up the clothes and the jewelry, but very few of them are changing their hair. It’s hard for black women to let their hair go all the way back to Africa, or even halfway to Jamaica. Vyester, who is my best friend and my best beauty operator, says I’m crazy to want them to change. We make our money creating artificial effects, not going back to Nature, she says. I suppose she is right.
It’s a wonderful, bright, busy winter morning. Things are going just the way I like them in my shop: humming along briskly, with women chattering and background music playing and my elegant fountain tinkling. Two women are sitting under dryers, two more are waiting, and one is being shampooed by Florine, our shampoo girl, who is still in beauty school. I am paying her way, but I may stop if she doesn’t change her attitude. She sulks too much.
Bonita, who is licensed but has to be supervised, is giving an older customer the old-fashioned tight curls she wants. It’s Tuesday, but if I know this customer, who is one of the mothers of our church, she’ll tie a black silk scarf on her head every night at bedtime, which for her is nine P .M., and she won’t even comb her hair until it’s time to go to church on Sunday. And then she’ll hide it under a gigantic, ugly hat!
Vyester is working her scissors magic on a new customer’s haircut, layering and feathering as she goes along. This young woman is a lawyer, and she can either send us lots of business or decide to sue us, so I would worry if she were being handled by anyone except Vyester.
Vy is the only woman I know who can cut hair. Before I found her, I had to send my patrons to male barbers. Cutting hair is only one of the things Vy can do better than I can, but I’d never admit that to anyone—least of all to her, though she probably knows it already. I don’t mind. I’m the one who had the personality to attract a large following, and the smarts to save up my money and buy my shop.
I can’t wait to tell Vy about the new development in my life—the new addition to my family. But she’s got her back turned. She’s busy gluing on a weave, so I have to wait till she has a free moment. Weaves can look beautiful, and we sure make a lot of money on them, but I wish women wouldn’t make a habit of them. The receding hairlines you see on so many black women are due to the weight of all those extensions and weaves hanging off of their hair. Young people put a lot of weaves in their hair. The younger the women, the more obviously false are their wigs and weaves. As the kids say, what up with that?
I don’t do weaves. I style wigs, though, and I have two of Monica Lewis’s thirty wigs sitting on stands right now, waiting for me to style them. She is the one woman I know whose wigs I like working on better than I like working on her head. I would much rather have the wigs here than her, with her biggety airs and her malicious mouth.
Since my best talent is styling, I usually give instructions for the preliminaries to my other operators; then, after a woman has been shampooed, permed, and set, I apply the finishing touches. Right now I am combing out a short, boyish version of my Curly Girl (Pat. Pending) style. This customer, Gloria Watlington, is getting on, but she is slim and has young ideas, and she is going to love this style, as it makes her look fifteen years younger—not a day over fifty.
“Remember Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday?” I ask her.
“That was before my time, but I think I saw it once on the Classic Movies channel.”
That movie was not before Gloria’s time; she goes back to the silent film era, at least. I cough and hold up a mirror so she can inspect herself. You might say I shouldn’t ask a black woman to compare herself to Audrey Hepburn, and you’d have a point, but at least Audrey wasn’t a blonde. She was a stylish, skinny brunette, and some of us can approximate her look, though precious few of us are, or ever were, that skinny.
Gloria, however, is. She is one of those nervous women who burn up calories just by sitting still. While she studies herself, I reach for one of the Tootsie Pops (fifty calories) that I keep on hand to hold me till lunch. The lollipops prevent my sweet tooth from craving worse things between meals, like my favorite chocolate marshmallow ice cream or Black Forest chocolate cake. If I get another inch on my waist or my hips, I will not be able to wear any of my clothes, and I will have to buy new ones.
I hold my breath, because my customer is taking a long time to make up her mind. “Aren’t you glad I had Vyester cut it?” I venture.
“Ye-e-es,” she says slowly. “I like it, Zena. I really do. But now my gray is showing, isn’t it?”
I hastily dig in my bra and pull out the little reading glasses I have tucked there. My eye doctor prescribed bifocals for me last year, but I absolutely refuse to get them. If I did, I would have to tell my real age. These dear little gold glasses have a handy gold chain to hang them around my neck, and they are more of a fashion accessory than anything else, but I have been keeping them out of sight. I may have to change and keep them on when I am working, though.
Oh, dear, yes. The haircut has most definitely revealed Gloria’s gray hairs. The sparkling little devils are everywhere.
“Are you in a hurry?” I inquire. “Because if you are, I can give you a quick cover-up, and do the permanent color later.”
She looks at her watch, a mammoth, mannish one with a giant face and big numbers. Another useful fashion accessory. I must ask her where she got it.