Bella has just finished telling me that, yes, she absolutely does believe in racial color-blindness.
“I live it every day,” she says. “I’m married to a white man, and I don’t look at him and say, ‘my really pale white husband.’ I mean, I believe it because I live it.”
While Bella talks, she uses hook-nosed pliers to remove Marcia’s extensions.
“I feel like San Diego is a little more color-blind compared to Boston,” Bella says. “In Boston, it was never anything dangerous, just more voicing their opinions about the fact that we’re together and he’s pale-skinned and I’m dark-skinned. I remember one day we were walking downtown [in Boston] and a guy in a truck drove by — I’m pretty sure he was black — and said, ‘You better wake the fuck up, sister!’ We were holding hands crossing the street, and I can only imagine what he meant. He could have meant that my shoes didn’t match my purse. I don’t know…”
She laughs at the recollection then adds, “In San Diego, either they don’t say anything or they don’t care, which we like.”
Although nearly everyone else in the salon wears jeans and stand-on-your-feet-all-day shoes, Bella is decked out in black leather boots with killer heels. “I always wear heels. When I don’t, my husband who’s 6'4" will say, ‘You’re really short.’”
It’s not just about the shoes, though. Bella has a dress-to-impress policy in general. The bubble hem of her black-and-taupe striped dress falls an inch or two above her knee, and the long chains of three silver necklaces cover the top half of her hairdresser’s apron. The only hint that it’s 10:00 a.m. is the pair of black-rimmed driving glasses she dons. They’re camouflage, she confesses, for when she’s not wearing make-up.
“I never do make-up for my early morning appointments,” she says. “I’ll do it on my lunch break.”
Marcia, her client, laughs. She’s not wearing make-up either.
Bella lives with her husband, a corporate attorney, and their two dogs in Clairemont, a part of San Diego where she sometimes goes “for days without seeing another brown person.” She’s been estranged from her own family for 14 years. She prefers not to explain why except to say, “There comes a certain point when you need to push certain things that are holding you back out of your life.”
Of her husband’s family she says, “His mom is my mom. It’s funny, she jokes to me, ‘If anything ever happened, you’d still be my daughter. We would choose you over him.’”
Don’t ask Bella to talk about issues the black community faces. She’ll tell you she doesn’t run with that crowd. “It would be almost like asking me what are some of the major issues that the Asian community faces. I just don’t travel in that community. I could tell you what my issues are, but I don’t think my issues are unique. Aging, weight, height, you know, those things. I think my issues are more female related as opposed to related to the color of my skin.”
She finds it amusing that when she and her husband flew to Europe for their honeymoon in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, people in Greece inquired about the welfare of her family.
“People in the service industry, whether it was waiters or the hotel concierge, were, like, ‘Oh, my God. Are you from Louisiana? Is your family okay?’ They assumed that because of the way I look, I was from Louisiana and was somehow affected by Katrina, which I thought was funny. We laughed. We got a kick out of it.”
Hillcrest and downtown are Bella’s favorite San Diego neighborhoods for hanging out, with the most “city people” San Diego has to offer.
“I’m a city girl,” she says. “I like to dress up. In the lab, I was the only one who wore heels every day. I was the most fabulous-looking microbiologist ever.”
“Oh. Yeah. Didn’t I tell you that?” she says, when both Marcia and I give her a “what lab? what microbiologist?” look. “I was a scientist for eight years. I kind of fell out of love with it.”
And then, while Eddie Money, Kajagoogoo, and the Cars provide an ’80s soundtrack, Bella fills us in on how she transitioned from a six-figure salary as manager of a microbiology lab to her present position as a hairdresser and Hairlocs extension specialist. She continues to remove Marcia’s extensions one at a time while she speaks, her story punctuated with the clink of copper beads landing in a small metal tin.
“I was disenchanted with working in the lab, working 12-hour days, 14-hour days, and the most important factor in my leaving was that, even after all that, it wasn’t enough. There was still more work to be done. I was losing touch with friends. I was just losing myself.”
In November 2009, she quit her job as a microbiologist and began to take classes at Paul Mitchell Beauty School. In January 2010, she rented the salon station where we now sit. Though she isn’t sure about long-term goals, she’d like to get back to that six-figure salary. Hair extensions may not take her all the way, but it’s a good start.
“A partial [about 150 strands] can go anywhere from $900 up to $1500. And a full can be anywhere from $1300 up to $3000, if you’re getting Russian hair imported from Russia and it’s long. I’ve charged up to $4500 because that hair, just to order it, is really expensive. Then, for maintenance, which is what Marcia’s having today, I charge $100 an hour.”
According to Marcia, it’s worth the expense.
We’re now at the back of the salon, where Bella shampoos Marcia’s hair. She hums along with Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” while she lathers and massages. I ask Marcia if it feels wonderful to have her head free from the beads and extensions.
“Actually, I feel kind of naked,” she says.