Marcia first came in to see Bella after a “really bad haircut.” She calls Bella her “guardian angel” and says, “I will forgo buying clothes to at least be able to look in the mirror.”
At 12:10, Bella leaves Marcia at the sink with a steaming towel over her head, to help the conditioner absorb, and heads to the “color room” to gather supplies and nibble on a donut. At 12:15, Bella rinses Marcia’s hair and sends her to the chair out front. Returning to the color room, Bella opens two tubes and squeezes some from each into a plastic bowl and mixes them with a wire whisk. The smell of ammonia stings my nostrils. Marcia wants lowlights (darker than her all-over color), so rather than asking her to purchase more hair, Bella attempts to dye some of the blonde hair Marcia already owns.
While many of Bella’s clients want a color and/or a cut, the majority come for hair extensions. “They’re addictive,” she confesses. “I have a full head in, probably 300 strands.”
I’d wondered. Her spirally hair falls nearly to her bum. I inquire about the hair issues that plague so many black women for most of their lives. She claims she’s never had “black hair issues” but “curly hair issues.” I ask point blank if she’s ever wished she were white.
“No! Never!” she says, as if the idea is close to being either ridiculous or horrifying.
I’m paying too much attention to Bella’s response to notice whether Marcia flinches at Bella’s tone. By now we’re all back at Bella’s station. She’s finished blowing Marcia’s hair dry and is applying color. She lays a thin section of hair on top of a piece of foil, dips a paintbrush-looking tool in a plastic bowl filled with a creamy mixture, which she brushes onto the hair. She folds the foil in half, and then in half again. A pair of black vinyl gloves keep the color off her hands. Before long, Marcia has a head full of tin foil.
“I’ve always been told, ‘You’re smart,’ ‘You’re pretty,’ ‘You’re amazing,’ ‘fun,’ whatever, so I’ve never really felt like an outsider,” Bella says. “I was always popular. I think when people think like that, [they have] other things going on. I also grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, so it wasn’t like I grew up in a time when it was maybe a little less popular to have brown skin.”
“Segregated” is the first word she uses to describe the Boston in which she grew up, but she says it as though the segregation was incidental and of no real consequence.
“Even though Boston is kind of a segregated city — Southie is Irish, and Roxbury is predominantly African-American — I went to Southie with my Irish friends,” she says. And at her high school, “Yeah, the black kids ate at the table where all the black kids sat, but there was always one or two white kids or Spanish kids or Asian kids there, too. I don’t feel like it was as exclusionary as much as perhaps that they lived in the same neighborhood.”
After a minute, she reconsiders her perspective on the significance of Boston’s segregation.
“It’s hard to say what other people think. I joined every club — drama club, cheerleading, student council — so I had friends in all walks of life. I’m really extroverted, and that could be a factor. It’s hard for me think in those terms because I would always befriend somebody because I wanted to befriend them, not because they looked like me or didn’t look like me.”
Recently, Bella says, a friend asked if she’d ever dated a black man.
“That question is always funny to me simply because I started dating my husband when we were 17. I mean, I wasn’t dating when I was 14. When I say, ‘No,’ most people think, ‘Oh, it’s because you don’t like black men.’ And I’m, like, ‘No, actually I love all men.’ But I happened to have found my husband at a very early age.”
The majority of those who have questioned her relationship with her white husband have been, “mostly black men,” she says. “And that hasn’t been my experience out here.”
These days, in her “color-blind” San Diego, where she and her husband have lived for eight years, Bella says, “I have friends from all races who love us, and I feel like it’s not an issue. If it was, it would have come up by now. I mean, they house-sit for us.”
After Bella removes the foil and washes the color mixture from Marcia’s hair, she dries it again and begins to refasten the extensions, again using the hook-nosed pliers. It’s already 2:00 p.m., and Bella has another appointment at 3:00. Marcia is also short on time. They’re not going to get through the whole process today. Bella is only able to finish a few rows of extensions above the nape of Marcia’s neck before their time runs out.
“I’ll come to your house tomorrow,” Bella says. “I’m off the whole day. You tell me what time. Please don’t say 6:00 a.m.”
Marcia laughs. They settle on 11:00, after Marcia gets home from church. ■
— Elizabeth Salaam