The only consistent bargain in town is to be found at the beauty schools and barber colleges.
Hair expresses culture. Before the Greek victories against the Persians, both men and women wore their hair long. Later, long hair was considered suitable only for boys and women. At puberty, a boy cut off his hair and dedicated it to the gods.
My shag metamorphosed into a modified “Botticelli."
During the reign of Louis XIV, in the spirit of imposing man’s will upon nature, wigs began to distort the shape of the monarch’s head with a piling-up and a spilling-down of curls. Court artifice reached its peak with the full-bottomed wig which glorified the head at a time of growing intellectual excitement. In the early years of George Ill's reign, headdresses mounted upward, supported by frames and pads until they attained incredible heights. The latter part of the 18th century was characterized by pomaded, floured, filthy monstrosities secured with jewels and crawling with vermin. By 1800, hair had lost its support and gradually became a mass of loose ringlets.
In recent U.S. history, hair became a symbol of the “counterculture” — a weapon. Parents’ fury over the length of a son’s hair was actually terror over all that they thought the hair represented. Today, of course, long hair on men is passe, even quaint.
My own hair history traces its roots over the past two decades. In 1957 in New York City I paid $2.25 at Frank and Albert’s for a shampoo, set, tease, comb-out (flip, pageboy fluff, and on special occasions a beehive which cost 50 cents extra because a hundred hairpins were used), and lacquer finish done by Mr. Frank himself. My standing Friday afternoon appointment not only provided me with an edge on neighborhood gossip but gave me the opportunity to relax for 45 minutes to an hour under the hot, hooded dryer after a grueling week at the office. Once, when I felt adventurous, I waited several hours at a beauty school in midtown Manhattan where an instructor from Charles of the Ritz did my flip for only 50 cents.
In Guadalajara, Mexico, I had my hair shampooed, wrapped (an ancient European straightening process), combed, and lavishly sprayed for ten pesos (80 cents at the pre-devaluation rate). There were many places which would do it for much less, but I feared that the flies in the other shops would become trapped permanently in my hair spray.
Five years ago, when I moved to San Diego, I found a better bargain. Roger Goldstein, trained at Vidal Sassoon’s in New York City, opened a beauty shop in Kearny Mesa called The Great Haircut. His approach to hair was “natural” (no teasing, no rollers, no pins, no hooded dryers, no spray), and I was chicken. But because he offered Monday night freebies in order to give his staff an opportunity to perfect his technique, I offered my children's heads instead, and I let my own hair grow longer, wilder, and more unmanageable, ignoring the sea of split ends. My daughters sported stylish shags, and my son, a layered cut. My only expenses were tips (a dollar a head) plus listening to Roger insult me.
“Your hair looks disgusting,” he yelled whenever he saw me.
“You’re an eyesore with that hair.” One evening while my eight-year-old daughter was standing before the mirror admiring her almost-finished Dorothy Hamill wedge, Roger stopped insulting my hair. I was perplexed.
“Do it Roger,” I said without thinking. “Do it fast before I change my mind.”
“How can I do it if you don’t have an appointment? Women wait weeks to get near me,” he said, his expression a cunning deadpan.
Roger finally had me where he wanted me. I knew it and he knew it. It was his turf and his terms, and there I was pleading for it. He held out for at least ten minutes inventing excuse after excuse while I squirmed. Then he relented. I closed my eyes tight while anonymous hands laid me back in a reclining chair, washed my hair and conditioned the seemingly hopeless myriad of knots. Then Roger led me quivering to his special chair. He sharpened his scissors and began. Roger and I fought about the “spinach” (a succinct Rogerian euphemism for long thin strands hanging from the back of the head which don’t blend with the sides and the front).
“Leave the spinach," I insisted (in a pleading tone, of course).
“Okay, okay. We’ll get to it next time,” he agreed.
I was blow-dried and hooked on healthy-looking hair and returned a month later to shorten the spinach. Eventually, after being complimented on my new “together” look, my shag metamorphosed into a modified “Botticelli" which was dried under a heat lamp instead of a blow dryer (to preserve the natural curl).
By this time. The Great Haircut had spawned several progeny called Annexes, the Monday night freebie took place on Tuesday, and became a steady nonpaying customer. Then I made an error. I left the city for a short while. By the time I returned my hair had started to take on a pre-Rogerian look. I wasted no time calling an annex for another freebie as soon as possible.
“This could be considered an emergency,” I whined.
“We’re all booked through September,” was the cool response. “What are you doing in October?”
I knew I couldn’t last that long.
I persuaded my teenage daughter to feather my hair. She very professionally parted it down the middle and began with the left side. When I did not immediately take on Farrah Fawcett-what’s-her-name characteristics, my daughter panicked, leaving the right side untouched. Her friends, sensing that I was desperate, heaped advice on me.
“Don’t go to an ordinary neighborhood shop,” they warned unanimously. “They use flat combs instead of round.”
“Oh,” I gulped, “flat combs, eh?
I guess this means I'll have to start spending some real money.”
They nodded, and I began my quest for the dedicated, sensitive, aware hairdresser who would transform me.
Jean-Claude Marengo’s shop is empty at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, save for a blond young man sporting a stack of white towels and a French accent. He ignores me. I imagine myself in the reception foyer of a first-class Parisian brothel amid elegant sofas, plants, and a heavy touch of ersatz art nouveau: and of course those stacks of while towels. There is no functional hairdressing equipment in plain view.
When I approach the blond young man he advises me that he doesn’t have time to talk but that Jean-Claude is next door in his restaurant.
It takes me a long time to find Jean-Claude. As I want to make a good impression on him so he will treat me well, I tell him I am researching an article on hair.
“You?" he mocks with a supercilious smirk I interpret either as amusement or horror. “You’re a mess!”
I smile, disregarding the insult, and proceed to question him matter-of-factly. “What do you charge for a styling?" I inquire innocently. “Twenty-two dollars.”
He volunteers no further information except by body language (he turns his back), which gives the impression that he is not interested in soliciting my business. Perhaps he instinctively knows that I am a refugee from Roger’s freebies.
“What kind of people come into your shop?" I persist, hoping to get some socio-economic, male-female ratio information.
“Only people who want to look good, not like you,” he replies impatiently.
By now, Jean-Claude has me so intimidated that I neglect to roll the “r" in the only French word that enters my mind—“Merde!” (I recall an old joke about the customer who complains to the bartender that his feelings are hurt. Customer: “I didn’t come here to be insulted.” Bartender: “Then where do you usually go?")
Undaunted, however, I continue to weave my way through San Diego’s labyrinth of hair shops. As I approach a place called Alexander’s I am attracted to an outdoor marquee that reads, “Give Your Head a Hand Job." If nothing else, I know even before I meet Alexander that he not only has a sense of drama and a flair for double entendre, but also guts. After an hour and a half and two cups of coffee, I discover that Alexander, too, is originally from New York, which accounts for the guts. The marquee changes daily. Others have read, “Streisand’s Hair Has Petered Out,” and “First Cleopatra Cut Was by Julius Scissor." Cute stuff.
Alexander used to work in the elitist Vidal Sassoon salon in Beverly Hills. He has been in San Diego for five years and they have been, he says, the most gratifying in his career. His approach to hair, though still unmistakably elitist, seems to be humanistic, if not coddling. He spends at least an hour with a new client (or so he says) to determine what hair style will fit the personality, lifestyle, attitudes, personal tastes, and presumably pocketbook of the client. (Everyone is charged $23 for a first-time styling. Children, he says, should be charged double because they move around a lot.)
I wave my frazzled mop of hair at him and he waxes diplomatic. Of course there is hope, he says; there is always hope. Moreover, he avoids as tactfully as possible such observations (insults) which flowed so freely from the acid-tongued Jean-Claude. “Whatever looks and feels good,” Alexander says, “is in.” Ah, I think to myself, here is a man who understands insecurity and the central role it plays in his business. His business, by the way, appears to be good.
“San Diegans tip generously,” he smiles. “Not much different than L.A. people.” So far Alexander’s biggest tip has been $50 (I am too discreet to ask “For what?") at Sassoon’s in Beverly Hills where Rita Hayworth and her daughter, the princess Jasmine Kahn, were among his clients. He muses on the state of his art: “Hairdressing is becoming more and more a man’s field. Imagination is the key, but it is important,” he adds cryptically, “that male hairdressers like women.”
I couldn’t tear myself away from the captivating Alexander without asking about vegetable perms.
“Simple,” he replies. “You pay a lot of money and you walk out with a carrot on top of your head.”
Three more shops, all with cutesy names, are all elaborately decorated in a manner designed to appeal to both men and women (“unisex” is the precise word). It is a current development. Where there were once pink and purple poodles and endless rows of dryers positioned in a way to encourage chatty gossip, there is now heavy furniture, redwood paneling, and rock music.
I visit owners and managers whose prices vary wildly—shops which specialize in body waves, body perms, curl relaxers, precision cutting, and “natural” cutting. I discover that I can assume my new look for as little as $8.50 or as much as $40.
The only consistent bargain in town, I am told in hushed tones, is to be found at the beauty schools and barber colleges. A former advertising artist from Chicago, now living in Pacific Beach, tells me he has his hair styled at such a place. He has been relying on one particular student who understands him and his hair, but he’s been experiencing some anxiety because the student will be graduating soon and if he were to follow her, he’d immediately be catapulted to the $20 bracket. “I hate to be tonsorially promiscuous," he shrugs, “but $20 is too steep a price to pay to prove loyalty.” The secret, for those who are willing to run a risk now and then, is to have your favorite student pass you along to a trusted classmate.
I wander the aisles of beauty supply houses from Point Loma to Del Mar and am instructed in the fine points of home hair care. Natural hair products, i.e., proteins and vegetables, are the best sellers, fully half being purchased by men. Apple pectin is used to firm the hair, and once-a-month protein and moisturizer packs are recommended to counter the drying out of hair from the ocean’s salt water. Contrary to popular belief, beer is a drying agent.
The contents printed on the labels of these expensive products include everything in my own refrigerator—apples, milk, eggs, lemons, honey, wheat germ, avocado, and the great conditioner, mayonnaise. My new awareness has expanded my options considerably, so I no longer need feel guilty about discarding leftovers; I can put them all in the blender and dump them on my head.
My journey through the haute coiffeur sanctuaries of San Diego leaves me saturated, wearily confused, but still valiantly attempting to fight the hype while sincerely interested in taming my unruly locks. “Your hair style is a reflection of your self-image," claim the hype-artists, causing my tenuous sense of security to waver further. The solution, of course, lies with my shrink. I show up for my appointment and lo and behold there sits Dr. Pomerantz, serenely sporting a bold, new body perm.
“Et tu, Pomerantz?” I cry in dismay.
“And not only that, my dear,” he proclaims, compounding the treachery, “my wrists and arms were rubbed with peppermint oil.”
That betrayal does it! I decide to take the existential leap into short, wash ’n’ wear hair and the world of wedges, layers, vegetables, proteins, and the cult-of-the-cut social acceptability. I offer my services as a “model” to one of the city’s more elegant salons, placing my trust—and my head—in the hands of a professional and his eager proteges.
“A pair of scissors is the best conditioner of all...the only way to get rid of damaged hair and split ends is to cut them off...radical surgery,” the indoctrination continues. I close my eyes and play with my projected image—“bouncy, breezy, casual California." I allow myself to luxuriate in the attention I am receiving, knowing that this process will result in a new me, will change the direction of my life. A lengthy discussion ensues over every snip and angle, and the magnificent three-inch cut consumes three hours and 20 minutes of my life.
“Look! It’s coming to life,” the designers exclaim excitedly. My enthusiasm does not match theirs; my gaze is fixed hypnotically on the clock.
My hair is now alive, but still wet. The entourage accompanies me to the “drying station,” an area of the shop loaded with hanging plants, heat lamps, blowers, plant and hair misters, and paraphernalia which might - be appropriate for a hothouse. The moisture is beneficial for the plants but I am dubious about its effect on my mercurial hair.
Back to the cutting station for a few more snips to reinforce the back-to-life shape. I am eager now to experience my new image in the eyes of the beholders in my life. Four hours later I return home anticipating approval.
“Notice anything, you guys?" I ask my children demurely.
“Yeah. You’re four hours late and dinner isn’t even started.”
“Anything else?" I ask hopefully.
“Yeah. The TV’s on the blink again.”
A group of neighbors drop by to discuss a community project. My transformation is again unnoticed. It is a disheartening experience.
On an errand the following day, I run across an offer I cannot refuse. L’Oreal Excellence, “the most expensive hair coloring in the world,” is reduced by more than a dollar. Strictly on whim, I indulge myself in a soft, warm, wholesome brown, contrasting sharply with the blond I have been wearing for years. I am pleased with the result, hoping on the other hand that my friends will acclimate themselves to me as a short-haired brunette rather than a long-haired blond.
My concern is unnecessary. The following evening I join with friends for our bi-monthly roundtable discussion of the world and its people. Nothing whatsoever is said, causing me to question my own existence. Perhaps they are embarrassed to comment, I think, so I initiate the confrontation.
“Wasn’t your hair always that wayT asks one defensively. "I don’t remember you as a blond,” adds another. “I can’t picture you in long hair. Are you sure?” another chimes in.
I am not sure, and make a mental note to quiz the treacherous Dr. Pomerantz next week.