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Grandma's Beauty Shop

Oct 22, 2011
Kimmy Sophia Brown


We moved to Chicago in the summer of my eleventh year. Itwas a culture shock for me, the depths of which took years to unfold. We left the Adirondack foothills, the dairy farms, the calm, chewing cows, the green woods and fields, and all that made me feel connected to my childhood and sense of self.

The move was sudden, like a concrete block falling from theEmpire State Building and cracking into dust on the sidewalk. It seemed that I was in the field by my country house and then suddenly found myself standing on Paulina Drive, in North Chicago, surveying the strangeness of an urban neighborhood. We stayed with my grandmother in her apartment until my parents found a house for us. My most prominent memory of that time was sleeping in the other twin bed in my grandmother’s bedroom. She was a snorer of epic proportions, and I found that if I didn’t fall asleep first, she would keep me awake with gaggings and snorts that defied description. For revenge, I fantasized about tape recording her and playing it for anyone who would care to listen. My mother, of course, strictly forbade me from doing that. I thought it was a hilarious idea but I wasn’t thinking of grandma’s feelings. If she had been remorseful about keeping me awake it might not have been so bad, but she denied that she snored, which made the thought of taping, mortifying and shaming her that much more attractive to me. I never did it though. We spent most Sundays with my grandmother and my mother’s sister’s family. We shared Sunday dinners and watched television together. Glen Campbell and Tom Jones had variety shows that summer. My grandmother was wild about Tom Jones, which I thought was bizarre. My grandmother drank things called Fresca and Tab that tasted disgusting to me, like something you’d drain out of an abandoned boat engine.

Chicago Northside streetMy grandmother owned a beauty shop that was a three-blockwalk from her apartment. She had a clientele of elderly ladies who lived in the neighborhood. Clark St. was an urban thoroughfare, junky with trash and neon. I bought Tiger Beat Magazine from the corner drugstore. I had never seen TigerBeat before. It featured pictures of famous, cute, pubescent boys and hadarticles in it like, “How To Kiss”. The beauty shop was around the corner. Three steps down and through a glass door and there you were. The shop reeked of chemicals. Maybe that’s why grandma drank Tab and Fresca – because her sense of taste and smell was obliterated by the environment of the beauty shop.

There were several beauty stations set up with mirrors andchairs -- little vanities strewn with curling papers and pink, plastic curlers, hairpins and bobby pins, and squeeze bottles filled with toxic liquids. There were gigantic hairdryers that made the ladies look like subjects of brain experiments. Their heads, imbedded with goo, curlers and plastic bags, were tucked beneath the armadillo underbellies of the roaring dryers. They sat like obedient babies, bibbed and draped with plastic covers, and Q-tips sticking out like little antennas, or cotton balls tucked up under hairclips, absorbing the odd drip of hair color or permanent wave solution or brain washing liquid. It smelled ominous and foul and I hated being there.

Once in a while they’d get me in a chair. I had to admit itfelt good to have my hair washed. My grandmother’s assistant worked on me. I’d slide back in the plastic chair; tip my head back over the edge of the sink and then the spray of warm water flowed over my head and face. It was calming. Then a big squirt of shampoo goo was worked into a frothy lather. My eyes were closed, enjoying the rhythmic hands of Ethel or whatever her name was – then came a rinse, a towel dry, and a sit under the head-melting machine.

Sometimes I’d have my nails done. I sat quietly and listenedto the din. The ladies clucked like barnyard birds. Some were aggressive like hissing geese, demanding, complaining, telling everyone how they had put someone in their place; “Well, I never!” And some were clucking hens, ladies who scratched out their existence in the scratch pool of life. Secretaries, teachers, clerks and housewives. Scratch, cluck, scratch, cluck. They weren’t aggressive, they weren’t expressive, they just wanted to have their hair set once a week and gossip. They wanted to talk about their operations. I listened to the stories and wanted to gag. I remember asking my mother, why do old people only talk about medical stuff? They were always removing something, stitching something up, stuffing something, discovering disease, taking medications, repeating the explicit directions of their doctors, and gasping about the doctors’ bills. They spoke with pride about whose ordeal hurt the most, whose was the most expensive, whose was the most serious, whose was the most death defying. They competed to tell their stories like hens pecking at beetles. Whoever was the quickest and loudest told their story first. It was gossip, cluck, gossip, cluck.

Some women were ducks; they were kidders, loud and raucous,jokers and funny-story tellers, winking at me. An occasional swan came through, icy, wealthy and reserved. Maybe they came to my grandma because she had known them for forty years and could be trusted to faithfully reconstruct their blue, concrete hairdo every week. Ladies were an enigma to me. I felt like a foreigner around them, like a visitor from another planet. I was a little girl, but my DNA was not like theirs.

Ann Arbor TreeFunny, you’d think that after hanging out in a beauty shopthat I would feel comfortable there, comfortable among women regarding themselves in the truth glass of mirrors. The thing is, there wasn’t anywhere on earth that I detested more. The preoccupation with self-adornment was lost on me. I wore an army jacket, pulled a cowboy hat down on my head, read books and wanted no part of fashion, makeup or hairdressing. I couldn’t bear to be near mirrors, near women acting like women, acting the way women do in beauty shops. The veneer they wear. The glancing, comparing, judging. It was too much for me. I wanted to run outside and climb a tree, get away, get away, get away. I wanted to feel the bark on my hands, and feel the hoist of my muscles pulling me up into the tree, and find my footing -- up, up, up -- digging in for places to wedge my feet, pulling up to another level, looking far, far, off into the distance, my arms and legs hooked around branches, and my body resting against the marvelous strength of the trunk, looking at the housetops from the place of squirrels and birds, from the place of cats and saving firemen, from the place of fairies and acorns and leaves. The beauty shop was a chemical weapons dump and I felt like a skinned cat among those women. I just wanted to be in a tree and feel the bark on my hands, feel the twigs scratch my face, feel the pulse of the sap flowing within, and the great strength of the roots digging down, down, down and the wild tapering branches reaching toward the ever expanding cosmos, and I just wanted to stay there until my mom made me climb down.  

Chicago Northside, Ann Arbor Michigan Tree

Image(s) from Wikimedia Commons

Kimmy Sophia Brown has loved humor and music and freedom for as long as she can remember.She is especially passionate about the environment and caring for animals.

She writes the column "From the Back Porch" as well as reviews of music in her column "MusicViews". Her goal in her music reviews is to introduce music she loves to people who may not have heard that particular artist or CD. For information about how to submit a CD for review, click here.

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