Pigtails and Pressing Combs

Image comes from Bell Hooks Classic Children's Book Happy To Be Nappy

Image comes from Bell Hooks Classic Children's Book Happy To Be Nappy

Los Angeles 1987

As a small child, I used to wear my hair in three pigtails.  Grace would usually part two in the back and leave one on the top of my head, which she brushed to either the left or the right side.  She would snap plastic barrettes on the end of each braid, coordinating the colors to match my outfit for that day.  When wearing barrettes, one has to be very cautious.  I learned this critical rule firsthand.  If you fling your head around too fast, or get caught in an unexpected gust of wind, barrettes can assault your cheeks, or even worse your eyes, in a flurry of piercing plastic.  At recess, if I leaned against the tetherball pole or glided high in the air on the sandbox swings, my barrettes would cast huge shadows on the ground.  Shadows that resembled airplanes or birds in flight, soaring around my head like I was a watchtower or light pole.

            Last year, my braided wings flew in for their final landing.  I no longer wore pigtails and had no use for barrettes. On my tenth birthday, I was initiated into a woman’s club that embraced the rituals of leg crossing, nail polishing, and hair pressing.  It was a club I did not want to join but would be challenged to remain in for the rest of my life. It was a club that would leave squirming in the salon chair, longing for the days of pigtails instead of pressing combs.

            On the morning of the big day, I became overwhelmed with fear.  I had heard horror stories about the beauty shop, from cousins and neighborhood kids.  They told tales of the awful stench of konkoline and hair grease sizzling.  They warned of the ensnaring fog from the warming stove that hovered over you no matter where you sat.  And then there was the dryer that set fire to the back of your neck, making your eyes water from the smoldering air or the plastic cape that Velcroed firmly around your throat, rubbing up and down and up again every time you swallowed.  Their warnings rang like church bells, chiming loudly and echoing omens in my ear.  And so, on my birthday, in the late afternoon, I climbed up onto two phone books stacked waveringly in the revolving chair of the salon and prepared for my fate.

            Tear-stained and terrified, I was instructed to hold down my ear with my tiny fingers, such inadequate shields against the scorching teeth of the pressing comb.  Smoke from the hot iron fused with Miss Faye’s cigarettes, creating a thick asphyxiating cloud around my face and head.  The teardrops, already collected in the corners of my eyes, soon began to roll uncontrollably down my cheeks.  As the smoke filtered through my nose and mouth, I began to cough, which caused my body to thrust violently forward.  Miss Faye yanked my head back into place with a swift jerk of my ponytail.  “Look, chile, either sit still or get burned, understand?”  I nodded.  She rolled her eyes and yanked my ponytail into place again.  As the smoke intensified, it spread like a blanket across the diamond shaped mirror.  It continued to rise, but eventually divided when the pale pink ceiling blocked its mounting ascent.  Sometimes the smoke would billow above my head like a halo, or tiara.  I wondered what the smoke looked like above Miss Faye’s head, but was too scared to move my neck around and look.  With a swift flick of her thumb, she let the ashes of her cigarette fall into an empty Styrofoam cup.  At times, she would miss the cup and hit the rim or edge of the mint green counter.  The dying ash would glisten, spark, and then disappear into grayish piles of powder.

            Geraldo’s voice on TV and the futile clank of the air conditioner mixed vigorously with the booming voices of women, large and loud.  Each noise seemed in competition with the other, but eventually the women won, with conversations, high-pitched, informal, and profane, all offenses I was continually warned against.

            Miss Faye finished my “kitchen” and rashly worked her way around to my front edges.  The heat from the pressing comb caused beads of sweat to form at my temples.  With each stroke, I closed my eyes, held my breath and counted the seconds before the comb would reach the ends of my hair.  One, two, three, four, breathe, one, two, three, four, breathe.  Miss Faye muttered something under her breath, her cigarette cocked firmly in the corner of her mouth, “Damn, chile, you got a lot of hair.”  This time, she spoke loud enough for me to hear and made direct eye contact in the mirror.

            The sun began to set, casting an orange glow throughout the entire shop.  It danced between the liquor store, Laundromat and the check-cashing place.  Like hide and seek, it played behind a passing truck and then peeked out over the stoplight.  The sun revealed the true appearance of the black metal bars that covered the windows and doors.  Rusted and chipped from overuse, they were less intimidating than they appeared in the daylight.  The approaching night let me know that Grace would be coming to save me soon.  Minutes later, the metal door squeaked.  I stretched my eyes as far left as they could go but still could not make out the figure in the doorway.  I slightly turned my neck, keeping as much tension as possible in my head.  The hot comb barely nipped the corner of my ear, but filled my entire face with a tingling, burning sensation.  I flinched and flung my head to the side.  I lifted my hand to touch my ear, but Miss Faye slapped it down.  She blew hot breath and lumped a swab of grease from a brown jar on and around my burn.  After handing me a tissue to wipe my eyes, she said, “I told you not to move.”