Who knew it was so hard to get your hair done in downtown DC? As soon as we learned we were coming to town for a wedding in April, I set about finding a place to have my hair styled for the event. It seemed easy enough: MapQuest allows you to search all sorts of services near your hotel, including hair salons. I was rather hoping that either our hotel or a surrounding one had their own salon but calls to their concierges quickly shot down that idea.
Fortunately, MapQuest provided two salon names within a few blocks of our hotel. I called both and surprisingly got the same answers. Yes, they did women’s hair. And no, they did not do blow dries. This did not seem possible. Were they using a different term? Blow jobs? (Hopefully not.) DC was a truly cosmopolitan area. I reverted to my tried and true Sweden technique for overcoming language barriers: simplify and describe.
“So,” I proceeded, “what I am looking for is someone to shampoo my hair and then take a hair dryer and a brush and dry my hair. Do you have this service?”
“No,” came the reply. “We only do wet sets.”
Wet sets? No clue.
“Well,” I said optimistically (they really were close to the hotel), “that might work. Could you explain exactly what that is?”
The woman on the other end couldn’t imagine she was dealing with such an idiot.
“We wash your hair, we set it in rollers, we sit you under a hair dryer, we let it dry,” she explained with some annoyance. “Then we comb it out.”
Uh-oh. She had just described what for me would be the Helmet Hair Coif of Death. My head would measure two feet across when they were done, teased into a lacquered mass that moved in a solid unit with my head and could also serve as a bullet proof cranial shield should I walk into a situation of inner city unrest.
“So,” I persisted, “if someone wanted their hair dried with just a nice round brush that they brought themselves, would you consider doing that?”
The third place was already starting to be a good hike from the hotel, but still do-able. I don’t know DC at all but if I did, I might have realized that I was heading into the ‘hood. But yes, they said, they did do women’s hair, and yes, they did do blow dries. I explained that my hairstyle was very simple, just a “classic bob”. I probably should have been worried that this was met with total silence. But they didn’t say anything about wet sets. So I booked an appointment for the day of the wedding. If living in Sweden taught me anything, it was flexibility. It’s just hair, I reminded myself, and it can ultimately be fixed. There was no cut or color involved, so it wasn’t like I was daring them.
Our first morning in DC, I suggested that on our way to the Smithsonian that we might take a detour so I could check out my hair place for Saturday. We did notice immediately that one direction from our hotel was fairly upscale and the other direction – that in which my salon was located – deteriorated rapidly. By the time we got to the right street, it was hard not to notice that the buildings, which could be described as graffiti-esque, all had bars – some several sets of iron bars – on the windows. My “salon” was no different.
We stood outside looking at it.
“This is not looking promising,” I said. “But let’s go in and see.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” said my husband. “I’m staying here.”
As soon as I walked in – to the genuine surprise of the clientele, I might add – it was obvious that I was booked to have my hair done at a black inner city barber shop. But they did have a sink in the corner where they did women’s hair. I explained who I was and that I was hoping to see the stylist. The barber, who was very nice by the way, explained that Sheneesha wasn’t in but he would tell her I came by.
It was clear I needed a different place. But even the hotel had no good recommendations that weren’t several metro stops away. And we were going to have limited time on Saturday with other plans before the wedding. There definitely weren’t many (any?) basic services in the area of DC we were staying. We’d tried to buy wine and flowers to bring to friends who were hosting us for dinner and there were no markets, drug stores, wine shops, or anything of the sort anywhere near us. I briefly considered doing my own hair but those wimpy hotel hair dryers are no match for my hair which needs at least six hours to air dry and more than an hour with an industrial strength hair dryer, which I didn’t have. And we were going to be out late every night and up early every day. So I started making a list of what I should tell Sheneesha NOT to do. No products. Nothing oily. NO TEASING. No hair spray.
The day before the appointment, I realized I needed to change the time slightly due to a change in our plans. So I called and when the barber answered, I asked to speak to Sheneesha. Seconds later, an incredibly hostile voice came on the line.
“WAH YOU CALLIN’ MAH PHONE, BITCH?”
If I’ve ever wanted to hang up on someone in my life, this might have been it.
“Um,” I said, totally taken aback, “I need to change my appointment time for tomorrow. Um, if that would be OK.”
The apologies were instantaneous and profuse. She was so sorry, she said. She thought I was a relative who was not supposed to “cawl me at mah work.” And yes, she was happy to change the time.
Given that it was a Saturday, the place was fairly busy when I got there, with people waiting for one of the four barber chairs. But Sheneesha, to her credit, was waiting for me. No mention of her calling me a canine pejorative the day before, which was probably just as well. We discussed what I wanted – low concept, I said: Shampoo, blow dry, ends curled under. It was important, I emphasized, that when we were done, my hair moved independently of my head.
One standard feature of salons is that they have scented shampoos, usually some nice botanical blend. This shampoo, I’m afraid, smelled like undiluted Pine-Sol, obviously an in-house-brewed mix. Honestly, the smell was so overwhelming I thought I would have an asthma attack. Which would be amazing, since I don’t have asthma. After she did the second shampoo with it, I started to get worried that my hair was going to smell like a toxic forest incident even after it was dry. I would have my own Pine-Sol force field around me for the rest of the trip as people moved a safe distance from my head. The problem, of course, was that I wouldn’t be able to move a safe distance from my head. I asked Sheneesha if I could have an extra rinse. Maybe two extra rinses, just to be safe. My hair is very, um, shampoo-inhalant, I explained.
Those extra rinses, however, came at a price. Sheneesha didn’t have fingernails so much as she had talons of the type generally associated with deadly predators. Those were some seriously long fingernails, the ends of which I would swear were filed into razor points. The scabs on my head will heal eventually, of course, but asking for extra rinses definitely was a tradeoff, although she did try to respond to my requests to be a little more gentle. Because she was shredding my scalp from my skull.
But on to the blow dry. I have to say that everyone was very friendly to me, after an initial double take at seeing this very blond person walk in. But they had a sense of humor. When one the barber asked one new arrival what he wanted and he pointed to me and said, “Same as her.” I was fascinated by the cuts the guys were getting – lots of shaved “cut outs” on the backs of their heads. It’s pretty rare that I’m the only white person in a room and can only imagine what it is like for blacks to be the only black person in a room full of whites. I started to have a certain warm fuzzy feeling that I used to have in Stockholm when I found myself in situations that I would never have the opportunity to experience in San Diego. Like, for example, hang around a black inner city barber shop on a Saturday morning. So I have to say, that part was genuinely fun.
Now, I have more hair than any three people ought to have so I’m used to having blow dries take a while. But this took AN HOUR AND A HALF. Once I take off my glasses, I have no idea what a stylist is doing which always makes me nervous if it’s a new stylist. From time to time, I’d reach my hand up and feel that my hair was flipping up at the bottom in the back instead of curling under. I mentioned this to Sheneesha who shrugged, “S’what it wants to do.” Um, OK, but what I was hoping for was someone to persuade it to do what it DOESN’T want to do. But at this point, if it’s clean and doesn’t smell like Pine-Sol, I can live with that.
And in the end, that’s pretty much what I got – clean hair that didn’t smell like Pine-Sol and kind of flipped up in the back and curled under in the front. Knowing what I know now, I would have lugged the industrial strength hair dryer and the jumbo hot rollers across the country but what I got was an adventure, or at least an adventure-let. That’s what travel is all about. At the wedding, my hair had a somewhat sticky feeling that I couldn’t quite figure out since I really thought we’d agreed on no post-shampoo products. Probably just a little pine sap residue.
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