A real salon — a place where beautification is promised and, more often than not, is delivered — is the mecca for the young trying to look older and, most certainly, for the old trying to look young. It is a magical place with its own language, its own culture, and millions upon millions of secrets.
The visit to a real salon is a right of passage. While I don’t remember my very first time, I can recall a few of my earliest visits. I remember sitting in the chair; stumbling with my words, trying to describe the hair style that would be practical for soccer AND that would cause 1980s modeling scouts (at least in Sunnyvale, Calif. — the epicenter of the U.S. modeling) to come a-callin’. I also remember my mom filling in details in some kind of foreign tongue to the stylist. Later, I would come to recognize some of the horrific words she used. Words like “body wave” and “shaved sideburns”.
Of course, with repeated exposure to the Salon experience and enough issues of YM or Seventeen magazine, a woman becomes accustomed to foundational Salon-ese. No longer overwhelming is the thousands of hair color variations, the seemingly infinite number of cuts, and hundreds of services from highlights, lowlights, and semi-permanent color to Brazilian blow outs and Japanese hair straightening treatments.
Over time, you also learn the unspoken rules. From the time you sit down until the time you leave, it is the custom to engage in some variation of small talk or worse, full personal disclosure. In fact, if I dig deep into the recesses of my addled brain, I recall some kind of cardinal rule that you must divulge at least two minor details and one major personal secret during every visit. If you listen carefully, you can hear women in chairs getting this exposure out of the way immediately: “I play tennis so I want to keep my hair short. My husband, Jack, and my two daughters (Sam just became a lawyer and Audrey is in her fifth year of junior college) like me blond, but, to be honest, I kind of want to move to a fiery red like I was during my experimental summer in college.” Bam. Obligation complete.
Other unspoken Salon rules include never, ever saying “Surprise me” unless you are willing to be a test dummy for that modern-day razor cut mullet with bright blue lowlights that your stylist has always wanted to try on some unsuspecting or open-minded fool.
Unfortunately, speaking Salon-ese isn’t like riding a bike or changing diapers — both of which you can do successfully even after a long hiatus. On Sunday, I found out that, if you stay away too long from this mysterious world, you can forget all that you once knew. Completely.
Of course, it started out fine. Muscle memory helped at first. Once I checked in, I knew that I was supposed to take off my sweater and put on the ugly brown robe (a strategy that I suspect is less about the protection of my clothes and more about increasing the chances that I’ll think I look spectacular when set against an ugly backdrop). With hints from other waiting Clients, I also remembered to flip absentmindedly through the periodicals, including the hairstyle magazines.
All seemed to be going smoothly.
My name was finally called and I met Marissa, a teeny little homegrown Seattle blond with a head full of “I-spent-the-summer-on-the-beach” highlights (even in the dead of winter), a crop top (reminiscent of the early 90s) and a pair of black leggings that highlighted her tight young… err… asset. As I walked behind her to her chair, I became self-consciously aware that I looked like an aging Rapunzel smuggling 12 assets and a full-sized tire underneath my unattractive brown robe.
My panic worsened when she sat me in her chair and asked, “So, what are we doing today?”. Instinctively, I looked in the mirror in front of me. Wrong move. I didn’t even recognize the old lady in the chair. My brain shut down and, for the first time in recent memory, I was completely and utterly speechless. Somehow, I had forgotten how to have this conversation. Even worse, I had somehow gotten really old.
Of course, I blame my kids.
Without a crib sheet or some kind of digital translation device, words began to shoot out in jumbled incomplete angry-sounding sentences as if I was some kind of third-world dictator or living in a cave for 15 years: “Shorter. Need to pull back. Four boys 10 and under. Six white hairs. Four boys. Start coloring. First time. Six white hairs (note: this one sounded a bit like a screech). Four boys. Four boys.”
Marissa blinked her eyes rapidly (don’t know if this was in response to my Tourette-like outbursts or if her fake eyelashes were coming unglued) and nodded as if she understood my jibberish. Without hesitation, she launched into full Salon-ese. I heard grunts, clicks, sighs and hisses punctuated by recognizable words like “natural”, “chunky”, “streaky” and colors (or were they snack offerings?) like caramel, strawberry, mocha, and latte. Then, while she did some kind of high-impact step aerobics routine around my chair, she started throwing out coloring alternatives like bullets whizzing out of a double-barrel Nerf gun: “full foil, partial foil, partial with color, or full color”.
Marissa’s laundry list of options continued to sound like the “waa wah waahs” of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Why couldn’t I understand her? Worse yet, why couldn’t I be understood? It was at this point that I knew in my gut that this language barrier was going to result in a helmet of ash blond hair suitable only for a 1980s AquaNet commercial or a repeat of my permed mullet in 1986, but with some kind of colored twist. Crap.
I looked around me, trying to make eye contact with someone who understood my discomfort. Instead, I saw five or six women in their 40s, 50s and 60s in my immediate vicinity nodding amiably with their colorist. I overheard brief conversations about covering the gray and moving away from the asymmetrical bob, but I also heard loudly whispered overly personal bits about a messy divorce, an upcoming cruise with a much younger man, and a very satisfying boob lift.
As I looked around, all that ran through my mind was: OMG, am I one of them? Am I seated in the old folks section? Can I still get out of this? How much do I like the sweater hung neatly in the dressing room? If I bolt, will they send the cops after me to retrieve their ugly brown gown?
I must have blacked out because the next thing I remember is bubbly Marissa saying, “Okay, I’m going to go mix the color.” She disappeared for a minute and returned with a pile of small squares of tin foil, a bowl of light purple color, a paint brush and a glass of tepid water. No sign of strawberries, caramel, mochas or lattes.
As I guzzled the tepid water down, I silently declared defeat. I would retreat and assess damages once I got to the hair stylist who would cut my hair. I would not, could not, should not engage any further. I picked up my book and let bouncy Marissa do her thing… without another word.
By the time Dree, my stylist who looked like a cross between Katy Perry and Wednesday from the Addams Family, came to get me for my cut, I had begun to really enjoy my vow of silence.
She walked me over to her newbie chair in the Bermuda Triangle of the Salon — that place where fluorescent lighting and natural lighting clash and create cruel results. She forced me to look straight into the mirror so she could begin combing out my hair. As I made eye contact, she smiled like a Great White Shark — all teeth, all malice. Then, she began firing personal questions without breathing: Are you from around here? Where do you live? Do you have kids? What did you do this weekend? What did you do last night? Do you have anyone who can corroborate your story?
I found that I could understand her questions. She was speaking English. This had to be some kind of Salon-ese trick, a method used on resistant Clients to get them to provide the required torrent of personal information.
My words had a rusty quality (it had been about two hours since I had last spoken): “I’m from Mill Creek. I’m married with no boyfriend or “boy toy” (I nodded to the overly botoxed, 60-something woman with the boobs around her chin to my right). I have four young boys ages 10, 9, 8, and 3, making the ability to pull my hair back critical. Other than that, surprise me.”
Crap. As soon as I said it, I knew I had blown it. I should have gotten the Salon-ese Rosetta Stone before trying to re-enter this world. Clearly, I wasn’t ready and I was vulnerable. Now, I’d have streaks or chunks of who-knows-what color in my experimental haircut.
Of course, I blame my children.
As Dree absorbed my break with cultural norms, her eyes widened then narrowed. She eyed me like a lioness watches a hurt gazelle in the middle of the African Savanna. Her laugh was an eerie sound, one that chilled me to the bone (of course, that could also have been caused by sitting so near the windows).
As she wielded her scissors, she carried our conversation. She rattled on about her nine year-old daughter; being a single mom; turning 30; her ideas for her next tattoo; her mother’s pressure to get married; reconnecting with her first kiss on Facebook. She would ask questions about after-school activities and limits on video games and I would give brief answers as I watched her every move of the scissors.
So far, no mullet.
In the end, Dree took pity on this Salon-ese rule breaker (I didn’t divulge my one major personal secret; I uttered the words, “Surprise me”; and I didn’t speak even when spoken to). I suspect this was because even Dree, a newbie, knew that one hair punishment was enough. Though she kept telling me that she thought my highlights were beautiful, she and I both knew that bouncy (and clearly, vindictive) Marissa left my color on too long, leaving the caramel-colored hairs looking dry and frizzy.
Upon reflection, I should have eased my way back. I need a Salon-ese Yoda that will manage my split ends and cover my growing army of white hairs — all while reintroducing me to the ways of the Salon world.
Damn… I’m an older woman desperate to look younger.
Of course, I blame my children.