Friday, September 28, 2012

Roots







My grandfather passed away when I was twenty-one, two weeks after I graduated from college. This was before it occurred to me to look outside of myself and peer group for things that might have been interesting. Each of us has such a rich history that we are often missing opportunities to find out about. Day to day stuff seems to trump all. There is so much to sift through. All at once it feels like everything matters, or so overwhelming that none of it does. I have some very vivid snapshot memories from when I was a kid, but sometimes am missing how the whole tale fit together or where it started. Sometimes it is such a welcome spot in a hectic day to hear a story that just stands on its own, presented in a way that all we have to do is listen. Luckily, a lot of times, all you have to do is ask the right person the right question...thanks Dad!

When my grandfather turned 16, in 1928, it was time to get to work. He initially wanted to be a stone mason, but that had an unpaid apprenticeship and several levels to work through to be on the job. The next logical choice was to attend barber school? The training in Fordham was quick, they then practiced on balloons using single blades, then progressed to paying folks living on the street to be practice heads. After achieving success, it was off to work in an actual shop. The standard order of the day at a barber shop was a shave and a haircut.

My grandfather soon realized that there was more money to be made at a beauty parlor due to the diversity of requests. After finishing beauty school (no drop out here) in Manhattan, in his twenties, he went to competitions to see what sorts of things were going on in the beautician world. Haircuts were not the rage among women in that day, but color and styling were. He did win some awards at the competitions and had started to mix his own dyes. At that time, women were trying to get their hair dyed close to their natural colors, and without the colorwheels and do it yourself kits of today, it took some professional doing to get a decent match.

I never really thought about who was actually going to my grandfather's shop, that he co-owned with a woman named Sally, back in the day. My father explained that, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, there were three levels of customers. First, working women who just needed to maintain their hairdos went to the shop. Due to the shop's location in a wealthy area, relative to the rest of the Bronx, where many of the men went to work daily in Manhattan, there were wives who could afford to have standing regular appointments. Finally, there were everyday people who were customers when special events arose that they wanted to spruce up for. Thursdays and Fridays were the busiest days in anticipation of the weekend. They accommodated these people's schedules and requests often working from 7:00a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on those days. The wash and set was the most popular - big hair with spray, and color. It also became clear that most women liked to have their hair done by men, so a second man was hired and worked his entire career at the shop. While makeup was not available on a grand scale, they started carrying it at the shop.

On my grandfather's sixty-second birthday, he put the shop on the market. He and my grandmother left soon after for what had been their summer place in Brewster, NY. This is where my stronger memories start to kick in. My grandfather set up a shop in the downstairs of the house. One of the things I remember most about my grandfather being a hairdresser was the sort of bronze colored plastic bottle of hair dye, with the pink top, that was always speckled with some very dark indigo. Silver Fox was the name of the color. My cousin and I thought it was so funny that these women wanted blue hair, as we were not sold on the concept that the end result would really be a silvery gray. Another fond memory was riding the swivel chair that he had. Seriously, how long could two six year olds be amused by spinning around in a chair that also had the ability to raise and lower? Quite awhile, apparently. I still feel nostalgic at the salon when the foot release lets that audible bit of air out, causing the chair to lower.
 

I remember some joking and mumblings about my grandfather's scissor works when it came to us kids. I also remember being a rather unhappy young teenage girl heading upstairs after my turn in the chair. His cutting technique was always the same, and what worked for one cousin, worked for the next. I never stopped to wonder why his skill with his regular customers did not seem to be translating onto my head. Of course, I have also led a lifetime of wanting my hair to magically arrange itself in styles it is not meant to take on. Now when I stop to think about the era my grandfather was successful in, I realize that people weren't very often doing things like growing their hair out, only to get it all chopped off the following year. He was very current for his customers, who were not typically under thirty years old. When I think back on the older women I knew as a kid, they looked the same for the duration.
 

During my grandmother's illness, my grandfather became very adept at washing and styling hair for people who were unable to get out of bed. He brought his skills to the hospital where he volunteered for over ten years earning his 5,000 hour pin. He also made house calls, and still welcomed customers into the magic chair downstairs. Often men and women from the hospital and/or their spouses became regular customers.
 

My father can sometimes be heard commenting on someone's hair style or color, while mentioning that he was the son of a hairdresser. I admit that I am not in full support of there being any sort of genetics behind having a keen eye for coiffures. Case in point, this granddaughter of a hairdresser recently realized she bought the wrong color temporary hair dye and was too lazy to exchange it, and decided hiding the gray was more important that having the rest of her hair a desirable color. There are a few posts I could direct you to that would further display my deficient cosmetology skills. It warms my heart to know that this would not have disappointed my grandfather, as he had a fine sense of humor and a kid's playful spirit. He would be laughing with me.

Andrea: 2 1/2...Grandpa: 60, yet timeless

16 comments:

  1. Awwwwww! Look at that sweet face! I'll bet you and your Grandpa had lots of good times. I'll bet you could write an entire book of stories!

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  2. What amazing memories to cherish. I love the picture. Priceless!

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    1. Sometimes it is amazing what we remember when we sit and try. Thank you!

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  3. Excellent story! I have heard the balloon practice, but didn't know that really was done!

    Cat

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    1. It must have been so startling if it popped!

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  4. Yay! (Brewster, NY...hometown of Anne Marie, aka "That Girl." I wanted HER hair!)

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  5. Andrea: Great story, and great blog! I am now your newest follower, and I invite you to follow my blog as well.

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  6. Such a sweet post, and I bet your grandfather would laugh and tease you about your hair. I really need to quit being so schizophrenic when it comes to my hair color because I am going to ruin my hair! :/

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  7. What a great story! I love old family stories like this--there is so much we can learn from them. I think my favorite is the part about how he volunteered at the hospital. :)

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  8. You know I love family history stuff, and this tale just warms my heart. What an interesting story on how and why your grandpa blazed his path. And I'm going back now to look at that picture again - adorable!!

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    1. It is strange the things we never know/realize/question. I am not sure if I still have this pensive/terrified getting my haircut face!

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  9. Oh shoot. I've been neglectful of you. I apologize. Would it help if I explained that my iPad will NOT allow me to comment on any Blogger sites? No? Oh well.

    This is a wonderful story. I wish I had these types of vivid memories of my grandparents. Although I do recall as a young girl, my mom would take me to one of those basement hairdressers who would chop my hair. And most of her clients also had that same coiffed poof of hair, so style wasn't exactly on the menu.

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  10. What a great story, very well told girlie.

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  11. Just what color did your hair turn out for that recent coloring?
    I remember doing our 13 year old son's in what was then the curly 'afro' style, which didn't quite fit a blond white kid. After begging for it, he then refused to go to school for days until it was fixed, hard to take out a perm like that though.

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  12. I just love this! And the picture with your grandpa is priceless! Jimmy's dad was a hairdresser back in the 50s, and his mom went to beauty school too. So this really resonated with me!

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  13. I love how this is documented, written down, here for us, and for you.

    It is so important to me to have these stories.

    I wish my mother had childhood stories in tangible form somewhere, and especially, I wish this about my grandmother.

    You did a wonderful job.

    Thank you for sharing with us: family history fascinates me.

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