By Rosalie Tirella
Today, while looking in my “magic” mirror, …
… I saw my fingers fussing a little too busily with the grey hairs framing my middle-aged face. So I grabbed one of my cheap dye-job kits, …
… left the touch-up bottles in the bathroom, and went into my pantry to perform a MAJOR DYE JOB – platinum blond on top of the fake auburn, on top of the fake copper highlights, on top of the original mousy brown. I dye my hair in my pantry (dishes washed and put away!) because it’s got two big sinks and a spray hose, making coloring my pixie pretty easy, if not at all pampering (trendy hair salons – with their $75 price tags – are “out” for this blue-collar gal!).
I grabbed my clean, old towels I use specially to dye my hair, the Nice ‘n’ Easy box, and was set to begin the all-too-familiar routine. But even before I opened the box – she, Molly – came back to me. In a rush! And I didn’t even have to get a whiff of the peroxide in the toner bottles!
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, Molly was our family “hairstylist.” My mom took my two sisters and me to “Molly’s” for our haircuts, and she went to Molly’s for her “perms.” We always called the hair salon Molly’s, even though Molly had given it a proper name, probably something very glamorous for Millbury Street, where it was located – or should I say crammed into (the space was pretty much a long corridor) – near Kelley Square.
I think Ma called Molly’s Molly’s because Molly had been doing my mother’s hair for a decade – way before Ma had us kids. They were “professional” friends: Molly took her clothes to be cleaned at the dry cleaner’s down Millbury Street where Ma worked as a counter girl, and Ma took her black hair (I always loved the color – her own) to be cut and given a curly permanent up Millbury Street where Molly worked. They had confided to each other through the years: Molly knew my mom was poor, killing herself at the dry cleaners to put a roof over her three little girls’ heads. And Ma knew that Molly was also alone – a single working woman hustling with her small business (I never saw a customer – I was so proud! It always seemed Molly had opened her shoppe SPECIAL for my mother and us kids!) and caring for her grown son who still lived with her and had “problems” and couldn’t hold a job. Ma never explicitly said anything about alcoholism, but somehow I got the gist of it – and was always nice and polite to Molly.
These days hair salons are like movie studios, filled with young, beautiful women with beautiful, long, thick multi-hued tresses “foiled” ever so artistically. They are cutting, coloring, practically caressing, their clients’ locks. These women – and men – consider themselves hair and makeup artists and use phrases like “color palette.” They are skin care professionals, too! Life-style gurus, even. To enter many Worcester hair salons today is to be swept up into tranquil, luxurious worlds filled with lovely aromas, music, people, salon furniture and shampoo dispensers. Places where stylists coo their flattery, offer you complimentary cups of chai tea and dry your hair with the fluffiest towels! As if you’re Meryl Streep about to sashay down the Red Carpet!
So unlike Molly’s. As a little girl, even holding Ma’s hand, I was always a little afraid of Molly – of getting my haircut at Molly’s. First, she wasn’t beautiful – or even pretty. She looked like Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. She cut her hair with a razor blade – very short and jagged. Then the lurid orange-yellow hair dye was poured on – Molly’s signature hair color. Until her death. Her hair was teased – spiked – out and up! Laquered in place with a ton of hairspray…defying gravity. The first impression Molly made? She looked as if she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Molly always wore a black plastic robe tied tightly around her waist – if you could locate it on her torso. Molly was skinny as a tooth pick – her waist would be hard to define. She never glided down her rented corridor on Millbury Street, like she was some beautiful movie star, the way some hairstylists do today. No, Molly always walked jack-knife straight, as if escaping a bloody car accident. She’d lurch from the sink with stiff towel, to the black no-nonsense barber’s chair you sat on, to her back room, closed off to the public by a heavy gold plastic shower curtain dragged across its entrance … for another pair of shears, or just a time out. It was a stressful affair.
Molly never smiled or made chit chat with us kids when she cut our hair. No “How do you like your new teacher at school?” or “How old are you now? My, you’re a big girl!” Stuff that hairstylists say to kids today to kiss up to their helicopter moms who hover over the hairstylist with polite determination. Molly – and Ma – had no time for that clap trap. We were little kids – as significant as the faded posters of the out-dated models with their old hairstyles that Molly had Scotch-taped to the walls. At Molly’s, the women did the talking. About grown-up things. I shut my mouth and closed my eyes while Molly cut away and talked with Ma.
Molly was a very fast and abrupt hair cutter and occasionally poked you in the eye with one of her bony fingers – or the points of her little scissors. I didn’t want her sharp little shears nicking my face – ouch! It had happened a few times during previous visits to her beauty parlor . So I closed my eyes and listened to Ma and Molly talk – in hushed tones – about their lives. Very seriously. Sometimes I’d open my eyes to see Ma seated on the barber’s chair next to the one I was sitting, leaning forward, looking anxious, as she confided to Molly. Molly, 15 or 16 years older than Ma, seemed to give her advice. Sometimes I’d open my eyes and see Molly in her little side room (the plastic shower curtain was pulled six inches to the right or left), and I’d see her open a little drawer in her cabinet and pull out a little flask like I’d seen at McGovern’s Package Store a block away. Molly would stand stiffly by that cabinet, like a stork, her skinny arms and legs all veiny, and she’d take a few furtive swigs from the flask and shove it back into the drawer. I once asked Ma about the flasks. Ma looked annoyed…said Molly had a lot to think about. Said Molly was taking care of her only son. A grown man who was sick and depended on Molly to take care of him. Did I say my pretty, sweet mother looked annoyed with me? I never asked about the flasks and back rooms again and always tried to be extra nice and polite to Molly. My kid sisters sat on the gold plastic chairs lined up against the opposite wall, the reception area, while I got my hair cut. It’d be their turn next!
Ma always made us get our hair cut at the same time. It was easier that way for her – one trip to Molly’s, one outlay of cash. Ma got her curly perms every three or four months at Molly’s. We kids went along – mainly for the trip to The Broadway restaurant on Water Street for hot fudge sundaes after Molly finished perming Ma’s hair! Sitting on those gold seats at Molly’s, watching her work on someone else, Ma, you got a different perspective – and realized that Molly was as cavalier with Ma’s hair as she was with mine and my two kid sisters’. She must have used the strongest chemicals to curl Ma’s otherwise soft wavy hair because she always lined my mother’s entire hairline with a thick rope of cotton – to keep the chemicals off Ma’s face and out of her eyes. Still, while Molly worked over Ma in her stiff, fast manner, lips pursed, her black slim cats eyes glasses slipping down the bridge of her skinny long nose, I could see my mother’s pretty face turning a blotchy pink red from the strong chemicals. She sighed and sweated. Molly ran into her back room for a swig of vodka and two cotton balls to plug up Ma’s ears. That was so the chemicals – of which Molly used a lot – wouldn’t flow into my mother’s ears as Molly rolled Ma’s treated hair into the scores of little curlers. It looked like there were around a million of them – small and medium sized – in her beauty tray. There were no windows that opened at Molly’s – just storefront ones – so Molly opened the front door to let some fresh air in. Still it stunk to high heaven in that little Kelly Square beauty shop.
After a few hours of what seemed like torture to Ma – the smells, the red skin, the hot dryer over her head that made her face even redder – Ma was “done.” Literally! Molly took out the scores of curlers and combed out the little curls – teasing the front of Ma’s hair-do, over her still red forehead – quite artistically we kids thought. Then she sprayed about a half a can of Aqua Net on Ma’s hair – and voila! Ma looked beautiful! She looked just like Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s – or Sue, who worked at the dry cleaners with Ma, and also got her hair permed at Molly’s. Or my Aunt Mary who, now married to my Uncle Mark and living in the nicer part of town (the Burncoat area), was still loyal to her old beautician from Green Island and had Molly perm her hair, too. Like Ma, Aunt Mary had a history with Molly.
We all had a history with Molly – one that overlooked the actual hair care. Molly seemed to know only a few hair cuts and styles. She never was “on trend,” unless you want to count her punk rocker look. It was the early 1970s – punk rock was ascendent … maybe she really was trying to look like Ziggy Stardust. All I know is that Molly made my mother and all the ladies who came in to her salon for perms look like … poodles. We kids got the crookedest pixies…she was too cheap to shampoo us. Hair conditioner? We didn’t know what that was – didn’t use it at home. Our kiddie hair cuts were supposed to air dry. We were treated rough – like wayward puppies who had rolled in dessicated squirrel and dried dog shit. Fast, fast, fast went Molly’s hands over our little heads – so rough!
When I got older, say 11 or so, I began to develop my own sense of fashion. If you’ve been reading me, you know as a tween I had a mega crush on the ’70s teen heart-throb pop singer David Cassidy, lead singer of The Partridge Family. I wanted Molly to give me a shag – just like David Cassidy’s – like all the kids were wearing! I went into Molly’s with Ma and, shyly, tried to explain to Molly, the look I wanted: the bangs, the layers, the length. I even said: “David Cassidy” and “Partridge Family”! Molly frowned, put me in her stiff black barbers chair, draped a big black plastic cape over my front and went to work – feverishly. I expected the worst and shut my eyes to protect them, and my psyche, like I always did. When it was all over, Ma gasped. I opened my eyes to see my mother … smiling! At me! I looked into Molly’s big wall mirror and saw me … looking very cute!! Like a mini-David Cassidy! Or the beautiful Karen Carpenter of the Carpenters! Or Paul Williams, the little pop singer I just watched on the Odd Couple TV show with my sister the other night! I looked so cute in my shag!! ….My bangs softly framing my face, my hair flowing softly, roundly about my ears, then gently cascading over my shoulders, very feathery! JUST LIKE DAVID CASSIDY’s coif!
Molly smiled when she saw my beaming round face. She took the big black cape off me and, with a flourish, shook it so my light brown hair wafted to the floor. Ma, still smiling, paid her for my haircut and we walked home. I floated down Lafayette Street! A few days later, our class photos were taken at school – individual ones now because I was in seventh grade. I still have one of the wallet photos. I am smiling broadly. I’m wearing a silver band around my neck, from which dangles a delicate silver heart. I’ve got on a thin, bright yellow orange sweater – almost as bright as Molly’s hair! All the cool kids were wearing sweaters like that. And the color was so “in”! And I’m sporting – modeling! – the shag haircut Molly gave me just a few days earlier. Perfect!