Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beautiful Plumage 3 – The Proust Effect

They say that the most evocative of our senses is the sense of smell. I can attest to that!

One whiff of a glass of beer and I am instantly transported in my mind to the summer of 1960 when I spent much of my grooming time at summer camp, combing the pungent beverage through my long, rapidly darkening hair before carefully sectioning it and wrapping it tightly around rollers the size of soup cans. A colorful scarf covered the head giving me (and my friends) the appearance of a bevy of hydrocephalic Martians. This was the daytime 'look' for most of the young ladies of an uncertain age, still too young to legally drink the stuff, but not unwise to its 'fringe' benefits. We girls brought cans of beer to camp and parents replenished the supply on Visitor's Day without a moment's concern about anyone imbibing the ale, itself.
It was far too precious a commodity to be wasted as a drink.
To this day, I have never found a better all-in-one hair conditioner and mousse at any cost.

Unfortunately, thanks to these fragrant memories, I've never been able to get a glass of the stuff past my nose for internal use.

During my teen years, weekly visits to the hairdresser were de rigueur for most women. In my neck of the ‘burbs, the doors to the salon were flung open by dawn on Friday mornings, to accommodate our mothers and grandmothers, who, pressed for time on the busiest day of the week, nevertheless, had to get their heads teased and sprayed into solid helmets. Their hair may have looked soft and fluffy, but, like their personalities, the softness was buried deep beneath a carapace so firm, you could break your nail on it. It was a tribute to the strength of the frantic backcombing and the potency of the chemicals in the spray cans that even a long day of cooking for the family Sabbath gathering made no visible impression on the 'do'. Nor did a week of sleeping in, what I assume must have been a reclining position, budge a single kiss curl. At bedtime, these arrangements were carefully preserved beneath cocoons of toilet paper held firm with little silver clips. Nothing moved till morning. I don't think women could possibly have had conjugal relations in those days.

Except, maybe, on Thursday nights.

Younger females visited the beauty parlor on Saturdays. That is, females with dates for Saturday night. Needless to say, I did not have the opportunity to celebrate this rite of passage on a regular basis, like my glamorous Auntie R. who had dates coming out of her ears. She patronized a shoppe called 'Caruso's' (weren't they all?) and turned her head over to a genius named Dino (weren't they all?). Some weeks she would return a redhead, some weeks a platinum blonde. She was one of the first to succumb to the Italian poodle cut made famous by the sultry 'Lollabrigida'. One never knew what to expect. I couldn’t wait for my turn.

When I was about sixteen, I actually had a date to a big event, which would definitely require some extra expense and effort in the coiffure department.

Like almost everything else in life, I had to initiate the whole thing. There was a big Conclave in town in October, for a youth organization, which I had been persuaded to join in order to 'meet people' (my mother’s term for meeting ‘nice’ boys – ‘nice’ was a killer adjective when applied to the male gender, take it from me). It was a girl-ask-boy kind of thing and several of my friends put me up to asking an Adonis we all had a crush on at summer camp. It was still close enough to the end of August to entertain the possibility that he might remember my name. I had nothing to lose. I stole off to my parents’ room, the only place in the house where there was a phone which afforded some privacy, and dialed the number obtained for me with a great deal of subterfuge.

I don’t remember anything else but his reply. “Yes, I’ll go. Are you surprised?” (Now there’s a confidence builder, a little something to chat about with the therapist in years to come). With that ordeal out of the way, I made the crucial appointment at Caruso’s for my makeover.

On Saturday morning, my mother dropped me off and I descended the stairway to the basement where this hairdo heaven was located (nothing but the best, even then). I was very nervous, but not so much about being alone. I’d learned that it was better not to include my mother on such trips, ever since she’d made a secret pact with another hairdresser behind my back, so to speak, to lop off my ponytails instead of just giving me a trim. I emerged with a 'pixie cut'. (It's still too painful for me to remember the details). Now, I had my own ideas of how I wanted to look, dancing around the room in the arms of my prince. I was thinking maybe Cinderella at the ball, not Tinkerbell.

I sat in the crowded waiting area, flipping through well-thumbed hairdresser magazines, waiting my turn at the hands of the Houdini of Hair. Suddenly, the manager came over to me and asked if I was interested in letting a potential hireling do my hair instead of Dino. He wanted to see what she could do. I was confused until he uttered the magic words, “No charge”, and then I decided to take the leap. My parents would be so proud of me for saving the lousy two bucks! I held out for the condition that she was not to cut my hair, just style it. (The ponytail incident was still very fresh).

This young stylist really let herself go. Intent on impressing the boss, she set my hair on about a thousand rollers and stuffed me under a dryer hood for about an hour and a half to cook. She then proceeded to backcomb my entire head of hair to create the necessary volume. Leaving the top part pushed over my face (I couldn’t see anyways since I am virtually blind without my glasses, which had, of course, been taken away so I couldn’t protest), she lightly brushed the surface of the back pouf over to one side and anchored it with a vertical line of fifty 'bobby pins'. She then swept it all back the other way, twisted it into a French roll, as it was called, and poked me with another fifty pins to keep it firm. The top was then sectioned off and wrapped around and around in whirls till it reached a good two feet over my forehead in what was accurately described as a “Beehive”. A serious dose of hairspray cemented this edifice for all eternity. Voila!

When I put on my glasses, I nearly fainted. I was so gorgeous; I couldn’t believe my four eyes. And for free!
(I didn't realize then, that I my hairdo would become iconic, thanks to Marge Simpson).

The boss was happy and so was I. My mother came to pick me up. She could barely contain her shock. The hairdo, itself, being in the height of style, in more ways than one, obviously made a great impression.
By itself.
But perched on the head of a young girl who had yet to attain a five-foot tall benchmark, (and, sadly, never would) it seemed a little disproportionate, to say the least. I was thrilled and considered having to bend in half to get in and out of the car, a small price to pay for such utter sophistication.

In fact, I was so taken with my elegance that I refused to wear my glasses that night. Why ruin the effect? So don’t ask me anything about the evening. I think the right guy picked me up. He was so tall, I couldn’t see his face, it was so far away. There may have been some people there that I knew. I don’t remember a kiss goodnight, although, in those days, that usually didn’t happen for a few dates. I never got that far.

The fact is everything went by in a blur.

That night, I carefully wrapped the toilet paper shroud round and round my hive and secured it with long clips. I placed my head carefully on my pillow and didn’t move a muscle all night.

Thus, I preserved the sanctity of my updo for many nights, until it began to itch.


  1. So glad you are sharing your vivid memories, especially for those of us who were there too!

  2. Oh, so many memories came back from that post. Thank you. I'd not visited that set of memories for quite awhile and while mine were different, it was still really enjoyable to come along on your ride. I was too terribly shy to have asked a boy to a dance. And the only time I got my hair done was when there was something at church that would involve the whole family and reflect badly on my father, the minister, if we weren't properly turned out. I, too, had the glasses to contend with and it made me chuckle that you had the blurry experience. I'd never have been brave enough to do that.

  3. I've spent the better part of my morning reading your most recent posts after your blog was recommended by Earl Pomerantz (

    He is correct - this is a great read from both a style and historical standpoint. Thank you for taking the time to entertain.

  4. Nice writing. Good story.

    Keep it up and I'll keep dropping around to read.

    (Sent by Earl)