Back in the seventies Tony my barber started getting the shakes from old age and too much vino, so the electric clippers were all his skinny hands could hold on to. Every guy walking out of the shop looked liked a new recruit, me included, but I didn’t mind. I liked the Marine look, high and tight. This was thirty years ago and I was just a kid out of high school, working for my old man in his auto shop and still sleeping in the same bed I used to wet until I was five.
In those days Bay Ridge, Brooklyn was wall to wall to wall Italians. Every house had tomatoes growing on the six by eight patches out in front, watched over by their personal child-sized statue of the Virgin, her little arms stretched wide, smiling blessings down on the crop. Old widows, whose husbands croaked maybe twenty years before, still walked around in their black stockings and funeral dresses which made sure that no guy looked twice at them. In Catholic school we were taught by real nuns in long black robes, who kept us in line with a knock across the knuckles from the heavy rulers they hid up their wide sleeves.
But, just like Dylan had said, the times they were changing, and it was Vertie, my best friend who started pestering me to try something new. Vertie was a tall skinny drink of water, and was always bugging me about something. This time he was huckstering for a unisex hair shop that opened up right around the corner from my folk’s house.
He came around to the shop one day, squatting down like a grasshopper on his long skinny legs, while I was flat on my back draining the oil out of some jalopy.
“Renzo!” he yelled over the racket of gunning motors, guys cursing, hammers knocking out fender dents and Peggy Lee singing ‘Sera Sera’ over the P.A. “Just try it once and you’ll never go back to Tony’s.”
I rolled out on the creeper. ”Listen,” I said, “just the word unisex gives me the willies. Real guys go to barbers and girls go to beauty shops and that’s the way it is. It’s like anyone who walks into a place like that can’t make up their mind if they’re a boy or a girl.”
“Nah!” Vertie said giving me his, ‘what a dummy you are,’ look. “It’s not like that. It’s just a word that says everyone is welcome, men and women. And Renzo, wait’ll you see what women they have working on you,” and he kissed his fingers to his lips.
“I’ll think about it,” I said and rolled back under.
Only two years before I was Utrecht High’s star quarterback, all muscle and the girls were gaga over me. But now I felt like an old man. My muscles were turning to lard, I hadn’t had a haircut for weeks and I knew I looked like shit. To top it off I had to call it quits with my girl friend Lorna. It was June and she’d caught a bad case of weddingitis from her girl friends and kept dragging me toward every jewelry store window on Pitkin Avenue.
It was when my mom said, “Renzo, you going hippie with that long hair?” that I finally gave in. So the next week, on a hot Saturday morning Vertie and me walked over to the Bay Ridge Unisex Salon. The minute I walked through that door the smell reminded me of Lorna. God, how she’d wave that can of hair spray over her big Texas do until her curls were stiff as hammered tin. I knew I’d never get the stink of ‘Super Hold’ out of the upholstery of my Pontiac Firebird.
Inside, the walls were all mirrors, so everywhere I looked I saw myself in triplicate. Track lights hanging from the ceiling were bright as opening night beamers and showed up my flab and every old coffee stain on my t-shirt. Compared to Tony’s where the major sounds were grunts and farts, this joint was like Grand Central Station, with the blow dryers going like jet engines, and everyone trying to talk over Janis Joplin busting her lungs on “Bobbie McGee.” My eyes were like pinballs darting around the place, while that familiar feeling of stupidity for giving in to Vertie, was sloshing over me. I was heading out of there, when Vertie grabbed my arm.
“Slow down Renzo,” he hissed. “It takes a minute or so to adjust to the scene.”
I shrugged him away and pulled my cap low, feeling like Columbo casing the joint. The haircut chairs looked small, especially compared to the poppa bear size of the ones at Tony’s. Just guys were waiting, all of them leaning forward, elbows on their knees and looking at old Playboys. I recognized a couple of the older married ones who had their heads stuck into Popular Mechanics, but all of them were taking in the women operators in their pink mini skirts and see-through Gypsy blouses..
“What’d I tell ya,” Vertie said, pointing his bony chin at the women and poking me with his elbow. “And you won’t find this at Tony’s” he said, leaning over and holding out a wrinkled centerfold of a woman wearing just two long yellow braids over a bare behind.
“Yeah, yeah, neat,” I said. “Now shut up a minute.”
I was watching an operator who must’ve been in her thirties at least, with real short hair giving a smile and a sly wink to the younger blonde. Were they making signals about me? I sat there, drumming my fingers and staring down at the dirt patterns on my Adidas when the blonde walked up to me. The first thing I saw was the little flare of her mini skirt that showed off her gorgeous legs and her red painted toe nails peeking out of her shoes.
“Hi, I’m Mariella” she said in a low voice. “I believe you’re next?”
My heart began beating like it did before a game, and I followed her, my eyes glued to her swaying hips until I tripped and almost fell face down into her chair.
“Careful”, she said.
I was just settling in, when she floated a big black plastic cape over me like a giant’s bib. It covered up my whole front, arms and all, down to my knees. Now, the only thing showing in the mirror was my head inside my cap. When she went to snap the cape around my neck, her left breast accidentally grazed my shoulder.
“Too tight?” she asked in a voice like warmed honey.
“No, no it’s fine” I said, “feels terrific,”
Thinking with this chick it would be okay even if she choked me.
She tilted her head and gave me a dimpled smile that lit up her face. I cleared my throat and said in a voice that sounded strange in my ears,
“My name’s Renzo...” and then stupidly reached my hand out to shake hers. Sweetly she grasped two of my cape covered fingers and shook them lightly.
“Renzo? That’s an unusual name,” she said, turning to reach into the little drawers next to her station.
“Yeah, I said, making a face. It’s actually short for Florenzo, the place where my mother was born in Italy, but I make sure everybody calls me Renzo.”
Mariella just smiled and I shut up, feeling like a goon.
She looked to be maybe five or so years older than me and was tall and beautifully filled out, with soft curves up and down and skin that reminded me of my mother’s peach jam. Her hair was curly and long, a darkish blonde with gold streaks and her brown eyes looked as soft as melted Hershey bars. She bent closer to me and took the brim of my cap in her hand and said,
“If I can just remove this to get a peek, before I shampoo you?”
I had to look away, she was so close and then I cringed when I spotted myself in the mirror. It was like I was naked without my cap, and my hair looked all greasy and I could feel the sweat popping out all over me and imagined that I still stunk of thirty-weight Castrol even though I boiled myself alive in the shower that morning. But Mariella never batted an eyelash. She took both her hands and ran all ten fingers right through my hair, examining it like she was a hair scientist.
“It’s a little sweaty.” I said. “You know, from the cap and all.”
“Sure, of course,” she agreed. “But it’s thick and very nicely textured and naturally wavy too.”
After that, she led me over to the black porcelain shampoo sinks and told me to lean my head way back. I looked up at her and almost had a heart attack, realizing she could look right up my nose.
“Now just relax and keep your eyes closed,” she said, “In case some lather gets away from me...”
Her fingers worked like gorgeous pistons going over every inch of my scalp. I got goose bumps all over and let out a sigh like my old man taking off his tight shoes. I wasn’t sure if I fell asleep and was dreaming, but in my head I could see Mariella and me on a beach in Miami, she’s in a little bikini and it’s just the two of us in the moonlight, and then she was rinsing the suds out of my hair and I opened my eyes and shakily followed her back to her chair.
The snap of her scissors on my wet hair, sent chills up my spine. Underneath the cape I sweated buckets, but was grateful to God that it covered up what my grandfather called ‘a man’s excitement.’ The blow dry came next, and she ruffled her fingers through my hair like a lover. Then she combed and brushed while I watched in shock how it all fell into place around my ears and on top of my head. She held a square mirror up for me to take a look at the whole job, and I swear from the back it looked like James Dean. Then, like a matador in the ring she swept off the cape and talcumed my neck with a soft white brush.
I was falling in love and knew it was the real thing because I swore off pizza and my mother’s pasta fazul. Four nights a week I’d head for the gym to pump iron. And twice a month I was going in for a shampoo and trim with Mariella. Every time I went, she’d get me talking about myself, and I’d tell her how I wasn’t made to work for a boss, most of all my old man. And how I had plans to open my own shop restoring classic cars. I must have bored her to death, bragging how I was going to make tons of money and retire early and buy a big house on the beach in Miami with garages for at least four cars. Mariella just smiled and said “good for you, wish I could retire early.” And I wanted to just drop down on my knees and say, “marry me and quit this hair business and I’ll take care of you for the rest of your life,” but I never had the nerve.
Once, she agreed to have a cup of coffee with me between customers. We walked up the block to Al’s Diner and I felt like a king with her beside me. I led her to a back booth; my eyes bolted down on her every move. How she slipped across the leatherette and leaned forward and propped her chin on her folded hands. She took two teaspoons of sugar, no milk, and stirred it with her spoon. Then lifted the cup to her gorgeous lips and blew on the steam. I sat there like I was hypnotized. She cleared her throat and said,
”I’ve been meaning to tell you, Renzo, I’ve noticed that you’re slimming down; good for you.”
The blood rushed into my face like a Coney Island rip tide. “Thanks,” I said and starting stirring my coffee real fast, like Charlie Chaplin in a silent movie. Then I looked up into her face and the words came pouring out.
“Mariella, how about taking in a movie sometime? And maybe some dinner? Or anything. Even just some pie. Or maybe just a movie and we could skip dinner and the pie or we could eat dinner and no movie…”
By then I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about and finally shut up. She put her coffee cup down, and when she reached over and put her hand on mine I almost passed out.
“Renzo, she said. “You’re really one sweet guy. I mean it. And I take it as true compliment, you asking me out.”
I sucked in my stomach and braced myself for the knockout punch...
“Renzo, I should have told you weeks ago, and I could kick myself for that. But…. I’m seeing someone right now.”
I’ll never know how I had the moxie to put a smile on my face and say, “Lucky guy… Hey no problem. I understand. I myself was going steady and thought it was the real thing, but people change, right?”
Mariella just looked into my eyes and then at her watch. It was time to go back.
So, Vertie was my date that weekend and when we met at the movies I was in a very, very bad mood. It was lucky for him he had his radar on and knew enough to not ask me any dumb ass questions. It hit a hundred and two that afternoon, and by midnight the air was still as hot as a steam bath. We sat through “The Rocky Horror Show” twice, and by the time we got out I wasn’t feeling so bad and on the shortcut home through Prospect Park, Vertie kept up a great imitation of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, that cracked me up. Even past midnight the park was filled with all kinds of people, sweating moms and dads out to catch a breeze, and maybe get the kid to fall asleep in his stroller. Outside the park, the streets were quiet, with just a few lights showing through the open windows, and a baby crying here and there.
From half a block away I could see the dim night light from the Salon. We’d gone about ten feet when Vertie’s radar failed and he blurted out,
“Renzo when’re gonna get the balls to ask her out?”
I stopped in my tracks. “What’s it your god damn business?” I said.
“Look, Romeo, right there is the Bay Ridge Unisex
Salon and here on this sidewalk is the groove you made
going there and back who knows how many times.”
“You’d better shut your big mouth Vertie” I said,
making a move toward him.
We saw it at the same time. The night light in the
back of shop went out. I grabbed Vertie’s arm and pulled
him into the dark doorway of Sal’s TV Repair.
“Who d’ya think’s in there?” Vertie whispered.
“How should I know?” I said.
“Do they keep cash back there?”
“Shut up will ya? We’re gonna wait right here. If
anyone suspicious comes out and they pass us, we’ll jump
“I’m for calling the cops.” Vertie said.
“Jerk,” I said. “By the time the cops get here it’ll be all over.”
We both stopped breathing when the front door of the salon opened. It was Bobbie, the older woman who worked the next chair to Mariella. She stepped out and looked around. Then, she reached into the dark doorway and Mariella stepped out. We stuck our backs like magnets against the wall and they walked right past us. Near the corner they stopped. The light from the street lamp made Mariella’s long curly hair shine like it had gold threads in it and my heart melted for wanting her.
When I saw them pull tight together I sucked in my breath. I could hardly watch, but couldn’t stop staring as their hands moved up and down, pressing each other’s boobies and thighs through the thin summer dresses while their mouths moved in wet kisses. They were so close I could hear their moans and sighs, and a ton of misery like black coal piled onto my heart.
“Jee-zus!” Vertie said. His eyes big as dinner plates.
I pushed him deeper into the doorway, then turned and ran like I was being chased down the field by the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn’t stop until I was dead-ended at the chain link fence of my school. I wound my fingers tight into the spaces and shook it hard, back and forth, again and again, until it waved and rumbled like thunder and sweat and tears got all mixed up and ran down my face and stung my eyes. That September, right after Labor Day, I joined the Marines and pretty soon I was back to the look I’d always liked.