Nashville, Tennessee

Little Beauty Shop of Horrors

By Eric Skinner

A fixture of the small Southern town of my youth was the beauty parlor. For those who are unfamiliar with the 1960s beauty parlor or haven't seen “Steel Magnolias,” a brief explanation is in order before the description of my earliest psychological scar.

As I recall, the beauty parlor was where all old women — mom-aged women, in their early to mid-20s — gathered weekly on a strictly adhered-to day ("Lois, would you pick the boys up? My appointment's this afternoon.") to smoke cigarettes, catch up on their reading (Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Readers Digest, and the scandalous Mademoiselle), learn the latest big news of our very small town and to smoke some more. This Maternal Order of Getting Their Lady On was capped off by Mom and her co-moms having their hair washed, rolled, frosted, teased and, the pièce de résistance, dried before crafting the bouffant, the beehive, the pompadour, the bluing and the bobbing.

That crucial step, the drying, took place on the perimeter of a large room lined with the futuristic luxury contraptions that struck a resemblance to an oversized roller derby helmet attached to a luxury box seat in Neyland Stadium. The moms sat shoulder to shoulder, ashtrays at arms length, heads beneath the dryers, taking a warm, relaxing break from us bratty kids. (As a youngster and one of those bratty kids, I stuck my head beneath a running hair dryer on the sly. It was the most delightfully relaxing experience I'd had, until I was walloped by a rolled up Ladies Home Journal.)

Mom's first beauty parlor of my memory was nestled in a strip mall in Nashville's most exclusive section of town. Clearly, my family didn't live in or near the neighborhood, but Mom did like to make a statement. She did not allow my brothers or me to accompany her on her day, as bringing children was strictly frowned upon. But around the age of 3, I made my first trip with Mom to the beauty parlor. For her to break protocol, I must have been sick or the babysitter cancelled, a common occurrence in our household. Mom chose to break the unwritten rule rather than to lose her appointment.

I was amazed that the beauty parlor was a sea of activity, a circus of female decorum. Nails buffed, polished and blown — a lady actually blew on another lady's wet fingernails! Caped, tin foil-headed ladies regally paraded through the menthol haze. Dancing fingers sudsed heads connected to necks reclined in U-shaped sinks. All that was missing was the clown-clad dog pushing a baby carriage. We owned no television; this was entertainment!

The sights and excitement of the beauty parlor were exhausting for a 3-year-old kid. I fell asleep, first at the washing station, then at the cut-and-color chair, and lastly, at the rows of dryers. Mom dragged my somnambulant body by the hand from station to station and propped me against anything that wouldn't burn me too badly.

I awoke sitting on the floor, leaning against the stadium-style hair-dryer chair, Mom gently holding my hand. The hair dryers' gentle whir and the calm of the ladies drying, reading, relaxing and smoking promoted an ideal atmosphere to rouse at my own pace. I squeezed Mom's hand to let her know that I was awake. She gave a gentle reply. I produced a satisfied grin at the recollection of a day at the greatest show on earth. I looked up to share the self-satisfied smile with Mom. The mom who returned my smile was a brunette with pointy-cornered glasses. My Mom was a blonde, before and after the appointment, with near-perfect vision.

"Mommy! No, you! Mommy!" My terror snapped the peace of the hair-dryer area like a dropped bushel of field peas, as every mother raised her lid or ducked to find out what the commotion was about.

Mom rushed from the styling area, half-bobbed, to find me clawing and scrambling to get away from Fraudulent Mom, who sat down next to me when Authentic Mom left the hair dryer to finish up.

"I didn't have the heart to wake you," Authentic Mom pleaded. Fraudulent Mom said, "I'm nice. I promise." I have been stitched up two dozen times, I have broken bones that I never knew could break, I was knocked out cold more times than I can count playing tackle football, but I have never feared for my life more than the moment I looked into that woman's bespectacled eyes.

The beauty parlor is long gone, but the strip mall stands. The once-sprawling boutique has been partitioned. To the left, where manicurists sat and the washing stations lined the wall, resides a smoke shop where flavorful pipe and cigar smoke waft through the opening door. The establishment on the right side of the wall, the site of my childhood terror, is home to a Greek take-out joint popular with the teenagers, my daughter included.

"I'm picking up gyros, Daddy."

"Thanks, Sugar. I'm having cereal."