A Hair Salon is a place for Gossip like Yesteryear's old Village store or Post Office.
Carolyn Taylor-Watts, 2014
Helena's daughter Georgia, narrator of the story, reminds her mother of something else. That while a hair salon is indeed about hair, it is also a gathering place for gossip in the manner of the post mistress or village store of yesteryear.
A gathering place: And Helena remembers the barber shop from her childhood in Patras; how the barber stood as a king in his small domain. She remembers the squat, bow-legged man under a cypress tree in his long white apron. The cloud of white soap. His razor flying. His scissors snapping. Lotions applied with a loud slapping noise. Most of all she remembers the talking, always talking. She'd learned then that the barber king was a repository of information, fount of folk wisdom, the village Muse. More than shaving and cutting, the important thing was for the talk. It was this social aspect she'd absorbed as much as any beauty she would create that she'd incorporate into her professional life.
Oh for a whacky hair salon! Dance Classes, anyone?
Carolyn Taylor-Watts, 2014
It’s me, Georgia again. I walk from Bloor Street down Yonge, to my mother’s hair salon. Helena is doing highlights near the washbasins while singing along with Grigoris Bithikotsis, one of Greece’s great voices.
I look down the length of the salon. A woman with bits of foil in her hair lights a cigarette. Helena says, “Please go smoke outside.” New hair-stylist Bonnie flits back and forth between two clients, her skimpy clothes bursting with the bulk stuffed into them. Little Isabel hums as she polishes nails. If only Yiannis, Adam and Spiros could see their descendent now, what would they think? And Eleni? It’s not exactly a Vidal Sassoon, a Jie Matar or Civello, and certainly not up there with all those other swanky places in Yorkville, but it’s special, unique even. In this narrow salon on ragged Yonge Street, Helena weaves magic; she’s built a community that brings joy into other peoples’ lives.
“I’ve heard of this place so I’ve come to see it for myself.” The cracked tones of a very old woman interrupt my thoughts. I watch as Helena wipes her hands and walks to embrace the stooped old body in the doorway. “Where do you come from?” she asks. “How did you hear of me?” She leads her new client to a vacant chair. All eyes turn to the newcomer.
“Surely everyone has heard of you.” Ms Audrey looks around, her small eyes twinkling. She catches sight of Lady Godiva on one wall flying on horseback through forests of purple grapes, and covers her mouth in a gasp. She says she’s walked from Belmont House north on Yonge Street, hobbled to the place where a crazy Greek woman sings as she does her client’s hair. “I’ve heard how you line up your customers and teach them to dance - I’ve come for the dancing lessons.” A mischievous gleam lights up her old eyes and she raises the hem of her skirt.
“Dancing lessons? For you, the classes are free.”
Ms Audrey must be ninety at least. Her bird-like legs stick out from under her skirt and I think how far they’ve carried her. What impulse to the future, what charm of the unknown, had beckoned that she’d pushed her bent frame this distance? Perhaps past passions provoked by spring’s seductive perfumes, the promise of new life. Perhaps the recognition that her life is not yet finished. “Go for it, old girl,” I say under my breath. “Grab it, drink of it deeply while you still can.” I swing my legs and think deeply on life and love and historical accident.
I’m about to head out for coffee and donuts when Helena whispers, “Don’t go, see who’s just come in.” Helena’s long-time customer Christine flounces through the door, accidentally knocking over a vase of green flowers. She flops into a spare chair and dumps her many Holt Renfrew shopping bags at her feet, fans herself and turns to the mirror. A blowsy recent convert to the world of the blond, she’s all jingling curls and look-at-me earrings. She wears boots, even in summer.
“Oh dear, how clumsy of me.” She makes no attempt to clean up the mess of the spilled flowers but examines herself in a mirror. A smile of satisfaction crinkles her fifty-year-old face. Only then does she look around.
“Do you have an appointment?” Mom calls out from the back.
“No, maybe a comb-out … and to get the local news.”
For the gossip, I think.
Christine runs blue-lined eyes about the salon, then announces she’s having an affair.
The instant tell-all woman, I think. “So, does your husband know or suspect?” I ask. “What did he think when you suddenly became a bombshell blond?”
“Mid-life crisis,” Christina answers. “He thinks I should find something to do. But with a lover, who has the time?”
“How often do you …?”
“See him? All the time…um…in my imagination.” Christine lowers her voice, but obviously intends everyone to hear. “When my husband has sex with me, it’s this man, if you know what I mean. When I buy clothes, I think about what he’d like me to wear.” A long sigh emits from the blood-red mouth. “I know: you’ll tell me I can’t go out with him in public or have him whenever I want, but where’s the passion if there aren’t any obstacles?” She shakes her blond head and sets her earrings jangling.
Does she wear those same outfits in her perfectly landscaped Willowdale - or is it ritzy Lawrence Park? My mind is a jumble of thoughts. She probably goes home to her scrubbed and ordered life and entertains her well-heeled friends with titillating tales of the odd and colourful people from downtown. Believes her patronage of the salon on seedy Yonge Street as a form of philanthropy.
After Christine has gone, I muse on love; think of all the lovelorn figures in literature and history, the fabulous tales and fantasies woven about thwarted love. Mount Vesuvius, for example. He fell in love with a nymph as lovely as a diamond and could think of nothing else. He lunged at her, but feeling scorched by his attentions she jumped into the ocean and became the Island of Capri. Vesuvius’s sighs of fire spread until he became mountain, forever beyond the reach of his beloved. I think about my own lack of love.
What's in a Name?
Georgia: This time I’m on a trek all over Toronto to learn about hair salons in preparation for writing my mother’s story. Beginning in Yorkville, I learn that Malcolm’s hair salon offers a severe Anglo-Saxon look. Maurice Fiorrio’s, an insouciant, sexy cut and style. Oggi’s is known particularly as Italian. That the Touch became most popular during the seventies and eighties. Throughout these years, the legacy of Vidal Sassoon remained all-persuasive. It was this name, this man, who inspired Helena. I know she’d studied what he had done and had written; learned that he was born in northern Greece, worked in England before arriving in Toronto to make it his North American base. Quickly he became known world-wide, achieved wealth, and a legend that he himself created.
“He worked hard,” Helena tells me. “He chose a particular look as his style – you know - the geometric one. He and believed in it, and in his talent. To be successful you’ve got to have faith you can make the world a better place because of what you do.”
Next I trek to the House of Lords, a lovely Spanish-style building and an important piece of Toronto architecture. I stand uncertainly in the doorway and look in on many very young, hip clients. The stylists are all young with their lean ribbons of flesh pierced everywhere with slivers of silver and covered in tattoos.
“Do you look after anyone older than … twenty?” I ask the receptionist.
“Well, not really. S’pose you can tell by the music.”
Next I’m off to Yorkville, to the ridiculously expensive place called Salon Jie owned by Jie Matar, considered by some to be the new Vidal Sassoon. I wonder if my mother can ever come close to achieving what he has, this Paris-trained Lebanese man who swept the whole country to become the idol of the rich and famous. Okay, Mr. Jie, I think, you’ve generated all your own hype with shameless self-promotion. You’ve even called yourself, the god of hair, so let’s find out about you.
Mr. Jie presents himself twenty minutes after I ask for him and fixes me with an interrogative stare. Assuming a deliberate pose of elegance, I stretch one booted leg over the other, mention the weather, admire his décor, then ask who makes up his clientele.
He tosses off names with a careless air, naming politicians, celebrities, prominent lawyers and cosmetic surgeons. “I give them a silhouette that goes with their shadow,” he says, “but they must have the right kind of personality.”
“Oh. Have I got the right kind?”
He shrugs as he runs an eye over the length of me. “Can you afford me?”
“I think I … don’t want to afford you. Thanks for your time.”
I head for a streetcar that will take me to Little Italy. Tomorrow, to China Town, to Forest Hill Village. After that, North York, The Beach. In each salon I ask for a trim, or advice about hair colour and styles, surreptitiously making notes about large salons and small, the super glamorous, and the grungy little outfits like the ones Helena once worked in. There’s mystical atmosphere, New-Age music, Art Deco. I think of Helena’s salon with its apparent chaos, its clients and staff singing and dancing, and I laugh out loud.
I’m back on Yonge Street in the salon doorway, feeling again the exhilaration that comes from the sun, the moon and the Greek Muses shining from its walls; from Aphrodite watching Apollo flit over the old hills of the Peloponnesus, Lady Godiva still streaking across one wall. I think how clients must feel they are floating beyond the earth-bound toward the celestial. This place is about hair, yes, and also where people can be happy for a moment, for many moments. Admiration that has been gathering within me swells as I look around for Helena.