Bellas, I got an e mail that made me laugh out loud this week.

Dear Afrobella,

I love your website. Thanks so much for taking the time to care about beauty, hair and other issues that related black women. I’ve been looking for a site like this for a while and am glad to have found yours. I’m writing to you about a concern that I have regarding natural hair and the salons that claim to cater to natural hair clients.

I am in between hair salons and am looking for a good stylist. I live in the DC area and good hair stylists seem to be few and far between. I just left a stylist’s basement apartment (I should have known better) after five hours to get two strand twists. It took so long because she talked for about 2.5 hours which is the same amount of time she said it would take to get the job done. NOT! During my lengthy visit, I was subjected to her inappropriate cursing (not the greatest first impression), her pseudo-ideological and divisive banter about who is and isn’t ready for natural hair styles, loud music (including mind numbing poetry CDs), crazy stories about her job, life, family and to top it off, she insisted on inserting German expressions into our conversation(?)!

I like my hair well enough (I don’t LOVE it), but I might have been more excited about it had my experience not been so unpleasant. Needless to say, I am not going there again. I’ve only been to two really professional hair salons in the DC area. One is so good and professional, that you have to make an appointment months in advance to get in there and the other one just recently folded. So right now I’m just searching for some place with a professional atmosphere that employs skilled natural hair care stylists.

Afrobella, I know you can’t solve this problem and you may not have any advice for me but I guess I’m writing because I’m frustrated and I want to find company in my misery. Have you or your readers had similar experiences when visiting natural hair care salons, and if so, how did you handle them? How have you found a place that you are comfortable with or do you just style your own hair?

Finally, I think we black women deserve better from our stylists. We pay a lot of money and invest a lot of time in getting our hair done. Quality customer service is so important, but tends to be missing in many of the salons that I’ve frequented. How can we get this message out to hair stylists?

Thanks for listening!

Shannon

Shannon, thank you SO MUCH for writing to me. Reading your e mail brought back memories I had repressed. I called my mom and we had a good laugh about our hairdresser history. Or as she said – “they weren’t hairDRESSERS, they were hairDISTRESSERS!” I could write a book about crazy, wacky hairdressers. Seriously. Strap yourself in, this is going to be a long post.

My earliest memories are of going to a family friend’s house, an old, creepy wooden place at the back of a more modern house. That was the first place I got my hair relaxed, when I was six. I remember cats being everywhere, if you sat in a chair they would crawl over you and try to sit on your lap. The bathroom was a scary storage area, and there was a claw-foot bathtub filled with boxes of hair supplies. I was terrified of that house.

Then we started going to another lady who had converted her house into a salon, but she was Indian, and she had no idea how to do our hair (and didn’t care to learn). When she relaxed my hair she never used base, or greased my scalp with vaseline, or anything. I would leave her salon with hair literally scabbing to my scalp. It was awful.

We’ve had the long-talker; a very sweet woman who was utterly unprofessional. Here’s my Mom’s recollection of her: “It was just coffee, coffee, coffee, cigarette, cigarette, cigarette. What should have taken two hours would take her six and you would walk out stinking, with her whole life story embedded in your brain.” Also, she never impressed us with her styling abilities. Needless to say, we stopped going to her.

I’ve been to hairdressers who work out of a room in their house, mall hair dressers, professional salons, and not-so-professional salons.

Some of my favorite hairdressing memories happened in a real hole-in-the-wall kind of place on Frederick Street in downtown Port of Spain. If you’re from Trinidad, you know the kind of place I’m talking about. I always had this weird middle class guilt thing, a “My Parents Kept Me From Children That Were Rough” complex that has actually led me into some really dangerous places. But the hairdressers in this salon were funny, brash, and I was absolutely enthralled by them. They had gold teeth and wore pendants with their names written in gold cursive, and had white and deep red and blue streaks in their hair. We couldn’t have been more opposite. They loved when we came to get our hair done, and I loved going there. I remember one of the girls was like, covered in piercings. Her eyebrows, her ears, her nose… she had like three nose rings happening at the same time. She offered to pierce my nose, and while my mom got her hair styled in the back room, we snuck out of the salon, bought an earring down the street, and she pierced my nose with an earring gun. My mother was FURIOUS. I was sixteen.

By the time we stopped going to those girls, I had seven holes in my ears. Eventually, my mother cut them off because in her words, “they were rude to me.” Well, I could see that happening. Oh well. But sometimes I do miss those ladies, with their ribald sex talk and cackling on a Saturday morning.

The saddest and most distressing hairdresser experience is hard for me to even talk about, but I am going to write about this in the hopes that he reads this somehow. We had a fabulous hairdresser, I’ll call him Bruno. I guess I knew what “gay” was before I met him, but honey, he made sure we all knew! He would rock blonde highlights and colored contacts, he was very out and proud and in the Caribbean, that is rare. Well, less so in Trinidad than in other islands. But still, Bruno was extra flamboyant. When my mother was getting shampooed in the other room, he would tell me about his scandalous romantic entanglements.

When we first met Bruno, he had just opened his own salon, bought a nice old-timey house near the Savannah and refurbished it so downstairs was a professional salon and upstairs was his bedroom. The bathroom was also upstairs, and it was always a horrific mess. In retrospect, that should have been our first hint that Bruno’s appearance might have belied his reality. But Bruno was not only an incredible hair dresser, he felt like family.

I guess I started going to him when I was thirteen (he gave me the coolest highlights for my very first school bazaar, and made me the envy of my friends). We went to him off and on (mostly on) throughout my teenage years, and I went through the peak of my rebellious stage with him. He was the one who streaked my hair any and every color, from red to orange to copper to that misguided attempt at blue. I can’t tell you how many of my white school uniform shirts he ruined with dye. Bruno was my boy, for real. I even tried to set him up on a date with an assistant librarian at my school. After their date, his response: “Honey, you can’t put two bitches together! I need a manly man.” Oh, classic Bruno! Love him.

Bruno was a chain smoker and a beer man, so even early on a Saturday you’d get there, and he would have a beer in one hand, curling iron in the next, cig clamped between his lips as he styled. But then he started getting drunk, burning my ears with the curling tongs, styling sloppily. We didn’t realize the extent of his problem until there was an article in the newspapers that he had been arrested for cocaine possession. Over time, the pretty pink salon became a mess, garbage piling up outside, his hot water got turned off… the warning signs were all there. But still, we kept going to him because we loved Bruno, he was like family.

Then I moved to Miami, and I would hear these horrific stories from my mother.

“Bruno can’t stop grinding his teeth when he does my hair.”

“Bruno burned the back of my neck with the curling iron.”

Or, “Patrice, Bruno had a black eye.” Then it became “Bruno cancelled our appointment.” Mama Bella don’t play with that cancelled appointment stuff. He would call her, beg her to come back, and then disappear into his upstairs bedroom and let one of the new, untrained employees do my mom’s hair. She was getting outraged, and found other hairdressers to try. But she always went back when Bruno called, because he worked miracles with her hair.

The last time I was home, for three days last December to attend the Derek Walcott Writing Awards ceremony (I won an honorable mention for one of my short stories, yay!), we went to Bruno to get my hair done. His place was unkempt, and there was a strange man in the neighbor’s front yard who kept staring at us. For the first time, I felt unsafe with him. He didn’t look nearly as fabulous as he used to. The colored contacts were long gone, his skin was a mess, his hair was untidy, and he had the sniffles. From my time in Miami, I knew what a cokehead looked like, and my poor Bruno was a textbook example. My hair was natural for the first time, and at my mother’s request, he gave me a blow-out and highlights. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be seeing him again at the time. If I had, I would have given him a stern talking-to. Instead, we joked and laughed and hugged like we always did.

Men came into Bruno’s salon to beat him up one Saturday morning. Customers were there, and he lost a room full of regulars in an instant. He started disappearing for weeks at a time. Then all of a sudden, he seemed to make a 180, and my mom went back again (Like an abused wife, I tell you). She said his salon was clean, he was looking good, and listening to gospel music! The beers were gone, the cigs were still there… but he met all appointments and made her look and feel beautiful again. That lasted for maybe a month or two. Then he started pulling the old disappearing act.

The final straw came when Bruno called and begged her to come, and when she got there, he never emerged from his bedroom. A dude in his underwear came out to get coffee, but Bruno never came out. The hapless assistant started to wash and set her hair. There was a sketchy man in the salon, and he made an overture to my mother. “Tantie, you looking good. You could get it,” he said to her. OK, people – my mother is a very classy woman in her early sixties. Having been married to my dad for 38 years, she doesn’t respond well to flirtation. This freaked her out, and my dad finally put his foot down. No more Bruno, EVER AGAIN. Whew!

She’s found a new salon, and I’ll probably give that a shot when I go home for Christmas. But since I went natural, I can count the number of times I’ve been to a hairdresser on one hand. The last time, I spent like $250 at an Aveda salon and came out frustrated and unhappy. I decided to just do my own damn hair. All I need is a deep conditioning treatment, I occasionally trim my ends. K. Foxx told me about a great salon, Natural Trendsetters, and I was contemplating getting two-strand twists (I have never had braids, or twists, or a weave before. All I’ve ever done was relax and color). I still plan on giving them a shot, but I live way down south, and this salon is in Fort Lauderdale, and I believe it’s the kind of place that requires an appointment way in advance. At this point, I’m planning on a January 2007 appointment for twists. But I haven’t made a phone call yet.

When I go to Trinidad for Christmas, I plan to get some highlights and some professional deep conditioning. I would love to stop by Bruno’s place, to see how he’s doing and maybe try to reach him somehow. But I probably won’t. He needs to find himself, and there’s nothing that a former client (albeit one who practically grew up under his watch), can say to make a difference.

So how’s that for some hairdresser horror stories? Feel free to vent, ladies. I know telling my long-ass stories made me feel better. Have any of you had a hard time finding someone good? Shannon you are right – we are consumers who deserve better! If you know of any resources or reliable hairdressers, please post their names and locations. This could actually turn into the resource so many of us have been trying to find.

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