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Here’s a sample of the first two chapters in Towel Dry and a Good Cry
It’s six degrees, and my tires crunch on ice and snow as I turn into the long, narrow driveway of the old Victorian that is Fredericks Funeral Home. I can’t say how many times I’ve been to a wake at Fredericks, but this is the first time I’m here to do hair on a dead person.
Who would think I—Josie Capelli—from an overprotective, strict, Italian-Catholic family, would have the nerve to take on such a task? Me? Touch a dead person? I don’t think so. I’ve heard too many stories about dead people sitting up or passing gas. If anything like that happens to me, I’ll be in the next visitation room laid out, too.
The cone-shaped roof peeks out above the tree-line as I draw near. It’s a great house—too bad it’s a funeral home. I skid to a stop in the empty parking lot and reach around to the back seat for the bag packed with teasing comb, clips, hairspray, towel, and cape.
The bitter-cold air touches my face as I walk up the stone steps, and I can see my breath. An eerie feeling comes over me. I’m a hairdresser, used to working on living and breathing clients, not the dead. Now I’m about to touch a corpse. I dry-heave all the way up the steps.
Standing on the wraparound porch, holding my purse and bag for dear life, I turn the doorknob of the old oak door and step in. The scent of flowers sweeps by my nose and gives me a wave of nausea. My insides jump when the funeral director greets me.
“You must be Miss Capelli.”
I nod—short, quick downs and ups.
“The dearly departed is all ready for you in the receiving room.” He points the way with a wave of his arm.
“Thank you, Mr. Frederick.”
Thank God, the receiving room. I had visions of going to an embalming room with ten other bodies on steel tables. I watch too much TV. As we approach the room, I take a deep breath and blow it out slowly. Beauty school never prepared me for this.
I enter the receiving room and walk slowly by the rows of chairs, with Mr. Frederick following closely behind. My eyes are immediately drawn to something as I approach the casket. I’m horrified, and I suck in air.
“Is something wrong?”
“Oh, yeah. Something is very wrong.”
I always knew I wanted to be a hairdresser. I loved playing with hair. Growing up, I had quite the collection of dolls. I especially liked dolls with long hair. My favorite thing to do was line them all up on the bathroom vanity, shampoo them, and then lay each one on a towel. I combed out the snarls and braided their hair. No one taught me how to braid. I just did it, and by the way my family praised me for it, you would’ve thought I’d developed a cure for cancer.
By the time I was seven, I knew my calling, thanks to a gift from my Aunt Phyllis. My brothers and I called her Queenie behind her back because she was the prima donna of my mother’s side of the family. Queenie worked as a bookkeeper at a beauty school, and for my seventh birthday, she gave me a mannequin head and a bag of rollers and clips she bought from the school. Playing with that mannequin became my favorite pastime until I reached high school and took an oil painting course. I loved creating art. The blending of the different pigments was fascinating and made me think of coloring hair. There was only one thing I could do—start dabbling in hair color. I bought drugstore hair dye and experimented on my old friend, the mannequin, and learned all about color.
The next thing I knew, I was getting ready for my first day at Poulin’s Institute of Beauty Culture. I stood in front of my full-length mirror and gave myself a final once-over. If you didn’t know that I was about to start beauty school, you might think I was a nurse. The crisp white uniform and shoes were not yet stained by color and perm solutions. There was one slight issue I had with this get-up, though. I never wore flats. I always wore heels. I ran my fingers through the underside of my hair and checked my makeup, being sure I had no eye crud in the corners of my eyes, and even looked up my nose. I had chosen my favorite plum eye shadow, used my black liquid eyeliner with meticulous perfection, and separated every eyelash with velvet black mascara. My cheeks were pomegranate halves. My lips, dark cherry.
“Let’s rock and roll,” I told myself. “You can do this, Josie.”
Poulin’s Institute of Beauty Culture was located downtown in ImmigrantCity, just outside Boston, where I grew up. The city was born when thousands of immigrants flooded in to work on the construction of mills and later to work at them. These giant brick textile mills with their smokestacks ran along the river. The largest of these was a mile long, and the others were built shoulder-to-shoulder to form a village of vast proportions. Different nationalities divided themselves up into neighborhoods. Downtown, which was nearly nonexistent in the beginning, sprouted ethnic businesses and acquired merchants. My grandfather, Salvatore Capelli, was one of those merchants. He owned a barbershop downtown for nearly fifty years. He’d come from Italy at the tender age of nineteen with his child bride, Giuseppina, sixteen. Their only offspring was my father, who, like his father, settled in the Italian section of town and married a good Italian girl, who bore four boys and then me, the long-awaited girl.
I opened Poulin’s door, and the smell whacked me in the face. There was no mistaking a hair salon’s aromatic blend of lacquer and rotten eggs. I was told to sit in the reception room and wait with all the other eager souls. Stiff lime-green plastic chairs with chrome legs surrounded a large coffee table piled up with magazines. Mounted on the wall was a plastic sculpture of a woman’s face from the neck up, painted gold. Her hair was done in strong finger waves with a delicate flip on the bottom.
“Hi, everyone, I’m Josie,” I said as I entered the room.
I couldn’t walk into a place and sit down without acknowledging everyone. The girls made humble hellos. As I looked more closely at my schoolmates, my eyes locked with one who was soon to be my best friend. Our similarities didn’t exactly hit me because I was too absorbed in my jubilation of being there, but I gravitated toward her.
I sat down and extended my hand. “Hi. Josie Capelli.”
“Maria Zompa,” she replied, taking my hand.
One of the girls sitting across from us said, “Hey, you guys look like sisters.”
Later, we got the nickname “Toni Twins,” like the perm commercial on TV.
Besides having the exact makeup on, we both stood all of five feet tall. We had shoulder-length thick, dark brown hair, permed, blown out, and curled into the biggest Farrah Fawcett ’do you could imagine. Her brows were black and full, her upper lip had dark hairs in the corners, and her arms had a downy of soft, dark brown hair, like me. We were going to have a blast in waxing class.
Best of all, Maria was Italian and spoke the language. We had that in common. A
second language always came in handy when you wanted to talk about someone.
Maria and I partnered up for all our practical lessons in beauty school. Mrs. Cunningham, our shampoo teacher, took our group over to the twenty shampoo bowls and taught us the proper way to put the towel and cape on the patron and begin the shampoo. I was first. I soaked Maria. Who would think something so simple could be so difficult? When it was her turn, she did much better, but when she shampooed me, she practically scrubbed a layer of my scalp off. God, she was rough. You pitied the poor girl who came in with long hair, and it was Maria who had to comb the tangles out. The old ladies loved her shampoos, though. They came in once a week for a shampoo and set, and they wanted to feel like their heads were clean. When we were learning to roller-set, and the comb-out looked like shit, the women would say in a condescending tone, “At least it’s clean,” which pissed us off. We were students, right? What did they want for two bucks?
It was when we got to do manicures that Maria got her nickname. I was sitting in the dryer chair as the supposed patron. Maria wheeled up the manicuring table and put it in front of me. She proceeded to fill up the finger bowl with water and a splash of shampoo. She set it on the table and gestured for me to put my hand in it. The water was scalding hot. Across the room were the manicuring stools. She sat on one, shoved off, and glided her way over to me. I looked over at Mrs. Cunningham, and she was giving Maria a look to kill. That was Maria, though—always pushing it. I had too much Catholic guilt to do something like that.
She pushed back and trimmed my cuticles.
“Ouch, ow, you’re killing me. Ow.”
“Shut up, ya wimp.” She proceeded to do an imitation of Mae West. “Why don’t you take it like a . . . big boy?”
That was her thing, mimicking Mae West. She sounded just like her, too. When she used the voice, she acted out the whole hand-on-her-hip routine. It was pretty funny.
I looked down at my cuticles, and they were all bleeding. “You’re a frigging sadist. You cut me!”
Maria had a twinkle in her eye and a shit-eating grin on her face. “I did not. You’re just a wimp.”
“You think it’s funny, huh? When you cut my hair this morning, you practically ripped my ear off with the comb. I’m not a wimp, you’re a sadist. That’s it. I’m calling you Sadie from now on.”
And so the nickname stuck, and eventually, once her family started feeling the pains of Maria’s rough touch, they called her Sadie, too.
Sadie and I breezed through school. Approaching graduation, we had quite the clientele. We had people asking for us every day.
Beauty school was the beginning of dealing with the many personalities of the
public. Whatever the personality type, I was sure I’d met it. Sadie and I felt like we had led a sheltered life till we got to Poulin’s, but because of our outgoing personalities, we got along with them all.
Sadie and I got to be like sisters. Our families bonded and blended like relatives. She had an older brother, Bill, who was the apple of any Catholic parent’s eye because he was a priest. I called him Padre. I always considered a priest to be so God-like it was unimaginable to socialize with one. Knowing Padre made me realize priests were just guys. He looked like Sadie, but his lashes were so dense it looked like he was wearing eyeliner. I couldn’t help but think what a lucky catch he could have been for some woman.
One day Sadie and I were in a conversation about Bill, and she was telling me about a girl that broke his heart in high school. My curiosity got the best of me.
“Please don’t tell me he’s a virgin. Is he?”
“Fuck no. He lost his virginity at fifteen.”
We both laughed.
I graduated beauty school in October of 1979. All I wanted to do was land a job in a nice salon and do my thing. But no one wanted to hire me right out of school. The good salons only wanted the experienced stylists with clientele. How did those salons expect me to gain that experience if nobody wanted to hire me? I had only one choice—the chop shops. For a year and a half, I pounded the pavement from one chop shop to another. Chop shops were chain salons that hired anybody with a license. They charged next-to-nothing and were not considered quality salons. They were the kind of place a person looking for a good haircut would avoid. The majority of people who frequented this type of salon were men, kids, and weirdos. Men could stop in for a quick cut without an appointment. Mothers liked the price, and the weirdos didn’t know where else to go.
My average chop-shop day consisted of meeting complete strangers, communicating what they wanted done, giving them a new look, and making them feel good about themselves, all in a matter of a half hour to an hour. A hair salon was an intimidating place for the nerd or shy-type. With humor, I could make the goofiest guy feel like a sex symbol by the time he left my chair. The nerd-type got so flattered I was giving him the time of day, he came back every month. The fact that I could make going into a salon a comfortable experience for them gave me a loyal client. I treated everyone in my chair equally, like a long lost friend, even the dregs. But I learned the hard way where to draw the line in my friendliness with a man named Wendell Davies.
Wendell, a weirdo-nerd, came in one afternoon. I could see his scalp through fine brittle hair. It was obvious he was coloring it himself. It looked like straw. I made a joke about it and eased my way into the consultation. Something wasn’t completely right with him, but I rolled out the red carpet anyway, as I’d gotten accustomed to doing. When we agreed on the way he wanted his hair cut, I took out my cape. I snapped it open in the air and as it was about to land in his lap, he scratched his balls and looked at me in the mirror in a perverted way. I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to look down. Apparently, he mistook my friendliness for something else. I had to think quick and get down to business.
“How long has it been since your last haircut, Wendell?”
While he was undressing me with his eyes, he muttered in a voice that made my skin crawl, “About two months. Now that I’ve found you, I’ll come in more often.”
I started cutting, trying to appear too busy to look at him.
“I like your outfit,” he said.
The stylist next to me had just started a hair relaxer, and the smell of rotten eggs hovered over my station. My stomach tightened up. I was ignoring Wendell’s constant staring, and I pretended it didn’t bother me in the least.
“It makes your body look good.”
His hand movements under the cape made it look like he was masturbating. I finished his haircut as fast as I could and tried not to strike up further conversation. But because I was so nice to him, he came back to me. There weren’t too many people I disliked, but I despised Wendell.
I did my share of kids in the chop shops. I socialized with their parents like they were old pals and treated their kids like they were the best kids in the world, even though most were brats. A child named Eddie displayed the typical behavior I had to deal with.
I bent down to greet him. “Hi, Eddie. My name is Josie. Are you ready for your haircut?”
“No! I don’t want my hair cut,” he yelled and kicked me in the shin.
“Eddieee, that’s not very nice,” his mother said.
I wanted to cry, but I held back. “Jump up on the chair.”
“I don’t wanna,” he whined, stomping his foot.
The mother picked him up and put him on the booster seat.
“Leave me alone. I hate you,” he cried, trying to slap his mother.
I had to give this kid a haircut while he was screaming, crying, and trying to hit me. I had the attention of the whole shop, and I was breaking out in a sweat. Eventually, the mother woke up and held his hands together, which made him cry all the more. Consequently, I gave him the fastest haircut on record and got him out as quickly as I could.
As soon as parents saw I was doing halfway decent haircuts on their squirming children, they started coming to me, too. A referral process had started to take place, and I began to build a clientele.
I learned right away I was going to be doing a lot of talking and listening. I heard about every possible disease, surgery, and pregnancy problem there was, so that I could almost diagnose any ache or pain. Clients vented their frustrations, purged their latest disasters, and dumped on me all the things that were going on in their lives. They trusted me. They told me things without fearing I’d spread gossip about them or judge them. The one thing that fascinated me the most was how a simple hairdo could make people confess their darkest secrets.
I was getting a lot of practice in cutting and coloring because the chop shops were always busy and kept me booked. I was doing the men’s cuts like my grandfather, the barber, showed me. Nonno—we called him by the Italian name for “grandfather”—gave me the best education right at home. My grandparents had lived with us as long as I could remember. When Nonno retired, my father was doing quite well at his car dealership and bought a new house large enough for the whole family. Nonna, Italian for “grandmother,” died five years ago. Nonno was still cutting my father and brothers’ hair. We’d have hair night about once a month. I watched him intently as he explained everything about the haircut he was doing. Nonno’s philosophy was: The more places you work, the more tips you learn; the more tips you learn, the more skillful you become.
The problem with the chop shops was that no one working there was any good. Consequently, Sadie and I began to travel all over New England, going to trade show events for advanced education. We wanted to learn from the masters. I was hoping those classes would look good on a resume, and I’d get a better job.
Little did I know that there would be a surprise waiting for me one day after work—a visit from my Aunt Connie, the bearer of good news.