A Client’s Tale with Frankie

A Woman and Her Hairdresser

by Pamela Gwyn Kripke

It began with Juliano.
The place was Scarsdale, the sprucy village 28 minutes north of Manhattan, known in 1973 for academic prowess, Northeastern understatement, and Yorkshire terriers in every purse. Actually, it was White Plains, the completely un-magnificent county seat, but somehow Neiman Marcus had snagged the better address. We did not shop at Neiman’s, naturally, being New Yorkers. Bloomie’s was our game. The big brown bag. The exuberant makeup ladies. The zip.

But for this man, we would go anywhere and, apparently, pay anything. I was indoctrinated at 13. My mother had a shoulder-length blunt cut, angled down in front, parted on the side. She blew it straight like a broom each morning with a yellow hair dryer.

“I will take you to Juliano,” she said one day, like an attendant to the pope. I cannot remember an occasion. Maybe it was the teen thing. Mom had her own set of mandatory milestones, with accompanying rules and fashion accessories. Ninth grade, ’50s dance, baby blue mohair sweater, bobby socks. Mortification garb. Thirteen was The Haircut, I guess.

He met us at the desk, just inside the in-store entrance to the salon, at the deep end of the evening collection. He wore clingy shirts, I remember, and traveled through space in a hover. His own hair was wavy, but formed and rigid, in a Tom Jones sort of way. He slid up to us like a fox-trotter who knows he has won the trophy, chin lifted, smug. It was a moment, and he was the guy.

Juliano-well, more accurately, Ju-li-AH-no-took command of my head from that day forward until I was 25, seeing it through countless rites of passage with panache, ensuring it was a secure and polished crown that held its own even if I did not. Stood up for the freshman mixer? Easier to endure when the swoop swoops just so. Chemistry summer school? Show me a carbon bond that could break a girl in a neat French braid and lab goggles. Always long, always straight, my style was simple, and all in the cut. Very Ali MacGraw. Very $50, which, back in the day, was quite the number.

Through college, it was made clear that no one from Providence, Rhode Island, would wield scissors anywhere near my cranium. I was not even to consider the possibility of any hair-related procedure taking place not in Scarsdale and not by Ju-li-AH-no. “Farmers!” my mother would warn. So, each vacation, I made my way down Amtrak’s northeast corridor, scraggly and unkempt, having metamorphosed in the preceding months from Lilly Pulitzer herself into her hippie cousin from New Hampshire.

It went like this through graduate school. But when I was to leave for Biloxi (“Where?” Biloxi. “What?” Biloxi.) to be an on-camera reporter, propelling myself into journalistic fame and fortune, our collective brain latched onto only one thought: I could not fly home when the ends were split. But I could not look like a flower child on TV, either. Fancy Hair Girls are Fancy Hair Girls, and this was the time to prove the theory. In a restored cottage an oyster’s throw from the Gulf, tucked behind flowering vines of bougainvillea, I discovered Randy. He had the conceit, and the faux marble. Parfait.

“Just follow the line,” I told him, which he followed quite well for one year and more, until I made my way back north to New York. Oy.

Time is marked by significant events. During my absence, Mom’s friend Barbara had spotted a young child on a Manhattan block with a haircut worth noticing. It was a haircut worth tackling the first-grader for, actually, as Barbara really wanted the name of the little girl’s stylist. Barbara was a good sharer, unlike some other Fancy Hair Girls, and so, from this chance ambush on the West Side, Frankie entered our lives. Despite how we loved Ju-li-AH-no, revered and entrusted Ju-li-AH-no, it was 1985, and we felt we needed progress. We needed a maverick. We needed Frankie.

For years, I traipsed like a groupie crosstown, downtown, uptown, and back again, following Frankie Bruno from salon to salon, finding, with Frankie Bruno, the most compatible environment for his charismatic and talented $125 self, wrapped in the latest costumes (poet’s blouses), boots (turquoise), long locks (prettier than mine) and short, all the while a regular sweetie pie from Queens with a mama who made lots of lasagna. He layered, chopped, and scrunched, and I let him, feeling au courant and hip atop my prepster roots. Frankie was drama. He was it. I quoted him in beauty articles. He saved the clippings. Frankie coiffed our family’s weddings and stayed to dance, dashing in a skinny tie and tux. He drove an hour to our house when Dad was sick. Mom wasn’t about to look shaggy, not then.

We were not happy, it is obvious to say, when he fell in love, departed Madison Avenue, and moved to Charlotte. North Carolina, no less. We knew he was in love if he moved to Charlotte, but we didn’t really care. No one could do what Frankie could do. The future careened in that instant, a crashing of cockeyed bangs and frumpy shapes, edges that hung, lifeless, entire personas rendered indistinct and wan. Realizing the futility in searching for a replacement, I declared myself finished. Finished with fancy. Finished with Frankies. Done. It was all I could do.

My hair grew out in protest. A tomahawk would have completed the look. After a year, I cut my own bangs with kitchen shears. Middle of the brow, fringey at the bottom. I had learned from the best. And then I did the unthinkable. In hat and sunglasses, taking furtive glances over both shoulders, I crossed a threshold I had never approached before. I traversed the line. I walked in to a walk-in. Right, left. Right, left. No one received me in reception. No one offered me tea. No one hugged me, complimented the change in lip color, or shuddered, for effect, at the catastrophe that had happened to my head since we last visited. “Quick, honey, let’s get you washed.”

No, it was all business, all efficiency. All snip. It was clear that I would no longer have a personal relationship with my hair guy. I would no longer bring him muffins from the bakery or relay war stories from the front, whichever front it was that particular hour. I observed the technicians and picked one. “I’ll have that one,” I told the person at the desk. From the menu stuck onto the window, I selected the $12 option. “I will have a cut,” I told the woman, holding up my thumb and forefinger. “This much.”

Fortunately, my hairstyle, the same one I had in kindergarten, lends well to this sort of instruction. There are two horizontal lines-one at the bottom, one at the top-and two diagonals up the sides. It is simple geometry. A former carpenter did a superb job once. I still remember. He said he was good with inches.

And, you know, he was. I began to love the simplicity of the grooming process. I sat in nearly 50 different chairs, in front of 50 different mirrors. I did not remember names, unless the people wrote them down on the Buy Nine, Get One Free card. You get these in cheap salons. I really appreciated not having to make an appointment eight weeks in advance or needing to put on heels to enter. I spent $72.50 per year for haircuts. Even at Frankie’s reserved-for-special-gals anti-inflation rate from 1986, $72.50 would just about get me a shampoo. As a truly transformed Cheap Hair Girl, of course, I never got shampooed. I did that myself at home. No blow-drying either. And, it goes without speaking, not much speaking with the stranger hard at work to my back. I could be in and out in 14 minutes.

Three different people cut my hair the last three times I walked-no, skipped -gleefully into a walk-in. Well, four, if you count me, but that was just a trim. Oh, and the fifth who had to fix it a little. The funny thing is, it didn’t look half bad. It was not Sally Hershberger, but then again, I was not on the cover of Vogue.

But then I moved to Dallas. Salons tempt you here. They are sparkly and chic and, unlike their New York sisters, approachable. Maybe, new on the block, I felt friendless and was looking for repartee. Maybe, far from home turf, I felt drawn to my inner core, like a Parisian whose accent thickens with every minute in Tuscaloosa. Anyway, for whatever reason, my early experience called out, and like a rescued castaway, I couldn’t get enough. I reverted. Richard Hayler, Johnny Aveda, Jean-Philippe, and all their buddies. Pink robes, neck massages, beverages in stemware. It was marvelous. It was affirming. Where had I veered off course? This is where I should be. This is what hair should be.

I drank in the luxe of it all for a nice while, auditioning all sorts of Fancy Hair Guys, hoping to find one special guy, My Fancy Hair Guy. My Dallas Frankie.

His name was Mike. I knew in a second. We hugged. We laughed. We were snide. I brought him wine. He whispered he was hopscotching salons. Shhh, don’t tell. I hopped along, bringing friends, even Mom off the plane from LaGuardia. All was right with the world, and with my long layers, too.

Then the unthinkable. “I’m sorry, but Mike is no longer at the salon,” the voice said into my ear. “He has moved to L.A.”

I hung up, abandoned and angry, after taking the plunge, after choosing intimacy after so many years of anonymous scissoring. I cannot go to L.A. for closure, or even a bang trim. I could not go to Charlotte. They leave me. All the good ones leave me. I realized, then, that I could not be responsible for their behavior. I would have to adjust mine.

After a period of Fancy Hair Guy mourning, I embarked on a more tempered approach to this aspect of my life. I have struck a middle ground, of sorts, with fluffy towels and mod helper people. But I do not engage my person with chat about his childhood in Indiana or boy life or mine, and that is just fine. My person is not my pal, and I will not bring him cupcakes. I will not wonder where he lives or where he will move one day, without warning me, because he will.

I will just go and get my hair cut, tell him, “Thank-you-so-much-I-love-it,” and leave, looking fabulous and feeling just the same. I will snatch a glance in a glass storefront as a gust shoots every fresh end straight overhead, ready for who know’s what. But ready.