Her name is Karen.
Karen has owned her hair salon for more than 30 years. It’s an unassuming place — think Truvy’s beauty parlor in “Steel Magnolias” — and like Truvy’s, it is a beacon for a number of regular customers who have come to think of Karen’s place as a refuge.
Each day a parade of characters comes in to have their hair done and share their stories. There’s Razzy who is 65, and who loudly and proudly talks about her breast implants and tattoos. There’s Deacon with his long braided ponytail. He only comes in for his beard to be trimmed. Sylvia is 92, and always arrives with an elaborate scarf and low kitten heels as she gets her regular silvery style. All people, all walks of life, one salon. And the one and only Karen.
Karen grew up in my neighborhood, but was much older and considered to be one of the “bad” kids. My neighbor use to complain about Karen and the company she kept, saying she was always up to no good. The adults use to whisper that part of the problem was that Karen’s dad died suddenly, leaving her mom to raise four kids alone. According to them, that woman needed a man around the house who could discipline those kids. No one gave a thought to the fact that Karen’s mom had to find a job that could support her family. Her kids’ behavior was her fault.
I first went to Karen when I was 15, because my mom had heard she was starting a business and she wanted to be supportive. It was the 1980s, so of course I wanted a perm, with half of my head shaved like the guy who was the lead singer of A Flock of Seagulls. Karen told me I was crazy and refused to do it. So I had to settle for a perm with really high mall bangs. I’ve always loved her from stopping me from my worst instincts.
I have been her loyal customer for 35 years. Not since that fateful first perm has anyone else touched my hair. It’s always been Karen. I can’t leave her and more importantly, I don’t want to leave her. The salon stands still in time. There is no website to promote the business. They don’t do things like blow-outs or multi-process coloring techniques. No one is rushing to Instagram the latest follicle fantasy style. One time I asked Karen what finishing spray was, and she told me it was just a fancy name for hair spray. There are two women there who pay Karen rent to work there as barbers and cut the hair of local factory workers when they get out at the end of their shifts. It’s midwestern rust belt style at its best.
Every Wednesday through Saturday, Karen can be found at the ramshackle, one-room salon next to a strip mall. There is no insulation in the salon, so it is inevitably hot in the summer and drafty cold in the winter. The construction of the strip mall created a flood situation in her parking lot. She has complained to the township administrator for years, but nothing changes. She has no connections, no one who can pull strings, so no one does anything beyond telling her they’ll look into it. Each spring, the parking lot and the salon flood.
She carries on anyway. She no longer has a choice.
Karen can’t retire. She has no retirement saved. There is no 401K. There isn’t even vacation or sick time. As Karen says, “When I don’t work, I don’t get paid.” Time and chemicals have taken a toll on Karen’s health. A longtime smoker who quit when she turned 50, Karen now struggles to breathe. Smoking plus the exposure to all sorts of chemicals over the years are to blame for her ragged breathing rhythm. In spite of wearing gloves when she works, the chemicals have taken a toll on her skin, creating itchy and painful rashes. She has even developed lesions of skin cancer on her arms and legs.
I feel guilty each time I get my hair colored, thinking that I have contributed to her declining health. And then I worry about not coming in to see her because she needs the money. As it is, she refuses to charge me more than $5 for a haircut, and if I get my hair colored, it’s just $40. I never tip her less than $50 anytime I go in, no matter what she does to my hair. She always quietly takes the money, and I hope she knows it’s not out of pity, but gratitude for being an authentic person in a world full of jerks.
I saw Karen about a week ago. I needed to get my hair cut and colored its typical shade of brown. Karen was tired and quiet. I watched as she sat down in a chair to mix the chemicals before she put them on my head. She told me she was going to her sister’s house again for Thanksgiving, but that she was going to work the next day because her schedule is busy. The usual yammering and bustle was going on in the salon, with Bunny, one of the other hairdressers, cackling and dropping F-Bombs. Karen rolled her eyes and whispered to me, “Sometimes I wish I could just tell everyone to shut up.”
So many of us who are grinding it out at our jobs often long to go it alone, launching our own businesses and seeing if we can achieve our dreams. For some, that actually happens. And then I always think about Karen. She struck out on her own and became a business owner years ago. It has not been an easy road for her. She doesn’t have the luxury of slacking off, of delegating work, of healthcare through an employer. It is her and her alone against the world, but she has created a world for herself. Her loyal clientele is a tribute to the type of person she is, a good listener who’s top commodity was always her humanity. The utter lack of pretension in a world full of self-involved pretenders is not just refreshing, but a luxury.
I write about the experiences of career rejection. Karen fascinates me because she has purposefully rejected the path of a career, of even trying to run her business in a conventional way. She has sacrificed so much, and I worry about what could happen to her if her health worsens. In spite of her hardship, she is uniquely her own person that draws others in, that gives hefty doses of comfort as she artfully cuts away the split ends. She deserves an employee of the year award or even a 40 year service award that she’ll never get. I want her to have a break, a joyful retirement where she can head for the warm weather she loves so much. Karen will probably never get that chance. And it breaks my heart.