During the first few weeks after my office moved from Midtown East to Times Square, I kept my eyes peeled for every new sight, and smelled every new smell. There was Bryant Park with its huge lawn to relax on, the bright lights late at night in the Square and all the tourists milling about at all times, making it difficult to grab a bit for lunch.
One day, when I was walking to Bryant Park to enjoy some time away from my desk, I looked over and saw what was surely a hole-in-the-wall Dominican salon. It had all the markers: a row of chairs with the stuffing falling out of the plastic seats, each supporting the ass of a woman who’s been waiting too long just to get her hair done. Some of those women were chatting away on Sidekicks, some were eating beans and rice from a Styrofoam container picked up at the bodega next store.
Along the back wall inside was a woman getting her head dunked under the faucet at the washing sink with another pretty, young girl standing over her and vigorously scrubbing at her scalp and sudsing up her hair. Rinse, wash, repeat. Next to the washing sink are three chairs in front of three styling stations. Two women work here to blow out women’s hair with super-powerful professional hair dryers and round brushes. In a small anteroom, five or six other women sat with their hair in rollers, each of them under a huge egghead-shaped hair dryers.
Two main elements that differentiate a Dominican salon from a black salon are the ethnicity of the staff and the language spoken. When you walk into a Dominican salon, they will either speak Spanish with you, or direct you to the one person who works there who speaks English. If you’re going in the late afternoon or evening, they’ll have music playing, and inevitably one of the girls will be singing along. If you’re like me, you’ll be wondering what the words mean.
There are less than five inches of free space anywhere you turn – squeezing your way through to the washing sink in the back is an intimate encounter with the torsos and behinds of every stylist in the shop. In that space, or lack of space, you learn to treat the other women there as co-conspirators. You may not know the song that’s playing, but you and everyone there understand that this weekly trip is your way of maintaining your femininity. Some girls go nuts over shoes. Some girls have a thing for designer purses. When it comes to spending money on accessories, the only accessory I care about is my hair. Being a black girl with great hair is work, and for me, it’s worth this hassle.
You get comfortable with a particular stylist after having been to the same shop a few times. One girl will know how to flip out the ends of your hair to make it gently curl where it hits your collarbone. She’ll remind you to bring your special shampoo in if you’re scalp’s a little dry. She knows to ask which side to part it on each week because you switch it up. For me, that stylist was Dorka, a very pretty Dominican lady maybe in her early 30s with lovely shiny hair and an amazing ass.
You also see some usual suspects on every visit. The girl with the super long hair and a container of plantains and rice is the one you watch because you know she’ll be there for hours waiting for her hair to dry. There are stacks of old magazines to keep you occupied while you wait and wait under that dryer. The old lady answering the phone offers you a slice from her plate of melon on the visits when the outside temperature hits the 90s and sitting under the dryer is nearly killing you.
I liked my little hole in the wall Dominican shop. I’d sometimes grab a slice of pizza at the bodega on my way out and eat it at the corner of 38th and 6th Ave., watching the double-decker buses drive by and observing the mix of midtown drones and out-of-town visitors. It was a nice little routine.
Sometime in December, Dorka brought me down a flight of rickety stairs to wash my hair because the upstairs sink was in use and the dryers were packed. She peered at me with my head back in the sink and told me that the shop was going to be closing, but that she was going to be working at another salon nearby. She wanted to keep me as a client, so she gave me her cell phone number and asked for mine so that she could tell me where the shop was the following week.
I was sad when I walked out that night, knowing that I wouldn’t have that little community anymore. I liked the old lady with her plate of melon, and the girls singing along with whatever song was playing on the radio.
The following week rolled around, and I called Dorka. The new salon was also just a couple blocks from my office, so I walked over on a Tuesday night. When I saw it from the street, I couldn’t believe that’s where she’d be working. It’s got huge windows showing the second story salon and just looks so … fancy. I can do fancy. I do fancy every two months when I visit the Black Hair Mommies at Joseph Tyler salon to get my hair cut. But Dorka is low-key. I couldn’t see her personality shining through in a fancy shop.
Up the stairs I went. The place was enormous, especially compared to the elbow-room only Dominican shop. There was a sofa in the center of the room, new issues of magazines like InStyle, a separate room just to hang coats in. Gone were the jugs of no-name Dominican salon shampoo and tubs of Silicone Mix conditioner. In their place were fancy organic shampoos. The place was quiet, as the only other people there were another former worker from the Dominican salon and the owner of the new place, an Italian man that I’m sure is going to hit on Dorka every chance he gets.
I didn’t know what to make of it. The following week, I went back and this time it was a little busier. I was in and out in about an hour and a half, which is a wash and set record, cause it usually takes 2-3 hours, depending on how busy the shop is and how late in the shift you make it over. I could get used to that.
The strange thing is that I missed the hustle and hard luck feel of the old place. I miss watching girls snap their gum and attempt to squeeze their cell phones under their hair dryer so they can talk about their evening plans. I miss the rotating fan blowing on hot days and picking up a slice on the way home. My Dominican salon near my apartment recently closed without warning, too, so now I go down the street a bit further and it’s the same story. I found a new salon and it is a Dominican salon, but it’s big and airy and sort of fancy.
I guess I just miss what I first experienced as the definition of a Dominican salon – going to a place called Michelle’s a handful of blocks down the street from my old apartment, waiting my turn for the owner to scrub the bejesus out of my hair, scroll it efficiently onto big plastic rollers, and then yank it out almost by the roots with a big round brush while wielding a blow dryer hot enought to make diamonds melt.
So, R.I.P. all my hole in the wall Dominican salons. I know you’re still out there, but I feel you’re slowly being replaced. Thanks to all the Dorkas and Jospefinas out there – you ladies are the reason my hair looks great every week. You give my locks a girly swing and put a bounce in my step.