In all sixteen years I’ve danced for Cher, my one physical challenge has not changed: the hair problem.
For most of my post-adolescent life before her, I enjoyed a low-maned, maintenance free existence. Get up in the morning and go. Rub something on it and call it a day.
Until Doriana, then director/choreographer, told me our boss is a hair girl. “Do not cut it. Period.”
This Samson edict has been manageable with few hiccoughs except on tour. Granted, the constant toggle between numbers with headpieces and numbers with hair out has been taxing, and made funner with quick-changes. But after a certain length of hair the only solution is cornrows.
In Melbourne’s South Yarra, this means struggle.
Now, in my younger days, I would chase the do. I horrified friends and family by trekking to somebody’s living room in Southside Chicago after the cashier at the CVS offered to braid my hair when she got off. And was it Glasgow where Akua @onlyupward, who was at Dance Theatre of Harlem at the time on their UK tour, rowed my stuff back in the hotel?
But post-youngster, the stakes are a little higher, as is my position at work. So I aim for tamer pursuits.
I ask the concierge if they can recommend any places.
The local physical therapist mentions a stylist at an upscale salon nearby.
No appointments this week.
On the way to pick up a white sweater I saw the day before, I see a trio of beautiful chocolate women walking toward me. I stop them and ask the one with braids where I can get cornrows.
The others nod vigorously,
“Oh yeah, it’s nothing like this area but you’ll be fine,” another says.
“Can I get to it by train?”
“Oh yes, it’s a stop on the train line.”
“And is there a certain place I should find once I get there?”
The ladies look to each other for confirmation before one says, “No, just go. You’ll be fine.”
The handsome Turk running the Cipo and Baxx disagrees.
“You don’t want to go there, man,” he says. “That’s the ghetto. I’m sure we can find somewhere closer to get you what you want.”
“You think so? Go for it.”
He 90’s-baby’s that phone, gets a number, calls it. “…Yes cornrows…for a man…how much…$110?…and when is your next appointment….next Tuesday.”
He is appalled on my behalf.
“You know what, Footscray is not so dangerous,” he says. “I can’t imagine it’s like the ghettos in Chicago or Detroit. I just know Australia gives off this impression that because the murder rate is among the lowest in the world there’s no crime. There is theft and vandalism every day, organized theft.”
Organize theft? Turns out that segregated gangs of Pacific Islanders, Sudanese, (mostly white) bikers, and Vietnamese thugs take things from people quite a bit, the primary targets Indians in descent.
“They’re thought to be more nicer, gentle people.”
Never in my black American life have I heard people from India stereotyped as docile. Now, my quest for a hair solution on tour has run me into new stereotypes, international misconceptions and consideration of ghettos.
When I make it to Footscray, I understand what the three ladies mean. Folks from two different regions of Africa stand on the corner near a Chinese woman and two Indian men, waiting for the light. The entire area looks very much like a well-kept swapmeet of sorts, with a coffee shop down the road that could still slay Starbucks. I walk toward it and run upon a barber shop and salon. Assuming that if there is probably one woman in there, she can probably braid hair, I check it out.
A woman with a baby and stroller is having a time with the door. I help out. A young Ethiopian joins me and I pray she is my answer. She is.
“Show me what you want.”
I pull out a picture of Collin Kaepernick.
“Sure. I can do it. $50. This okay?”
She had no idea how much stylized braids cost in the states, nor how beneficial the exchange rate was for us.
Nor that my hairgency superseded cost concerns at this point.
“I promise it is.”
She begins combing out my hair.
“Feel free to braid product into if necessary.”
She shakes her head. “Your hair is nice. It combs out easily.”
She looks at the picture again and begins to strategically part my hair. The braid feels amazing. I try not to compare her to the Nigerian women in Harlem that are painfully skilled - emphasis on painfully. Memories of a face pulled so frozen that Botox would be jealous came back. The difference is that with Bella, my current hair solver, I am able to hear her story, that she is a nursing student who prefers hip hop and R&B to Ethiopian music.
A barber, most likely the alpha, comes over to look at Kaepernick on my phone and converse with her in Tigrinya, one of the widely spoken tongues in Ethiopia. I interrupt the music only to explain to him that the longer pull of hair into the the center is the aspect of the picture I want them to copy, not so much the number of braids. He explains this. I am thrilled that I have these two beautiful East Africans sorting out my hair in a language I seldom hear.
I sneak a photo.
It takes Bella only 40 minutes to braid my whole head. During this time, I ask her if this area is as mild as I think it is.
“It’s not too dangerous. If you are a good person, do your thing, people don’t bother you.”
“yeah, then Footscray is not ghetto to a black American.”
I am astonished. It takes a second to process that it is not my skin color; the gradient spread of Ethiopians in the shop is as wide as any other part of the black diaspora. She is reacting to my hair. Because I washed and conditioned it 36 hours ago, it cooperated with her comb way too easily. The sisters who pioneered the Mixed Chicks line would be intrigued - and verified.
“Yes, Bella,” I say. “All day long and evenings too.”
When she finishes, the beautiful alpha barber who turns out to be the owner asks his associate, Yousef, to edge me up. He is as meticulous as Bella, and I am glad to have nothing to do other than wander around the museum later. Somehow, the music has now shifted to Jay-Z, Will.i.am, Nicki Minaj.
There is dissent about how much Yousef should be paid. I want to sort it out, agree to the higher fee. But I selfishly enjoy the musicality of the argument. Solo handles it (I tip Yousef to make up the deficit).
Hair problem solved once again. We’ll see what happens in Sydney.
In the meantime, if anybody black finds themselves in metropolitan Melbourne needing braids, an edge or both, go to Footscray, specifically Solo’s shop on Paisley Street, IG @solo.barber.footscray.
Bella was kind enough to share with me the word for Thank You in Ahmaric, the other widely used tongue in her homeland: Amesegenalehu.
Indeed. Amesegenalehu indeed.