Often I can be heard raving about my hairdresser who, for the purposes of this writing, we’ll call Pasquale. Pasquale arrives to his salon every morning from Naples, his native land. More than his native land, I’d go so far as to say Naples is his flag, the blood pulsing through his veins, the sly anything-could-happen-from-this-moment-on escaping his crooked smile. He embodies the mellifluous lament, the passion originating from the bite of the taranta, the beat of the Neapolitan tammorra omnipresent in all Neapolitan music (the good and the bad). He saches from sink to the client’s chair; the phone rings and he two-steps to get it while twirling slightly on the balls of his hand-sewn leather mocassins and reaching suavely for his cigarettes and lighter, all in one smooth move. And do not let the prose fool you; he does so in an entirely heterosexual way.
Pasquale is old-school. He represents the caste of Southern-Italian, self-taught, male hairdressers. He and his brothers have built an empire on the craft they learned as boys from their uncles, fathers, grandfathers. He will have had the famous stool to step-on when shaving one of his father’s customers and his own broom which will have been unceremoniously sawed off and taped up for his slight height and he will have been given the responsibility to sweep up after each customer swiftly and without getting in the way.
In his old-schoolness, Pasquale is also what we refer to as “First Republic”. To belong to Italy’s “prima Repubblica” was a distinction made in the nineties to refer to those who still hadn’t grasped the fact that we’d turned a page; that the political-religious-economic-social web woven by governments from the end of the Second World War until 1992 was untangling and that transparency and honesty would be adopted by all. Those of us who read the papers, marched in the marches, cried at the rallies and for the blood of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, to name only two, used the term (and still do) with condescending tones: “that’s so First Republic” of him”, “oh, we don’t go to that bar/pizzeria/school….they’re very prima repubblica“. Little did we know that the first would soon swallow the second transparent, honest, untangled, forward-thinking, upward moving Republic and with one big, 17-year-long belch, thus creating the third: Berlusconismo. But I digress.
Pasquale, alas, is very first and third Republic. He is, I believe, the only representative of that part of this country whose happy patron I remain. I shop at the organic, grower-to-consumer markets; I teach about corruption and its prices to society; I preach about entire neighborhoods built illegally only to be ‘condoned’ by the administration once they’ve been erected with no consideration for safety, water, waste management, schools, roads, bus routes. I am always reminding businesses that, yes, actually, I do need a receipt just as surely as they need to pay taxes.
But Pasquale. Pasquale can do no wrong. Pasquale is where vanity meets sanity and wins. His workmanship is tantamount to a Sorrentine wood inlayer or a Venetian lacemaker from the island of Burano. My professionalism is challenged as I search for a way to credibly herald Italian hairdressers the likes of Pasquale and his caste as Italian artisans in their own right.
As I make my way through the fourth floor of the 5-star, luxury hotel chain where his salon is located, I force the thoughts of fronts and illicit economies from my mind.
He greets me with a wink and a crooked, knowing smile. He has a connection with each one of his customers; he knows them, he understands their weaknesses and strengths and recognizes their beauty – however deep it lies. A kempt head, well-kept hands and polished shoes are all tell-tale signs of the dignity and poise that lies beneath, my grandmother would have said. I am here to tend to the first and second of those.
As I wait, a woman who I initially mistook for a famous Roman movie actress begins to whine in her annoying, Roman, flirtatious way. She is artificially tanned and her breasts are squeezed into three layers of stretch tank top concoctions of various colors and patterns, the last of which continues its squeezing around her disappearing waist, over her hips and falls just above her knee. Rolls abound everywhere and her lime green bra straps are revealed atop heavy, round upper arms which hearten me and my vain attempts to hide mine. The pedicured toes at the end of rather chunky, tanned feet, peek out of nine-inch heeled sandals. Her eyelashes, coated in three coats of black mascara bat up and down and her thick-lined lips in deep raisin tones pout: “Pasquale, I’ve forgotten my phone in my car. Can you please go down and get it for me?” He looks around the crowded 3-chair, 4th-floor salon. Women wait patiently, I have my head covered in henna and it’s sticking up unattractively looking a bit like Jimmy Hendrix in mud. We are all interested to see how Pasquale reacts. He looks at her. “Look at how many people are here. What do you need your phone for? Relax.“. “No, I need it“ she pouts, “I’m working“. (Oh, shock and horror, reader. Don’t tell me you don’t pretend you’re working while you’re actually getting your hair done. It’s practically expected by Italian labor offices. Besides, this salon is a probable front, ergo it doesn’t exist, ergo I can’t be here, ergo I am at work.) He looks around again. He catches my eye and sighs, as if to share a little “can you believe this woman?“. I love being drawn into his circle of confidence. I blush.
“Where is it parked?“, he asks, visibly irked. “I gave the keys to the little black boys at the entrance.” I choke. My fresh-squeezed Sicilian orange juice almost comes out my nose. Not one other person in the salon bats an eye. “with whom?“, he asks. She repeats it. More audibly, “You know, the little black boys who park the cars.” (Mine is a loose and generous translation of the still quite frequently-used Italian term negretti, the diminutive impossibly implying anything but diminution. Many Italian friends and family will dispute that nothing is meant by it. Well, then, I say, don’t use it!) I’m reminded of a similarly batty tv personality who once said on a popular talk show, “oh, I’d love to adopt a child. Maybe even a little negretto.“. My reaction in the salon is similar to the one I’d had on my living room sofa that time. I cannot believe my ears.
In the time it took me to take that little foray into modern, social linguistics, my heralded artisan of hair took the keys from bimbette and went to get her phone and was back. She blew him kisses in the mirror with both of her manicured hands almost touching her painted lips. I texted a friend and described the scene. Having mistook her for this famous actress, I thought I was witnessing a scoop.
Pasquale continued to glance my way through the mirrors each time I looked up from my Blackberry; I, unlike some, was working!
After Bambi left and the wizard of hair was rinsing out my henna, I asked him if that really was Sabrina Ferrilli. He said many people mistake her for la Ferrilli but she’s not. “She’s the Police Commissioner.”
“Oh” was all I could muster. “Annammo bene“, the Romanesque catch-all phrase succinctly implying “well, if this is the state of affairs, I hate to think what might come next“, was what I thought.
As I paid Pasquale in cash which he quickly put into his designer pocket, I promised to make no more notice of the lack of register or refusal of credit cards. I made a deal with myself that this is my one oasis of sin where I am spoiled with fresh cookies and tea or fruit platters of every exotic color with champagne. Where the wizard once took one look at my overworked self, wrapped my head in a mask, drew me into a room where a young woman handed me a towel and invited me to take my champagne and fruit into the steam room for fifteen minutes while the mask worked through my hair. I made a pact with myself that I would ignore the constant reminders of backward thinking, ill-fed economy, dubious dealings and corrupt officials. And I do it all in the name of my love for Italian art and workmanship.
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