by Suzannah Gilman
This time last year, I was on a train from DC to New York, headed to the PEN Gala honoring Philip Roth. PEN is sort of the Amnesty International for writers, and this event is their biggest fundraiser of the year, so it’d be swanky. It would be held at the Museum of Natural History. I was so excited! I’d bought a long, black dress—classic and timeless—that looked fabulous on me. I was about 5 months into growing out my grays, and my dark hair fell well below my shoulders. My hair! Yikes! My heart rumbled like the train on the track as I remembered the last big event I’d been to in New York, a cocktail hour with an unexpected turn.
For that night out, I’d fixed my hair the way I always did—blow-dried upside down, put hot rollers into for a few minutes to take out the frizz and give it some rolling waves. We took the subway to the club. The humidity absolutely destroyed my hair. After arriving, my fiancé said that we weren’t just meeting our friend, but that some of his friends would be joining us. “Great,” I said, not a little PO-ed about my hair. A few minutes later, in walks Vince Vaughn (yowza!) with two good-looking guys and two gorgeous women, all tall, all Hollywood glam, the cast of a sitcom Vaughn produces. As introductions were made, the women smiled and shook their long, silky hair that was smoother than any hair I’d seen on Paul Mitchell commercials. “They didn’t take the subway,” I said to my fiancé.
That wasn’t going to happen to me this time. I wasn’t going to take the chance of styling my own hair. This occasion called for a professional. I used my smartphone to locate a salon close to where we were staying in the city, called, and made an appointment. The rest of my train ride to New York was so good. I knew, for one, that a car was coming to pick us up to take us to the gala, and now I was quite sure that people would be sneaking sideways glances of the tall woman with gorgeous hair accompanying my fiancé, wondering who I was.
I took a photo of my dress to the salon with me. I told the experienced stylist where I was going, who some of the expected guests were (Molly Ringwald, Salman Rushdie, Candace Bushnell), and that I’d like my hair not straight, but a little wavy and maybe worn away from my face. Great, he’d do that. “I’ll put a little of it kind of up, off your face, and then rest of it down.” He worked and worked and worked at my hair. I was turned away from the mirror. Through the second-story window of the salon, I watched traffic travel down Lexington Avenue for a long time. I’d arrived with freshly shampooed hair so he didn’t have to wash and dry it, but it took him nearly two hours to finish my ‘do. Did I like it? I said I did. I wasn’t sure. It was a sight I hadn’t seen before, as I’d never had a professional up-do.
Yes, it was all up—except some tendrils of curls here and there. Every strand of my hair was curled, and they were all pinned into a monstrous confection atop my head. He’d managed, somehow, to give me a center part so that the front of my head looked like it had wings—and that was the only gray part of my hair showing. It was quite the sight.
When I was paying, the manager (I suppose that’s who he was) said, “Did Tina give you a price on the phone?” Yes. “Well, this kind of style is extra. She quoted you a price on a regular style.” I figured. I’d paid for my daughter’s up-dos when she was in high school, and they cost extra. What I didn’t figure was that I’d be paying fully $100 more than the price quoted on the phone. Yes, with tip it was $170. Well, the Upper East Side has a reputation, I guess. I was trying to be happy. I was trying to like my hair. Everyone in the salon said how great I looked. The budgetarian and confrontarian in me wanted to say, “Hell no! This is not what we talked about. I’m not paying that much for THIS.” But I stayed calm. My night was not going to be ruined by me getting upset.
I walked out onto 70th Street and instantly felt self-conscious. I told myself it was because I was wearing jeans and one of my fiancé’s shirts, untucked, which really didn’t go with my hairstyle. Once I got my dress on, the picture would be complete. My napping fiancé woke when I got back and said, “Wow. That’s like a prom hairdo.” Well, scratch one off my list—I’d never been to prom. So, okay. This is a special ‘do. A special ‘do for a special night. Okay.
When we arrived at the gala, cocktails were being served in the Great Hall of the museum, under the dinosaur skeleton. I sipped an unusually strong vodka soda and surveyed the room. Gothamites were wearing their hair every which way: wavy, straight, in sleek ponytails, and the way they’d wear it on any ordinary day. No one was wearing an up-do. A good friend who’s a novelist came up and hugged me. The vodka had already hit me. She, a nearly-native New Yorker, wore a black, asymmetrical short dress that showed off her fit, tanned legs. And she’d just had her hair cut to her chin, angular, and lightened to an almost platinum glow. She looked hip, sophisticated, the way I wished I looked. “I am dressed as a Disney princess,” I said, a little buzzed. “Only I don’t have a wand or pixie dust.” “You look great,” she said. I heard that all night.
Molly Ringwald walked past, looking like a starlet from Old Hollywood in her satiny aqua sheath that hugged her rear. And her famous red hair? Side part, Jean Harlow waves, perfect. She looked at me as she walked past, then looked again. I know. I know. We’re far too old for prom hair.
On the way downstairs to the whale room for dinner, I stopped at the restroom. I looked in the mirror. By now I was sure I looked ridiculous. I’d joked about it, but my humiliation was cresting. I wanted to take all 398 bobby pins out of my hair. Had I remembered the stylist putting a rubber band in my hair? Couldn’t I just let it all down and then put it up in a high ponytail of curls? But taking it down was a big gamble. As ridiculous as I looked, it was possible that I could look even more ridiculous. Thanks to the killer cocktail, I couldn’t trust my judgment. Another woman came into the bathroom. She had green hair. She stared at me. Yes, we both had ridiculous hair, but the difference was, I knew I looked ridiculous.
Before being seated at a table with some publishing VIPs, I was introduced to several people—Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, actors, you know, the usual. And they were all very kind to me. They all remarked on my looks. They all gave me polite compliments. The humiliation hung over me like the giant whale hung over that room—until I decided that I wasn’t going to let this cripple me. “Yes, thank you. But I have to say: this is the last time I let my fairy godmother do my hair.”
One super-stylish woman I was not introduced to, who looked a little like Tilda Swinton, looked at me and just stared blankly. She wasn’t sure she was seeing what she thought she was seeing. I just stared back. I found out later, when she took the stage, that she’s Joanna Cole, the editor of Cosmopolitan. But really, what could I do besides look back at her openly, no apology, letting her look and letting her know I knew she was looking? I had to ride the train to the end of the line, so I did. Before that evening, I hoped that everyone would be stealing glances at me, wondering who I was. And they were. Not for the reason I thought they would, but I giggled to my fiancé. “They will all remember me tomorrow!” And I’m sure they did.
Except for my hair, the night was every bit as elegant (and cosmopolitan) as I imagined it would be. All those posh people were friendly and warm to me. (Who says New Yorkers don’t have hearts?) But I was being true with myself and I could have used a little empathy for my effort. The only one who was honest was Brenda Wineapple, who would fit right in with The Gloria Sirens. She’s that kind of graceful spirit who is an instant friend, honest and loyal. When we ran into her and her husband at the end of the night, glad to see them at the event, I said my Disney princess line and griped about how much I’d paid to have my hair done like that. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” Brenda said. “The dress is fabulous!” I wanted to hug her.
When we got back that night, I took out the 398 bobby pins. I had a tight mat of curls. There was, indeed, a rubber band in there. I put my hair in the high ponytail I’d considered in the bathroom with Green Hair Girl. My looks were improved roughly 4,170%. I didn’t wash my hair for two days or brush it, either—I wore the curls I’d never known I could have. I rocked them.