[An excerpt from the memoir Failure to Comply about being a white, English-speaking illegal alien in the 1980s.]
East 58th Street crossed Park Avenue and Lexington where old money brushed up against the midtown industry of making more of it. Exiles of vaguely aristocratic European families glittered next to buttoned-down urban professionals. In shoe stores, the salesmen were dressed as well as the patrons, and knelt to slide Italian leather onto the offered foot with a shoehorn. Above East 58th, Fifth Avenue upgraded itself to Central Park East, where doormen’s whistles hailed yellow cabs for their charges waiting under the awnings. The cabs flowed downtown towards Saks, or Nieman Marcus, or the Plaza Hotel for lunch.
Salon Étienne was poised to serve them all, in the middle of the block on the third floor. The street level would have been a crass location to receive clients. The huge panes of glass were not for pedestrians to see into, but for clients to see out of, to survey the landscape uptown. The salon was reached by an elevator reserved for the exclusive use of the clientele.
I stepped into this little limousine and inhaled a mixture of heady perfume and hair chemicals. At the top, my stomach took a moment to catch up with my body as the doors opened. I was greeted by a loud flower arrangement the size and shape of a fireworks display. It guarded the reception desk, an S-shaped station of padded green suede. The dropped ceiling over the desk glowed with concealed lighting. The rest of the ceiling disappeared into darkness, like a theater. Track lighting was aimed towards each velvet chair, to show a new coiffure in its best possible light. Each chair was positioned in front of a large mirror framed in baroque gilt. The mirrors leaned out on picture wires like rows of valuable ancestral portraits. I felt like a tadpole in a shark tank.
Fortunately, Thalia was at the front desk and saw me. She was on the phone, and shut her eyes by way of a greeting, her code for insufferable pain. Her voice went on in a pleasantly professional tone, while her eyeballs rolled and fluttered behind their lids. With her blue-black hair and thick lashes, she looked like Cleopatra with a migraine.
When she hung up she murmured, “I’m so sorry,” and opened her eyes. She said it with such gravity I heard it as a kind of black grace before a meal: for what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly sorry. “She’s back here.”
I followed her to a giant bathroom, tiled in gray, where the basins for shampooing were lined up.
A narrow door opened at the back, and Odette of Salon Étienne made her entrance. I thought she was twisting her shoulders to get the shoulder pads of her red suit through the doorway, but it was part of her walk. She led from the epaulettes, swaying left and right with the oddly military gait of models on the runway. A broad patent leather belt, cinched tight enough to stop the flow of blood below the waist, kept her pelvis still as she walked. The four-inch heels of her sandals were translucent and were secured to her feet by the thinnest strip of gold braid across the toes. The varnish on her toenails and fingernails matched exactly the hue of the crimson suit. She was almost past Thalia before she noticed her.
“Madame, this is Linda. You wanted to meet--um, you wanted her to come and meet with you.”
“Yez?” Her eyebrows lifted slightly to convey less, not more, interest.
“For the evening clean-up shift?”
Odette finally looked at me, as if accosted by a fan for her autograph. “Yez. Five nights, starting at seven. One hundred dollars a week. Come wis me.”
My interview was over. Odette’s heels clicked on her way to a row of changing rooms. We were skipping right to the task at hand.
“Start here. Wipe the counters and sweep.” Click, click, click to the basins. There was not going to be any paperwork.
“The basins. No hairs, no soapings. Dry.” This woman didn’t have the patience or curiosity to ask me any kind of question. She pointed at the expanse of mirror lining the wall above the basins. “No spots, every night.” For a moment her attention shifted to a blemish on her chin, and she leaned towards it critically. I guessed her age, my mind ranging over numbers like a bathroom scale dialing wildly from over- to underweight. Her hair was no indicator. In fact, I wasn’t sure what color it was, so many had been woven in. Her hands said mid-forties.
“You wait for the last client to leave, and you vacuum the front.”
I was trying to memorize the sequence of clipped orders, knowing that while Odette was barely scanning my presence now, she would track me closely when my tour began.
“Last is the floor here. It is wet when you leave.”
A hand dryer whined at full throttle, and my nerves blew away all the instructions. I saw myself trying to get every hair up from the damp cracks between the gray tiles, while Odette stood over me.
“I close the salon when you finish.”
I already felt like I was keeping her waiting. But Odette’s face switched to a smile of radiant pleasure so suddenly that I had the same dropping sensation as from the elevator. My own face was responding before I realized Odette was looking past me.
“Ah, Madame Gerstenberger!” she sang out, leaving me in a breeze of perfume, staring at my tadpole face arrested in mid-smile in the mirror.