I’m not much one for atonement. (Sorry, Grandma Esther!) Living on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, it feels like you get enough religious credit for shopping at Zabar’s. But this year, my conscience is heavy with guilt. I bear my soul here in hopes of asking forgiveness for one particular transgression.
I almost gave up my life for a good haircut.
It’s not like my intellectual bona fides aren’t in order. Since graduating from Oak Park High School (Class of ’70), I’ve done my due diligence (or served my time, depending on how you feel about such things) in the library. Besides a B.A. in English, I have a master’s degree in journalism, as well as an ill-fitting law degree I have barely used. I’ve clearly hung around in universities for too much of my life.
But all of that book learnin’ hasn’t prevented my hair from becoming a central part of my being. I’ve done it all, baby — set my hair in hot rollers, straightened it with Curl Free, ironed it surreptitiously in Home Ec at Robert Frost Junior High, slept on pop cans, ratted it, brushed it, parted it, combed it, slathered it with gel and other goop and otherwise tortured my tresses. Unlike T.S. Eliot, I’ve measured out my life not with coffee spoons, but with spritzes.
So naturally, from the day that my first gray hair surfaced at 29 years old, I have dyed my hair. As any other Pandemic American Princess would tell you — oh yes, I know you girls are out there — that’s a habit that keeps getting more expensive as time goes by, like heroin. My current pusher in Manhattan is a chic (or chichi, depending how you feel about such things) salon on Fifth Avenue just above the Village. You could tell time by my pre-pandemic appointments there — a dye job every four weeks, rain or shine, and a haircut every eight weeks.
Given the advanced state of my hair jones, it is hardly a surprise that my locks quickly became a defining part of my pandemic journey. As soon as it became clear in March 2020 that we were in for a long stay behind closed doors, I ordered a stockpile of hair dye from Amazon: 12 boxes of L’Oréal Paris Superior Preference Fade-Defying + Shine Permanent Hair Color, 6R Light Auburn. (My brother the economist had mentioned that there were likely to be shortages of goods as the pandemic proceeded, so I wasn’t taking any chances.) Forget the fact that I had never once in decades of going grey ever dyed my own hair. A pre-pandemic princess-in-training? As long as I have been pulling in a paycheck, I have been laying down big bucks in overpriced salons. But since I live alone, who exactly did I think I was going to see in quarantine?
Never mind that. My mother had her hair done every week until she was 89 years old. It’s genetic.
Despite my outsized Amazon purchase, I never opened any of the L’Oréal boxes. I was afraid that I was going to spatter dye on my bathroom walls. So several months into the pandemic, my inevitable roots began to appear. For a while, I told myself that I was beginning to resemble the famously gray-streaked author, Susan Sontag, who was once described by Playbill as “a striking woman whose mane of dark hair was bisected by a dramatic streak of white.” But after six months sans chemical enhancement, even that piece of self-deception was no longer working. I looked like I had been dipped headfirst into a vat of vanilla frosting.
I was now half and half — half gray and half some other now-faded indeterminate color. Having gone that whole time without having had a haircut either, I put one in mind of a 21st century Medusa. But I was too terrified of COVID-19 to return to my Fifth Avenue salon. Despite their precautions — taking the temperature of each customer, separating the stylists’ stations, limiting the number of customers allowed in at any given time — there was no way I was going to make that risky trek.
But mirabile dictu, something else was happening. My hair was coming in a pretty shade of silver, and I rather liked it. I started reflecting upon the fact that I had no idea what I would look like if my hair were its natural color. Exactly who was I? I was intrigued — what was under all of the overpriced coloring anyway?
The matter was clinched the night I spoke by phone with Anita, my longtime friend and fellow PAP in Scottsdale. (Please don’t tell her that I described her that way; she wouldn’t like it.) Anita had her ear to the Arizona ground, and told me that a few friends of hers were letting their hair go grey. At that moment, I had an epiphany. The pandemic was the optimal time to transition. I was not going out to dine at the palace anytime soon, to say the least.
I was totally energized by my decision. As I approached 70, it was time to let my freak flag fly! I thought of the exuberant words from the 1968 musical Hair:
I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy
Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Oily, greasy, fleecy
Shining, gleaming, streaming
Twisted, beaded, braided
Powdered, flowered, and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied
A few days later, in one fell swoop of competence, I convinced my longtime hairstylist (whom I’ll call Georges, because he wouldn’t like me telling you this story either) for a breathtaking amount of money to come to my apartment and cut my hair safely out on my terrace. Oh, yes — since writing this is the Jewish equivalent of going to confession, I have to tell you the whole truth. I also paid him to go and get a COVID test beforehand. Yes, I was that determined to have the final remnants of my old dyed hair clipped off and be made glam. And yes, he did it — and did it again in June and then again in August. It felt positively pre-pandemic to be back on my eight-week haircut schedule! I loved my silver pixie cut and felt reborn.
So that’s the happy ending of this story, right? Not so fast.
Two weeks ago, I received a text from Georges:
HI ANDREA, I WANT TO LET YOU KNOW I TESTED POSITIVE FOR COVID TODAY. I’VE BEEN VERY SICK FOR THE LAST 3 DAYS.
YIKES! When I picked myself up from the floor, I recreated our recent rendezvous in my mind’s eye. It had been ten days earlier, still within the contagion zone. Worse, I thought about how relaxed we had been in our mutually vaccinated state, eating a maskless lunch in my apartment before the haircut. Good God, what was I thinking?
Believe me, there’s nothing regal about getting a COVID test. I stood in line on Broadway and 71st at the Lab Q truck, waiting for my turn to be poked up the nostrils by a masked nurse. And there’s nothing remotely royal about spending 12 hours waiting for test results in a panic, imagining that my vanity was going to land me in the ICU.
At 2:59 pm on August 12, I finally got a text from Lab Q. By then, I had entered a state of heart palpitations. Naturally, it took 10 minutes in my frenzied state to figure out my username and password so that I could access my test results.
On the screen, I saw the loveliest word that this English major had ever seen:
I had dodged a silver bullet.
So much for gray hair being a sign of wisdom. I had risked my health and welfare for a few stylish snips. If that’s not being a Pandemic American Princess, I don’t know what is.
I’d like to believe that I’ve reeled in my reign, that I’ll be cutting my own hair with a garden implement next time and that I won’t put my life on the line again. I’ve been looking at my nails lately, and my cuticles are nothing if not corroded. I am still afraid to go into Dashing Diva, my glitzy nail salon on the Upper West Side; it’s dangerously congested there.
But maybe I could convince Connie to come to my apartment.
Andrea Sachs is the founder and editor of The Insider, a weekly online publication. She grew up in Oak Park and currently lives in Manhattan.