“We had one lady who didn’t show up, so I called her son and said, ‘I think your mom had another stroke,’” Nancy says. It turned out, the woman had. Nancy wasn’t surprised that she was the first person to figure it out. “We see these ladies every week,” she says. “They don’t see their kids every week.”
While younger clients are sometimes in the mix, especially during wedding and prom season, when brides and high school girls like to play princess-for-a-day in tiara-adorned updos, most of Dee’s customers can measure their patronage to the salon in decades. The styling and pampering are one lure. Women do not, after all, reach an age when they stop wanting to look attractive; nor do they stop enjoying the sensation of fingers running through their hair, which stylist Barbara Godinez, 65, does for a 92-year-old woman seated in a far chair, her eyes closed in luxuriation. But Nancy knows that the ladies are here as much for the company as the care.
“You might say I am a longtime customer. I had finger waves. Now I can’t reach the back of my head to do them."—Beulah, 98, Dee’s customer of 30 years
“Sometimes they have no one at home to look good for, but this gets them out of the house,” she says. “It’s like hanging out at the bar—they even sometimes come an hour early!”
They arrive five days a week, some under their own steam, others driven by husbands and grown grandchildren. Saturday mornings, the small salon buzzes with activity—there are tomatoes from Barbara’s garden ready for the taking on the reception desk, and books for the borrowing on a shelf alongside the hooded hair dryers, and colorful dishcloths crocheted by a customer for sale ($2 apiece) in a box by the door. The air is filled with women’s voices, talking not as the girls do on Sex and the City, about bars, hookups, and shoes they can’t afford, but about cancer scares, failing memories, and whether to have an estate sale of mom’s stuff. But there are also the trips (to Las Vegas), the recollections (about the customer who insisted on a tint so blue she earned the nickname “The Smurf”), and the occasional behind-the-hand whisper (about the silly woman who paid $90 for a leg wax, when really, you can get one for $35).
While there is the odd hound-dog chin at Dee’s, and a few eyes are clouded with cataracts, the ladies look remarkably chic, dressed in neat pantsuit ensembles with pretty brooches and accent scarves. Yet they also look old, something that, at least for a certain stripe of the American population, has become, if not an embarrassment, something to be avoided for as long as possible. Consider the summer/fall issue of New Beauty, a 300-page glossy magazine that advises women to use the wrinkle-fillers Juvéderm and Restylane prophylactically, and tells them that the eyelift is not an indulgence; it’s maintenance. And while the stylists at Dee’s are not against new methods of beautification—some of them have had laser hair removal and permanent eyeliner tattooing, and not one of them plans to let her hair go gray—they have seen the battle against age waged and lost. They also know the craving for beauty can, perhaps, be satisfied in other ways.