What's Really For Sale?

In the summer of 2005, I got to talking to another woman who's youngest daughter had begun going to the same home day care my own children go to. This woman, we'll call her Betty for the sake of this story, had her hair braided and I complimented her on how cute it looked. She said, "I did it myself!" Was she kidding? I can barely do a French braid down the back of my head, let alone do cornrows across my entire head.

Betty thought my hair would look cute in braids and offered to braid it for me. I had two main concerns: price and time. I asked her how much she charged and the price she named was fair. On to my second concern: the last time I'd gotten my hair braided, back in my senior year of college, it took two days to do it. I'm not a college senior now so I don't have two days to sit around. However, Betty assured me, "No, no. We Africans are not so slow as you black people. We braid from the time we're born. I can braid you in six hours." Now I know how there are some Africans and also some black folks from the Caribbean that think black Americans are lazy, good for nothing idiots. They think they're better and harder working than African-Americans. But, I couldn't tell if that was her vibe so I left it alone. After all, six hours sounded long but tolerable. We talked some more about what kind of style I wanted. I had decided on diagonal cornrows in the front and then small single braids in the back. I also wanted some fake hot pink hair braided into the back. (What can I say? It was summer!)

The next Saturday, Betty came over, arriving at about 9:30 in the morning. I made her some coffee and then we set up beauty shop in my living room. Betty sat on the couch and I sat on the floor in front of her. She was surprised by how much hair I had and confessed that it might take her till 5 or 6 pm. Nonetheless, she got right to work. We watched TV and, of course, got to talking about lots of things. At first we talked about the average superficial stuff you'd talk about with anyone. But, I'm always curious about people's lives so we quickly got into some deeper conversations after I asked her what it was like in her home country and why she came to the States.

Betty talked about how she'd grown up wealthy in her home country but her family had lost everything due to civil war. She talked about being forced to watch her father get murdered and her mother being raped. She talked about how her husband had come here to the States with her and their two children but had taken a trip back to their country to take care of some things. She'd never heard from him again. She didn't know if he was alive or dead and it'd been two years. All she knew was that he'd been taken away by some soldiers and no one had seen him again. She'd found out she was pregnant with their daughter a week after he left. I felt an immense amount of empathy for her situation. It was heartbreaking to listen to her graphic descriptions and experiences.

Then, Betty asked, "Do you smoke?"

"No. I never really got into cigarettes. They smell bad and I like really nice, white teeth" I replied. (It's true. At the risk of sounding like a horse breeder, I absolutely adore nice teeth.)

Betty clarified her question. "No, I mean, do you smoke weed?" she asked.

I was a little taken aback by this question but I attributed her directness to cultural differences. I answered her honestly, "Nope, I've never used any drugs of any kind."

"Wow. That's amazing. You've never used any drugs?"

"Nope. Never used any drugs," and then I picked up the remote and began to flick through the channels. Maybe she'd take a hint and stop asking me about this. Drugs are a sensitive topic for me because unfortunately, I've known way too many people who've had their lives destroyed by them. It makes me sad to talk about drug use.

She couldn't take a hint. "What about your husband? Does he smoke?" Her hands moved quickly over my head, pulling my hair tightly as she braided.

"No, he doesn't smoke weed either." I couldn't read her body language to really tell if there were questions behind her questions. It would be an understatement to say that I felt a little weird at this point. My antennae were definitely up but when someone is braiding your hair, you can't see their face because they're sitting behind you. I had no way to really know, was this just genuine curiosity or was this her way of feeling me out to see if she could sell me something?

"So, no drugs? Not even cocaine?" Betty asked. Now I knew. The average person, cultural differences or no, doesn't ask you if you use coke. Hmm. What was really for sale? Braiding services or something else?

I made some sort of joke about Nancy Reagan and her "Just Say No!" slogan. It went over Betty's head, so I said I needed to go to the bathroom. While in the bathroom, I could see from gazing at my reflection in the mirror that she wasn't even halfway finished with my hair. But I also didn't want some crazy tweaker up in my house. Kick her out or keep getting my hair braided?

The hair won out. I didn't have any real proof that she was involved in drugs, just my gut. I should trust my gut, I know, but I'm also a little vain and I wanted my hair to look cute. So, when I came back out I told her I wanted to watch a movie. I figured the longer the movie the better. I put the first Lord of the Rings on and turned the sound up a whole lot. I guess she took the hint because she didn't ask me about drugs anymore. We watched movies the rest of the time she was braiding, only chatting in the vaguest generalities about music and culture. Betty finished my hair at around six at night and I drove her home since she'd taken the bus to my place.

Two weeks later, Betty called me and asked me if she could borrow $100. She said she was desperate. Her baby daughter didn't have any diapers and they didn't have any food to eat. I was empathetic but I don't lend money to folks that aren't related to me. I told her this and she continued to beg me for the money. I finally relented and said I'd lend her $50. I suppose I felt guilty because, drugs or no, I hadn't lived through a civil war. I probably felt a little bad too since she kept going on and on about how lucky I was to have my husband here, while she was all alone and had to survive on her own with two children. She swore she'd pay me back the next week.

I took the braids out about a month later and my own hair, hair that had been halfway down my back, fell out in huge clumps. My stylist told me it was probably a combination of my hair being braided too tightly and my own hair having a bad chemical reaction with the fake hair that Betty braided in. Whatever. All I knew was that I was left with this super thin hair that had to be cut to chin length, the shortest it's ever been in my entire life. I was pissed. All that empathy I'd had for Betty went out the door. I wanted to beat someone's ass, preferably someone who'd asked me if I used coke and owed me $50.

A week after my haircut, I saw Betty. "Oh, you cut your hair?" she said.

"I had to because all my hair fell out after I took out the braids." I know my tone was unfriendly but I was mad. My hair was totally jacked up and this heffa was shrugging her shoulders and saying, "Maybe your hair is not so strong because you're father is white."

I decided to ask her about the money she owed me and she told me how she'd fallen on hard times but she'd pay me back as soon as she could.

"But is there anything else I can do for you...anything I can get for you?" No thanks, Betty. I'm just fine, thank you. I don't want or need to snort anything up my nose.

Now, a year and a half later, her husband has miraculously reappeared. At times, I've wondered if soldiers really had captured him. I've wondered for awhile if she made the whole story about her life back in her homeland up so I'd feel sorry for her. One thing I know for sure, people involved in cocaine tell a whole lot of lies. Maybe he just was being a loser husband and didn't feel like being with her anymore and so had bounced for a while. I haven't heard the whole story of what happened to him and how he came back, because I've barely said two words to Betty. Of course, you already know she never gave me back the $50.

Yesterday, I went to drop off my youngest son a bit later than usual and so I ran into her. I always say, "Hi, how you doing?" and that's about it. Nowadays, Betty's driving a Mercedes SUV. It's wrong for me to assume I know how she got that Mercedes, isn't it? I only have my gut to go from, but I couldn't help but think that "business" must be booming.



I can't believe you didn't buy any cocaine. Even if you don't use it yourself, it sounds like her prices may have been quite reasonable (you said the braiding was fairly cheap) and you could have turned it around and made a profit.

By the end of your story, I had the bizarre feeling that I was sadder about your hair falling out than her struggles back home. I guess I have little sympathy for users of any stripe.
Unknown said…
Is it correct to infer that you still haven't gotten your $50 back even though she's driving around in her sweet new car?
She's a user -- of drugs and of people. Whether or not her story is true is irrelevant now that she's in the U.S. where she can make choices. And it's good you're steering clear of her because sooner or later, she and her husband will go to prison and all their acquaintances will be suspect.

I'm concerned about the fact that her child is in day care with your sons.

So sorry about your hair, Liz. That really hurts.
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh, cocaine. I still have memories of visiting my brother during his many trips to rehab at St. Elizabeth's Hospital on North Ave.

The hair issue was indeed traumatizing. I actually cried over it, but it ended up being a good exercise in detachment. It forced me to ask myself if I really was immune or not to societal definitions of beauty.

Your inference is 100% correct.

Thank goodness that hair grows back because I hated that short hair. I couldn't wind it into my nerdy teacher/librarian bun.

Her little girl is very sweet and I feel so sorry for her. The lady that watches my kids is not blind to what she sees, but she's told me that over the years, she's seen it all from parents and you just have to love and care for the child regardless.
Wow, that was quite a story. With her driving around in her new car, I'd have to ask that wench for my money!

I like the philosophy of your daycare provider. As a former teacher of children, regardless of the parents, you have to focus on the child. Oftentimes, you're the only stable thing in their lives.

I'm glad your hair is on the grow.
the last noel said…
That was a really good story. You can get enough money for an SUV by braiding hair?
Anonymous said…
Fantastic story. It's also quite possible to interpret it from different cultural standpoints-- from my own experiences people just have different ideas of 'truth'-- as in a little fiction is simply a normal part of their version of 'truth'. It is really confusing for Americans, we just don't get it! And I still don't get it, even after ten years of living abroad.
Africans, and I hate to use that term so broadly because each different country in Africa has dozens of other countries within THOSE borders, have another way of storytelling. I'm not even being politically correct, tis a gorgeous thing about all the other lands in the world.

The cocaine angle is shit--that's a bummer, but still, you collected a great story. And I'm very sorry about your hair, I would have probably shown less patience and GROWLED.
Odat said…
Wow...What a story! It's too bad people have to do things like that...what an example to her children!
Sundry said…
You really should be charging me to read this. It's better than so much I do pay for.
Liz Dwyer said…
The lady that watches my kids is truly amazing. She's watched kids for over 20 years and I couldn't have made it out here in LA as a parent without her. I'm glad my hair grew back too. I'm not too cute with short hair.

Will you be tempted to take up hair braiding if I say yes?

I've constantly asked myself how culture plays into it. I think cocaine changes everything and everybody. It steals the soul.

It really is too bad because her kids are really sweet little ones. They're too innocent for all this.

You are so kind that I'm speechless.

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