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April 10, 2001

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Ernie

by Debbie Lindsey

I would ride the Grey Dog to Mobile rather than say goodbye. That was twelve years ago, before Ernie, and during the bus strike. The strike lengthened an already tedious road trip into five hours. That was ample time to reflect upon loyalties and the many relationships and bonds in life. We first bond with our parents, then our siblings. And, if lucky, there are Grandparents and maybe a favorite Aunt Ethel with which to lock loyalties. Later, in life you add to this someone you would travel to hell and back for or in my case ride the bus. Obviously I am referring to your hair stylist.

I maintained this long distance relationship as long as I could. But sometimes people grow apart - and hair just grows too fast. It was time to find someone else. For awhile my hair was long, unpermed, uncolored and a casual quickie with no strings attached sufficed until‚ the swing bob. Yes that sassy little swing bob stacked and layered just so felt great; I needed it, I wanted it, but the fly by night beautician at Krauss left without warning -- lured away with the promise of free parking to Dillards at Lakeside. I felt betrayed and needed someone to talk to. I would visit Ernie.

Ernie and the Monteleone Hotel barbershop were around the corner from the cafe I waitressed at. On hot days I would take my break, rest my feet and cool my thighs on the cold Naugahyde of the barber chair. I loved to hear the guys talk shop, sports and politics. The magazine rack was filled with Time and Field and Stream - such a relief from those anorexic models staring at you from the cover of Vogue. Big band oldies were a constant from the radio except at five when we would gather to watch the evening news after which talk of sports and politics would begin again as the floor was swept and the last shakes of talc applied.

I told Ernie about the estrangement with my beauty parlor and my impending bad hair days. Just then a lady came in, sat in his chair and proceeded to receive one dynamite hair cut. Ernie delivered exactly what she requested and for far less money than I thought possible.

"Ernie! I never knew you were uni-sex."

"What? Oh‚ yeah. I been styling Marge for years, not to mention several other ladies."

"Well add my name to the list, please! I am ready for a new DO."

I went back after work and continued to go back for the next eight years. A casual friendship grew as my hair grew through the years. Ernie was with me from the start of the sassy short crop and through to shoulder length and back up again. Our only disagreement was over to color or not. And to his chagrin I delighted as my salt gained prominence over the pepper. White hair empowers the eternal juvenile delinquent in me (it is so much easier to sneak into movies or "Management Only" restrooms at the mall or grocery store now). Conversations with a barber are generally good - they listen well (you are paying) and you don't bore them or dispute their politics (they have sharp objects). But Ernie went a sincere step further seeing me through several career and boyfriend challenges, bolstering my confidence and coif at each turn with scissors and sympathy. I got to know Ernie through photographs of vacations, his wife, and the building board by board of a fishing camp. In fact it was this fishing camp that would change things for Ernie and cause a turning point.

Some months back I left my hair to the mercy of a pair of dull kitchen scissors and my shaky hands. Suffice it to say I was long over due for an Ernie Do. I arrived at the barbershop to find only Pat, his cohort in clipping and coifing. It seemed that Ernie had struck out on his own and my only lead was a rumored position at the new Blitz Karlton Hotel Salon.

Salon! Oh nooooo, not one of those places. They would eat Ernie for lunch (along some pretentious pate and a crisp Pinot Gris). I could just imagine all those slick, slim stylists in their black on black leather mini’s and those skyscraper heeled boots (gender barely discernible) hovering about the seated client with the air of an angst ridden artist on the verge of a creative breakthrough. The decor would scream retro-post-Bauhaus-modern, with the music, techno something-or-another, competing with cell phones. No nightly news -- rather MTV channeling on the large screen, while some Calvin Klein clone served espressos. Something or someone had to save Ernie - I would go at once, but first I had to change clothes.

A disguise was needed. I changed from my muumuu, Birkenstocks, and baseball cap into my mall-retail-saleswoman uniform (oh, didn't I mention I am now out of Gumbo and into sales - next story, next time). I applied makeup, a faux-leather dress, black tights, and heels high enough to risk life and limb, and perched some racy Raybans on my powdered nose and off I went.

I entered the salon with trepidation. Would they, like sharks, smell the still lingering scent of my waitress years, would they notice the home cut hair tucked into my beret (stylishly black) and somehow know that hidden inside my gloves were nails that had never seen a manicurist but rather toenail clippers? I quickly sized up the joint. It was much as I expected - everything was Oh-So-Chic. A run suddenly mainlined my hosiery, and my Raybans fogged over from an unexpected hot flash. I was doomed. "Get hold of yourself! This is about Ernie not you." I chanted to myself. Just then a sullen stylist hungrily eyed my "hat" hair - Oh no! I had stupidly removed my beret upon entering (I was nervous, what do expect).

"Ma'am, have you a reservation?"

"Well‚ Ah, Ah‚ Ah..."

"We, at the Blitz, do not favor "walk-ins". I would be pleeeased, however, to reserve you a treatment time."

"Ah (was this a restaurant or psyche clinic?) I am looking for Ernie."

I was ready now to perform an intervention; ready to scream: "ERNIE, BACK AWAY FROM THE STYLING GEL, NOW!"

"I am sorry Ma'am, but there is no one by that name here."

("CALL ME MA'AM ONE MORE CONDESCENDING TIME AND I'LL PUT ON MY READING GLASSES AND READ YOU THE RIOT-ACT, HONEY." I screamed silently.)

"My mistake (my relief!), thanks anyway." I replied backing out the door.

Two days later I found a note in the mail with a business card attached that read:

ERNIE
Mr. JACK'S HAIRCUTTERS AND BARBER SHOP
111 DECATUR STREET
WALK-INS-WELCOME

The note explained that while walking the Quarter during lunch breaks over the years searching for architectural remnants from various renovation sites for his fishing camp he met Jack. They shared common ground - Fishing and fishing camps in the Rigolettes and keeping Quarterites properly coifed and groomed. It was true that Ernie had, in a moment of poor judgment, considered the Blitz. I guess friendship and loyal customers outweighed the lure of free parking (what is it with parking?), monogrammed leather tunic smocks and cappuccino. So after years of sharing cups of coffee (just plain ole' Community) and fishing tales Ernie now shares shop space with Jack.

Looking in the shop window of this venerable four-story building (once the consulate of the Republic of Texas circa 1843) at my new Naugahyde chair, I knew this would be a refuge from the upscale boutiques overtaking the Quarter. I could see the Mr. Coffee maker and its hours-old coffee still warming, the no frills magazine rack, and the rabbit ears looming above the television set.

"See, we even have free parking," Ernie greeted, as I locked my bike to a sidewalk post.

"Yeah Ernie, but do you have cappuccino?"

"What do think this is‚ Ah, The Ritz?"

"Definitely not the Ritz." I smiled with relief.


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