So what can I say? It’s better to come clean and admit that my Upper West Side hair color and cut costs the same as the average monthly salary for a man working construction in Kabul.
“Whose business is it anyway?” I feel like asking the 18-year-old Afghan woman who has become my ward this summer. She is on break from her New England boarding school, where she goes on full scholarship via an American non-profit.
Instead, I tell her that this is the way it is for women of a certain age, living in these times in one of the most expensive cities on earth — Manhattan.
And my cutter, Cookie — yes, Cookie the Cutter — is my trusted friend. We talk during the two-plus hours we are together every other month. Cookie is from China, as is my adopted daughter, and Cookie is a straight shooter.
The tiny shop on Columbus Avenue has just three chairs, which is all I can handle anymore. I’ve tried the gigantic salon/spas/purveyors of beauty products, and they make me too nervous. For a decade I was loyal to the huge Aveda salon across the street from Cookie, but I dreaded going there. There was someone to check your coat — tip required — someone to check you in, someone to do the wash (tip), someone to escort you to your chair, someone to bring you hot tea. It made me dizzy. And it cost twice as much as Cookie.
At Cookie’s place, I go in my torn jeans, clogs, without make-up. She’s okay with my bringing Mr. Henry Longfellow, my piebald dachshund, who sits in my lap and watches the people pass by on Columbus Avenue.
Cookie does it all, takes my coat, does the color, wash, cut, and blow dry. But never has she offered me hot tea or tried to sell me products.
When Cookie meets my young friend from Kabul, she stares at her long and hard.
“Where you from?” Cookie wants to know. Cookie is not diplomatic, and her English is not the best. “Why you look Chinese?”
Fearing that feelings will be hurt, I rush in with a 60-second history of my friend’s tribe, the Hazara. It is said (but unproven) that the Hazara descend from Genghis Khan, one of the many invaders of that land. More likely it is the Mongolians, and hence, the facial bone structures that could be mistaken for Chinese.
“Ah,” says Cookie. “Chinese.”
I know better than to argue with Cookie. She takes no prisoners. Once when I was there some workers were trying to install a sound system. Cookie gave them orders and told them they were not doing it right at all. I had to stifle my giggles. When they left, Cookie said, “No good. They do it all wrong.”
I send my young friend off for a sandwich at the tiny shop next door. Cookie and I have catching up to do.
“How your Lili?” she wants to know. “Why she not come for haircut?”
I remind Cookie that Lili is in Boston this summer, taking courses at Boston University.
“I know Boston,” Cookie tells me. “I take bus there.”
Cookie takes those cheap buses everywhere. She has been to Atlantic City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and even Florida.
But I don’t want to discuss Boston. It is China I want to know about. Cookie has just returned from a visit to her brother in Shanghai, where he has taken a bride.
“Cookie, do you like her?” I ask.
“She O.K. Not bad. She pregnant now.”
“Ha! She not young, 36 already. And she thinks Cookie will come and take care of baby. No way, I tell my brother!”
I’m fascinated by Cookie’s family history. She and her brother came to the U.S. as teens, and her brother graduated from Columbia University with an engineering degree. Frustrated at not finding a wife here, he returned to his homeland at the age of 40, just to find a bride.
“Will you ever move back to China?” I ask Cookie. Previously, she was negative about all things tied to China and said no way would she go back. She surprises me this time.
“Yes,” she says, “I will go back. To retire. In nice modern condo in Shanghai.”