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The Re-Tread

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Going back to doing hair in a salon made me a little nervous. I had gone through so much working for people, and with all the calamities, I was a little concerned about taking a wrong turn.

“ Is there anyone you know who would want to take you on in a training capacity? You would be compensated for your time, they wouldn’t have to worrying about paying you, we would take care of that. As well as get you all the tools you would need to go back to work. “

I did know someone.

During my exploits on the street, a friend of mine took over the location of my business, and named it after her daughter Madison. I tried to work for them at one time, but my inability to stay clean led her to fire me. My friend, who I’ll call Kathy for the sake of anonymity, was one of my oldest friends and still had the business these years later. I was hopeful when I reached out to her and explained what my occupational therapist had proposed. And to my relief, she agreed to let me come on as one of her staff.

My counselor set me up with all new equipment and everything I told him I needed to go back to work in the salon. He also set up a budget with my friend, that would be my payroll from the state for 6 months. This meant I didn’t have to worry about trying to get a clientele, and I could concentrate on honing my skills back to extra sharp. It felt good being around people who knew me, as it was reminiscent of a class reunion. And just like a class reunion, I feared that people would remember me and my transgressions. To my surprise my friend and the father of her children, who used to be a customer and close friend, only said to me repeatedly…

“ Don’t worry Corey, you're going to get everything back you lost”

But deep inside I knew I didn’t want what I had before, what I had before almost killed me.

I started off washing hair and helping with blow-drying hair and cleaning. There were clients who didn’t me to touch them, not because of my past, but because I was new, and they had never seen me before. I had to prove myself. A couple of the owner's clients were also close friends of hers, and they would often talk down to me in a way that I knew she had mentioned what happened to me, but I accepted that as part of my recompense. There were 3 of us working in this huge salon, which never crossed my mind in the beginning. Most of the time, when it was slow, the owner would have the television on with the crime network playing.

I told her onetime, “it’s 24-7 MDK (murder, death, kill) in here. It makes the vibe so dark” she laughed and said, "I love this shit."

The other stylist would come in later in the afternoon, after she came from her full time job at a utility company in Rhode Island. For months, she would come in to the salon and not even speak to me. It didn’t bother me in the beginning, she didn’t know me, but after some weeks it was obvious she was being evasive. I brought it up to the owner and her reply was “that’s just how she is, she doesn’t mean any harm”.

Things started to be challenging working for my friend. The first thing I noticed was that my pay wasn’t equivalent to what the budget set for. When I asked my friend, the owner, she replied that “being I started taking clients, I should be on commission because that money was for her to train me”. I was hurt deeply by this, because the budget was my security. When you work on a commission in a salon with no base pay, no customers, means no pay. I was seeing maybe six people a week. Nothing close to what my budget was. I had some loyalty and guilt from my behavior when I worked for her during my active addiction, so I didn’t say much. I tried to go to my occasional therapist, and he said,“ there is nothing I can do, your case has been closed.” I decided that I was going to market myself strong and take whatever client they were hesitant to do.

We were in a shop on a busy downtown street. Not too far from where my old location used to be, so I decided that I would start to stand outside of the salon and see who would walk by. Every once in a while I would see an old client and I would invite them into the salon, or I would give them a card. It worked, and my six clients went up to twelve a week. The goal is to have about twelve per day for a successful stylist or barber, so I was off course, but not too far away.

One day, the other stylist who was starting to be more communicative with me said

“Corey, you are a white people magnet! There has never been as many white folks coming in here before you got here.”

To me, this was audacious and definitely a perspective I never had. After the heat settled in my mind and body, I decided to investigate what they might be witnessing. To me, there was nothing about me that was particularly magnetic towards people of lighter skin tones, but sometimes in black culture this is a description that is given to black people who are willing to work with and socialize with white people. It has undertones of what they used to call “Uncle Tom”.

I did notice that people who weren’t black would come into the salon and direct their attention to me when they started speaking, and I became curious. At first, I started to really take a look at my behavior, and then I started to watch my coworkers. What I noticed is during the busiest times of day, when a lot of people were walking by the shop, they would look or glance into the huge windows we had at the shop entrance. If the person looking into the shop was not visibly black or dark skinned, the owner and my coworker would turn their head away. Me with my ambitions to get more clients, no matter what color, age or gender, would make eye contact, and they would sometimes come in. So I realized what we all should already know, everyone likes to feel welcomed and invited.

After that, I began to exploit that flaw and use it to my advantage. And shortly after that I was up to 20 clients per week.

Another challenge came when I went to lunch with my old friend, the owner's baby daddy. We all were from Boston and had found a place in Worcester, Massachusetts. I was driving in every day from Gardner, and I thought we were all clean and sober. After my friend and I had lunch, he was driving me back to work, giving woes about how the owner was in a relationship with a guy who he thought was using drugs and was taking all of her money.

It was awkward to say the least, as I was feeling like I was thrust in the middle of their drama. He started to brag about things he was doing and admitted to me that he was selling weed on the side and having an occasional non-alcoholic beer. This is harmless to most people, but dangerous to guys like him and I.

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that he was so forthcoming about his behavior. This was coming from a man who, years before, ridiculed me for lying about a drug test he was going to make me take to keep working for him.

When I disapproved, he replied, “you used to do it !” I looked him in the eye, confused, I replied “and look what happened to me!” As I got out of his car. We were never the same after that day.

I felt like I was going to be ok, but my security wasn’t going to come from my friends at the salon, I knew I had to continue living and socializing in Gardner.

Shortly after that, we started having heating problems at the shop. The bill wasn’t getting paid, but the owner was claiming a discrepancy from the utility. My coworker told me that she looked into it before and made an arrangement, and this wasn’t the first time. I tried to come with solutions to be helpful and remember that when I was working at the 1st barbershop in Brooklyn, the heater broke, and we rented a gas heat blower for the shop. I suggested that to the owner, and she loved the idea. I went to Home Depot with pride, feeling like my experience was saving the day, little did I know I was enabling the situation. Firstly, this machine is supposed to be used outdoors, which never occurred when I was in the murder barbershop, but came up when I was at Home Depot. Secondly, the machine ran on diesel gasoline, and I became the gasoline whisperer. I was afraid every time I had to start that machine, plus the fumes that would be in the shop were definitely hazardous. What was supposed to be a temporary solution, became a permanent fixture, and some clients made comments, but most took it lightly. Which goes to show that anything can become normalized with time and consistency.

heater for the shop

My coworker and I bonded in this trauma and started to get together after work. In our conversations, a few things became clear.

We had been friends at childhood, and we couldn’t remember details, but as small children we lived next door to each other. The situation with the heat was dangerous, enabling, and couldn’t continue. We needed to make a plan for ourselves to be safe and employed. And the owner, who tried to sell her a fur coat that day, was in trouble.

One night as I drove back home to Gardner, the smell of gasoline in the car seemed stronger than usual, and I think I spilled some in the car. In a slight panic, I got off the highway in an area called Clinton. Went to the gas station and checked to see where I had spilled gasoline and that everything was ok in my 1997 Ford Bronco. When I was leaving the gas station I saw a nice little salon, off the side of the road, named Regina’s Salon. I peeked in the window, and it looked quaint and full of stations, and had a vibe of a family salon. I wrote down the number and thought to myself, this could be my new place of employment, and it’s much closer to Gardner. I called the next day and spoke to the owner, who told me she has room for another stylist and if I would come by the next day to meet, I agreed to come by after my day on the salon at Madison’s.

I met her the next evening at the salon. It was just Regina and 1 other stylist that met me with welcoming smiles. We talked for an hour, and she admitted to me that she was having a challenge taking care of some clientele from the college that was down the street. Turns out in the town of Lancaster, which was a mile down the road, was the home of one of the oldest black colleges in New England with a world-famous nursing program. She wanted me to come aboard and help with the black female nursing students, as well as others, that were traveling elsewhere to get their hair done. It seemed like a sign to me, and I agreed to come about on a commission wage. As we were wrapping up the interview, a tall man who looked like a construction worker walked in. I was expecting Regina to tell him we were closed, and he said “Hi Reggie”. She replied smiling, at me and said “Hi babe, Corey this is my husband Darcy, he has a construction business out back, you may see him from time to time looking dirty. Babe, this is Corey, he’s going to be joining the team and helping out with the college kids!”

Darcy came over to me and shook my hand, “welcome aboard, things are chill here you're going to like it, and if you ever need some extra money because it’s slow when you are first starting out, you can join my crew on your days off or even early in the morning. We usually start at five thirty a.m., so you could do a shift, come clean up, and then take some clients. That’s if you’re up for it.”

“That would be great, I’m down for that. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty”. “Oh you’re gonna get dirty” he said smiling. We’ll talk after you get settled. I felt amazing about this meeting, and very hopeful about my future. I went for one job and got two. The only thing left to do was leave the other salon. They were my friends, this might get messy.

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