The First Day

A narrative essay that I wrote for my CP English II class, set in New York City in the 1920s

It was the first day of my new life, and I was loving it.

“Cut it all off, mister!” I said, spinning around in the barber’s chair as he prepped his shears.

He open and closed his shears twice, and the sound of metal against metal would have seemed incredibly menacing at any time before this – a practical joke by a mean sibling or a knife slipping at the wrong time in the kitchen. The old man with silver hair and round spectacles peered at me wearily in the mirror.

“Your parents okay with you chopping all your pretty brown locks off, little lady? I know I would sooner let my daughter raise her skirts above her knees than let her get her curls cut off.” His hoarse voice and wise tone sounded like a just like a father, too – specifically one stuck in the old ways of doing things.

“My mama and daddy are down in North Carolina, sir.” I said, bowing my head as he put the hairdressing cape over my shoulders. “They helped me pack my bags, bought me a two-way train ticket, gave me a little of the money we had all saved up, and sent me on my way. I’ve yet to even get a letter!”

“I can’t imagine a set of parents in their right minds sending their daughter to New York City without putting up a fight. But you shouldn’t do this to defy them, only because you truly want it, ma’am.”

“I want this. Chop it off. To the chin. Please, sir.” I looked him in the milky eyes via the mirror and raised my chin, just a tad.

“Whatever the little lady wants, I s’pose.” He sighed, spun me so I was looking away from the mirror, and took the scissors to the first piece of my hair.

I was frozen with terror as I waited for those two sharp pieces of metal to come together and for the first lock to fall to the floor. But, as soon as it did, I could feel the weight lift and I was hooked.

It wasn’t too long before the aging man told me I was done. Using the tips of my toes, I turned myself in the chair to face the mirror, and I wasn’t nearly as prepared for the sight I saw as I thought I was.

“My, oh my.” I gasped, somewhere in between shock, disbelief, and awe at my audacity. Gone were the long, shiny curls that hung down to my lower back for nearly my entire life, and in their place were locks that clung to the contours of my head, showing my neck and collarbone.

“Do you not like it, miss? I am so sorry. I asked if you were sure. But there is a nice wig shop down a block or two…” The little old man immediately began apologizing for his actions, my actions. I cut him off (albeit rudely) to save him his grief.

“Oh, no, sir! It’s the berries! I ab-so-lute-ly love it! Thank you!” I untied the bow at the top of my neck myself, allowing the cape and tiny little cut pieces of my hair to fall to the floor as I stood. “How much do I owe you for the snippin’, mister?”

“How much you got, miss?”

In the back of my head, I could hear my mama telling me before I left. “Never, ever tell anyone exactly how much money you have, sweet pea. They’ll use anyone, especially a pretty girl like you, for all they’re worth.”

I didn’t like lying to the barber, because he seemed like an awfully nice and completely harmless man, but I took my mother’s advice. “I’ve got a couple of clams, not much. My family isn’t exactly the richest in Raleigh, sir.”

Well, maybe kind of close… I amended in my head.

 “I tell you what, little lady. That new hairdo of yours is on the house. I don’t want no girl starving out on the street because I charged them for a haircut.”

“Thank you, mister!” I called over my shoulder as I exited the shop, skipping along down the block.

I wasn’t paying all that much attention to where I was going, just making sure to stay out of the way of the automobiles on the streets and the grumpy factory workers and banker men on the sidewalks. I finally glanced up when there was a glow from the store sign above me.

“Saks Fifth Avenue! My, oh my.” I resisted pressing my hands against the shop front glass and drooling over the gorgeous dresses and jewelry just inside of the store.

Daddy told me not to spend too much money, to only spend it on food and decent shelter and clothes when absolutely necessary. But I had saved every penny I had ever earned to go to New York, and that combined with the money my family had given me gave me enough to last without sending a telegram home for a while.

Besides, Mama would understand. This was Saks, for the love of Pete, and this was New York. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

A bell chimed above me as I pushed open the glass door and entered the store. All around me, there were wool pea coats and felt cloches, feathered hair pieces, beaded dresses and strands of pearls that were about equal in length, and rack after rack of Chanel.

“We’re closing in five minutes,” said a stoic, white-blonde woman standing behind what seemed to be a perfume and jewelry counter.

“Oh, I won’t be long, I promise. I’m just looking.” I assured her, still wide-eyed at the sight that was Saks.

“Then get out.” The woman’s icy smile slipped from her face as she addressed me harshly. “Do not touch any of the merchandise with those dirty rag-a-muffin fingers of yours and walk straight back out of that door. My husband gets enough of you little flappers in here on a daily basis, just looking and touching and trying stuff on, ruining the quality of his merchandise.”

“Would you like for me to buy something, ma’am?” I said, a jab wrapped in the sugar and politeness required when speaking to authority.

“You couldn’t afford anything my husband sells.” She sneered at me. “Get out!”

“I’d like to see that strand of pearls, please.”

“These? Rag-a-muffin, do you have any idea that you just pointed at the most expensive of those strands?”

“Yes, please.”

She reluctantly reached for the pearls and pulled them out from the glass jewelry case, setting them on the counter. I lifted them and held them around my neck, then walked over to the small mirror attached to the countertop.

“Hmm…” I ran my hand over the off-white globes. “I’ll take them.”

“Says you,” said the clerk in utter disbelief.

I unwrapped the pearls from my neck and looked at the tag attached to them. Reaching into my bag for the miniscule bundle of bills at the bottom, I made my voice honey-sweet and asked the clerk, “Ma’am, will you please ring me up? I said I will take them.”

I placed the correct amount of money onto the counter, and lifted the pearls again.

The woman’s expression shifted completely. “Oh, I am so sorry if I have possibly offended you, miss. Please, have a lovely evening.”

“You as well.” I matched her tone expertly, and walked out of the store.

That night, after I had returned to my hotel room and dined in the restaurant, I put on my new necklace and admired it in the mirror along with my blunt locks of hair. Feeling just a tad homesick, I sat at the desk with a piece of hotel stationary and started a letter back home.

“Dear Mother and Father,

You will never believe what all has happened in my first week here…”

The End

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