25. Not All That
I remember, perfectly, the day I first walked into All That Jaz hair salon. (No, it’s not a typo; it had one z.) I met with one of the two women named Patty who owned the salon. The place was a nice, clean, kind of boring salon. It had a sterile, gray-on-white theme, but the stylists were so friendly, I felt at home immediately. This was great, because with the dull gray cabinetry, the weird checkered floor, and the blah drop ceiling, it was obviously built on reputation, not ambiance.
After working at a JCPenney salon for a few months I was pretty low on cash. A mostly full-time job a JCP paid little more than minimum wage. Really, I loathed JCPenney. I don’t even shop there. It is most definitely not my image, nor my demographic, and the pay sucked. I had to get away.
I was so demoralized by the crappy wages, laughable management, and depressing ambiance and clientele, I took out the biggest advance on my only credit card I could — $500. It was just enough to pay the $400 rent for the salon space, and $100 for salon supplies, so I was golden for one month. I moved in and started working as quickly as possible. If I didn’t make enough over the next month, I wouldn’t be able to pay bills. Self-employed. Yay.
By this time, I had built a moderate client base. I remember I still had a lot of free time at the salon, but somehow my wife, Laurie, and I always seemed to make ends meet. The two of us learned to be very frugal. I had been on a tight budget with my mother for as long as I can remember. I learned ways to make a chicken feed a household of three for a week. At this point, we were doing OK. Laurie was making decent money, our son William was young enough that daycare was cheap, and we had my mother, stepmother, and Laurie’s parents if we needed help.
I had moved to JCPenney just a few months before J. Cunningham & Co. — the salon I worked in immediately after I finished school — closed. I have pretty canny instincts sometimes; I’ve managed to leave several salons before their final death on numerous occasions. The real reason I allowed my friend Alison to lure me JCPenny, other than the promise of benefits, was how much fun the two of us had working together. She stopped talking to me after I left, I don’t even know if the two events are linked. I keep learning a lesson over and over; I haven’t managed to figure out what it is yet.
At that time, the owners of All That Jaz were “the two Pattys.” The other stylists working there were Wendy, Rosie, Mary, Tina, Lucinda, an older woman who retired a few months later, and a manicurist whose name escapes me. I had worked with Rosie and Mary at J. Cunningham’s for the four previous years, and they moved to All That Jaz a month or so before me. This made the transition easy. And though the lineup would change over the years, this core would become as close, well honestly, closer, than I am to most of my family. These were funny, warm, sensible and caring women who I loved working with for some 15 to 20 years.
We had a tradition that I carried on after I purchased the place at the turn of the millennium. We always had wonderful holiday parties — sometimes quite elaborate ones. We’d taken limousine rides to Napa wineries, simple dinner parties at fancy restaurants, fancy progressive dinner parties, San Francisco harbor dinner cruises, a Princess Cruise to Mexico, and numerous trips to Tahoe, Las Vegas, and Disneyland, but the best party of all was a mystery dinner party at Pete and my home. It was a hoot. Yes, a hoot. I can’t really think of a better term for something as hokey, and absolutely hilarious as a mystery party with drunken friends.
We dressed for the 1940s, and each had scripts to read. Pete and I set up a restaurant (catered, of course) in the front of our house in East Sacramento. We had cocktails in a bar in our patio room, and desert and sherry was served in the living room. Cocktails were served at every course. You learn so much more about people when you socialize at home, and we could be as loud and silly as we wanted. I can’t remember a better party I’ve ever attended or hosted. We got drunk and recited silly clues on cue while dressed in a hokey costume meant to represent our “character” from the script. Who knows who the murderer was? It made no difference.
We were a group that could have fun in almost any situation. Work was a constant patter of jokes and stories. If you wanted a quiet, relaxing chat with your stylist, you might not have been in the best place. But for fun and style, there was no better place in town. It was close quarters, with people who knew each other so well, they could finish each others’ sentences. On one “business trip,” we were so boisterous after a night at a club near Lake Tahoe, security guards came to quiet us down. Too loud — in a casino!
These were people who I would always describe as “closer than family” when I talked about where I worked.
When I bought All That Jaz in 2000, I promised the stylists (because I had promised myself) that most of the profit in the first two years would go back into the salon. It really needed it. The Pattys remodeled it a few years earlier, but the floor was bad — that nauseating black and white checkerboard. The story goes that they had the floor redone after they purchased it, requesting white tiles, with a few random black ones. They came back to find checkerboard, and no time for it to be redone. The furniture, and the general layout were fine, but I had some ideas for adding more stations (to keep the costs down and the profits up, and to cover the improvements).
A designer and I worked on plans for the new layout, but in the end he was just a draftsman. His ideas were OK, and he gave me guidelines on space and flow patterns, but I determined the layout. I designed the custom cabinetry built to match the existing furniture; we updated the paint, and rebranded ourselves as an upscale salon and art gallery. First it was All That Jazz, the extra z added to make the name a little less confusing, and take us into a new era. Later, it evolved to All That/Hair Artistry, when we transformed to an art gallery-themed salon. I got some flak for the new name, but it was a compromise. I decided early on to keep the name somewhat intact, yet update our image. It ruffled some feathers; the first of many.
I thought I could take over the salon, fix it up for my work family and myself to grow our business, and remain friends with those same co-workers. I was so very sadly mistaken. I broke not one, but two cardinal rules of business: never do business with friends or family — and definitely, not both.
A little at a time, the cracks began to appear. For three years, Pete and I worked to expand the business model to improve profits. We offered incentives — had contests, raffles, anything we could do to increase revenue. Unfortunately, the others never embraced these approaches. Expenses rose, but I didn’t raise the rent. In fact, we increased our expenses by adding a receptionist. She was an absolutely amazing woman, who became nearly a full-time manager of the salon. Unfortunately for me, we had come up with her pay plan based on part-time, with half being paid by the other stylists. As her hours increased, the charge to the stylists didn’t. I was cheating myself. The stylists refused to see the problem, or if they did, they didn’t seem to appreciate it.
I was flabbergasted when stylists started complaining that the salon was too busy. It was too noisy, and they missed how calm it used to be. I was always a little shocked to hear this. These complaints came alongside others, especially that a particular stylist wasn’t getting enough new business because the salon manager wasn’t directing clients her way. It was enough to drive you mad, and it very nearly did. For many years after, I dealt with a fair bit of depression — a very well-deserved post-traumatic stress condition, I’d say.
Toward the end of my tenure as owner, the salon was burglarized three times. Three times by the same person! When I write it, my blood boils as much as ever. The first time was a mystery to be solved, but fairly innocuous. I came to work one Monday morning and checked the cash drawer as usual. You never know, and we had had cash “disappear” over the years. But this time there was none there. I immediately asked Tenaya, typically the first to arrive that day, if she had moved the cash. She said no, and thought it was strange that there wasn’t any. She assumed I had taken it to the bank for smaller bills. I called the police, and after a bit of sleuthing, I put together my theory of what transpired that Sunday afternoon.
We had a cleaning lady come every Sunday, one of the expenses I decided made life easier for all of us. She worked at the Mexican restaurant next door, so I never suspected her. There was no way she was going to risk both of her jobs, especially since she barely spoke English. After some gentle questioning, I came up with this: the cleaning lady usually arrives and immediately opens both front and back doors for fresh air. I know this is true because there were often hundreds of flies when we arrived on Mondays during tomato season. A “friend” of hers, who had recently been fired at the restaurant next door, stopped in to talk. When she went in back to clean, the doors were most likely open, and he knew where the cash was. The cops knew who he was, but since he stole cash, there wasn’t much they could do. The police report got us the insurance payment, but no justice.
The second theft was more daring. Breaking and entering, theft, all the cash, some artwork, the computer, but thank God not the computer backup drive. I had to cancel my day and lose a full days pay to get the salon up and running, but as one of my stylists said, “That’s what you get for owning a salon, right?” Yah right. I discovered an owner doesn’t deserve thanks. I realized we had passed the zone where I sacrificed income for friends. I had been pouring money into the salon for more than four years. Enough was enough.
Pete and I calculated a reasonable increase based on a percentage of inflation, and presented it at the lease renewal: 4 percent. The reception can only be described as icy. C’est la vie. I had learned it was a business, and now they were learning it as well.
We were burglarized again. My life hadn’t recovered completely from the first. My salon coordinator was freaked out because some of her (and another artist’s) work was stolen. The striking oil paintings I had decided to purchase by Kazuo Ooka were never recovered. I bought them anyway. Hers were found. Slightly damaged, but fixable. This time there was a twist. They caught the guy!
The police had been called because a business down the hall was moving out and noticed him breaking in. The police surprised him and he ran out the back, dropping most of our stuff on the way out. And they caught him!
I was on the edge of a breakdown. On the way from Sacramento to Davis at 2 a.m. to meet the police, I told Pete I couldn’t do it anymore. He encouraged me to hang in there. After all, we had a good amount of debt tied up in this business.
As we were cleaning up broken glass and boarding the window and door, one of the officers came in carrying a bag. Setting it in one of the stylist’s chairs, he warned the officer who was talking with me to be careful of the taser barbs in the bag.
The word “taser” made me jump. The officer rushed to reassure me that the perpetrator was fine, and that he brandished a pair of shears, so they really had to taser him. It was policy. I started chuckling. I was ecstatic that they had taser-ed the bastard! He really fucked up my life, and I have no sympathy for criminals. He was a drug addict, but even that didn’t excuse his actions. One can only be a good progressive for so long.
The salon was back up and running by opening time. Then the salon coordinator started freaking out. She started asking about her six-month review. She was expecting a raise, but the way the finances were, it wasn’t happening. I had loaned the salon money from my personal income several times to meet payroll. She would be lucky to have a job if the stylists kept bitching about the rent increase. It hadn’t happened in four years; I have to assume they never expected it to. Still somewhat optimistic, I was sure the salon meeting we had arranged would settle everything. We were a team, practically family, after all.
And did it ever. This meeting contained drama, tears, shouting, more tears, and a giant dose of anger and frustration. I couldn’t get them to understand that we had no choice financially, it was a business not a charity and I could no longer afford to ignore that fact. The increase was very reasonable in my and Pete’s mind, the cost of about two haircuts a month. I had tried to explain to them for weeks why it was necessary, and generous. It wasn’t even enough to solve the problem. They didn’t believe me. This was the moment when I started to lose faith in humanity. I don’t lie — not to co-workers, not to clients, not to friends, not even to strangers or enemies. I most certainly do not lie to family, which was when my eyes finally opened. We were at an impasse, and I didn’t care any more. After the meeting was cut short, I turned to Valerie and told her the salon was hers if she wanted it. She did. Go figure.
I gave her a ridiculous price, with a large “friend” discount. The deal left Pete and me with a shitload of debt. I don’t know what gets into me; I just wanted to be done and go back to being friends. Maybe if I wasn’t the boss, they would remember who I really was.
The transition was smooth, the deal was easy to finish, and I was happy to move on. During the transition, I was perfectly happy to hold the reins for Valerie, and I made sure to clear all decisions with her.
I started to get comfortable in my new role. I had pointed out to Valerie that it would make the most sense for me to move to another salon. Traditionally, it’s expected that a prior owner will leave. It’s hard to let go of ownership, and the employees will naturally run to the old owner for that leadership. Inevitably, the new owner will feel judged. So I never expected to stay. Valerie very quickly informed me that she had no intention of buying the salon if it meant I would have to leave. Flattery makes your brain stupid. So I became a renter and did my best to support her, and astonishingly, I was really happy.
It was nice to reconnect with the other stylists. I didn’t have to worry about Valerie thinking that the coordinator gave clients to the stylists she liked better. I didn’t have to worry about firing her due to budget issues. I didn’t have to listen to people bitch about how the salon was too busy, the rent was too high, it was too hot, aargh!
So I was happy and nobody was angry with me for the first time in months. I felt like one of the gang again. Then, 45 days after Valerie took possession of the salon, I walked in to work as usual on an average Tuesday. I remember I was one of the last stylists in that day. I said hi to Wendy, who worked next to me, Mary, Rosie, everybody was busy with clients, which was common. As I walked up to my station (probably about 15 minutes before my first client), I saw the piece of paper taped to my mirror. It read, “David, I told you not to bring your dog to work. Consider this your two weeks’ notice to vacate, Valerie.”
I don’t generally react to mishaps the way the average person does. I once had a client almost hemorrhage to death in my chair. She was having a miscarriage; she didn’t even know she was pregnant. Another time, a stylist almost choked on a lettuce wrap in the break room. The Heimlich is hard but the alternative is harder. My motto is, “Act, don’t react.” There is absolutely no situation where panic, anger or arguing, either with a person or fate, will help.
I knew there was no way I could cancel my day and leave. I’ve spent too many years dealing with humiliation by ignoring it, so I didn’t react. But I had to let Pete know. He would be righteously indignant. It would help me shore up my defenses for the day. I was starting to think maybe I was a little crazy. I was starting to go over the last month and a half in my head to figure out what I had done.
Surely it wasn’t really about bringing Buddha, my pug puppy, to work the day before. I knew she didn’t really like dogs, though she wouldn’t admit it. We had heated discussions about the role of dogs and humans over the years. I truthfully could never remember a conversation with Valerie where she had asked me not to bring him to work. I have no doubt she thinks she did, but surely you don’t evict your friend of 10 years over a one-time incident. I couldn’t process it well. I went outside to talk with Pete. Of course, he was out of town for the entire week.
He didn’t have phone service where he was, but he is never far from his computer, and email. Not the fastest process, but I could text his email account, and he could respond, and that’s how I informed him of what was happening. It was frustrating, but at least I had a way to talk with somebody. I was calm on the outside, but I was battling a panic attack the rest of the day.
As I was walking out, I caught Wendy’s eye, and she asked if I was OK. I told her Valerie evicted me. Her response confused me, but I wasn’t focused enough to wonder why. As I passed Mary, I told her the same. She didn’t react either, and it all fell into place. Wendy had asked simply, “Just now?” Mary hadn’t reacted much at all, and everybody seemed calm, unusually so. It was as if it was all happening in a vacuum around me.
It was strangely quiet, and I realized that they all knew. It wasn’t a spontaneous pique of anger, or at least the idea had been discussed with the others at some point. I was so focused that I realized in that second that all of the friends I thought I had had were dead. They were gone from my life in that second as surely as if they had died in a salon fire that morning. Valerie humiliated me to the point that I knew I would never be able to set foot in the salon comfortably again. She ended relationships I had with Rosie and Mary for more than 20 years, with Wendy for almost 15, and even with newer stylists with whom I had mentored for five years or so. I knew that when I walked out the door, I would never be able to enjoy their company, even if I could forgive them.
Valerie was not busy that day; in truth, she rarely was. She left within an hour of my arrival, so I didn’t have to worry about working next to her. I honestly don’t know if I would have ripped her to shreds. In truth, logic and reason aren’t her strong suits; I’m sure I would have spent the day embarrassing her, and that wouldn’t have helped the situation at all.
I immediately asked the receptionist to clear my schedule for the following day (Mary Rose was gone by then, but the new receptionist I had trained [since nobody else could]i, worked hard to make sure my clients understood the gravity of the situation). I finished my day — professionally, I feel obliged to add — and went home to get drunk. When I arrived home, I realized I couldn’t be alone. Pete was gone and my son William was at college in Chico, so I called my friend D. She kept me sane for a few hours until I could get myself to go home to bed.
I was now off for the following two days, so I spent the morning mourning a bit more, then visited two or three salons in downtown Davis before deciding on one that would be good for a few months. I couldn’t have been in a better situation in many ways. At this point, I had built a rock-solid client base. I was not worried about losing more than a handful of them, and those would mostly be newer ones who probably would be willing to try another stylist at All That Jazz.
Early the next day, I arrived at the salon. I had boxes, and my plan was simple: Pack my stuff. Talk to no one. Leave. I built up a pretty strong store of resentment at this point, and I knew that if I tried to talk to any of the stylists, it would go badly. I didn’t know how, but I knew.
I packed stuff from the back room first. Nobody said a word. I moved to my station, and though Wendy tried to say “Hi” and be nice, I had no interest. I wasn’t sure if I could ever forgive her. She didn’t even have the compassion to call me to see how I was doing, to try to explain why she couldn’t warn me about Valerie’s intentions. She couldn’t even offer word that I should be prepared for some changes. My anger was building, and though it hadn’t reached a boiling point, I knew it was only a matter of time. As I walked to my car with a box, Wendy tried to engage me out back. She wanted to talk, I didn’t. To this day, what she said stands out as one of the most inappropriate things ever said to me in a time of crisis. She said she didn’t understand why I was so angry, and why couldn’t I at least talk. I didn’t respond.
The wonderful thing about selling your salon to somebody who’s not incredibly bright is what they don’t know what they should protect. When I sold Valerie the salon, I offered her the license to the booking software. She didn’t want to spend the money, so I agreed to keep ownership, and maintain it. It was in my best interest, since I didn’t really believe she had the skills to do the IT work it needed, and I expected to be using it for years to come.
So one of my last acts was to download the backup file for the entire salon: salon client list, schedule, marketing and all. Oh, I had no intention of stealing clients, though, lord knows, I thought about it. My integrity was not going down for pointless revenge, but the thought that I could was a shield. I knew I could delete the entire salon schedule, but I was a big enough person that I wouldn’t. I could have destroyed the computer, but didn’t. In fact, when the salon coordinator (roughly two weeks into the job I was training her for) asked my help in fixing the printer, I actually looked into it. I couldn’t help, but only, I told her, because I didn’t have the time.
The only problem I faced was the transfer of the software. I had a new laptop, but the software was licensed to one computer. I needed to find out how much it would cost to buy one for my new laptop. When I called, the support person asked why I was in this situation, and when I told her, she was appalled. She informed me that since Valerie had not purchased the license from me, I wouldn’t be charged for the transfer to my computer, but that Valerie would have to buy her own.
The software rep also asked me if I wanted her to disable the salon’s software. She said that she could do it right away, or that I could just wait to the renewal time (a few months away), and she would have to buy it at full price … several hundred dollars more than I would have charged her. She was surprised that I said no; I couldn’t bring myself to do that to people I had thought of as family. I’m not sure how well that worked out for Valerie; I never asked. From what I’ve heard through the grapevine, (25 years working in a small town builds lots of contacts), the salon coordinators who followed my departure never got full training, and were never quite sure what the program could do. I’m not a big enough person not to enjoy the idea.
Surprisingly, I was able to forgive Valerie long before I could exonerate the other stylists. I realized that what she had done was probably in haste, without any view for long-term consequences. And, since I had always thought of her as a bit less than bright, and the littlest bit two-faced (we always think these things don’t apply to us), I shouldn’t have been surprised. However, the other stylists, most especially Wendy and Rosie, I may never fully forgive.
I had left a salon under similar circumstances when a friend of mine had been evicted for arguing with the owner of a salon I worked at for a short time in Sacramento. When faced with her unjust termination, I found I could no longer respect, nor work with the owner. I was shocked to discover none of my friends at All That Jazz felt as strongly. I’ve come to believe that that says more about them than it does about me. That’s a much harder lesson to learn than it should be.
None of them responded to the emails I sent hoping to get some kind of closure and, after a few weeks, I realized they never would. I suppose they were too embarrassed. At least I hope they were. As I said early, I’m sure there’s a lesson here but for the life of me, I haven’t figured out what it is