Every Saturday morning in 1947, we would head for Don Allen’s Chevrolet on the Boulevard of the Allies. Dad liked to park in front of the showrooms so the salesmen could see us coming. Before entering, he would glance at his reflection in the glass door, and adjust the visor on his cap away from his eyes. He said it was harder for a man to lie to you when you looked him square in his eyes.
As we entered the showroom, the salesmen would scatter―I suspected their flight was to avoid being the bearer of bad news, yet again. “No, I’m sorry, your Chevy hasn’t come in yet,” the salesman would always say. Inevitably, the conversation would include: how the war had delayed automobile production, the l-o-o-o-n-g waiting list ahead of him, and how inconvenient it must be to come to the dealership every Saturday. The salesman would offer to give him a call when his car came in, but dad would insist that the trip was not a problem, and he would be back the following week.
One Saturday after we left Don Allen’s, I asked why we didn’t just wait for the salesmen to call us. Dad looked down at me and pinched my check. “It’s called persistence, honey, as in diligence, perseverance, endurance, determination, perpetual, sustained, keep the ball rolling, never give up.” His body was shaking with laughter as we walked across the parking lot to Isaly’s, Pittsburgh’s infamous home of one-hundred flavors of ice cream.
“Dad, I got it, I got it! We will be coming back next Saturday.” I said, faking annoyance. It was just what I needed to insure another trip to ice cream heaven. When we reached Isaly’s, I rushed to the counter and ordered a triple-scoop cone, I got a different flavor each week. Then, I asked God for a favor. “Please, God, don’t let Dad’s car come in before I’ve tasted all one-hundred flavors.”
I figured God was busy and didn’t pay much attention to requested favors because on Saturday, February 21, 1948, Dad’s blue Chevy sedan arrived.
I guess I should have prayed.
Although, Dad and I no longer made our weekly sojourn to Don Allen’s, we continued to share quality father-daughter time over ice cream at Isaly’s. On a sunny March day we sat outside the store enjoying a Skyrocket, ice cream wrapped in a colorful cardboard tube. Dad seemed pensive—“Do you ever think about what you want to be when you grow up?” he asked, in a serious tone.
“Um, sometimes I dream that I have become a successful beautician like Madame C. J. Walker,” I said. I felt my excitement increasing as I began to ‘ramble . . ..’
“Did you know she was the first self-made, American female millionaire—She was a washer woman at first, then she invented some hair products, became a beautician and trained some women, and did you know, she was a Negro like us, Dad? Her first training school was right here in Pittsburgh. Um, Lelia College in 1908, I think. She made over a million dollars, and started giving it away to poor people.”
Dad heard my excitement. A smile wrapped around his caramel face, and his eyes laughed. “My goodness honey, how do you know so much about Madame Walker?”
“Heck, I know a lot more,” I said, beaming. “I had to do a book report on my hero in school last year, and I chose her. Sometimes, when I imagine I’m a beautician, I know it’s impossible because I’m only fourteen.” I said, my voice fading to a whisper.
“When my dreams didn’t make it to the planning stage, they got lost, but when I worked persistently to make them my reality, the impossible became possible,” Dad said with a smile as wide as Pennsylvania.
Although I didn’t know it then, Dad’s invaluable life lessons had come disguised as Isaly’s ice cream, only sweeter.
I copied a list of the area’s beauty schools from the Yellow Pages and made a list of questions to ask Ms. Corrine, a beauty shop owner and friend of my father, who agreed to talk with me about the requirements for beauty school.
Ms. Corinne explained that 1000 hours of study was required in two basic areas: the practical (the study of coloring, cutting, conditioning, styling, facials, manicuring, etc.) and the theoretical (the study of bacteriology, sterilization, cells, tissues organs, systems, bones, muscles, nerves, skin, scalp and hair diseases, circulation, etc.). “You need to know that the theory will kick your butt; it requires a lot of hard work,” she said, emphatically.
Several hours later as I prepared to leave, Ms.Corinne asked if I had decided on a school. I showed her my list indicating that I hadn’t done any research on any of them yet.
“Research? Oh, dear, scratch that list. You only have two choices between here and Philadelphia―the Pittsburgh Academy of Beauty Culture and the Ella Rene School of Beauty Culture.” she said, pointing to them on my list.
“Come here, sit down. Look, Lois, all of those other schools are for white students, learning how to do white people’s hair. You know, pin-curling, permanents, finger waves, that kind of stuff. You’ll walk out of there 1000 hours later not knowing a damn thing about how to do our hair. You probably won’t find one white instructor that knows how to use a croquignole iron, or straitening comb, for that matter. Lord have mercy,” she said, lighting a cigarette and shaking her head.
“Now, understand me . . . you have to master all aspects of doing their hair, because that’s what the State Board will test you on. Also, once you graduate, don’t expect a white salon to hire you, that’s not likely in this city. It’s a double standard, dear.”
“I understand, I have to learn twice as much as a white student in a white beauty school. “Is that right?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s the way it is.”
“Well, okay then, that means I’ll finish beauty school twice as skilled as a white student and be able to do our hair or their hair . . . that’s a plus . . . isn’t it?
Corrine didn’t answer; she pulled me up from my chair and hugged me tightly. “You are exactly like your father described you,” she said, loosing her grip, and holding me at arm’s length. “He said you’re an old soul, wise for your age. Here take this, I have a feeling you’ll be using it soon,” she said, pushing a tattered Textbook of Cosmetology into my hand.
Over several weeks, I formulated my plan for attending beauty school, and now it was time to talk to Dad about finances. I knew he would help me as long as I paid half of the cost. That was always his stipulation for any of my financial requests; he said it was being responsible. Maybe this time I could pay my half after I started to earn some money.
On the first of April, I explained my plan to Dad in great detail and asked if he would help me with the finances. He was silent . . . I couldn’t read his face . . . I was worried.
All of a sudden, he picked me up and twirled me around in his arms until we were both dizzy. “You’re amazing, I thought you were playing an April fool’s joke on me, but then with all of the details, I realized you were serious. It’s a great plan, how can I help?”
“Well, I need a way to pay . . .”
He interrupted me, “We’ll work something out in that area. What else?”
“Will you go with me to apply?”
“Sure, make an appointment on my off-day, and let me know when it’s scheduled.”
A week later, Dad and I met with Ms. Lewis, the owner of the Pittsburgh Academy of Cosmetology located on Centre Avenue. She gave us a tour, introduced us to several students, described the course work, and the tuition payment plan. Almost as an after thought, she asked me my age. Damn it, I said to myself. I had done every thing I could think of to appear older: upswept hair style, lipstick, a little rouge, and nylon stockings.
It didn’t help, I was caught.
“Um, I’m fourteen.”
“Oh, my,” Ms. Lewis said, frowning. “I’m so sorry; you must be sixteen to apply.” She stepped back from me and looked me up and down. “You look older.”
“But I’m an Honor student, my attendance is excellent, and I’m never late.” I insisted, as I pulled my emergency stash from my purse. “See here are my report cards from last year and here are three Highest Honor Roll cards.” I said, placing them on the desk in front of her. She was shaking her head, no!
“Ms Lewis, here is my Dad’s check for the first quarter’s tuition,” I said, placing it on top of my report cards. "I really can do this work; I’ve already started to study.” I launched into what I hoped would win my admission:
Diseases of the Sebaceous Glands
Milia are small, pearly white tumors, beneath the epidermis. They are caused by a collection of sebaceous secretions.
Acne rosacea is a chronic, inflammatory congestion of the checks and nose. It is characterized by redness, dilation of the blood-vessels, and the formation of . . .“All right, all right, I believe you could do this work, but . . .” She looked me up and down again. “Is she always like this? Um, does she have a photographic memory?” she asked, turning to my dad.
“Well, she’s always been precocious, and no, no photographic memory.” Dad offered, smiling.
What is precocious? Why are they talking about me as if I wasn’t here? I wondered.
Finally, Ms Lewis said, “Here’s what we’re going to do, Lois. You come back when you’re fifteen and I’ll get you enrolled. You’ll be past sixteen by the time you graduate and eligible for the State Board. How’s that?" She asked it as if she had accomplished something.
“Oh, Ms Lewis, thank you so much. Thank you!” I glanced at Dad and he winked at me. We had a secret.
Dad and Ms. Lewis shook hands and said good-bye.
By the time we got down the steps and onto Centre Avenue, I was in stitches “Do you think Ms Lewis will have a baby . . . I, I mean do you think she’ll be surprised when she finds out I’ll be fifteen in two months?” I asked, trying to contain my laughter.
“I sure do, honey. I think she’ll be so surprised she’ll probably have a baby,” he said with a chuckle.
As we sauntered toward the parking lot hand in hand Dad said, “I thought you did a fantastic job of convincing Mrs. Lewis that you could handle the studies and your text book expertise was ingenious.”
“Ingenious, maybe,” I teased. “But I would call it good planning and persistence. You know, as in diligence, perseverance, determination, endurance, keep the ball rolling, never give up . . .”