Hellish Gargoyle 

Highlights of a scarring hair salon experience

I'm certainly living up to my name these days, because in German -- make that bad German -- my first name means "hellish." I just now discovered this, and my last name is even worse. I'm talking about my family name, the one I never got around to officially changing even though I've been married three years. In German, my family name means "gargoyle."

I should have known this sooner, because I've been a bad German interpreter for 12 years now, but you'd be surprised at how long you can interact with another culture and still keep your knowledge of it neatly limited. My dealings in Germany have mostly been isolated to polite business relations, so I've never had the need to say the word "hellish" to these people -- not unless I was introducing myself, anyway.

It fell to a Polish hairdresser to enlighten me yesterday. I'd been in Munich for a week, partaking in a study program to try and stuff this forgotten, loogy-hocking language back into my brain in order to retain my interpreter qualification, and after class, I ducked into a salon on Sendlingerstrasse to see if anyone there had time to bleach the hell out of my hair.

I always figured Germany would be a good place to score some good hair highlights. Anyone who's ever been here can see that all the local women make it their mission to look like they were born and raised on a California beach. Unlike them, though, I actually was born and raised in California, though 13 years of Atlanta living has seriously eroded my surfer-girl image -- that and an odd-looking spot that flourished in the middle of my face about four years ago. It was located above my upper lip, and it would have made a good beauty mark if not for the fact that it was skin cancer.

After surgery, I had to walk around wearing a big bandage under my nostrils, because if I took it off, it would look like my nose was dripping acid and burning a bloody trail into my mouth. The doctor had made sure I'd known the procedure would leave a scar, too. In fact, it was the very first thing he'd said to me after entering the exam room. I tell you, it kind of crumbles your confidence when the first words you hear out of your doctor's mouth are used to allow him a big margin for scarring.

So yes, I have a scar. It looks like a little white lightening bolt above my lip. I'm told that due to my past habit of frying myself like a sausage on the sands of California, I can expect more such dots to pop up in the future. I have a vision of my pending naked body peppered with a network of little white lightening bolts. The vision almost appeals to me.

The polish hairdresser's name was Barbara, and I did not even need to make an appointment. She simply ushered me to a chair and started slapping some high-test rotgut on my roots. Obviously this was my kind of place. In Atlanta, the hairdressers are always talking me into these new color treatments recently invented by a team of 12 scientists toiling under a glass dome in Finland or something. The end results are OK, I guess, just never blond enough.

"Can't we dispense with this fancy crap?" I always ask. "Don't you have anything back there strong enough to burn the barnacles off a boat?"

They always ignore me and commence with their subtle applications. But not Barbara. Barbara's own hair had been bleached so bright that if you wanted to gawk straight at her head, you'd benefit by doing it from under one of those protective hoods that welders wear. Her own German was bad, but better than mine, because at least she'd known the meaning of my first name. She laughed when she heard it, "You come from hell, ja?"

It wasn't until my scalp was practically bleeding that she finally removed the foils and rinsed the solution from my hair, which, by the way, didn't fare well. Much of it burned off at the roots, leaving little bald patches, and the streaks that remained were as white as albino lab mice. In all, I'd classify the results as less than successful. My scalp looked like it had been bitten by a nest of electric eels. I wanted to get out of there fast so I could assess the damage in private and see if actual sobbing was in order on my part. In my haste, I forgot my umbrella, which prompted Barbara to dash after me down the busy street.

I tried to ignore her, but it wasn't happening. She was loudly calling out my name, my full name, which she'd read from my credit card, and people were beginning to stop and look around, their curious eyes eventually settling on me. There was nothing else for me to do, so I simply turned and took my place in the world.

"Over here, Barbara," I answered her, and she trotted to my side, smiling at me standing there with my scarred lip and my Medusa hair.

"Hellish Gargoyle," she said sweetly, "I thought you got away." Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to www.hollisgillespie.com.

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