Nanna’s birthday was in September so this month I’m writing a story from her.
My Nanna, Pauline, started working at a beauty shop, Clancys, when she was a teenager. Clancy himself had several beauty shops around Pittsburgh and, at the time, would pay for girls to go to beauty school if, in return, they worked for him for a year. My grandma did just that—while in high school she got her license to be a hairdresser and started working for one of Clancy’s shops.
One time, when she was working, a call came in from a funeral home with a request to style the hair of a recently deceased woman for her funeral viewing. When a beautician who was free was asked to go, she squealed, claiming that it would creep her out to go.
“I’d go,” Pauline said, nonchalantly, “if I didn’t have a client next.” A few minutes later she was approached by her co-worker who had been asked to go to the funeral home. “Lucky for you,” her coworker told her, “your appointment just canceled, so now you really can go.” Pauline, ever prideful, gulped and made her way through Lawrenceville, a city neighborhood in Pittsburgh, to the funeral home. The undertaker led her to the basement, where her deceased client was waiting for hair and makeup, and left her there. Pauline, around age 16 or 17, stood in the dark and damp funeral basement, setting up her makeup and hair products in silence. The last part of the story was the one that tickled Nanna the most when she told it.
She picked up the heated curling iron and, as she was going to curl her client’s hair, she bumped the lady’s face. “Oh! Excuse me Ma’am,” she said.
She always laughed wildly when she said that, imagining herself, a teenager, begging the pardon of her dead client.
Another story I remember related to her time at Clancy’s was about the wedding of a friend. One woman, much older than her, took Pauline under her wing, acting like a big sister to her. This woman was maybe in her mid 30s which, in the 1940s, felt very old not to be married. This woman, let’s call her Gladys, did eventually find someone she liked and got engaged one winter. Gladys decided to have a very small wedding, just a few friends, followed by dinner and dancing at a nightclub. She asked Pauline’s mom, Sarah, if she could take Pauline and promised they would take care of her. That’s how Pauline, around 16, found herself out with a group of 30 year olds at a fancy nightclub- a place that Pauline had never been before. When the waiter came around and took their order, Pauline looked at the menu to decide what drink she would get. Like all 16 year olds, she wanted to appear mature and sophisticated. Unfortunately, as she scanned the menu, she found that she had no idea what any of the drinks actually were. She found one thing that had a familiar word in the title-one that she associated with glitz and glamour.
When the waiter came to her and asked for her drink order she cooly asked for a “shrimp cocktail”. Well, when it came, the same part of her personality that made her march down to the funeral home, made her pretend that she was not surprised in the least that she had ordered literal shrimp on ice instead of a fancy drink. She went about eating it (or attempting to eat it because she had never had shrimp before), pretending that she knew all along the reason she had ordered it was because she was far too young for a drink.