No graduation day for our adventurer





      Being terrified at a beauty salon is one of my earliest memories. The hairdryers were all brainwashing machines, sucking the personalities out of the unfortunate heads they wrapped around.

      This is why you shouldn't let your three-year-old watch "Star Trek."

      John Peri Beauty College in Lomita seems like the right place to confront my hairdressing issues. I am surrounded by 30 beautiful young girls, their unnaturally hued locks shimmering almost as brightly as their multiple piercings. And they wonder out loud why they never meet a man who's both sensitive and not gay.

      Warren Beatty had it right in "Shampoo." There is no easier way of picking up women than doing their hair. After learning the basics of cutting and coloring this morning, I will get to lather one or two students up and get down to business this afternoon. (Hmm, maybe I'll make this a 10-part series.)

      Students spend 9 months at this academy, founded by Peri in 1963, before taking their state cosmetology exams. Tuition is $3000, but most pay only about $400 of that, thanks to funding from the Torrance school district.

      We begin in a rear classroom with Shawn Gamal, 38, a John Peri instructor for nearly 20 years. The Carson resident, who calls herself "Gam," teaches from a textbook that includes brief chapters on chemistry and anatomy. Apparently, there's a lot of information that my knowledge of hair care (lather, rinse, repeat) does not include.

      Did you know that hairdressers are required by law to perform an allergy test before every coloring job? They need to place a smidgeon of dye on the skin, then have the client return four hours later to see if there's a reaction. Of course, no one ever does this. "It's just like coming to a complete stop at stop signs -- people do what they feel is good enough," Gamal tells the class.

      "You're supposed to stop at stop signs?" cracks Steve Solari, 20, of Palos Verdes Estates, one of only three male students.

      "Girls, quiet please!" Gam yells.

      "I hate it when she says that," Solari reacts.

      It's surprising how little I know about hair considering how obsessed I am with mine. Hair is a very important asset to a vertically challenged man.

      Being bald isn't so bad for a tall guy, since no one's really sure what's going on way up there. But the top of a short dude's head is public domain, and there's nothing he can bring to the flirting table more impressive than a full head of the stringy stuff.

      "Your hair is nice but I'd change the cut and get rid of your sideburns," says an attractive blonde student who identifies herself only as Heidi. "You kind of look like Wolverine from `X-Men.'"

      She probably means this in a good way.

      "If you want to take it that way, go ahead," she says. "You look great. Now go away."

      Maybe this isn't the easiest place to pick up women.

      "Break's over, back to class!" 40-year-old Hawthorne resident Vonnie Clay hollers at the students thronged outside the school, who all wear dye-stained white coats and dangle lipstick-stained cigarettes. The hairdresser then apologies for not seeing me among the hollered-at.

      "Make sure to say that I look good for 40," Clay adds. "You can put that in your article."

      Smoking is a beauty school prerequisite, by the way. I can't figure out why, but it's a fairly firm rule. Perhaps it's so that all those noxious salon chemicals won't seem like the worst thing a person inhales.

      We have been dismissed from the classroom to the main salon, where students man their stations for seven hours after class. The senior students (more than six months) work on one of the salon's 400 regular walk-in clients.

      "I come once a week for six or seven years and it's $4.50 for a curl and fix," says Dot Wright, 74, of Torrance.

      "You can't beat it."

      Still, most of Wright's friends ignore her recommendations. "They want to pay $20," she says.

      Wright denies also having her teeth drilled at dental school.

      I work alongside the freshmen (fewer than three months) in the back, on mannequin heads whose hair is 10 percent human and 90 percent fake (something ex-girlfriends have accused me of being). My first assignment is detangling a mane more snarled than the rush-hour 405. Then I have to create a straight part with a comb and section the hair off into quarters.

      "You think I want him to have an easy time?" Gam tells a student inquiring about my assignment. "We have 9 months of suffering. He only has a couple of hours. Make him work!"

      Hair can only be detangled from the bottom upward, I learn after attempting the opposite move for several stressful minutes. And when it comes to parts, the straightest I can manage resembles the Pacific Coast Highway up around Big Sur.

      Frankie Avalon is about to enter and tell me to wipe off that angel face and go back to high school.

      "That's OK," a fellow student consoles me. "Technique doesn't matter as much as people skills." And it is while bonding with my fellow students, not listening in the classroom, that I indeed learn the true art of hairdressing -- being a yenta. I hear and share gossip about dating and sexual fantasies, and I learn the code words hairdressers use to disguise what they're really telling their clients.

      If your "natural blonde" is coming through, for example, this means you're greyer than Kansas in "The Wizard of Oz." If your hair is referred to as "delicate," then there are hash browns at Denny's that aren't as fried. And if anyone ventures as far as the word "thinning"? Start pricing bowling-ball polishers.

      Michelle Mills is ready. The 18-year-old San Pedro hottie possesses Carmen Electra-length tresses in silky auburn, highlighted in punky red. She has volunteered to be the first victim of my hairstyling career. She's a student, of course. No way will I be allowed near a real client.

      "I pretty much don't care what happens to my hair," Mills says. This is evident from her choice of hairdresser. I hope she has a big hat collection.

      As Michelle leans back into the sink, I release a flood of warm water and begin the kind of deep temple massage that says, "I am a man who's both sensitive and not gay."

      I imagine myself as Warren Beatty's George, the Beverly Hills hairdresser who does his clients after doing their hair. "Women are an occupational hazard," George says, before racing his little motorcycle from Goldie Hawn to Julie Christie to Carrie Fisher.

      Michelle has closed her eyes and, I can't say for sure but, I think I hear a moan.

      Unfortunately, my massage has begun without any shampoo. My fellow student, Aileen Zambito, cracks up.

      "You don't have to massage her yet!" says the 18-year-old El Segundo resident, who pumps a sudsy green liquid into my hand. I quickly try to ascertain what George would do to recover at this point.

      "You're so pretty, Michelle," I say, squishing her hair into a froth.

      "Um, thank you ... for the third time," Michelle replies, giggling. I then try telling her that my fingers sense "a lot of tension.""Behind my ears?" she responds, still giggling. My failed attempt at nonlaughable flirting then turns to Zambito's tongue ring. "Yeah, my boyfriend wants me to get one of those," Michelle says.

      Her what? Every sentence after that sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher: wah-wah-wah. All my concentration diverts into pretending not to have a harpooned heart. At one point, water shoots from the sink nozzle, some of it down the front of Michelle's gown.

      "Wet T-shirt contest!" Zambito announces. The floor resembles the deck on Titanic.

      As Gam takes control of the nozzle, I collect the unwelcome additional information that Michelle's beau is "much taller" than I am.

      "And he's a surfer," she says. I surfed for one of these adventure columns once. But I don't suspect that this argument will change the current situation.

      Michelle's haircut is next. As we walk back to the cutting room, I ponder whether my goal is still to make her look ravishing, since it would only be enjoyed by Mr. Big Waves. Maybe if I give her a Flowbie, he'll leave and I can move in, at least for the month or two it takes to grow back. I share my thoughts out loud, hoping at least for a laugh.

      "But how can you make me uglier?" Michelle responds.

      Despite that comment, my conscience reigns and I give it the ol' beauty college try. Gam hands me a razor and describes a fairly complicated procedure.

      "You're gonna take a half-inch subsection and pull the hair out," she says. "Then you're gonna hold the razor flat and slide it back and forth as you're coming down the hair strand."

      I smile and nod, like I did in trigonometry class during cosines.

      "A lot of the kids here are afraid of the razor cut," Gam says.

      The idea is for the razor to sheer off only a few strands on each inch of hair it glides down. This produces a chunky effect superior to what scissors can do. But it's also risky; too much pressure and all the hair will be lopped off at the point of razor contact.

      "You are so nuts, Michelle," says Zambito. But I'm actually doing some stylin' stylin', Gam tells me. I slide the razor down clump after clump as what seems like just the right amount of auburn hair floats down into my hands.

      "That's a nice and straight cut," Gam says. "It's a good beginning. You've got to work on your shampoo technique a little bit, though. You should try not to flood the school."

      The other appointment of my day and career is student Janet Billings, 31, of Redondo Beach. She's already prepped and ready for a root-lightening. This is done by applying a combination of two ounces peroxide and two ounces hair coloring, which Gam has premixed. I dollop it out like a bottle of ketchup, calling upon all my years of French fry experience.

      "It came out great," Billings tells me later. Perhaps I have found a new calling, I think to myself.

      "Mr. Corey, you're 11:30 is here," I can hear the page now.

      "Miss Snippety can wait until I finish my cigarette!" I shoot back.

      Alas, Billings has a man at home, too. And although my decent evaluations are gratifying, phone numbers and dates would have been better.

      I may have to come back and do some more journalistic research. Did I hear Gam mention a Brazilian hot wax lesson?



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