Only the hairdresser knows

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"I mainlined cocaine but never snorted it in order to protect my nose and my teeth. At least I had that much sense."

So began a recent haircut at a walk-in salon. I've never been someone to plan ahead with haircut appointments. In contrast, my mom had her standing weekly appointment for a shampoo and set. That's just not me. Instead, I wake up one day, think, "I really need a haircut," and wonder what happened overnight because my hair looked fine yesterday, or so I thought.

Thank goodness for the walk-in salon format. The particular place I frequent keeps computer notes about how I like the haircut. In addition, the stylists all go through common training about how they're expected to cut hair, so I've generally had good outcomes.

Tanya (not her real name) is doing the honors today. Usually the cutter is engrossed in her work and just offers an occasional "uh-huh" or "Oh, really?" to the conversation patter I'm providing. But Tanya is different. She's doing a careful, unhurried, expert haircut while educating me about her life's journey.

"I grew up in California and had a tough time with my parents. Dad left us when I was in the third grade, leaving my mom to make do raising my older sister and me. My sister was very close to mom and almost seemed like her twin, which left me on the outs with both of them. I'm the type of person who needs to be in control of things, but that wasn't happening at home, so I started doing drugs when I was a sophomore in high school. Mom and I never got along — and we still don't — so she threw me out of the house. I really didn't mind being homeless because I could do what I wanted and at least I didn't have to be around her every day."

So here we were, 35 years later and many states away from California. Tanya seemed happy in a middle-class walk-in hair salon. "Today I'm all about helping. I especially like helping old people, sick people, and animals. I've come a long way from the low points."

I tell her that she has a very inspiring story and should be on one of the talk shows. She could tell her story exuding confidence that shaky beginnings eventually turn out OK.

"I'm vegan now. When you're homeless, you train yourself that you're not hungry and don't need food. There isn't any anyway, so it's better if you don't think about being hungry. You can usually fill up a water bottle and after a while the liquid gives you a feeling of feeling full. So you get by."

"Where is your mom these days?" I ask.

"My mom actually lives near here," Tanya replies. "But we never see each other. We agreed long ago that we had nothing positive to say to each other, so it's better if we don't connect. And I'm OK with that. I have a teenage daughter of my own and am trying to raise her to be a good, upright and moral person who is kind to others and cares about others. She can't get any of that from my mom (her grandmother). So whatever good my daughter's getting, she has to get it from me."

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati.]