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Where clean and sober includes a hairdo


mirror.gifThe New York Times By Felicia R. Lee

Her eyes didn’t match the rather ordinary details conveyed in a cursory glance: a middle-aged woman, small pieces of jewelry, demure sweater set, tentative posture. Her eyes had seen hell.

She came on opening day at the salon, with its dancing blue tile floor and striped wallpaper, decorated with black and white balloons. She sat at a black manicure table, where her nails were rounded and buffed. Her thoughts were elsewhere.

“A manicure is nice,” she said softly. “It helps to look at your hands when they look nice.”

Her story, which she told in a seemingly practiced tumble of words, revealed the reason for her sadness.

“I started using heroin when I was 50,” she said, giving her age as 57. “I had two children. They were murdered by the baby sitter’s boyfriend. I came home and the fire trucks were bringing the children out of the house.”

In a chair nearby sat another customer, her short hair being set on blue and orange plastic rollers. She had her own reasons for being there.

Beverly Robinson, 42, said she had just spent six months in prison for possession and sale of crack cocaine. She had stopped using drugs and wanted to look as good as she was beginning to feel. It was the first time in her life that someone had done her hair for her.

“This feels excellent,” she said as the stylist gently set her hair. “I had a very low self-esteem. It’s coming up again, nice.”

In a chair across the room, Benjamin Hubert, 30, was peering anxiously into the mirror as five months’ worth of hair fell on the floor and his face took on new contours. Like Ms. Robinson, he was addicted to crack. Just five months ago, he said, he weighed 130 pounds. Now his weight is 200.

“I wanted to be the first one in here,” Mr. Hubert said. “I had that hair on my head when I was running the streets. Now I’m wearing a tie and shirt. On the streets I was wearing baggy pants. The same way I feel good when I iron my pants and my shirt, I feel good to get my head clean.”

The hair salon is part of Odyssey House, the drug treatment center. Peter Provet, the center’s president, called the salon “a small, symbolic event of great meaning,” describing it as “a symbol of the entire process of dignity and self-worth” for recovering drug addicts.


The salon was built with the help of the people living in the residential program on 121st Street, between Second and Third Avenues. They will also staff the salon, which will eventually offer a full range of services to residents by appointment.

No one here argues that a good haircut is essential to the treatment of drug addiction. But the Odyssey House residents are people with pressing reasons for feeling transformed. Each story is a reminder of the ways, grand and small, people hold on and keep going, pushing back against whatever darkness they encounter.

The middle-aged woman, who had been a teen-age mother, had a second set of children later in life. Her younger daughter was 2 and her son was 5 when their bodies were pulled from the fire. She was a registered nurse, married, with a nice house in Crown Heights. None of it mattered when her children were killed. She numbed herself by sticking a needle in her arm, she said, but she got tired of being half dead.

She entered a Odyssey House program for older drug addicts, and she has not used drugs in 19 months. Because she is ready to go back to work, she did not want to give her name.

“I found out it will never go away,” she said of her pain, “but I can deal with it without using drugs.”

Debra Simmons had her short brown hair shampooed and wrapped across her head with hairpins. Her manicured nails were pink, with sharp points. Her 18-month-old son, Alex, lives at Odyssey House with her in a family program. She lost custody of her other seven children because she neglected them while using drugs, she said, adding that she is H.I.V.-positive but Alex is not.

“I have to look good,” Ms. Simmons said. “I have to cover up the pain. It makes you feel good when you can cleanse some of that badness in your life.”

Outside, a group of women from the family center lined up with their newborns, giddy as teenagers at the prospect of fussing with their looks. Pieces of conversation sailed into the air.

“I used to let Dominicans do my hair. They’re the best.”

“Are they going to do perms?”

“I’m going to be so cute. I’m going to use my own nails.”

Waiting at a sink, Sheri Smith said she was planning on a wash, a blow-dry and a hot curl. She had been at Odyssey House for seven months without relapsing, she said proudly.

“A couple of months ago, it was stated this would be a salon,” Ms. Smith said with wonder in her voice. “I didn’t think it would succeed, but I’m sitting here now.

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