The American way of health, teeth and hair: Zoe Heller in America

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A SHORT while ago, I'm sitting in a mid- town restaurant having lunch with a man- friend, when, out of the blue, he starts tearing into me about my hair. 'What is that fright wig?' he says. 'Excuse me?' I say. 'No, I'm serious,' he says. 'So am I, you insulting bastard,' I say.

'Look,' he says. 'Don't get me wrong, but it'sridiculous. It's all in your eyes. It just sits there on your head. It's so . . . BBQ.' These initials stand for 'Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens' and they are usually used by Manhattanites, as in this context, to denote that which is naff or cheap or declasse.

'Enough,' I say. 'I don't want to pursue this subject any further. How dare you volunteer your nasty little snobberies and diss my hairdo?' We resume our meal, chomping away silently on our sage-soaked shrimp in filo pastry. But after five minutes I can't bear it any more. 'So, Mr Smart Guy,' I say, trying to make it sound like an amused, disinterested enquiry, 'what would you do with my hair?'

To cut a long story short, he said that I should cut it all off. And after he had spoken at some length on the subject, I said what the hell - I would. To make sure that I didn't change my mind, he rushed off to make an appointment for that afternoon, at the Frederic Fekkai salon at the top of Bergdorf Goodman.

Since I've lived in New York, I've always had my hair cut at a dump on lower Broadway called Infiniti, where a man in white flares and cracked patent leather shoes trimmed the fright wig for dollars 15. The Frederic Fekkai salon is all done out in black and white and filled with extremely rich women in 'FF' monogrammed robes, receiving customised schmooze. All the staff run around bringing drinkies and tiny triangular sandwiches to these mean, carmine- nailed yentas. It's reminiscent of those beauty parlour scenes in The Women or one of those Ziegfeld Follies sequences in which gangs of women in head-towels burst into song and dance. New York is a lot like India in this respect. Life is tough. There are people with terminal diseases cowering behind cardboard boxes in the streets. But once people rise above a certain income level, they are lavished with an unbelievable degree of pampering, and anything they have done for them is performed by an army of about ten people, each of whom has a specialised, unskilled task that may or may not get them a tip.

Service industries for the well-off are a whole different thing in America. When I needed to go for a smear test recently, my girlfriend recommended her gynaecologist, Dr Ostrovsky, who charges dollars 190 for a first visit. In England, when you go for a smear test on the NHS, you undress in some freezing little room and eventually an old guy hobbles out from behind a screen, clutching a pre-war speculum. At this place, an incredibly handsome guy with a huge cheesey grin greeted me in his swishy office. 'Hi] I'm Dr Ostrovsky,' he said. 'But please call me Gary.' He was wearing a white coat and a stethoscope round his neck - just like a doctor in a movie. He chit-chatted about my 'lifestyle' for maybe 15 minutes and then, when he was done, I was taken by his beautiful young assistant - a kind of medical Anthea Redfern - into a little air-conditioned palace that was the examination room. I slipped into a crisp white robe, and presently Gary appeared again. 'Hi]' All the time he was examining me with his state-of-the-art implements, he kept up a honeyed patter about - and I'm not making this up - how much he used to enjoy the old 'Grains of the World' series in the New Yorker. This is the American Way.

Anyway, my stylist at Frederic Frekkai was a smarmy Frenchman called Julien. As soon as he asked me what I wanted done, I felt myself on the verge of tears. I babbled on for a bit about how I was thinking that maybe it was time to have all my hair cut off and yet I wasn't really sure. Wordlessly, he started picking up hanks of my hair and then letting them fall, pushing my hair behind my ears and twisting my head from side to side. All the time, he was frowning. 'A bob would look terry-bull,' he announced finally. 'It has to be reelly short' - he pulled all my hair behind my head - 'like that.' I stared at myself, suddenly transformed into an inmate on Riker's Island. 'Really?' I said. 'Like that?' 'Yes, I fink so,' he said. 'What you say? You want this?'

I started to hyperventilate. 'Well . . .' I said and paused. 'Well . . .' I paused once more. Then Julien opened a drawer and produced an enormous pair of pantomime scissors. In a flash, he had gathered up all my hair into a pony-tail and chopped it off. He smirked. 'Too late now,' he said perkily. 'Better go have your shampoo.'

When I was a little girl, there was a big scandal about a local dentist who used a 'surprise' method for extracting teeth. He used to reach into mouths of his children patients and say 'Abracadabra]' before yanking out the offending molar with his bare hand. Eventually, a group of mothers threatened to get him struck off for malpractice. This was what I thought of as I sat gazing, glassy-eyed, at the floor, where my pony-tail lay like a big, dead animal. 'Can hairdressers be struck off?' I wondered. From out of my mouth came an involuntary, preternatural cry of anguish: 'Ayeee]' The women sitting nearby swivelled round and uttered a delighted group 'Oooh'.

At that moment, my lunch date rang and a phone was brought to where I was sitting. 'So, how's it going?' he said. 'It's gone,' I said. 'He's cut it. It's going to be very, very, very short.' There was a long silence. 'Are you serious?' he said. 'You did it? Oh shit, I didn't think you'd really go and do it.'

'Well I did. I thought I'd look like Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle, but in fact I look like Elaine Paige in Cats.'

''Ach,' said the man - who has surely been attending 'How To Send Women

Crazy' classes. 'Why are you moaning? It'll grow again.'