wigs, father’s day and an old interview

June 20, 2010 |  Category:   family life nyc remembering

Lorna Simpson, Wigs II, 1996-2006, Waterless lithographs on felt (taken at MoMA)

It isn’t any secret that my relationship with my dad hasn’t been easy, but over the years I’ve come to a rather comfortable place, at peace for what it is. It wouldn’t be real if I said thank you dad for being there. So I want to thank him instead for being a great grandfather because that is true and real. I like to think instead about some of the memories I have, the smaller moments that I can think back to fondly. A lot of it revolves around his store.

Many of you know that my dad sold wigs in a small, narrow store on East 58th Street in Midtown Manhattan for 27 years. It closed down in 2002 when his lease wasn’t renewed. The rent also got too expensive so it was just a matter of time. You don’t have to be a genius to know that it wasn’t a lucrative business (also I dreaded having to say what my dad did for a living in school), but he did have celebrity clients, the biggest and most frequent buyer being Diana Ross, who always seemed so kind to him over those years. Others included Cyndi Lauper, Raquel Welch and Janet Jackson (so close to Michael, yet so far!), but “Diana Days” were a big deal and usually cause for a celebration and a big dinner out. In fact you can even say that Diana helped get W&S started as my dad gave me a portion from his last Diana sale 2 years ago to invest in supplies and materials.

I don’t remember going to his store much when I was a kid, though I must have on occasion. The visits I do remember started in college when I was out of the house, living in Manhattan and going to art school. Usually it was to meet him at the end of the day on a Saturday when he drove into work, to catch a ride with him on weekend visits home. Sometimes, however, it was just to have lunch. We’d usually order Chinese – he’d get shrimp lo mein and I’d get sesame noodles. We’d share a container of hot and sour soup. We never talked much, but sat together and ate lunch. Sometimes we’d read the paper while eating. I’d then take the 6 train downtown, back to my life, my friends, my world.

Back in 1996 when I moved back to NY after 5 years away, I lived with my parents for 9 months before getting an apartment on 12th Street in the East Village. It wasn’t the house I grew up in which would have been entirely too weird and uncomfortable, but at that time they were living in a 2 bedroom condo. I stayed in the 2nd bedroom. I wasn’t a kid then and I’d already been living on my own for 8 years at that point, but I have to say, I really enjoyed being back home. Two of the things that I remember most was watching reruns of My So-Called Life on the small TV in my room and grocery shopping days with my parents at the huge Asian Supermarket. It was exciting to be able to put anything I wanted in that shopping cart without having to think about budgets or prices. Living at home was a safety net while reacquainting myself with the city and figuring what I wanted to do with my life. As it turns out, I found a job just 6 weeks later 2 blocks away from my dad’s store. On the nights when I wasn’t staying over Mark’s first apartment in the financial district, my dad and I would commute in together. He’d drive the car to the garage on Main Street in Flushing and we’d ride the 7 train to Queensboro Plaza and catch the N train 1 stop to 59th street. We’d part ways till the end of the day and we’d do the commute all over again. Sometimes there would be seats on the 7 train midway through the train ride and sometimes we’d sit opposite each other. These were the moments I’d look at my dad while he read the paper as a stranger might, without all that baggage and history, and observe how old he’d gotten.

One day in October, I stopped in from work to have one of our lunches and noticed a hand made sign on the front glass window of the store. It was blue and busy and I couldn’t quite make out what it was until I got closer. When I realized what it was, I was taken aback because it was a sign that I had made him when I was maybe 12 years old. He asked me one day all those years ago to make him a Halloween sale sign that he could use at his store. So I painted him one except it was something that you’d expect a 12 year old to make – red handwritten letters in a “scary”, drippy font against a dark blue night time sky filled with cobwebs, spiders and jack-o-lanterns. The sign was nearly illegible except from 4 feet away. He used it though that year and apparently every year after that until his store closed.

I did a story and interview of my dad when I was working on the Hair Issue of my webzine back in 2001. Here is a little excerpt:

Every morning my dad takes the 7 train in and opens his shop at 10am. He has a routine like Mr. Rogers because he’ll take off his jacket and put on his grey fleece cardigan (though these days he’s also sporting a vest) and he’ll take off his shoes, put on his slippers and roll up his pant cuffs once. He orders the same thing for lunch every day alternating between pizza and shrimp lo mein. He spends most of the day reading the papers, talking on the phone and obsessively picking up lint from the carpet when he’s not tending to a customer. I luck out the day I go visit because I walk in as he’s about to sell a wig to a customer. “Looks good. Very natural. No one can tell,” he says as he brushes and trims the wig for a woman in her 30’s. The woman turns her head this way and that. He continues brushing and showing her different ways to style it. “No one knows it’s a wig!” She spends a few more minutes twisting and turning. Finally she is satisfied. “Wash every 2 weeks. Warm water. Baby shampoo. Hang dry”, he instructs. The woman makes the purchase and wears her new wig out the store.

So here’s my attempt to interview my dad. I know I’m going to get one word answers, but what the hell.

Me: So dad. Why did you decide to open a wig store when you came to America?
Dad: What do you mean why?
Me: I mean, why wigs?
Dad: That’s what people did back then. Very popular.
Me: But why?
Dad: What do you mean why?
Me: Uh, do you like selling wigs?
Dad: It’s okay.
Me: What are you going to do when you have to close the store?
Dad: I dunno yet.
Me: What are you going to do with all these wigs?
Dad: Big sale. Sell everything,
Me: Um, can I have some wigs?
Dad: Come on! (people think I have a huge wig collection because of my dad. Not true. He won’t give me any because he saids there’s nothing wrong with my hair.)
Me: Well, can I have some?
Dad: Maybe. We’ll see.

Happy Father’s Day, dad.

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  • Adele @ modernemotive June 20, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Great story.

    P.S. Loved This So Called Life too and you are your mother’s double!

  • kristine June 20, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Great father’s day post and honest tribute to your dad. I too, grew up in a small business headed by my dad and I have so many fond memories. Keeping a business afloat is hard work even now, so kudos to him (and my dad) for having the determination to keep going! I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

  • Anna Emilia June 20, 2010 at 10:32 am

    It was very nice to read this, thank you.

  • Sos June 20, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Your parents are beautiful people! You have both the strength and the feminitity from both of them. Happy father’s day!

  • ChantaleP June 20, 2010 at 10:56 am

    This is a wonderful story. I think alot of people can relate. Especially when your parents have their own tale to tell or history that they’d rather forget (esp going through a war or two). I’m really happy to hear that you’re able to reforge some kind of bond with your dad. I only wish I had had that time with mine before he passed away. Ah well… I also think it’s super interesting he sold wigs for a living! He sold wigs and made a living. That’s incredible!
    btw: Your parents are incredibly good looking!! I see now where you get your genes! Wowsa.

  • bronwyn June 20, 2010 at 11:11 am

    I loved the story. Both of your parents are so beautiful. I agree with Adele. You look very much like your mother.

  • monica of hola!design June 20, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Yes, you look just like your mom!!! Very nice post.

  • myturtleneck June 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    I love this story! I had no idea. Great photos too. Your parents looked like a hot, stylin’ couple. Plus I wore my hair in pigtails just like you back then 😉 Ha!

  • unha June 20, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    i love this story too! happy father’s day. you look so much like your mom!

  • Lara Sopchak June 20, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    What a nice story, Jenna. Thanks.

  • Lori June 20, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    thanks for sharing your story with us jenna! i can relate to you when i used to live at home with my mom… going grocery shopping at the asian markets where anything we wanted, we just put in the shopping cart. it was pretty awesome! good times :)

  • Shilo June 20, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Great photos of your parents. When I saw your mother in the first one, I thought it was you.

    Happy father’s day to Mark as well!

  • wendy June 21, 2010 at 12:48 am

    loved reading that. and love the photos too!

  • elaineganmaclaine June 21, 2010 at 12:58 am

    What a handsome couple, and you look like your pretty mom :)

    Your new frequent reader.

  • Emine June 21, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Thanks for sharing your story. I could relate to this in my own way. It was a raw and true story and thanks for not trying to put a fairy tale twist to it :) It is what it is. Your story touched me immensely.

  • benson June 21, 2010 at 3:51 am

    you are such an honest storyteller and I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. I don’t know of your past with your father but it’s good that somewhere along the line there was a compromise or a forgiveness and he is there for your children…perhaps in a way you don’t remember from your childhood.

  • jenn June 21, 2010 at 4:27 am

    such a lovely post. thank you for sharing.

  • Chai Ling June 21, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I like your mum. She has beautiful eyes and nose. Oh. My So-Called Life, I was 15 or 16 when I watched it.

  • Cynthia June 21, 2010 at 9:54 am

    I have to marvel at how your Dad’s sunglasses and your mom’s shorts outfit look right out of Lands’ End in 2010! They are both very hip looking and as other have mentioned we can see where you get your good looks. I like hearing about how your dad would sell to the celebreties, and how his last Diana Ross sale he gave you a portion to help get you started. Entrepreunership must run in your family (and Marks?). Families are hard to figure out most times, but often they have best wishes for their children’s success. Maybe your new staff will be your girls when they get a little older :) Of course, I remember your posts last year where Mia would help out at the markets and was a natural born seller! Have a great week!

  • nicole June 21, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    your parents were super foxy in those pics!

  • Anna @ D16 June 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    So great, Jenna.

    I found out a few years ago that every Christmas, my dad (who is Jewish) sets up this tacky little ceramic light-up tree that I made in school when I was maybe 7 or 8 and gave to him as a gift.

    For all his shortcomings as a father, that single act means more to me than I can express.

  • karen June 21, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    your parents are gorgeous, and you look just like your mom Jenna!
    It’s funny when we take the time to look at our parents are humans rather than “our parents”. Thinking about what they have faced, what their childhoods were like, their young adulthood. my parents also did what they had to do rather than what they wanted to or dreamed of doing. they tried to pass that on to me, but obviously i ignored that :)

  • julie June 21, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    you have a beautiful family. thanks for sharing!

  • Jane June 21, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Wowza, your parents were like a pair of models! I love looking back at pictures of my parents and even my grandparents when they were young, sometimes I can hardly recognize them. As an adult I’ve finally stopped expecting my parents to be anything other than what they are – regular people with regular problems and regular strengths and failings who are trying to figure things out as they go along! I can only hope that one day my kids will realize the same thing – that nothing can ever really prepare you for being a parent, and most of us anyway are just trying our best.

  • Christie June 21, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Your story compels me to write about my father – a man I haven’t seen or talked to in almost 18 years. Thank you again, Jenna.

  • ti June 23, 2010 at 9:27 am

    So beautifully written! reading this post i stepped back in history and forgot about work for a moment!

  • ftenshin June 23, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Thanks for sharing this lovely story, Jenna. You have a beautiful family and you are as pretty as your mom

  • Joana June 24, 2010 at 11:35 am

    I really enjoyed this post. The photos nostalgic and beautiful. My parents are also from Korea. My dad passed away about 1 1/2 ago. He ran a little shop in Westport, CT. Many of his costumers were celebrities; Eartha Kitt and Paul Newman among others, only they probably didn’t recognize many of them. They didn’t even know who Eartha Kitt was :) I going crazy missing my dad. I sew to be closer to him.

  • Denny June 13, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Great story….till this day it baffles me that Asian men, in general, don’t really have conversations with their offspring…maybe it’s just me and my dad…but I’ve heard similar story-lines; other friends with Asian parents.

    Anyway Father’s Day is coming up!

    Ps: Snooping around to look at restaurants you’ve recommended in the past…Soba-ya is on the list!