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.