words and image: Marla Cantrell
That desire to make the world better, one perm and one conversation at a time, has earned her quite the reputation. Stories of her kindness ripple through Fort Smith, one client telling the next.
In the summer of 2014, after Jean Green’s husband Bill passed away, she considered closing her salon, the Klip n Kurl, which she’d owned for more than thirty years. Her heart just wasn’t in it, and instead of opening shop she’d find herself at the Fort Smith National Cemetery, staring at Bill’s headstone, at the inscription that announced his service in the U.S. Navy in World War II, at the lettering below that read simply “loving husband.”
But then Jean visited her doctor, who advised her to reconsider. He was certain that someone like Jean, who thrives around people, would wither at home.
So she returned to her haven, just behind Taco Bell and McDonald’s on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, Arkansas. When she flipped on the lights, the place looked much as it always had, its paneled walls comforting. When her first client came in that day, she knew she’d made the right decision. There is comfort in the easy conversations that happen when someone gives themselves over to a stylist, trusting that they’ll look and feel better by the time they leave.
Plus, all of her clients had transitioned into friends over the years.
Jean is explaining this time of her life on a Friday afternoon. Her voice is filled with Arkansas’ hills and hollows, with the drawn-out syllables that make conversations sound as if they are steeped in honey. In her stylist’s chair sits Wilma, whose dark hair defies her age. She met Jean years ago when she worked at the office at Desoto Furniture, which had previously been the Ward Furniture manufacturing plant. Jean had been the company nurse, and Wilma had worked in the office. “We’ve been best friends for forty-two years,” Wilma says, her cheeks rosy.
Jean pats her friend’s shoulder. And then she explains her transition from nursing to hairdressing. “Nurses didn’t make a lot of money back then.” Plus, Jean adds, hairdressing is in her blood. Her grandfather was a barber. Her brothers and sisters got into the business as young adults. Jean ticks off their names on her long fingers that are holding a comb, adding nieces, an uncle, a cousin, and a sister-in-law. She laughs and says, “When we get together for family dinners we talk hair!”
The first week she was in business, thirty-seven years ago, she made sixty dollars. Her first customer was a woman from Arkoma, Oklahoma, just across the Arkansas border and minutes away from the Klip n Kurl. “Every week I made a little more, working ten-hour days, five days a week.”
While Jean’s bank account was growing, so was her connection to her clients. Jean is an easy confidant, a woman who wants to help. Even as a child, she remembers following her mother, asking to pitch in. “Mama always said that about me, how I wanted to help,” Jean says and runs her fingers through her highlighted hair, the light of memory filling her face.
That desire to make the world better, one perm and one conversation at a time, has earned her quite the reputation. Stories of her kindness ripple through Fort Smith, one client telling the next. “I don’t think I do anything special,” she says.
When Jean says this, another customer and friend, Barbara Elkins, who’s sitting in a globe of sunlight by the wide window, says, “You sure are special, Jean!” In Barbara’s hand is a small candy bar Jean had given her just minutes before. “She’s always giving me something,” Barbara says and smiles.
The stories start then, with Wilma and Barbara adding incident after incident. And then Jean says, “I had one lady who recently went to the nursing home, but before that, she spent every Thursday with me. She’d say, ‘If I can just get to Jean’s I’ll be OK.’ I still go see her.”
Then there are the customers Jean buys lunch for every Friday. “Well,” Jean says, “I’d go to McDonald’s, and I couldn’t very well eat alone. I have an elderly couple that eats with me every week. The gentleman, he likes an apple pie, coffee, and french fries.”
Jean is rolling Wilma’s hair with hard plastic curlers. Jean says, “A drunk man walked in one day, and he was crying. He said, ‘My mama don’t love me, my daddy don’t love me, my kids don’t love me.’ He was just bawling and carrying on. So, I said, ‘Set down and I’ll try to help you.’ I finally got on the phone with his mama, who was an elderly lady, and she said, ‘Honey, we’ve tried ever alcoholic place in the world, the most expensive there is, and he can’t be helped.’ So, I called his brother, and he came by an hour later to get him.
“Well, I had this real prominent lady in the chair, and she stood up and she said, ‘If you don’t stop that drinking, you’re going straight to Hell!’ And then she said, ‘We love you, and we don’t want you to go to Hell!’ And he was crying, saying, ‘I don’t want to go to Hell either!’ And she quoted him some scriptures. That was quite a day.”
Jean’s voice catches, and she has to stop for a second. She wipes her eyes and says, “I can’t hardly talk about it. Anyway, his brother ended up buying him a little two-wheeler, I think you call it, to live in, and he came by to tell me he had a home, and he brought me a cookie shaped like a pink rose. I was so touched by it, I couldn’t take a bite. He told me he’d got his life together.”
The story is an example of how Jean sees the world. Another person might have asked the man to leave, frightened of the outcome and rightfully so, but Jean saw it only as an opportunity to make someone’s life better.
Barbara sits with her feet crossed at the ankles. She’s retired from the Dillard’s cosmetic counter, and her skin is smooth, her lipstick expertly applied. Lately, she’s been wondering if she should color her now-gray hair. Chris, another regular, recalls the time she went gray. She pats her blonde hair, as if she’s grateful for the vibrant color of it. The subject turns to classic hairstyles, which in turn brings up the subject of Ann.
Ann is a client who was in the shop the day before. She wears her hair in a French twist and has for all the decades Jean’s known her. “She gets nice comments on her hair all the time,” Jean says. And then she pauses. “Not that I haven’t tried to get her to change. I think she’d look pretty in some soft curls, too.”
On the wall behind Jean is a sign that reads “I’m a Beautician Not a Magician.” And near that is a certificate that shows Jean got training from a hair wizard whose client at the time was country singer, Crystal Gayle, known for her long, dark hair. “He’d crimp all that long hair of hers,” Jean says, and then throws out what he got paid to do it, the number large and inflated, even by today’s standards.
Jean never set out to make that kind of money. She wanted her own business, a place where folks would leave happier than when they came. She once thought of remodeling, but her clients threw a fit. Everyone wanted the Klip n Kurl to remain the same, just as they wanted Jean to do.
At seventy-three years old, Jean seems as energetic as someone half her age. But she does think some days of retiring. Then she remembers days like this one, the shop abuzz with laughter and stories, with friends that make the time fly by, and that thought dissolves, a hazy cloud obliterated by the bright and shining sun.
Klip n Kurl is at 4824 South 11th Street in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The phone number is 479.646.8622.