First, let me start this off by saying that the exact name of the event was the New Jersey Natural Hair & Beauty Expo, held in Edison, New Jersey. Just large enough to draw a crowd numbering into the hundreds, but not quite organized enough to keep them all comfortable, it was what most would describe as an indie event. But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now, aren’t I? Let’s start at the beginning.
My mother, lover that she is of all things natural hair care, informed my sister and I that she’d gotten us tickets to an expo. I am not a lover of natural hair care. I am just a doer of natural hair because it is my own and I am, to a fault, a lover of me. But, driving long distances and going on adventures is kind of my thing, so I agreed, sight unseen. We all awoke early Sunday morning, readying ourselves for the trip ahead. My mother and sister excited by the prospect of being regaled by tales of hair serum successes and lotions that smelled like fruit trees when heavily laden with their ripened charges. I was just along to see something new, but of course the promise of a goody bag for the first one hundred people in line didn’t hurt to sweeten the deal either. Leaving out at 8:00 am, we arrived around 9:00 am, which was just fine, seeing how the tickets said 10:00 am was the start time.
There were a few other cars there already, their passengers drinking steamless coffee, or applying last minute finishing touches to faces that had already been beat to the gods and heralded by angels. Others dozed, presumably early risers like us, enjoying a quick reprieve before readying their feet and wallets to become thoroughly exhausted. I, on the other hand, don’t like to be idle for too long unless there is a book in my hand or a conversation on my lips. Jumping out of my car, I convinced my mother and sister to come with me. I’d spied some empty benches by the front door when we drove in and thought that it would be nice if we could make use of them in the warm weather. I brought a book along with me, which happened to be The Needle Worker’s Baby by Rebbeca Markus, and prepared for a brief, one hour wait. Other women began to join us and all seemed well until one of them, who I later found out was the organizer, started telling people to move their cars since where they had parked was for staff only. I momentarily looked up from my book and replied that my car wasn’t going anywhere, before looking back down to finish a page. There had been no signs stating that the spaces were reserved, and both the line and the parking lot were beginning to fill up. I wasn’t about to move and loose both of my places. The issue was dropped and I was once again following the character, Jolene, as she lamented her body’s barren status during the 1960’s.
9:50 am rolled around and my mother motioned for me to stand up. Being a sturdier woman than I, she stood for the entire hour. My sister joined her in standing the last thirty minutes, but my interest in being outside veered more toward enjoying the weather, not stretching my legs. Alas though, when your mother calls, you answer, so I got up and stood beside her and my sister. Although I was not interested in the expo as a whole, I was low key excited to see what was in those goody bags.
The organizer came out of the building, poised and smiling, short, natural curls flawlessly formed and outfit pressed. All in line were excited, ready to enter the venue and shop until bankrupt, but that was not to be. The organizer woman, still smiling, said in the most pleasant voice possible, “will all of the bloggers here for the blogger’s breakfast please come inside?” That puzzled most of us in line, and it was followed by low whispers of, “did you know that there was going to be a blogger’s breakfast?” and, “I didn’t know there was going to be food served here at all, did you?” Most of the murmurs where some combination of those, but there were a few women who got out of line and went inside. The rest of us just stood there, waiting to be directed. It was 9:58 am after all and the expo would be starting soon. But, as elegantly as she appeared, the Organizer turned to go back into the venue without another word said to those of us still in line.
“Excuse me,” I called out and she swiveled. My mother gave me a ‘Tineil don’t you do it,’ look while my sister’s face said, ‘here we go again.’ But, I carried on. “When are we going to be let in?” The organizer looked at me positively baffled, as if my question had in someway confused her.
“Why, at 11:00, when the event starts.” A chorus of low groans and gasps traveled through the line, like we were all unwittingly playing a game of telephone, but without any words.
“11:00,” I said, my annoyance far from hidden, “our tickets say 10:00, not 11:00, what is the hold up?”
“There is no hold up.” The perfect smile on her face didn’t change, but the politeness in her voice began to strain. “Our website clearly states that the event begins at 11:00.”
“It didn’t say that when we were purchasing $17.00 a piece tickets.” My mom actually brought our tickets so technically my sister and I didn’t buy a thing, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s the principle of the matter, after all.
“Well, we put the change of time on our website this morning.”
“This is a large event and the weather is good, why would anyone think to check your website for anything other than cancellations?”
“Sorry,” she said curtly, her patience seeming to begin to run thin, “but the vendors aren’t even here yet so there would literally be nothing for you to do once you went in. I’ll be back out to get you all at 11:00.” She turned to leave again and despite wanting to say more, I felt the eyes of others upon me. I have no problem with speaking my peace, no matter what the situation, but I didn’t want to embarrass my mother. Annoyed beyond measure but without any recourse, I took my place on the bench again. I followed Jolene right up to the point where she was about to do some craziness that would inevitably be backed up with some other craziness, when someone who I assumed was a co-organizer, or assistant to the organizer, stepped out. It was 10:45 am, so despite myself, I put down my book, convinced that the misadventures of Jolene could wait, and then joined my mother and sister. The new woman, with less pleasantness than her predecessor, stated that all those in line with VIP tickets should move to the front. That got a real rise out of the otherwise orderly crowd filled with mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and best friends.
The woman didn’t even travel down the line but stayed toward the front while making the announcement and only one woman and her young son responded. Nobody else had a VIP ticket. Once again, murmurs began to erupt about not knowing that a particular option existed, yet all remain in place. But I am not okay with this obvious mismanagement of information and lack of organization. My name isn’t Karen, but I want to speak to the manager. “What about the rest of us,” I say and once more, I’m getting ‘the look’ from my mom. “We’ve been out here waiting for over two hours.”
“The event starts at 11:00,” the woman said with a noncommittal shrug.
“The tickets for the event say it starts at 10:00 am.”
“And you say that to say…”
That last statement got my blood to boil. At least the previous woman had the respect to appear contrite. This one made it abundantly clear that she had no concern or care for all of the patrons who had faithfully taken to standing outside the venue in what was now overcast weather. I wanted to say more but the original woman, the Organizer, came back out, pretty smile still plastered on her perfect face.
“Will all of those who purchased VIP tickets, please follow me?” Before I could say anything to her, her gaze fell upon mine and her smile tightened. “For everyone else, please give us a few moments and we’ll be letting you right in shortly.” A quip of what she could let me into dies on my lips as I felt more so than saw the side long look my mother was giving me. Neither women ever offered an apology for the mix-up, and once they were both gone, I made a comment about how the organizers must have anticipated tardiness from their guests and that being Black isn’t always synonymous with being late. This got a chuckle out of some of those nearest to us, while others quietly lamented that the event was always like this, but at least it was improving. If this was an improvement in organization, than I shuddered to think what last year must have looked like. Where pigeons with tickets tied to weighted stones dropping them on the unsuspecting heads of those who purchased them? Who knows. My main concern though was why would anyone keep coming back to an event that made them feel as though they mattered so little as patrons? I was about to find out.
When we’re finally let in, red wristbands and goody bags were handed out. Oddly enough, for tickets priced so cheap, the contents of the bags were actually really nice. Samples were abundant and some products were even full size! That last fact definitely took some of the saltiness out of my soup, so to speak. Piping up, I walked ahead of my family, choosing exploration over perusing. The expo was cut up into different sections that were more so in the order of who could afford a booth nearest to the main foot traffic, as opposed to what was actually being sold. The main hall was spacious, but cluttered with the beautiful and exotic wares of smiling merchants, eager to sell them. The room itself was about the size of an average middle school gym, but was surrounded by smaller rooms and hallways, all filled with sellers. For what the organizers lacked in time and information management, they certainly made up in packing in people with worthy products to be sold. In the very first room that I entered, most of the merchants were still setting up, but the daughter of one was watching and ready for her very first customer of the day.
“Hi,” she said sweetly, her youthful teeth sparkling as she gave me a genuine smile and a practiced speech. “Are you looking for any natural hair care products?” Her mother, whom I presumed was the actual proprietor of the booth, glanced over at the enthusiastic sales person who was her little girl, but went back to setting up her many products.
“I’m not really into natural hair care,” I say politely to the little girl. “I’m only here because my mother is.” The girl’s boldness had intrigued me and I was curious to see how she would react to my obvious conversation stopper. If she had ended our talk or stared down at the floor confused, I probably would have given her a kind smile and moved on.
“Well,” she replied still perky and intent on making a sale, “you do already have naturally beautiful hair. Can I show you some of our products?” Her mother seemed as though she was about to tap her and tell her to leave me alone, but when I nodded my assent to the child, she let her continue and the girl carried on. She pointed to different balms and butters, all meant to do one thing or another. As all who sell and buy natural hair care products know, the smell of a Black woman’s hair is almost as important as the condition of it. That being said, as the little girl spoke, she held each hair care product out for my physical and olfactoral inspection. She motioned to one product, a twist out butter, and stated that it had been used by her older sister the night before, providing her with the twisted coils she was now sporting. Reaching up, she smoothed her small fingers over her irritated sister’s thick tresses as if to show me the texture the twisting butter had left them with. Pulling her teenage sister’s hair, she held a lock of it out to me. “Would you like to feel it?” she asked, volunteering to turn her sibling’s head into a petting zoo. “It’s really soft.”
My eyes met those of the uncomfortable young woman, doubled over by her younger sister’s pulling. I’m quite sure that if they had been home, the action would have earned the little girl a slap or at least a shove from the older sister, but now, she stood waiting. Graciously, I declined to pet the big sister’s head. The little girl released a small disappointed breath as she let go of her older sister’s hair. The taller girl took to rubbing her scalp, enjoying her freedom from adorable clutches. The smaller child did her best to hide her disappointment and I’m sure that like us all, she will get better at doing so over time, but that day, she would not be getting any practice for it from me. I appreciated her boldness, respected her approach, and admired her confidence at such a young age. In a way, she reminded me, of a younger me. I said as much out loud, making sure that her mother knew what a wonderful little salesperson she had on her hands, before purchasing $10.00 scalp oil that I was sure at the time I would not need. And, cuter than cute, not only did the oil smell like peppermints, it came with a complimentary one in the bag.
The whole event was arranged like a bazaar, tables filled with colorful baubles, lotions, butters, and oils, and air the scent of mingling mints, roasted nuts, and mixed fruits. One stall of interest sold Black dolls with ethnic features that indicated they were made that way, not just colored after the fact to appease brown consumers.
Another seller of exotic finery had silk lined, regal African hair bonnets for sale. The fingers of luxury minded consumers glided across the lush fabrics, marveling at the intricate patterns they contained. Many ogled but few reached into their pocketbooks to buy the high-priced head coverings. Privately, I haggled out a price for three of the silky beauties, although not having enough money to purchase even one of them on my own. Quickly, I brought my family to the seller’s stall and they too found the hair finery too nice to pass up. My mother, with very little to no provocation, purchased a luxurious bonnet for each one of us at the price the seller and I had agreed to. I did nothing to avoid the covetous eyes of those who wanted one of the premium bonnets. Let them make their own deals for their own items and see what becomes of their own wallets.
Then, we followed my mother through another corridor, into a room slightly larger than the main one. Here, we stumbled upon a seller of healing stones, most of them refined and ready for use. All imbued with only the most powerful biomimetic energy from the Earth’s core. I personally felt nothing from them, but hey, you can’t beat good advertising. Mom brought quite a few stone shavings, a couple of unrefines which oddly enough look cheap but cost more, and a pair of one of a kind earrings she adored.
While mom was regaled by a woman who was selling hand made soaps, guaranteed to treat eczema and psoriasis, I went into the bathroom to wash my hands. We’d seen and tested many products that day and I didn’t want to spend the hour long drive home smelling like a mint flavored fruit nut. Here’s a brief video of what we saw.
The whipped soap colored and scented like strawberry frosting was wonderful, but the body butter smelling of passion fruit was divine. I had to have it! My sister and I went on a scavenger hunt, searching every vendor in the small labyrinth until we found the one who left the free sample jars in the bathroom. The man and woman manning the station smiled, knowing exactly what we were coming for. Leaving their stall, my purse was 10.00 lighter but my world, a whole tropical island fuller. Our last purchase was some almond body butter that’s going to make me the envy of all the bees in the spring, and plain smelling soap for my sister. So, would I choose to do this all over again, despite having to endure what I classify as poor crowd organization, time mismanagement, and only adequate customer service? Yes, I most certainly would. The various wares of actual use, more than made up for the turmoil spent waiting to arrive at them.