PRIVATE LIVES, PUBLIC PLACES : A Factory Where They Make Beauty, or Hope, or Just a Living

Linda Blandford, for years a columnist for the British newspaper the Guardian, will be writing about Southern California from time to time.

Saticoy is one of those Valley streets on the way to somewhere else. There is little to arrest the eye in the low-slung line of warehouses: plumbers' stuff, medical supplies, shipping agents. It is in just such a warehouse behind shuttered windows and blank walls that Ralph Lazarus Sampson passes his days, Monday to Saturday, early till late, amid the plump curls and shabby locks of hundreds and thousands of wigs.

Cara, Pizazz, Glory, Rapunzel, Signet, Empress: luxuriant heads of hair set upon ageless dummies amid mustache wax, wiglet domes, lash cleaners and steel teasers. It is another of those contradictions: the colorless facade presented to the world, the dance of a thousand lives within. We are surrounded by hidden worlds, secret gardens.

To Ralph Sampson's surprise, they send for his wigs from all over America: beauty shops on other coasts, drag artists from Las Vegas, rock groups, television shows, chemotherapy patients, men who are thin on top, women who mourn the past. To some--for instance, Ken, the temperamental stylist at the front counter--a wig is a matter of artistry. Not to Sampson. It is the business he loves: the rows of neat boxes correctly labeled, the shipping cards meticulously hand-written and filed, the constant call "Ralph, telephone, Ralph." "If I surrendered this," he says, "I'd be lost."

The poetry of hair has never interested him. All those women in other worlds, selling their locks: For what? For whom? For bread? For a lover? "Just merchandise to me," he says. He is 74, compact, unthreatening; his one distinguishing feature is a jaunty headpiece. When he takes it off, an old man appears, but a strangely unlined and unrevealing one. Just as this building, into which not a scrap of daylight intrudes, hides from unknowing eyes, so too does he.

Business itself is his secret poetry; this warehouse and its employees stand for home and family. In the back is a workshop, full of the stuff of opera and life. Here Lupa from Mexico stitches a chestnut mane, one hair at a time. Hers is a labor of love; the wig is for a woman dying of cancer. She often knows for whom she sews, as her mother, long, long ago, knew for whom she crocheted. Raven-haired seamstresses laugh and gossip behind her, slender fingers dancing, the Spanish radio station chattering along.

Lupa, Nora, Teresa, Elvia: They have sons and daughters, grown and small, a husband or two, tragedies and celebrations. "This is my life after my kids," says Lupa. "I dream of this place at night."

Shipping clerks, bookkeepers, front-counter people and stylists, perhaps a dozen in all, drawing warmth and comfort from the daily change of each others' lives. Susan, golden hairpiece falling to her waist, totters off early but not before saying her goodbys like some small bird of an aunt. Esther, from Akron once, worries in her pale way about the sister she has lived with since her husband's passing, about growing too old one day for her "family" in the wig shop.

Out front, at the retail counter, a medley of customers try the patience of poor Ken in his oversize shirt, his beard badly in need of tinting. Linda, voluptuous in burgundy hair and acrylic nails, is sturdier under the onslaught. The timid old man with the false teeth, in search of the ultimate toupee; the heavy-metal Mohawk toying with black tresses; the young beauty, sex rampant, tossing rocker wigs everywhere. Linda treats them all with the same rough good humor. She is kinder, though, with the obese housewife, almost bald, who is wandering about, Lana wig in one hand, Desert Golden in the other, calling with forlorn hope: "Am I a blonde? Am I a blonde?"

Ralph bustles everywhere, the same fixed and inoffensive smile for all. Who sees beyond it? Who notices the pride in a day's tiny challenges met and mastered? "Once you retire, no one cares. If I die tomorrow, no big deal. Here, I'm necessary." And on his unlined face, there is no sign of all he has met that man cannot master: the son he and his wife buried five years past.

The childhood that haunts him still, beaten savagely each day by the aunt he had been left with, abandoned. The partner who dropped dead at 60. The years of selling this and that, making money, going broke, starting over, until 25 years ago, he happened on this other world of wigs, of silent, dependable heads to greet his mornings.

In a land of orphans, we take the family we can get.

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