Old-time newspaper columnists, aka clerks who got lucky, typically have recurring casts of characters. The late Emmett Watson wrote about his dog Tiger. The Seattle P-I'ês late Doug Welsh saved his ink for the Magnolia bugle lady, and late great E.B. White often invoked his Aunt Lou.
Whether they write about them or not, writers need muses: people who inspire them, who feed them ideas and provide them with reality checks. My favorite muse throughout my 30-year career in newspapers was my hairdresser Nita.
While trimming my untamable hair, Nita would connect me to the pink-collar world of her Northeast Seattle beauty salon. It was a shop where everyone knew your name, a hangout for women of a certain age and hair color. Only Nita knew for sure if the hair color was original issue.
The salon dÃ©cor was less than elegant: a row of yellow-green, plastic-upholstered chairs with conical hair dryers, hassocks covered in stained plastic, three 'êstations'ê equipped with swivel chairs, counters lined with potions and elixirs, tables groaning under magazines with teasing headlines: 'êLiz'ês Near Death Experience,'ê 'êIvana'ês New Romance.'ê There wasn'êt a socially redeeming publication in the heap. The mirror above Nita's work station customarily had a hand-lettered sign or two, something pithy like 'ê49% sweetheart; 51% bitch. So don'êt push it.'ê
Like her shop, Nita dressed in dated allure: Polyester slacks, acrylic tops and long-lined vests. She proudly told you about her half-German, half-Sicilian heritage. She told stories about growing up in Newark, N.J., where she claimed her father had Mafia connections and taught her to shoot a pistol, age 5.
Part of Nita'ês charm was that she was only a part-time hair stylist. While cutting hair, she was also talking with her hands, waving her arms and practicing medicine, psychiatry, marriage counseling, veterinary medicine, financial counseling, and dermatology.
'êYou want to invest in the market?'ê Nita would ask a Miss Marple-like customer. 'êNot now. The market'ês due for a midcourse correction. Wait until summer.'ê
'êTake this tube of dog medicine home,'ê Nita would tell another customer. 'êTake it and rub it into that dry spot on your forearm. The pharmacy charges $50 for the same thing, just because it'ês people medicine.'ê
If you weren'êt in the mood for counseling or advice, Nita would provide an hour'ês entertainment, reporting on her latest life crisis. The sagas were better than any soap opera. Customers lived through Nita'ês tales of rearing a teenage half-brother. They heard stories of run-ins with suburban neighbors and the highlights from her three volatile marriages, all of which ended in divorce.
She said, 'êLast time I went to a lawyer for a divorce, he threw the papers back at me and said, 'êHere. Save money and do it yourself. You know what to do.'ê'ê
Nita'ês second marriage was to Rick, a lanky phone company lineman who, in his spare time, rode broncos in the rodeo. On the good side, this misalliance provided the shop'ês customers with many cliffhanging tales. Nita would launch into the story of how Rick insisted she learn to ride a mechanical bull at the local tavern. She limped around the shop for days afterwards.
Or there was the time he decided to teach her to scuba dive. Hands flailing for emphasis, she'êd say, 'êHe took me out to the beach at Alki, had me struggle into this wetsuit and strap a huge tank onto my back. And then there was this belt he cinched up so tight I couldn'êt breathe. Then he kept adding these lead weights. I couldn'êt even waddle down to the water. I said, 'êYou idiot. You'êre trying to drown me.'ê'ê
With material like that, a columnist couldn'êt go wrong. On a slow news day, all one had to do for inspiration was to make a hair appointment.
Best of all, Nita had an uncanny ability to predict the outcome of elections or what might or might not happen to be 'ênext year'ês big thing.'ê I interviewed her at New Years and before local and national elections. Although these were tongue-in-cheek accounts, her predictions were often more accurate than the experts with their focus groups and phone banks.
Sometimes Nita would try to beg off making predictions, shrugging dismissively, 'êOh, What do I know?'ê But then I would point out how she'êd shown up the experts, time after time. Friends and acquaintances would ask me, 'êWhat'ês Nita say about the election?'ê
Then there were Nita'ês dogs. In her spare time, Nita ran a kennel, raising Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, a sturdy breed favored by hunting enthusiasts. Nita was a little bit of a thing — one of her husbands used to taunt her that she was 'êfive-foot nothing'ê &mdash she went into the show ring with alpha dogs and came away with blue ribbons.
She seldom brought her show dogs into the shop, although occasionally prizewinning litters would be born to a dog that lacked maternal instincts. Arriving customers would be handed a hungry puppy and a bottle of formula.
Once when I showed up searching for a column idea, Nita gave me a primer on what breed of dog was suitable for which profession. 'êNewspaper reporters,'ê she concluded, "they need some kind of terrier, a small dog with a macho personality. Ankle biters, all of you.'ê
In her role of muse, Nita kept me humble. Never impressed with the fact that I worked at the newspaper, she reminded me that newsprint in general and my columns in particular were good for soaking up puppy piddle. One Saturday morning I arrived to find a hand-lettered sign tacked to the door that read: 'êSee Jean Godden here at 8:30 a.m.; See her wrinkles, free, at 9 a.m.'ê
Nita'ês politics were to the right of Attila. She couldn'êt think of enough nice things to say about George W. Bush and, eventually, she became so addicted to right-wing talk shows that her election predictions were skewed beyond reporting. Nita and I were far, far apart on politics. But she always was civil about her convictions, aside from repeatedly pointing out that I was 'êlittle better than a communist.'ê
Nita'ês customers lived through her many medical problems — a broken arm, suffered in a fall from her horse; a broken wrist, an accident suffered while cleaning kennels; a heart attack, and installation of a pacemaker. 'êDon'êt mess with me,'ê she'êd say. 'êI'êm a bionic woman.'ê
Nevertheless her customers were shocked and saddened five years ago when she said she was retiring, packing up her dogs and moving to Sequim. She said we'êd have to take our hair to some other operator. But where would we go to get advice, counseling and a Nita fix?
After her retirement, it wasn'êt unusual to get the occasional phone call. Without a preamble, Nita would check in with an update. Usually there was something she wanted me to do: contact another former customer on a humanitarian errand. For all her bluster, Nita was a loyal friend.
In all the years I wrote about her, I never gave her full name. Readers knew her as Nita — short for Juanita Weaver. The name of her shop, located directly across Bothell Way Northeast from Acacia Cemetery was 'êFrancine'ês,'ê a name attributed to a previous owner and never changed.
Over the years, readers often asked if I'êd invented Nita. I didn'êt. She laughed when I told her that there were those who thought she was imaginary. She said, 'êTell them I'êm real and you'êre a figment of my imagination."
As always, Nita got the last word. Ill with a lung disease, she passed away in her home in Sequim two weeks ago. But she'êd called me only a few days before to say forthrightly, 'êHey, Jean, it'ês Nita. Guess what? I'êm dying. You'êre going to have to get your news somewhere else.'ê
Nita, muse extraordinary, rest in peace.