Where 'politicians' is a dirty word

September 27, 1992|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Staff Writer

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. -- After six hours of political gabbing in Phelps' Coiffures, during which the chatter has touched on nearly every aspect of the 1992 presidential election, the man of the house, chief hairstylist Thomas Phelps himself, says this:


He says it run-on style, as if it is one word, one word to describe what Mr. Phelps sees as the real problem with the country today: "The Congress, the representatives, the lobbyists, all of 'em."

From Mr. Phelps' perspective, here in a beauty salon in this small river-front town in northeastern North Carolina, a do-nothing Congress deserves blame for a long list of American ailments. In that regard, Mr. Phelps says, it almost doesn't matter who the next president is.

"Rotten eggs. That's how a politician is thought of these days," says Martha Bray from under a cloak in a styling chair, while Mr. Phelps works her hair into a customized wrap, curling it to the right so it will flow handsomely to the left.

"How much talk do you hear right now about the congressional seats?" she says. "Everybody is talking about Bush and Quayle, and they get in that voting booth and say, 'Oh, there are these other levers to push, too.' You ask 'em who's running and they'll say, 'Bush and what's-that-other-guy's name?' That's what I'm talkin' about. Do you see what I'm talkin' about?"

"Rotten-eggs-in-a-hen-house-dirty-egg-suckin'-dog," Mr. Phelps says again, on request.

"They're supposed to be working for the goodness of the country, aren't they?" he asks. "My thought of it is, in 30 years that I've been voting, the politicians haven't changed anything. Their vocabulary's a little different, that's all."

American voters, he says, should focus their anger on incumbent senators and representatives this fall.

A seat in Congress is not supposed to be permanent. Nothing is supposed to be permanent. Even permanents aren't permanent!

'Nothing is permanent'

"We don't do permanents here," says Mr. Phelps. "We do 'chemicals.' Chemical treatments. Nothing is permanent except Jesus Christ and God Almighty."

"And the devil," quips Marie Layden, resident electrologist at Phelps'.

"And the devil," concurs Mr. Phelps.

Don't let the folksy wisecracks fool you. Mr. Phelps is not completely jaded. He's an energetic, friendly man -- one heck of a good hairstylist, according to customers -- who runs a successful beauty salon on Poindexter Street, just a few blocks from the Pasquotank River.

He employs young hairstylists named Belinda Jackson, Buffy "Rhymes With Fluffy" Forbes and Leslie Brandt; a manicurist named Linda Russell; and that quipping electrologist named Marie, whom some call Rita.

It's a busy, happy place. Everyone knows everybody's name. The clientele is white and middle class. You are as likely to see a trucker flipping through the pages of Field & Stream as you are a local businesswoman reading Cosmopolitan, as likely to see old blue hair in matronly do's as young naturals in magazine-model cuts.

And you are as likely to find registered Democrats who voted for Republicans in the last three presidential elections as you are Republicans who hold fast to the party line.

State vital for Bush

North Carolina is considered important to President Bush's re-election chances, and Elizabeth City (population, 14,292; property tax rate, 51 cents per $100 actual value) and Pasquotank County show why.

Overwhelmingly Democratic in registration, voters here went for Mr. Bush in 1988. Voter registration is up significantly in recent months, with three-quarters of the new voters Democrats.

Mr. Phelps, a registered Democrat married to a "bone-to-bone Republican," says he's heard from a lot of customers, truck drivers and farmers in particular, who say they will vote for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

But, on this particular day in this particular beauty shop, Mr. Phelps is the only person committed to Mr. Clinton.

'Family values'

Mrs. Bray, for instance, won't be voting for Mr. Clinton "as long as he supports social programs -- they break down family values."

Marie Layden, the electrologist who offers permanent removal of unsightly hair, doesn't like Mr. Clinton because "he's got crooked looks."

Buffy Forbes, one of three 20-something stylists here, still likes Ross Perot because, she giggles, "He's got lots of money."

Jesse Carden, one of the few male customers who came in for a trim the other day, won't vote for Mr. Clinton -- "God help us if he gets elected" -- because of his intention to tax the rich and further regulate business.

Another customer, Lina Sherlock, is the only voter still fence-sitting. She's a Reagan Democrat who had hoped for a Democratic presidential candidate who would appeal to her middle-class sensibilities and her concern for staggering health insurance costs. The Arkansas governor is not necessarily the one. And the Democrats still haven't won her back.

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