Every morning, I glanced up at the smiling bronze faces of Miko and Titi Branch, surrounded by halos of shiny, curly hair. I sighed in relief, having made it through another night without being thrown out onto the mean streets of Crenshaw. In the evening, they taunted me. With their curls and smiles, they reminded me of my former life. But I could never pass the billboard without looking at it.
Like most black women, I have probably spent a million dollars on hair care products during my lifetime. In 2004, Miko and Titi, two black/Asian sisters, started a hair care line named for their African American North Carolinian grandmother, fondly called “Miss Jessie.” I don’t remember when or where I first discovered the Miss Jessie’s line, but by 2006, I was a devoted convert. I ordered products from their New York area company and told others about the wonderful, but expensive, emollients for curly hair. At that time, I was working full time at a government job. I could afford to place orders for $50 to $75 worth of hair products, buy clothes at Nordstrom Rack and still have money for the rent, utilities, and food for my two cats, Smokey and Ozzy. I loved Miss Jessie’s products and even got small jars to take with me on trips to Las Vegas and back home to visit friends in Pittsburgh. I had a good job, good friends, and a closet full of clothes and shoes. I had it made.
I put the $32 jar of Curly Buttercreme on the shelf in the bathroom. Later, I added Curly Meringue, Quick Curls, Crème de la Crème conditioner, Super Slip Sudsy Shampoo, the new Coily Custard, and even a small jar of Super Sweetback Treatment. Even though Ozzy was gone, I was on my way. I could imagine the products stored once more in my own bathroom cabinet. I would have my own apartment, another feline companion, a car, and maybe even a male companion not of the feline variety. I thought of the possibilities and smiled. It was gonna happen, I knew it. I looked in the mirror and fluffed my curls. Miko and Titi would be proud.
In December 2014, Titi Branch committed suicide. When I heard the news, I cried. I thought about the billboard I used to pass on cold January mornings when I was sneaking out of temporary homeless housing authorized for one, but sheltering two. I would make a comment about the billboard to my friend Mary, who accompanied me on those chilly mornings. Even though she was white, she found that some of the Miss Jessie’s products worked on her blonde mane too. As we spent days walking the streets of LA in January 2012, I thought that the Branch sisters had it made – dazzling beauty, a successful company, and a glamorous life. But Titi was in pain, battling depression – a condition that many women, especially women of color, tried to hide from the world. It’s hard to ask for help, when you are supposed to be strong as a redwood tree, able to handle everything that life throws in your direction.
During my time on the street, I asked lots of people for help, even though I knew that just the idea of asking would have had my father rolling over in his grave. Friends and family made it possible for me to spend a few nights in a hostel and get temporary housing. I was able to get an emergency grant that assisted writers in crisis. Another friend offered housing until I could get back on my feet. Since then, other people have offered help and encouragement, to my eternal gratitude.
I start a new government job tomorrow, the first step to getting back into my own residence and becoming self-sufficient again. Things will get better. Someday, I’ll have another cat, new clothes, a car and maybe even a loving partner. I think of Titi, for whom things didn’t get better. She felt that life was too hard; she couldn’t escape from the dark place that held her captive. I think of Miko, alone without the constant companionship of the sister that she loved like no other.
I will pay it forward, whether it will be a helping hand, an encouraging word, or a dollop of Curly Meringue. But I’ll never forget that billboard of those smiling sisters, assuring me that beauty could be found, not matter how dire the current circumstances appeared to be. And I’ll always remember the sister with soulful eyes and curly blonde hair for whom beauty was not enough.
(Miko Branch has published a book about her life, her sister, and their company, Miss Jessie’s: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch Naturally.)