By Susanne Beck
Kathe Davridge is no shrinking violet.
She was one of the first female bike messengers in New York City in the 1970’s. She braved the skeptics and the haters to become one of the first lesbians to get married in the city on July 24, 2011.
“I am a fighter,” she declares.
Multiple times the 66-year-old hair stylist and colorist has been knocked down in her efforts to keep her single-practitioner salon — Kathe Hair, at 171 West 80th Street — alive. She’s had to bear not only the pandemic, but some other bad breaks (literally) as well.
Her reasons for fighting are simple: “I love what I do,” she says. “I love my people. I love being [in the store].”
Like most small business owners in the city and world, Kathe had to contend with last spring’s COVID-driven shut down and the precipitous drop in income that followed. But that three-month closure was just an intermediate bump in her more extended struggle to stay afloat.
Say the words “long haul” and to Kathe, it’s not about the virus. It’s about recovery, as in the long-haul — four-month — recovery she was told to expect when she was forced to undergo shoulder surgery in November 2019. The condition was interfering with her work as well as her sideline gig as a violinist. Her shoulder muscle detached from her body, she explains nonchalantly, “and they had to put it back.” The diagnosis: overuse. “Probably from working with my hands in the air all day, playing the violin with my hands in the air all night, sleeping with my hands over my head, having a dog that pulls, and who knows why,” Kathe says good naturedly.
At least she could plan for the disruption. Kathe told her clients she would be closed, and pushed back against many offers of support. But her salon tribe ignored her, quickly rallying behind two long-time customers, Bruce Patrick and Louise Gikow, who launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover some of the medical bills and the interim rent. “Give up Starbucks for a couple of months and help Kathe instead!…She has always been there for us, so now let’s be there for her!” the site implored.
Louise Gikow uses words like “extraordinary” and “there is no one like her” when she describes Kathe today, not only as a stylist but as a musician, person, and friend. “She never ever complains, she’s always positive. She’s just terrific.” As to her hair expertise, Louise adds: “If you could see me now, you wouldn’t even know that I need a haircut, she’s so good. The angles, the cut, it’s perfect, even longer.”
The flood of glowing comments that were posted on the campaign site, along with a sea of contributions – the $15,000 goal was easily met – shows Louise is just one of many fans. “You deserve the best, Kathe, because you are a kind and caring person. You make the world a better place,” reads one.
By February 2020, Kathe returned to work. She says she was on top of the world to be back. But within a month, COVID appeared, forcing her to close her doors yet again. “Another three months down the tube,” she says.
Her much-anticipated summer reopening “was very slow and there were lots of protocols to follow,” but Kathe was happy to grin and bear it all for a job and clientele she loved. Even with the limited income, she says, “it was all great — until November 8, 2020, when I was riding my bike and got hit by a truck.”
A florist delivery van leveled Kathe as she was taking her backpack of compost to the local collection site, sending her back under the knife for complicated wrist surgery, requiring a plate and nine screws. She was out of work yet again, trapped in an immobilization cast for six weeks, and sidelined by occupational therapy for months thereafter. To this day, even with ongoing therapy, she is afflicted by scar tissue that is “terribly limiting.”
Kathe returned to her 80th Street salon only weeks ago, ready “to work full speed.” She has negotiated with her landlord for a rent reduction. “I thought she was a cold-hearted woman until I had that conversation with her,” Kathe says. “She was very compassionate.” Now it’s up to the pharmaceutical industry to coax people back out into the world and her shop. Even some of her most ardent fans seem reluctant to return. For some, it’s a fear of doing anything outside their home. Some have fled to second homes. Others have simply let their hair grow long or go gray during the shutdown, and decided the look wasn’t so bad after all.
But Kathe is willing to wait for them and to continue to fight for the space and the people she loves. “It’s just the two of us in the shop. It’s an oasis for many of them. It’s an oasis for me…You have personal connection with a person. Like a doctor and a dentist and a massage therapist, you physically touch people. And metaphorically, you touch them too.”
Kathe is considering taking a break for one particular week — the first week of November, 2021. After the early Novembers of the previous two years, she is understandably gun-shy, if not superstitious. She says with a knowing laugh that her new mantra is “don’t go out that first week of November next year.” Some days of work are worth skipping.
West Side Rag has been profiling small businesses, which are disappearing from the neighborhood at an alarming rate. To read more in this series, click here.