Griselda Nunez had never paid more than $35 for a haircut, but after more than a year of unemployment, she was sorely in need of a confidence boost. That is how Nunez found herself seated in a high-end salon in Manhattan, waiting for a man who charges $300 for a cut -- color and highlights not included -- to work his magic on her copper-colored mop.
This styling, however, was on the house, courtesy of Cristiano Cora.
The "unemployment haircuts," as he calls them, have become a weekly fixture at Cora's studio for those lucky, or unlucky, enough to qualify. All it takes is an appointment and some proof -- be it a pink slip or unemployment check -- to join the growing list of job-hunters hoping for a spot each Tuesday.
It began as a one-time-only offer last month, but the turnout was so great and the response so effusive that Cora has extended it indefinitely. "As long as the recession lasts," he said in an Italian accent as he began snipping away at Nunez's shoulder-length strands, the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" pumping through the cavernous salon.
Virtually everything inside the salon is blazing white except the black clothes on the employees. That, combined with the music and retro seating, gave the feeling of being in a spaceship hovering above a busy Greenwich Village street, visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Cora -- who grew up near Venice, Italy, and spent 19 years working in salons in Los Angeles, London and elsewhere before opening his New York shop -- said that the freebies were his way of softening the economic blow.
The idea evolved over a period of months, as Cora listened to friends and customers talk about money and job woes. He didn't need government unemployment stats to tell him that times were as rough as the frayed ends and steely roots of customers who began scheduling their appointments every eight weeks, then 10 weeks, then longer.
"Everyone was stretching it. I managed to survive. So I asked myself a very simple question: How can I help; what am I good at?" Cora said. "I'm good at cutting hair, and I'm good around people."
More than 100 jobless clients showed up the first day. (When he couldn't get to them all, Cora instituted the by-appointment plan. The waiting list is now several weeks long.)
Some wept after seeing themselves in the mirror with a decent haircut for the first time in years, or perhaps ever.
Cora has not advertised, but news of the free cuts has spread through word of mouth and media reports.
"I thought it was a joke. I didn't really expect them to get back to me," said Nunez, who fired off an e-mail to the salon to request an appointment after seeing a story about it on TV. A few hours later, Cora phoned Nunez. Assured that she could bring proof of unemployment, he set aside an hour for her cut.
Nunez's appointment was at noon, but she arrived early, as if to reassure herself that it was really happening.
"I was asking myself, 'Am I in the right place?'" said Nunez, a 40-something, out-of-work Spanish teacher. She said she was optimistic that after taking a required bilingual test, she soon would find work.
But the last year has taken its toll on her spirits, as well as her hair, which was gathered in a messy bundle at the back of her head when she walked into the salon.
Nunez removed the clip to reveal dry, splintered ends and shapeless strands that she wanted cut above the shoulders. Cora agreed.
"We're going to make it look a little fuller," he said. Cora began snipping away at the just-washed locks after gently reprimanding Nunez for aggravating the damage to her hair by coloring it too often.
"Once you have a lot of bills to pay, a car payment, rent . . . it really scared me," said Nunez, who considered moving back to the Dominican Republic to live with relatives when things were at their worst. Her son, 21, is living on his own and working, but Nunez shares a one-bedroom apartment with her mother -- something she hopes will change soon.
For Cora, the free cuts are an opening into a world populated by people far different from those who normally pay hundreds of dollars each month for hair care.
The customer before Nunez was a struggling actress who had just learned she had cancer. Another customer had lost her job and then been dumped by her wealthy fiance. "She has nothing. Nothing," said Cora, who approaches hair-cutting the way an architect plans a structure.
"If the shape is not good, it's going to collapse after two or three weeks," he said, explaining what makes his haircuts worth $300. A good haircut, he said, will look good after two or three months.
Cora hopes his idea will catch on and that other businesses will come up with similar recession-era offers.
"It's no time to be greedy now," he said, lamenting what he said was the loss of goodwill in a city that bonded together after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"During 9/11, people were helping each other, and it was an economic disaster then too. But now it's different. What happened?" he wondered aloud as he finished cutting and blow-drying Nunez's hair into a simple-but-chic bob that she shook back and forth.
"Ten years younger -- that's what I wanted," Nunez said. "I think I came to the right place."