My sister, Kathryn, spent several weeks in bed one summer, having contracted infectious mononucleosis. She had a fever, a terribly sore throat, and all the charming personality that goes with a teenager who wasn’t lucky enough to catch mono while school was in session.
My mother, who years before worked as a licensed practical nurse, determined from her extensive medical knowledge obtained from the Columbia School of Nursing, Correspondence Division (directly affiliated with the Columbia School of Broadcasting), that sponge baths were all right for cranky teenagers with fevers, but no showers or hair wetting would be tolerated. Wet hair would somehow aggravate the fever.
Kathryn moaned about her greasy hair and promised she’d turn down the crankiness and improve her overall morale if Mom would simply make a trip to the drug store and buy her a can of Psssssst.
“A can of what?” my mother asked, scowling at the inconvenience of it all.
“It’s called Psssssst. It’s a dry shampoo that comes in a can.” my sister told her.
“Why do they call it Psssssst?”
“I guess because of the sound it makes when it comes out of the can. It’s onomatopoetic,” Kathryn said, remembering a big word from her English class.
Ignoring the lesson in literature, Mom asked, “How does it work?”
Kathryn shrugged. “I don’t know, supposedly it blows this dry powder in your hair that absorbs all the oil, and then you brush it out.”
“That’s ridiculous. Whoever heard of dry cleaning your hair?” Mom snapped.
“Please, Mom? It’s less than two dollars. I can’t stand the smell of my hair anymore,” Kathryn whined.
My mother finally relented, and after she finished making her grocery list, we went to the Kwik-Chek and swung by Martin’s drug store on the way home. We went up and down the aisles looking for something she had already forgotten the name of. I was too involved with trying to identify which package of Monkees bubble gum cards might contain the last one I needed for the collection. Finally, the pharmacist came down from his elevated drug room and asked if he could help her.
“Yes, thank you,” Mom said, and suddenly remembering its name, spat out, “FFFT” while making the aerosol can gesture with her pointer.
The pharmacist wiped something from the corner of his eye and said, “What is it you’re looking for?”
“It’s called FFFT,” said my mother, this time mimicking the sound of a fart. Onomatopoetically, of course.
“I don’t quite understand,” the druggist said.
“Well maybe it’s not called FFFT. Maybe it’s called SPAAAAWKT,” she said, sounding like she was hocking up a trapped popcorn kernel from the back of her throat. “Or maybe it’s TTTHHHHH,” she said, once again splattering spit with the raspberry noise she made.
“Maybe if you could give me a better idea of what it does, rather than the name,” said the frustrated pharmacist, wiping his smock.
“It’s dry cleaning dust for your hair,” Mom said.
“Norma,” he called to his assistant back in the pharmacy. “Do we have any dry cleaning hair dust?”
“What?” Norma yelled back. By this time the customers in the store were all looking at the pharmacist or my mother. “Pick up the front mic,” Norma told him.
The pharmacist took the microphone off the front wall behind the counter and announced on the PA system, “Do we have any dry cleaning shampoo for hair?”
Norma, from her mic in the back, replied quickly, “No, I don’t think I’ve heard of that.”
Finally, and mercifully, a teenager decked out in the latest Twiggy haircut and wearing white Slicker lipstick from Yardley of London, asked my mother, “Are you looking for “Psssssst?”
“Yes, that’s it! It’s called Psssssst!”
“Norma,” the druggist announced to the entire store, “it’s called Pissed. Do we carry Pissed?”
“Never heard of it,” Norma announced back.
By that time, the hip girl in her miniskirt and white go-go boots made for walkin’ had found the sacred can and handed it to my mother. Mom thanked her and carried the pink and orange can to the druggist at the front register. He grabbed his glasses that hung from a chain around his neck, put them on his face and read the fine print on the can.
“Well I’ll be jiggered,” he said as he rang it up. “What’ll they think of next?”
My mother paid, thanked him, and we quickly scooted out of the store. When we got home, my sister was in the kitchen, gazing into the refrigerator.
“What’re you doing out of bed?” Mom screamed.
“I’m getting something to drink,” she told her.
“Get away from the refrigerator. You’ll catch your death,” said Mom, once again oozing out another medical myth from her LPN correspondence course, which was: Westinghouse refrigerators can be lethal when opened by mono patients. “Get back to bed. I’ll bring you some juice.”
“Did you get my Psssssst?” she asked.
“Yes, and use it sparingly, because it’s the last can I’m going to buy you,” Mom said.
“Why?” Kathryn wondered.
Mom followed her into her bedroom with the juice and the Psssssst, and relayed the whole embarrassing story to her. Spitting on the pharmacist, the FFFT, the SPAAAAWKT, and the TTTHHHHH, the announcements over the PA, everything. I added that the pharmacist had called it “Pissed.” Naturally this sent Kathryn into blinding hysterics, and for the next couple of days she’d recall the tale and would break out laughing again. So having the Psssssst had indeed improved her morale after all.
And it made her happy. She sprayed half a can into her hair, let it sit, and then brushed out gray clumps of greasy hair boogers, thus removing the oily sheen from her adolescent mop.
Forty years later, I discovered that you can still buy FFFT, I mean Psssssst, still packaged in an aerosol can. Nice to know that when the ozone hole stretches out and burns us all to cinders, we will march into hell with clean hair. So my sister’s birthday was approaching, and I bought a can of it and wrapped it up and presented it to her one morning when we went out for breakfast.
She knew what it was, but wondered why I got it for her. “Don’t you remember when you had mono and Mom bought this for you?”
“Oh yeah,” she said, grinning. “FFFT!” she said, making the pointer-on-the-aerosol can gesture, and we both had a good laugh after she pressed the can’s button and listened sentimentally to the onomatopoeia.