Two strong forces conspired to put my head in the hands of the Ultima College of Cosmetology. The first was the inimitable ARC Value Village store at 72nd and Federal, where I have shopped for life's little necessities for nigh on to a decade. Several years ago, ever on the alert, I noticed a new trend: pink-smocked women with cigarettes milling about near the entrance to the store. The pink women, I soon discerned, were nicotine-needy escapees from the newly opened Ultima College, which is sandwiched between ARC and a ceramics supply house.

The second irresistible force was Robin Sganga, or Miss Robin, as she is called by Ultima students. I discovered Miss Robin on Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday I traditionally celebrate by slapping on ten extra pounds and falling into a deep depression. As any female with an ounce of negative self-esteem can tell you, this is exactly when the evil promise of Perm Salvation can take hold of your life and ruin it but good. Here's how it works:

1. You feel bad.
2. The bad feeling comes from your head.
3. Maybe if you got a new head?
4. Maybe if you just got new hair! 5. Maybe if you just got new hair today!

The first "Walk-Ins Welcome" sign I found that fateful Friday was at a strip-mall salon called Montego Bay. Miss Robin, who had just moved to Colorado from Vegas, was offered up, with a bit of a sneer, by a snotty receptionist. Miss Robin was wearing a form-fitting black cowgirl ensemble with white cowboy boots. She had a soothing Long Island homegirl accent and a wonderful habit of plopping down on any available chair and slowly leafing through hair magazines, as if time mattered not at all. Other stylists were forever brushing briskly past Miss Robin, shoving aside her supply cart, snippily telling her that other clients were waiting--but she cordially ignored them. Instead she told me, in mouth-watering detail, how she planned to turn her turkey carcass into soup. Then slowly, slowly, she began to futz with my hair.

At the end of two hours I emerged looking a little like Edith Bunker, but feeling triumphant. At the end of two weeks my perm had relaxed and I appeared decent enough to receive compliments from strangers. So I followed Miss Robin as she searched for a salon that she could call home.

It was tough. For one thing, Miss Robin had run her own shop in Vegas, and it was, she says, "total street. We danced in that shop. I'm talking party time. I'm talking a body-building manicurist. I'm talking Dominick the stylist, who won some kind of prize in the gay ball. The bar was right next door, too, so forgetaboutit."

Miss Robin gave up her shop when she became pregnant--an event she always indicates by whispering "like this" and miming a large stomach--and decided no decent child could be raised in Vegas. Her husband, a poker dealer, got a job in Central City, the Sgangas moved to Arvada and the child was born. All was right with their world--except that Miss Robin could not find the right spot to do hair.

I followed her to a J.C. Penney salon, where Miss Robin got no respect, and then to a Westminster ranch house known as Dave's Hair-A-Tage. I was just becoming fascinated with Dave, a macho guy who cuts hair on a sort of illuminated throne platform, when Miss Robin informed me that, although she would continue to work the Hair-A-Tage by appointment, she was now permanently, and happily, installed at the Ultima College of Cosmetology.

"I teach everything," she told me. "Coloring, pedicures, manicure...I even taught a class on toenail dysfunctions and disorders last week. These kids learn anatomy, physiology, cells, muscles...It's practically premed, to tell you the truth."

Time for a house call.

I catch up with Miss Robin in the faculty lounge, where Ultima College president and founder Norma Johnston is politely asking her not to chew gum in front of the students. This, I figure, is Miss Robin's business, but I like Norma anyway, because even though she instituted the rule that students must address instructors as "Miss" or "Mister," she feels uncomfortable with honorifics herself, and everyone just calls her Norma. In the same vein, Norma insists that students and faculty not "fraternize" until after graduation, but this does not prohibit her from buying diapers for single moms and helping students pay their overdue heating bills. Similarly, while Norma posts motivational sayings on the college walls--"Showing up is 80 percent of life"--she apologizes for her loyalty to Norman Vincent Peale. "I know he's as old and as trite as can be," she says. "It's just that he's right."