I’m trolling the city streets late in the afternoon, the summer air still heaving with humidity, the sun washing the streets in a golden splay. I’m hot, sweat beading on my forehead and dampening my armpits, but my stride is purposeful. I’m on a mission. Just a quick one, I promise myself. No frills, nothing fancy, not an expensive place, but not a dive either. I had tried to stave off the urge for awhile, but my jones has gotten the best of me. I end up in Chelsea, on 9th Avenue. Didn’t I read about a new place around here? I pass a storefront and circle back, the tan awning’s simple, bold lettering solid and inviting. I peek in, and then decide to pass it by. No, it won’t do. Not here. I trudge on, scanning the rows of shops with increasing desperation. Finally, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I head to 8th Avenue, to a place I’d been once before and vowed never to visit again. After making the necessary arrangements and waiting an interminable fifteen minutes, I end up in Derek’s capable and tender hands, as willing and pliable as putty.
I’m here to pay, in a moment of weakness, $40 for a shampoo and a haircut. In Manhattan, where it’s not unheard of for a socialite or starlet to shell out up to six hundred bucks for a high class hairdo, the piddling amount I feel guilty for spending is chump change, bargain basement. But I’m not a celebutante or model. Rather, I’m a twenty-eight year old with a receding hairline and a bald spot at the crown of my head. My once thick, full head of hair has been degenerating steadily over the last few years into thin, wispy strands, the kind that kick up in the breeze like puffs of cotton candy. This hair doesn’t deserve a forty-dollar cut. It’s an unnecessary expense, and I feel foolish, a vain spendthrift. I should’ve just gone to a barbershop as I intended. I should have just paid twelve bucks, gotten a close trim, and been on my way. But I needed a fix.
I blame my mother. Not for me going bald, however. While both she and my uncle have thin hair, not to mention their mother, my grandmother (who wore a wig for as long as I could remember and never felt dressed without one), as well as their father, I cannot place the blame squarely on her genetics. I’m adopted and share no common biological thread with their clan. I am not their hair inherent. Nor can I blame my adopted father, though his pate is also a shining portent of my future. Unless baldness can be attributed to nurture and not nature, both my parents are off the hook on that count. No, I hold my mother responsible for introducing me to hair salons. As I child, I was never subjected to the horror of cutting my hair at the kitchen table with dull scissors, or God forbid, a Flowbee. I never suffered that indignity. I was taken to hair salons, propped up on floral couches to flip through back issues of People magazine, with the overpowering combination of hairspray, bleach and nail polish perfuming the room, the whoosh of hairdryers rising above the smooth jazz emanating from the speakers. I didn’t just drop in on some strip mall clip joint like a nosy neighbor or uninvited relation; when I went to get a hair cut, my arrival was expected. I had an appointment. This was the lifestyle to which I became accustomed.
Having relocated from Illinois to Orlando, Florida, my mother found her way to Shawn, who would be our stylist for years. Shawn frequently moved from salon to salon, and his devoted client base would always follow him, a Pied Piper of perms and peroxide (it was the eighties, after all). Shawn, in defiance of the reigning stereotype, was a heterosexual hairstylist — which no doubt helped him build his considerable clientele. He had long, chestnut hair that he kept immaculately coiffed, and wore lots of bracelets and chains and an earring. Fashionable and hip, he reminded me, in my adolescence, of Johnny Depp on “21 Jump Street.” His killer smile, tight jeans, and avowed heterosexuality surely made all the helmet haired matrons swoon.
It was because of my mother, and her obsession with keeping her hair expertly colored and styled, that I was introduced to this world; this land of white, middle-class, suburban glamour where overly made-up foreign women with thick accents would lather sweet smelling shampoos into my hair under a gentle spray of water, tenderly massaging my scalp. Lather, rinse, condition, then rinse again, leaving me relaxed and refreshed. I practically floated from the pristine porcelain shampoo bowl to the swivel chair, a damp towel around my neck. Then Shawn would flourish the black cape like a bullfighter, snapping it into place around my neck. Beverages were offered gratis: sodas, or coffee, sparkling water. While I was usually too shy to ask for one, I loved the option, the idea. It felt special, this place, far from the dusty baseball diamond, far from P.E. class, and infinitely far from my classmates with their dirty, string mops of hair and adolescent disregard for grooming.
Shawn eventually moved too far away to service my pre-teen tresses, and someone new was required to fill the void. Enter Lance, whom my uncles introduced us to, and who stood in stark contrast. They loved Lance, a transplanted New York barber who’d set up a small shop in Windermere, a tony enclave down the road from us. I went to Lance once, and was instantly dismayed at the set-up. There was no shampoo girl, only a few spritzes of water from his spray bottle to dampen my hair. No beverages were ever offered, no trashy fashion rag to idly peruse while waiting. Lance did a perfunctory job at best, wielding his scissors like an automaton, devoid of the flourish, the artistry, and the attention I’d grown to love. I vowed never to go back. “He’s a hair butcher,” I complained to my mother as we drove home, ruffling my hair in dismay. “He’s Sweeney Todd.”
My obsession with trying to improve my appearance led to a long dalliance with hair dye. Hair became an outlet for experimentation. In high school, I investigated Sun-In, a lemon juice lightening spray that promised to give hair naturally sun-kissed highlights. I used it and used it, spending countless afternoons out by the pool after school, until my normally light brown hair turned a peroxide orange, before finally transitioning into a simulacrum of a natural beachy blonde. Later, best friend and partner-in-crime Robert and I shoplifted hair dye and wine coolers from the nearby Albertson’s grocery store. We used our purloined product in our hotel room on a school trip. Mine ended up faintly green-tinted in the light of day.
In college, when I was trying to “find myself,” I relied on hair dye again to alter my appearance. If I wasn’t interesting on the inside, I would damn well be strange and different on the outside. Hair became identity. I even met my best friend Mandi through dye, the night I went with a friend to add blue streaks to Mandi’s bleached blonde locks. Hair became a bond of friendship. I used every shade of Natural Instincts, the cardboard boxes imprinted with disgustingly focus-grouped names like “Cinnaberry” and “Toasted Almond.” Whenever I was feeling blue, I’d buy a ten dollar bottle of dye as a pick-me-up. It became a source of therapy, a way to self-medicate. I soon ventured away from natural shades to explore punky primary hues: blue, green, fire-engine red. It got to a point where Winnie, my new hairdresser, was forced to put me on what she termed “hair dye restriction,” for fear what it would do to my already taxed tresses.
After college, I spent a summer on Martha’s Vineyard. My hair had returned to its natural color, and I let it grow to my shoulders. I still have this hair in my passport photo, a constant reminder of my follicle high water mark, my mane of glory. Going au natural, I embraced the laid-back island lifestyle, stopped wearing shoes and even underwear, and came back tanned, my long locks streaked from carefree days spent on the beach.
But like a hero of myth with a tragic flaw, I wasn’t content. I wanted a change. I was still dissatisfied with my appearance, bored with my current style. Jim, my then-boss, warned against me cutting my hair. “I used to have long hair,” he said, “but then I cut it and it never grew back the same.” Young and foolish, I didn’t heed his sage advice. Soon, I was shorn and shortly, like Sampson, recognized my follicle folly. My good friend Julia constantly reminds me how much I’ve lost when we look at photos from college. “I can’t believe I ever wore that,” she’ll remark, “and you had more hair.” Visiting my friend Jenna recently, I knelt down beside her and put my head in her lap. She ran her fingers through my hair tenderly and wondered aloud in her sweet-as-pie Texan accent, “When did this happen?” This being, “the spot.”
On good days I can forget about it. But then it sneaks up on me. Like in the dressing rooms of hip clothing stores, the ones where there are two or three mirrors, the better to appraise potential purchases at every angle. Trying on a pair of jeans or whatnot, I always catch that thinning patch of hair, that peek at my scalp, and wince. Then I spend a good five minutes, the line outside the dressing room backing up, scanning my head from every angle, cursing the fluorescent lighting for exposing my flaw.
I’ve investigated thickening shampoos and herbal scalp treatments, but never Rogaine, which would signal utter defeat. And certainly not hair plugs. I don’t want the top of my head to look like a Frankensteinian corn field. An actor friend of mine, Todd, uses Rogaine, even though he still has a head of full, thick hair. “Um, why?” I asked once. Prevention, he offered… Just in case. I ran into another actor friend, David, at an audition, and caught a glimpse of the back of his head. Something wasn’t right. After surreptitious study, I noticed an orangey-red powder, like Cheetos dust, clinging to the strands of his curly brown hair. It was one of those As-Seen-On-TV hair-in-a-can spray jobs. Coverage for the camera. “My God,” I thought, “is this what I’ll be reduced to?”
As I began to accept my lot in the follicle lottery, I started slumming. Going to little Italian chop shops, where hairy-armed men in blue smocks plied their clipping trade, or to Astor Place, a warehouse for cheap haircuts. My hair always looked fine, I’d been wearing it short for awhile, but something was missing.
I’ve been contemplating shaving it all off. I mean, a lot of interesting people shave their heads. Michael Stipe. David Cross. They cut their losses, so to speak, before it became embarrassing. But they, I remind myself, are famous. And fame trumps bald on the fuckability scale. And besides, I’m lazy. I don’t even want to take on another shaving ritual. I’ve even thought about wigs, but, somehow I don’t think that would work…maybe in a darkened bar, but not in the harsh light of day, and certainly not in an office under revealing fluorescent lights. Unless you’re a downtown drag fixture, a disguised guest on the Springer show, or Andy Warhol, a man in a wig is just not acceptable.
Recently I’ve caught myself studying others men’s scalps the way some will ogle a woman’s breasts. Intent, fixated, I’ve had to stop myself from doing double takes on the street. Or following someone for a few blocks, noting the length, thickness, and texture, trying to catch a glimpse of redemption in the strands. Their hair is thinning, and they still seem young-looking and vibrant, unaffected by the ravages of time. And then, I’m confronted by all the shaggy-headed hipsters with just-rolled-out-of-bed, rock star pompadours that I’d kill for, and my self-esteem deflates.
I had made the decision to grow my hair out, for the summer. Just to see. Then, if it looked ridiculous, I’d cut it. But I can’t hold out, so here I am in a kicky gay hair parlour, feeling serene and comfortable in the big, black swivel chair. Derek runs his hands through my freshly shampooed hair asks me what I want, but more importantly, he listens. We make small talk. He tells me he has a technique, one he’s learned studying with a Scottish woman from the Aveda Institute. It’s a way of twisting and cutting the thinner strands to make them seem fuller. I find myself nodding enthusiastically. I’m in his sway. He’s studious and attentive, and takes his time. He makes me feel good. That’s what I’m not getting from the frumpy Russian women who speak English as a second language and smell of talcum powder, I tell myself. Derek hands me a black handled mirror and spins the chair around to let me get a look at the cut.
“What do you think?” He asks expectantly, knowingly. And, holding that large black mirror in my hand, scrutinizing the back of my head, I can answer honestly, in the moment, “I love it.”
[Addendum: Since this was first drafted, I’ve succumbed to the lure of the razor, keeping my pate very closely shorn. And it’s fine! But I still have that passport photo, and seeing it always makes me wistful.]