Kinky Living in a Straight World A Prelude to Hair
Before you go to school, it probably doesn’t matter. Even if it hurts when your parents comb it, or it gets long enough to be cut by a woman in a black smock who douses your head with a spray bottle before she snips off your bangs. Even when it is matted with gum or tar from the neighbor’s driveway, and a whole hunk of it has to go, I don’t think your hair matters to you until you see yourself in the mirror of your friend’s eyes. That’s when the trouble begins.
I remember being the only one with frizzy curls in a class of twenty sleek-haired girls. It is a memory that could be true of any of my years in school, though of course I remember times when it mattered more than others. I don’t think it was important in kindergarten until the very end, when a yearbook picture of my class winding down the hall in a line shows me fourth in line. Though I was tall then, you can’t see my face. But your eye is drawn immediately to the backlit puff of my hair, riding high near the front. In fourth grade it was important again. Mrs. Cox made silhouette tracings of our profiles, cut them out of black construction paper, and made us guess whose was whose. Later, we would label them to hang in the hall. As soon as I understood the project, I knew it would cause me trouble, and I tried to postpone my turn in the portrait seat, hoping that somehow Mrs. Cox would understand and let me off the hook. Of course, she didn’t; and of course, everyone guessed my profile first, because it was the only one topped with bumps and ridges. What I wanted most then, and probably still want today, was a ponytail silhouette—a neat facial profile backed by a separate knot of smooth, swingy hair.
The years blend together in my memory, and trends emerge because moments repeat over and over, as if my hair history were a scratched record stuck on a lame refrain. A friend’s father asked if he could scrub the family pans with my head. A classmate wondered if she could touch my hair, and I consented against my better judgement. “Oh,” she said, drawing her hand away immediately, “it’s like hay.” Another was surprised that it was soft, since it didn’t look it. Most people don’t ask before they reach. I’ve learned to sense the approach of an unwelcome hand and to duck efficiently. Lately, I’ve added an admonition. “This is not a petting zoo,” I say sternly. A few people persist, and I shoot them with a gun I carry just for these emergencies—once in the heart, and again in the head, execution style. I tolerate the people who’ve told me, over and over, how lucky I am, and that people pay good money to get hair like mine; I tolerate them, but I hate them all the same.
Wild and bristly, my hair has drawn me out of the soft circle of smooth-haired girls and left me on the margins, an onlooker with a kink in her curl. It’s not that I tried to rebel—indeed, I longed to conform—but my hair made it impossible. If only there had been a way to subdue it, to force it to adopt a manageable shape and a palatable texture, then I know I would have gone along, but there never was. I shaved it close in patterns, grew it long, and dyed it black, then red, then blond. Twice, I sat still for hours while a Liberian woman braided it and strung it with black and purple beads. It held for weeks and clacked a rhythm when I walked, and I thought for a while I could be black and have braids instead of being Jewish and having frizz. But it didn’t hold forever, and I had to return to myself. I’m a stranger in the straight-hair world.
I spent hours combing the midback hair of Midge, an otherwise unremarkable baby-sitter. When I played house with my straight-haired friends, I draped the hood of a brown sweatshirt over my head and pretended what hung down my back was actually a thick, long curtain of hair. If I didn’t look in the mirror or touch the stretchy cotton and I ignored the flap of the metal zipper, I could almost convince myself: ah, this is what it’s like, heavy and warm. But it wasn’t, so I’ve become an expert in cosmetic strategy. I tote hats stowed in giant flowered hatboxes across the country for humid summer weddings and can tie a turban fast and tight. Sikh cab drivers stop and wave, while others look at me pityingly, wondering if I’ve been stricken with cancer. If a hairdresser uses the word coarse at anytime during our time together, I skip the tip and don’t return. But the straight-hair world is not as shiny and smooth as I had imagined; bigger issues than texture loom large on the horizon.
Over time, I’ve become consultant and confessor, the five-minute hair therapist who knows what it’s like to have low hair esteem. A man whose dog plays every morning with my dog wants to know if I think he’ll bald from front to back or back to front; one is all right with him, the other isn’t. After I placed an ad soliciting stories for this book, my phone rang at three one morning. A young man with a strong Brooklyn accent apologized for waking me; he’d thought that he was calling an office and would get a machine. Wasn’t I some type of doctor, maybe a miracle worker or a shaman, he wondered, and was disappointed when I told him I was writing a book. “So, you can’t make hair come back?” he asked. “No,” I told him. “Would you like to talk about it?” Things change, slowly, imperceptibly. In order to be apart from something, you must in some way be a part of it. It’s not that my hair has smoothed out any, or that I’ve suddenly rediscovered a deeply buried ethnic pride—I haven’t. It’s just that I’ve noticed a subtle shift in perspective, which might be explained as adulthood but which is no less troubling for the explanation.
The other day, I was shopping in Albany, New York, with my mother and I saw a little girl, about five, with springy blond curls that stood out all over her head. Her mother was in a dressing room and she was playing with some cards on the floor nearby. She didn’t look at me, but I squatted next to her anyway. “Hi,” I said. “I like your hair.” She continued to play with her cards and ignored me. “Do you hate it? I hated my hair when I was your age,” I told her, imagining that I was telling her something that would serve her well. And then, before she had a chance to look up or duck away, I reached over and touched a curl, stretched it between my fingers and let it bounce back. Instantly, without even looking up, she pulled a gun that looked just like mine—shiny and full of purpose. But she was young and too small to hold it properly, so her first shot missed my heart and grazed my arm, her second went wild and hit the wall. I tried to tell myself I’d learned my lesson, I would never do it again, but now I’m not so sure. She really had fabulous hair. People pay a fortune to get hair like that.
“Hair” by Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Gerome Ragni © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970 (copyright renewed) James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot, Nat Shapiro, and EMI U Catalog Inc. All Rights administered by EMI U Catalog Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission WARNER BROS. PUBLICATIONS U.S. INC., Miami, FL 33014