Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Life as a Beatle

“There is more felicity on the far side of baldness than young men can possibly imagine” -- Logan Pearsall Smith.

My hairline began receding in my senior year of high school. It must have begun then, because I remember the morning Martha Louise reached up her hand and brushed back the locks I had combed forward. I was annoyed, which is sad, because today I fully understand her gesture.

That summer I had a near-fatal bout with myocarditis, a viral infection of the heart lining, after which the recession resumed in earnest. By the time I entered San Jose State, I had a partial comb-over that was so shameful, I slept with my head under the pillow.

My utter sense of despair grew proportionally to the pace of departing strands in the dormitory sink. So did a flagging sense of sexual prowess. Today, shaving your head--even if you have a full shock of hair--is commonplace and considered sexy; but in my adolescence only Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas had acceptable crowns, and they were distinctly odd and exotic men. I was whiter than white. (Oh, and there was the bald Genie on the soap bottle, too.)

The last of the comb-over supply was progressively knotted and, by my senior year, it was a matted clump held in place by thinning strands. It rattled in the wind. Following the lead of another young man who confided his secret to me, I went shopping for a wig. At that time, the since-defunct May Company store offered a wide selection of apparel and accessories. In their wig department you could find a brilliant array of styles and colors--for women! There was a single model for guys and it resembled the late-era Beatles mop-top. I took one home, along with a Styrofoam head (which my friends called "Spike") where it would rest all night on the dressing table.

The wig had a tight mesh lining that left a angry red pattern on my scalp when I took it off at night. It was hot, which was fine in cold weather, but unpleasant in the summer. It made my skin crawl. And it did little to allay my fear. It might be the end of a luscious evening over candles and Chardonnay when my date would run her fingers through my nylon, dislodging the entire facade. Surely that time would come, so I avoided women altogether.

After graduation, I went to work for a daily newspaper in a small college town near Sacramento. Each morning I would pull on my loud, double-knit sports coat and tie, brush my mop-top into shape, and drive off for the newsroom in my Buick convertible, the wig stirring in the breeze. I walked about town, gathering stories from my sources, sure that I looked suave and confident. I was probably the only person who thought I had hair.

When spring rolled around, I volunteered to coach football for the local Pop Warner team, the Cowboys, with a head coach who had played defensive back in college and hit you like a falling piano. In those days, everyone wore knee-high white athletic socks and hippie-generation headbands while playing sports. So I bought a bandanna and tied it around the wig. I looked studly.

Toward the middle of practice the coach and I were showing the boys how to pounce on a fumble. I beat him to the ball, but he slammed into me and the wig went flying. It flew about ten yards, then rolled--still held in shape by the headband--down a grassy hill, our young charges gazing in horror at what must have appeared as a clean beheading.

Then there was a twitter, and another, and then came cascades of laughter that I could hear all the way to my car.

A few months later I landed a job at a newspaper in the Bay Area and decided to make a clean break of things, vis a vis Spike and company. Besides, I had scorched the front of the mop-top attempting to light marijuana at a party and the wig remained crispy and smelled of disaster. The wig ended up in a dumpster, and I grew out the sides of my hair, glad to have it all out in the open. I could date again.

In 1975, I got brave and shaved it all off in the shower. I liked the look, complemented by my thick, black Rasputin beard. I was a trailblazer.

For a short time, I had a job writing advertising copy for a company that made pharmaceuticals said to grow hair. No way I would try them. The side effects include a dramatic loss of libido. Why stiffen your self esteem to loose tensile strength elsewhere? It seems a perfect metaphor for our culture.

There is nothing worse, I think, than male-pattern blandness. I'd rather leave it to nature to decide what grows--and where. Meanwhile, I can shave without cream, without a mirror--even wield a double-bladed razor in the dark. I know the tucks and curves of my head with profound intimacy. And despite the insane prejudice against baldness in our society, I find that many women -- at least the kind that interest me -- will still need me, will still feed me, when I'm sixty-four.

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