An old pal of mine used to be a detective with the New York City Police Department. Leaning back on his heels at the scene of a crime and rocking back and forth in his suspiciously tan trench coat and large silver pinky ring, Ken was a master at detecting clues, from picking up a lone hair affixed to the rim of a bathroom sink, to digging for a bloody knife buried inside a tacky red velvet sofa to poking at a cigarette stub at the bottom of a glass in a cluttered, messy restaurant. He could sniff out a timid burglar squished inside of a cardboard box in a busy post office filled with Christmas packages and hear the tiny squeak of a door closing five blocks away. His aim with his .38 was as impeccable as his sharply pleated black suits and spotless ties. He never fired his gun in his 20 years solving crimes and capers, but if pressed into action, we knew his swagger and bullets would find a target.
But Ken has two handicaps that still amaze me to this day and for which I have never forgiven him. In all the years that I’ve known him, whether traveling in his two-door Jeep on his way to a fishing expedition or an unmarked police car barreling through traffic, Ken has never failed to miss an exit, even when green and white highway signs the size of Madison Square Garden looked him squarely in the eye. But his most egregious sin is that like misplaced radar zeroing in on a toy stuffed bunny rather than the enemy, Ken always misses the lone and woebegone mismatched toupee in a room filled with perfectly coiffed hair.
Whether we entered a restaurant or a reception, the inevitable would happen. Ken, who had a few fringes of hair lying across his pate while I wore mine in long layered fringes like a badly woven shawl, would shake hands with a man wearing a hideous hairpiece that stood out like the Empire State Building in the middle of a cornfield. After the offender had moved on, I elbowed Ken. “Did you see that one!” I would chortle. Ken always looked confused. “No!” he insisted. “You’re kidding me.” He looked around stared intently at the crowd, but he couldn’t tell which man he had just met. I, for one, felt superior. Even without NYPD and FBI training, I am able to spot a perpetrator of bad taste.
My idea of a handsome head of hair is a neat short style paired with the angular features of the man and what’s under it. As I always say, you can snip and cut with the garden shears in an emergency, but you can’t alter idiosyncrasies, insecurities, infirmities and indifference. They can be covered or smothered with hair but not hidden. Men with fake hair cry out “imposter!” to me.
These hairpieces on men have always fascinated me, to the point of a draw dropping, heart stopping grip of wonderment. When designers like Ralph Lauren design a country model bed of hair or when Vera Wang weaves a suave rug, then maybe we’re talking style. Most wigs are so painfully hideous and cry out to the naked eye “Ain’t I a suave and sophisticated gent?” But they look silly and a bit sad, the last reclamation of youth and vitality on a man no longer young and whose vitality has seen better days. An older man somehow thinks that his newfound hair looks better than the thick hair he once had as a teenage flirt. Maybe it’s not the hair that he’s missing but a longing for the sensation of hair flowing between the tentacles of a plastic comb or blowing in the wind. Ken always said that he didn’t miss either sensation and relished the idea of saving almost a thousand dollars a year by not having to subsidize the hair care industry.
So without hair to grasp between bristles of a brush, men resort to the next best thing. They invest in toupees that sit crookedly, some so large that there’s a gap between wearer and wig, others so small and tight they look positively painful, and some resemble tall, wavy cupcake swirls while others look as silky as Barbie doll hair, sitting misshapenly on top of gleaming eyes and a face as wrinkled as tissue paper. Leave yourself alone, I say, and spend the time and money on toupees and fittings and washings on learning Japanese, earning a college degree in economics, or tutoring teenagers in Thurber or Thoreau.
Thoreau would eschew hair for a walk in the woods while Thurber’s henpecked husbands would be told by their wives to let their hair alone. But whether man or woman, your fate is set. Hair will turn gray and then white and thin out or run out as you age, so that you wind up peering at a circular skull at the back of an oblong head, admire flowing ruffles that resemble an Afghan hound, or inquisitively stare at a comb-over with startling wisps of hair swept over to one side. Ken once likened a comb over to strips of bacon lying across a frying pan. Unappetizing, yes, but they cover the appetite for youth. The quest for youth has no boundaries.
For young or old, a blond wig or blond hair on a dark skinned or Asian woman can be construed as glamorous and sexy. That woman didn’t arrive in the delivery room with a speck of that light hair but a blond toupee on a dark skinned man looks positively strange. Ken and I once caught a jazz set in a Harlem nightclub with a couple of old friends. In the dim light and seated knee to knee at a small circular table, we listened to the main attraction, a penetrating saxophonist with blonde hair, heavy lidded eyes and a strut as fierce as a catwalk model. Herbie, I think that’s what his name was, looked to be about 75 and wore a wig resembling a shower cap with blonde curls hot glued on. He adjusted his wig with a snap at its brim between notes. Ken drummed his fingers against the table and was lost in the music. I was lost in Herbie’s hair. So intrigued was I by the movement of his toupee that I neglected to realize that he had stepped down from the small stage to our table. Herbie introduced himself to each one of his admirers. “I really liked your hair,” I gushed, stuttering, “I mean your music.” His eyes glistened as he clasped my hand in between his and mistook my stammer for unbridled interest. “What are you doing after the show?” he inquired bluntly, tossing his golden mane. Not a chance, pal, not a chance. Ken, by the way, hadn’t even noticed the faux hair. “Really?” he asked. Really.
A colleague of Ken’s and mine was once married to a man whose frosty silver locks, complete with sideburns from the early ’70s, looked the same every day for 25 years. We went to dinner with his ex-wife one evening and I popped the question. “I’ve never see him without it,” Tina said without embarrassment. “Even when. . .?,” I raised my eyebrows in astonishment. “Never!” she insisted. They had been married for 10 years and not once did she ever see her husband without his hair. Did he have more than one hairpiece? Was there a standby model? Did he wash and rinse it in the sink? Was the hair real or synthetic? How was it attached to his head? How hot was it during the summer? Where did the water go when it rained? Did it run down his neck? What had happened to his real hair? Didn’t his toupee get hot in the summer? “I don’t have answers to these questions,” Tina said, swatting me away. My lengthy inquiry into the washing, tending and petting of her husband’s hair left me as frustrated as when I first became fixated on his hairpiece. Ken looked at me strangely. “I liked his hair,” he said, patting his own bald pate.
Our friend, Sylvia, who dyed her hair blonde, noted my interest in the subject of hair. She regaled me with the story of a colleague who wore an ill-fitting toupee that broadcast “trying too hard” and she gently and sensitively offered to adjust it for him. “It’s just fine,” he retorted, moving her hand that had so lovingly caressed a flock of brown curls. A year later, he sheepishly announced that a second set of locks had arrived from England. This time, he admitted that he read the instructions included in the box. He had been wearing his hair backwards all along.
Backwards, forwards or sideways, the truth begins at the top. If the hair is fake, then what is honest about the man’s inclinations or intentions? I picture myself at that rousing moment of passionate abandonment, grasping onto his wig and flinging it wildly across the room. We’ll never find out if this could happen because one of my cardinal rules is never date a man wearing a toupee. The peeling away to the soul of romance should not begin with the falsity of appearance.
I’ve had my own love/hate relationship with my hair, as I’m sure most women do. The phrase “bad hair day”, which is so much a part of our lexicon, can be blamed on humidity, bad shampoo, no shampoo, rain, sleet and snow, hats and hormones. Mine only occasionally looks passable. I’ve thrown up my hands and thrown in the towel because it will do exactly as it pleases. As a kid, I remember the shag haircut of the ’70s, very much like Tina’s husband’s silver hairpiece but a bit longer in the back. My long red hair was unceremoniously clipped into a style that was wrong for my face. It was the wrong shape for so many faces but no one paid attention or cared – it was the “in” thing and everyone wore this haircut. But the “in” thing gave me curlicued sideburns and made me feel about as attractive as a hedgehog facing the headlights of a car on the open highway.
My best friend, Linda, once cut my hair and let it be the last time that she approaches me with an open pair of scissors. She had her own hair issues. Trained to be a hair stylist, she started at the bottom in the hair salon business, sweeping floors and clipping the nails of customers. She dropped out of the business after elderly customers kept kicking her under the manicure table when her cuticle scissors drew blood. “Screw this,” she said, throwing down her shears and enrolling in dog grooming school. Her poodle cuts looked positively divine and the customers didn’t talk back.
Sitting around her kitchen table in her apartment in Washington Heights one evening, I noticed my own hair looking a little mangy. “You could use a trim,” she suggested. I confessed that I hadn’t found a good hairdresser and didn’t have the time. “I’ll do it for you,” she said perkily. “Only take a minute.” I warily agreed, figuring at this point in her career that she could discern between a barking head and a talking head. She sat me in her kitchen chair, placed a plastic bib under my chin and sprayed my hair with the mister that she used to water her plants. “Are you sure you know what to do? I only want a trim,” I said nervously. “Oh, c’mon,” she replied. “I do this all day long.”
With no mirror in sight, it was impossible for me to see what my hair looked like. Chunk after chunk of my hair fell to the floor as her two immaculately groomed poodles sniffed at my feet. It was over in a minute. Linda removed the bib with the flourish of a matador just as her husband walked into the dining room. “What happened to you?” he inquired, not unkindly. I shuddered in horror as she held up a mirror. It reflected back a long narrow face with blond caterpillar like eyebrows and hair cropped just below my ears with a little extra at the back. I’d never thought I’d see it again. My shag haircut had returned. Two decades later, I still felt like that hedgehog.
My grandmother admired my new haircut, though. She always had lovely stylish gray hair, never dyed, lacquered or sprayed or too long or too short but just right, and when she was in her nineties and living in a nursing home in Brooklyn, her white hair felt soft and wispy as an infant’s. Back in the ’70s, her hair wasn’t real and part of a trend I still can’t understand. Wiglets and wigs were in style a couple of decades ago, but oddly enough, they were often made of synthetic hair that the wearer added to their own hair, even if they had a full head of hair of the same color and style. When my grandmother died and I cleaned out her apartment in the Bronx, I discovered a square plastic box with a handle that I took to be a vintage purse. It contained a steel gray wig very much like the hair she wore in photographs. She was no longer with us, but her hair was now sitting in my closet. It was creepy. I caressed the wig once to see what it felt like, placed it gently back into its box and threw it back into my closet. Just the other day on the moment the wig was to be photographed, an outstanding discovering was made. As the wig was gingerly plucked from its carrier, a second wig emerged along with two instruction booklets and a hairpin. Well, one mystery was solved. The pixie stretch wig composed of 100% specially processed modacrylic had been sold by Sears and the second one – noted as “Style 570 Color #51 – but with coarser hair was comprised of Dynel. The original tag reads “Dynel: for girls with better things to do” but carries a warning admonishment under the “Do’s and Don’ts”: Don’t stand over stove or near open oven. Okay.
While my grandmother covered her real hair, other women of her age colored theirs, most often a peach color that made me want to pinch off a piece like cotton candy. One of the greatest inventions behind the airplane and the wheel has been hair dye. Why look old when you can look young? No one needs to have gray anymore. My own experimentation has led me to reclaim my red hair but at the expense of it looking like Lucy’s fiery fire engine color with my bathroom resembling a crime scene from splashing of dye from sink to ceiling. I don’t have the time and energy to have my hair touched up every six weeks and so I miss out on the communal spirit of women at the hairdresser. I also save a great deal of money.
It’s expected that women of any age will or should color their hair even when it looks like they did it themselves under duress. Men always have that “did he or didn’t he?” question, particularly when their hair is all of one flat color without any highlights or lowlights or when you clearly know that a 75 year old man, unless he’s hiding a secret, cannot possess a sleek head of black hair. To dye or not to dye? I say, no. Keep it real.
Thankfully, I’ve spotted fewer and fewer hairpieces over the last decade. You used to see them as often as a New York City taxi in Times Square. With the latest additions of hair plugs, acupuncture and hair growth crème and pills, men can reclaim their godly locks. And the natural look is fashionable so a head shaved down to the basics, gleaming in its own confidence, is now in vogue.
So my piece about hair is over. I’m happy to say that Ken has retired from the New York City Police Department so that crime scenes are attended in a timely fashion, I no longer dye my hair and have found a good hairdresser, Tina remarried a man with no hair, Linda confines her talents to pooches, and that toupees, may they rest in peace in landfills, can be flung to the sky in jubilation.
Note: Some names have been changed to protect the hairless. And, a search for toupees from uptown to downtown and throughout midtown netted no men with fake hair. A few were questionable and one got away. But Chad Walters was brave enough to don my grandmother's wigs for a reasonable facsimile.