I used to joke about going bald before it happened. I already was well aware of the scientifical fact that if your mother’s father was bald, chances are you would be, too. My grandfather lost his hair by his late 20s, so I figured it was only a matter of time for me (while also hoping my grandfather’s hair loss was hastened by three stressful years in the Pacific during World War II). In high school, I began to grow my hair out, thinking I should do so while I still could. And when I say out, I do mean out. My hair did not grow down no matter how long I left it uncut. It grew sideways, like a mushroom cloud.
Early in my freshman year of college, I visited my cousin Staten Island. He was still in high school, and we went out and did the normal kind of weekend things that I was too uptight/immobile to do when I was in high school. At the moment, it felt like practice for all the things I should be doing in college. Relaxing. Not thinking. Having fun.
The Sunday I was set to go back to NYU, my uncle found an old Polaroid camera. Use it up before I throw it out, he commanded, so we did, taking dumb pictures of each other doing goofy stuff. The photos never developed. Everything was cast a muddy greenish-gray.
I stuffed a few in my backpack to take back to my dorm. On the bus trip back, I pulled a book out to read and noticed it had weird goop on the back cover, whitish, like dried Elmer’s glue. I looked in my bag and saw the culprits were the Polaroids. The dying film stock was leaking. I took one of the photos out to see how bad the damage was inside my bag, but I forgot to keep inspecting when I got a closer look at the picture. Something about my hairline didn’t look quite right. My part seemed higher up, like someone had grabbed me by the back of the head yanked my scalp back as far as it would go. It took this weird, half-formed Polaroid to show that I was already starting to lose my hair.
“Starting” is the wrong word. As the Polaroids showed, I was well into my hair loss. My hair didn’t look right, especially at the part, where the edges stuck up at random because there was too little hair to sit down on my head.
After I noticed what was happening, the inevitable progression seemed to happen overnight. By winter break, I had a full fledged combover going on. I would fret and fuss in the mirror each morning to get the hair into such a position that would make my follicle situation invisible to all but the most keen observers (or so I thought), and just prayed there would be no wind on the way to class. There are pictures from Christmas with me and my cousins, standing in front of my grandfather’s fireplace, the same pose we’d done our entire lives. You can see my hair desperate fluffed within an inch of its life under the delusion that this would give the illusion of depth. I had no idea what else to do.
And yet somehow through all this trauma, I mustered the strength to feel sorry for myself. I’ve had a number of moments in my life where I felt like I was on the verge of Big Things, only to have fate intervene and send me on a detour (usually outside factors, though I’ve been known to sabotage myself, too). This was just such a moment. After a stifling and lonely high school experience, I’d managed to get myself to New York City by the skin of my teeth, thanks to a scholarship and an onerous amount of student loans. I was determined to make up for lost time and actually have fun for once in my life. I didn’t want to go nuts, I just wanted to meet people and not be a weirdo like I’d been as a teenager. And now I was gonna be bald at age 18? Who do i speak to about this?! I demand to talk to your manager, Life.
My mom felt a misplaced sense of genetic guilt about my predicament, and recommended I go to this hair restoration place she’d heard advertised on WFAN (thanks to her dedication to the Mets and masochistic daily helpings of Mike and the Mad Dog). Just go and we’ll see what we can do, she said. I don’t how she thought we could pay for it, since I was already barely able to afford to college. But I promised I would try.
I made an appointment with the mom-recommended clinic. It was in a nondescript building near the Citicorp Center on Lexington in the 50s, one of the rare ones smaller than 10 stories. I hadn’t spent much time in Midtown yet and the place seemed claustrophobic and alien to me, everyone zipping to and fro at breakneck speed. The name of the firm was oppressively vague, obviously trying to hide its true purpose to casual observers, and the reception area could not have looked less medical if it tried. In retrospect, the atmosphere reminded me of every publishing company I ever interviewed with. The only giveaway of the place’s mission: the magazines in the waiting area, all of which were trying too hard to be manly. Cars. Sports. They didn’t go so far as to put out stuff like Soldier of Fortune, but I got the feeling they really wanted to.
I was called into an examination room by a middle aged woman in a lab coat, bifocals perched at the end of her nose. It seemed she was trying very hard to look like a doctor, more so than an actual doctor would. She brought me into a small, claustrophobic room with dim lighting and way more cabinets in it than really seemed necessary. The only other furnishing was a chair, the kind you often sit in for eye exams, which I was instructed to sit down in. It was all seemed clean and sanitary and free of vermin, but none of it really looked medical in any convincing way. A real doctor’s office always looks somewhat shabby, since real doctors don’t spend too much brain power or sweat on decor.
The “doctor” attempted some cursory small talk. “You look young to be an EMT,” she said. I was incredibly confused, then remembered that I was wearing a workshirt I’d found at a Salvation Army store in Queens, pale blue, with the FDNY EMT logo patch on the sleeve. I liked wearing workshirts and at the time (mid-90s) I was only barely behind the curve, fashion-wise, in doing so.
I sheepishly explained I wasn’t really an EMT. With that weirdness out of the way, the “doctor” examined my scalp, making “mm-hm” type sounds like a mechanic might when diagnosing a busted alternator. She then reached into one of the room’s many cabinets and pulled out a roll of Saran wrap. I don’t mean a generic, unboxed roll of plastic wrap. I mean, she literally pulled out a box of Saran wrap, ripped a piece off using the sharp metal teeth, and laid it over the top of my head. Then she unsheathed a yellow highlighter from her lab coat breast pocket and began tracing my hairline with it.
Just when I was about to openly question these methods, another “doctor” knocked on the door and poked his head in the room. He looked no more Hippocratic than his colleague. “Can I talk to you for a sec?” he asked? My “doctor” excused herself and left, but neglected to close the door behind her. It slowly opened further and further, creaking with every inch. I was afraid to get up and close it and possibly undo whatever she’d been doing to the top of my head. So I sat there. And sat. And sat.
This ordeal may have felt longer than it actually was, but I’m pretty sure I sat exposed in this examination room, highlighted Saran wrap on my head, for a good ten minutes. “Doctors” scooted by the door. Some even stopped to chat briefly right in front of me. Other “patients” walked by and would inevitably look inside, then quickly look away, embarrassed on my behalf.
This was theater, I realized. Humiliation theater. Psy ops. CIA-type stuff. They’re trying to break down my psychological defenses, then get me to commit to some expensive hair replacement procedure. Leave me here alone, exposed, defenseless, then send the “doctor” back in to “save” me.
In that moment, I decided my response would be “fuck that.” So I’m bald? Fine, I’m bald. I never liked my hair anyway. I never knew what to do with it. It just made my forehead look huge. One less thing to worry about. I refused to be shamed into getting a carpet put on my head that will look more shitty than being bald every could (and which I couldn’t afford anyway).
After a small eternity, the “doctor” returned, half-heartedly apologized, and removed the Saran wrap from my head. She laid out a few of my options, but my mind burned with rage, and my ears heard nothing but a loud, angry hum that blotted out anything she said. I nodded politely, committed to nothing, and left.
I exited the building and just stomped. My friends always joked that I didn’t walk, I stomped, but I never stomped like I did this day. Down Lexington, through Midtown, through the 50s, 40s, 30s, 20s, storming, not stopping, ignoring traffic lights and somehow not getting killed. If a car hit me, I think it would have bounced off my side and over my head. I was encased in this force field of pure anger.
On I went through Union Square, then down Fourth Avenue, until I hit 10th Street. There was a barber school there that proudly advertised haircuts for $5. I passed it a million times on my journeys deep into the East Village. It always did plenty of business, which told me it musn’t be awful. And in any case, what I wanted now was too simple to screw up.
I walked in, waited for an open chair, and sat down in one when instructed. It was manned by a nice young lady who greeted me with a smile. “What can I get you today?”
“Shave it off.”
“The sides, or…”
“All of it.”
She pulled out a clipper and reflexively put an attachment on it. “No,” I said. “Lowest setting.” She shrugged and did exactly that.
“You just get off work?” she asked as she got started.
“Huh?” I was confused and distracted by my hair hitting the floor. It looked dry and sickly, like old hay.
“You just get off work?” she repeated. With no free hands, she thrust her chin in the general direction of the EMT patch on my sleeve, sticking out from under the barber’s smock. I don’t know why, but this time, I played along.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m done.”