Last night I stood on the oppressively warm platform at Union Square station waiting forever for the train home. It was unusually crowded for after midnight, a sure sign that there was a problem. A gaggle of twenty-somethings frolicked nearby. I was especially fascinated by two young men who were chattering away, obviously enjoying a night on the town. They laughed at each other’s jokes, often touching, and gazing into each other’s eyes. So young, carefree, and in love.
They were cute. Cute, as in diminutive. Everyone in their group was small. No taller than 5 foot 6 or so and with amazingly narrow hips and tiny little waists. The happy male couple probably had a combined weight less than mine. I often wonder about little people. How do they fit all their internal organs in such a tiny space? Do they have a little half-size liver? Mini-kidneys? Wasp size lungs?
Being much taller, I observed that the boy with the great mop of bushy hair had a small patch on top of his head were the hair was beginning to thin. I felt sorry for him. I developed a bald spot in my early twenties. After I discovered it, I became obsessed with it. I was certain that I might otherwise have been an attractive man. I might have been popular, happy, had lots of friends, a lover, gotten married, moved to a house in the suburbs, bought a riding mower to cut the grass every Saturday, inhaled the aromatic mix of gasoline exhaust and fresh cut grass. But I’m terribly allergic to fresh cut grass and I’m bald.
I tried everything to hide that little hairless island on top of my head. I grew the rest of my hair very long. It hung down in rivulets of red curls. But there was an empty spot on top. I looked like Ben Franklin. I wore hats before it was fashionable to wear a baseball cap at all times, even while working out at the gym. Finally, in desperation, I had a hair piece made. Actually two hair pieces. Due to the constant need to maintain and reconstruct hair pieces, one of them is always in the shop. At that time, all human hair wigs were made from Asian hair – long, straight, black Asian hair. (Presumably the Asians voluntarily surrendered their hair for the greater good of humanity.) I had decided that as long as I was transforming my appearance, I may as well go all the way. I decided on an Afro, but red.
Unlike a wig, a hair piece does not cover your entire head. It’s not a hat. Rather, it is custom made to exactly fit the bald area. A mesh is cut to size and technicians weave the Asian hair into the mesh. They subject it to a toxic chemical stew to curl it and color it and cut it to the proper length. Then a stylist must blend the new hair with your own hair so that it is undetectable. So once a week I returned to the salon where the stylist would first work on my real hair. Even though my hair is naturally wavy, against his better advice, I insisted on having it set into tight little curls. Then a matronly technician would emerge from a back room bearing my newly restored hairpiece on a platter. It was rather like a coronation. The stylist would apply it to my scalp with double sided tape and tease it and fuss with it and blend it with my hair for at least 15 minutes, spraying Aqua Net at frequent intervals. Finally he would hold a big mirror up behind and above my head so I could see that perfection had been achieved.
When I left the shop I looked great. I had a full head of luxurious hair, in a great Afro bubble. It was impossible to tell it wasn’t all real. At least for the rest of the day. But I had to remove the hair piece before bed. It wasn’t a hair weave or a transplant. It was more like daily contact lens. Off at night, back on the next morning. And that is where the whole system began to break down. Without an expensive, hour-long session in my stylist’s chair, I was left to try to recreate the magic on my own. I would confuse the front from the back of the piece, stick it down in the wrong place, fail to blend it around the edges. It looked fake. I would get exasperated and start to sweat. Then the tape wouldn’t stick. I watched the clock tick towards being late for work once again. To make matters worse, the Asian hair was always trying to revert to its natural state: not curly and not red. Some mornings I was sure the front edge had curled up just enough to expose the underlying mesh but I was too frustrated and too late to care. Besides, nobody ever said anything negative. The first few days, all my colleagues told me I looked great; then they just didn’t mention it any more.
But I wasn’t so sure. One evening at one of my neighborhood bars, I thought I heard two guys making fun of me. I walked past to hear what they were saying. One of them was singing a made-up jingle. “I used to be bald, but now I have hair.” And they both broke into a fit of giggling. I’m just being paranoid, I thought. I’m hearing things. But my confidence was shaken.
The breaking point came the night I had a date with Blake. He was a waiter but I knew him from a performance he gave at the Gay Community Center. He played acoustic guitar and sang his own original songs. I’m not usually a fan of folk music, but his voice was so clear and compelling and he sang about struggling to establish a masculine identity in a gay world. I was in love.
When he responded to my personal ad a few months later, I’m sure he didn’t remember me from all the adoring fans in the audience that night. I made a special appointment with my stylist. I told him I had to look better than ever. He worked on me and my Asian hair for an hour. His magic worked. I looked great.
When Blake arrived, we had cocktails and chatted, sitting close together on the sofa. He kept looking at me strangely. Oh my god, I thought in panic, he can tell.
“I remember you from the Community Center,” he told me. “I’ll never forget the nice words you said to me after the performance.”
I relaxed. He wasn’t staring at my fake hair. He remembered me. All would be well.
“But I don’t remember you having all this hair. I thought you were balding on top.”
“No offense, but are you wearing a hair piece?”
“I mean, it’s just that I have a thing for balding men. I know it’s weird but it turns me on.”
It took a moment for his words to take any meaning. I asked him if he was serious. Did he really like balding men. He assured me he did.
“Hang on one moment. Just stay here.” I raced into the bathroom and ripped the Asian hair from my head and tossed into the nearest place to hide it, which just happened to be the waste basket. I quickly removed the residue from the tape and flipped a comb around, took a deep breath and returned.
“Oh, much better,” Blake smiled and slipped his arm around me as I sat down next to him.
I won’t tell you about the rest of that night other than to say it went very well. I’ve never worn the hair piece since.
I thought about all this as I gazed down at the thinning spot on top of the small young man on the subway platform. I smiled. It’s nice to be older and wiser. It’s also nice to be taller. He couldn’t see the top of my head.