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Personal Essays

Do Right Man

When you find someone who can cut your hair right, get engaged. Otherwise they’ll eventually leave, and you’ll have to find someone new. Someone who, in our author’s case, would love to see you with a high-top fade.

Tropical Fruit, Bangkok, 1976-80

Early in my life, before vanity had fully taken hold, my hair didn’t matter. I accepted what was given to me: the bowl cut. The Thai description of the style roughly switches the word “coconut” for the word “bowl.” I have a round head, which made the coconut even more so. Professional attention made the coconut perfectly rounded, so that, minus the frayed edges, the upper half of my head was a perfect hemisphere, ready to be hacked with a rusty machete and impaled with a sipping straw.

My first haircutter outside of the family was a thin and very tan woman with long black hair. She cut my hair in the ground floor of the building her family lived in. Faded posters of Thai hair models hung on the light green walls and eerie electric candles lit up a red Chinese-style shrine over the doorway to the stairs. Fruits and sweets were offered before the shrine in small, white ceramic bowls. A magazine table jutted out of the storefront, and every now and then, as she cut my hair, she excused herself to take care of a customer outside.

I preferred this beauty shop to the crowded barbershop behind the movie theater where I sometimes went with my father. There was the fact that the beauty shop was quieter, there were magazines to flip through, and there was a sundries shop next door where I could buy ice cream and soda. But most of all, I trusted this woman more than anyone else to cut my hair. Unlike the barber, this woman took her time. She spoke with a softer voice. She smelled better. There was something infinitely more pleasant about the soft lines of her long arms as they moved over my head than in the brusque, slaughterhouse movements of the barber. A bowl cut is a bowl cut, but no bowl cut was more pleasing to me than the bowl cut I got from her. I adamantly refused to go to the barbershop. This was it for me. Sign me up. I’d found my lady. I could get a bowl cut from her for the rest of my life. I was four.

Camel Hair, Dammam and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1980-1984

A good haircut is hard to find, especially in the middle of a desert. At first the ritual was this: a vinyl tablecloth spread out on the dining room floor, me on a chair. With an electric buzzer and dull scissors, my mother cut my hair, using techniques she learned from a homemaking magazine. The bowl cut must be more complicated than it looks. There is such a thing as a bad bowl cut, and I lived with it in those early years in Dammam.

At the international school in Dhahran, there were other bowl cuts, mostly belonging to the Swedish and Norwegian kids. There was more coiffure variety on the American side, from close-cropped hair and military-style flat tops to full-blown mullets. Many American five-year-olds had by then learned the way of the comb. They parted their hair to the left or right or straight apart in the middle. I was still working only with the downward pull of gravity. Technically, the hair I now had was what the French called an English cut, or coupe anglaise. It is a variation of the bowl cut (coupe au bol), but with very short hair on the sides of the head. In other words, the coconut had become a fat mushroom.

At some point, my father found a barbershop at a Sheraton on the Gulf of Arabia. I got a haircut while he played tennis with co-workers on the blazing outdoor court. Was the barbershop’s cut better than my mother’s handiwork? Yes. Did it help me fit in with my classmates? I couldn’t tell. I began to question my hairstyle. Was my bowl cut responsible for my almost never being picked to play as a main A-Team character during recess? Tim, who sometimes played Mr. T, was part Filipino and didn’t have a mohawk, but his hair more resembled the hair people had on TV. None of the A-Team guys, I observed, had a bowl cut. Was my bowl cut also responsible for my graceless, score-lacking performance in kickball games? It must have had some role, I figured.

In the bathroom, I picked up my father’s comb. I parted my hair to the right. Somewhere in my family’s genealogy was a clan of bristles and paintbrushes. My hair is thick and noodle-like, like my grandmother’s. I didn’t inherit my parents’ finer, corn-silk hair. Less than an hour in the Saudi Arabian sun, in the reckless, sweaty sprints of an A-Team military attack, my hair again pointed straight down.

Iron Maiden Man, Clearwater, Fla., 1989-1991

Hairs of Mongoloid or Asian origin are regularly coarse, straight, and circular in cross section, with a wider diameter than the hairs of the other racial groups. The outer layer of the hair, the cuticle, is usually significantly thicker than the cuticle of Negroid and Caucasian hairs, and the medulla, or central canal, is continuous and wide. —Douglas W. Deedrick, Trace Evidence Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation

John looked like Weird Al Yankovich in heavy metal gear. He wore the same black T-shirts and ripped-up jeans that the long-haired kids at my middle school wore. From what he told me, he liked going to the beach to get totally wasted and look at girls and to listen to rock and roll in his car. When he wasn’t rocking it out, he cut hair at a Greek-owned salon at a mall not too far from my house. By then I had abandoned the bowl cut. I now knew how to use the comb in combination with some gel. My ambitions, though, made me want something more.

I was determined to have hair like Jordan Knight’s.

Apparently, all the girls at my school were crazy about New Kids on the Block. With the right do, I would be tapping directly into their pink-markered, Tigerbeat desires. The plan was genius. John had a sick look on his face.

“Listen, I don’t think we can do that with your hair,” he said.

“Maybe I can get a perm to get that waviness.” I was willing to do anything.

“No. That wouldn’t work. You just don’t have the hair.” He saw the disappointment on my face. “Tell you what, we can try something new.”

“What?”

“You know Bobby Brown?”

“Yeah. I’ve heard of him.”

“My friend, you are going to love the high-top fade.”

Two Haircuts, Durham, N.C., and Bangkok, 1994-1998

The barbershop was in the basement level of a student activities building on West Campus. One of the haircutters was a well-dressed, older black gentleman. I never knew the man’s real name, but my friends and I called him Bud Wimpy for reasons now forgotten. On entering the narrow and brightly lit room, I’d sit in one of the chairs and read the student daily, waiting for my turn and hoping to avoid Bud. But he was always the first barber to snap his white sheet clean of the last customer’s hair and motion me forward with his hand.

“How would you like your haircut?” he’d ask in a slow, melodic drawl.

The question was moot. No matter what you asked for, you weren’t going to get it. Bud Wimpy might have been adept at something in his life, but cutting hair wasn’t it. Still, I didn’t have the heart to refuse a benign old man trying to make a living. I’d sit on the barber chair and accept whatever fate had been laid for me in Bud Wimpy’s spasmodic hair buzzer.

What I had to look forward to were the summers in Bangkok. There, for less than $20, about the same price as a session with Bud Wimpy, I could get my hair cut by a world-champion stylist. Whatever championship he had won was lost to me, but that was how he marketed his business. My mother called for an appointment.

“Can I get an appointment with the world champion for my son?”

The world champion made sure everybody knew about the big prizes he had won. In his shop window, a tall Plexiglas case displayed the giant silvery trophies. Gold medals with red, white, and blue ribbons hung from the lip of each championship cup. On lower shelves, photos from competitions illustrated his past triumphs. There he was in Paris, winning another trophy. In Los Angeles, he won another competition. He wore all black when he cut hair. He didn’t use any electric clippers. The world champion was all scissors. He would spend about an hour on my hair, making sure that the topiary he had created was flawless. “I’m going to make you look like George Clooney,” he said, with utmost conviction.

In less than two months, on my return to the States, Bud Wimpy would erase all signs of George Clooney from my head.

Hot Dog, Woodside, Queens, 2001-2003

The transvestite at the Thai hair salon was a haircutter, but nearly every time I saw her, she was sitting at the couch, gossiping with the customers. She looked very much like a woman. In fact, she might even have been considered hot. The surgery was masterful, and she must have been taking hormone pills to feminize her voice. It took me more than a few visits to finally feel certain that she had once been a man. Eavesdropping on her conversation, I learned that she was dating a boxer, an American who would be in a major fight that weekend.

“You never go for noodles and rice,” the salon owner said.

“I like hotdogs,” said the transvestite.

The woman who cut my hair at that salon was named Sofia. She was a quiet woman surrounded by a rough and rowdy cast of gay Thai men. She was very good, which meant that she would soon be gone. This was how it always happened. Whenever I found someone who could cut my hair well, it never lasted.

One day, I walked in for a haircut and asked for Sofia.

“Sofia left last week,” said the owner. My heart skipped a couple beats.

The transvestite cut my hair that day, and although she was competent, Sofia was better. I eventually stopped going to that salon. It was time to start over again.

Translations, Chinatown, Manhattan, 2003-Present

The hair salon is on the far end East Broadway, a stretch of Chinatown outside the usual tourist zones. I’d might as well be in Shanghai because, as I’ve discovered, I can barely communicate with the person whose charge it is to cut my hair to decent respectability. Despite the fatalism involved, the payoff is often worth it. In Chinatown, I can get a skilled, buzzerless haircut for less than $20. It comes with two hair washes, one before the cut and one right after, followed by a blow-dry. A brief shiatsu-style massage on the barber’s chair is also included.

Still, the haircut is always a gamble. It’s my Russian roulette. I am an outlier in the world of Asian haircuts when I insist on keeping my hair long. I have to gesture with various open pinches exactly how little hair I want cut and from where. Front, not too much. A bit from the sides, but short around the ears. My index and middle finger make the motion of a scissors along the side of my head. Right there. My other hand makes the flat, palm up motion of stopping. Sometimes the Chinese haircutters understand what my hands are saying and get it right. Often times they don’t.

When blow-drying time arrives, the Chinese haircutters always want to use copious amounts of gel, against my wishes. Apparently, the Asian haircuts en mode are a short, shrubby do to be molded into cockatiel spikes and a longer style to be volumized into a gravity-defying puff. The haircutters always look at me with wide-eyed horror when I refuse their administration of petrochemicals-enabled sculpting, as if I’ve just interrupted a sacred, artful process and have angered generations of haircutting ancestors. Sometimes, I feel guilty and just let them do whatever.

After those haircuts, I walk a few storefronts down and look at the image of my head reflected off a glass window full of roast ducks hanging from hooks. I still look the same as I did in college, but I feel like I’m staring at a stranger, someone who has taken my place. I’m at an age where some of my peers are wed and are following their biological urge to be fruitful and multiply. Some will have fought in foreign wars, seen dead men with half their bodies blown away. At my age, Alexander the Great was on the verge of adding India to his empire. I still can’t get a decent haircut.

I work with both hands to disassemble the petrified mass that the haircutter made of my hair. I use my fingers as a comb and run them through my hair until it’s flat and shapeless. My hair falls straight down. I look again at the reflection. For a moment, I return to the bowl cut. It feels nice, like seeing an old friend.