I had the curliest hair of any white kid in my school system, maybe the curliest hair of any white kid ever. This hair was a gift from my Croatian and French-Algonquin ancestors that somehow exploded genetically when it reached me. As a three-year-old, my curls hung in gorgeous loops, but as I graduated through elementary school they darkened and morphed into a puffy helmet. With just enough Europe in it to rule out do-rag waves or a proper fade, and feathered hair being the Caucasian hairstyle of the time, my partially gelled-back puff drew a steady stream of derision.
“Pube-head” sticks out as a particularly effective taunt.
I wished desperately to have cool hair. A super-tight little Michael Jordan ‘fro with a shaved part. A long, straight, jet-black pony tail. I often imagined how smug and cool and tragic I could’ve looked with my jet-black black hair flying in the wind.
Many family pictures chart my progress as far as you can imagine from this picture. Especially regrettable looks occurred in high school, when surfer hair that hung in one’s face was in. I tried. I grew a kind of kinky flap that did, in fact, move in the wind, however ungainly.
It’s just hair, man, I want to tell the teenage me. A bunch of nasty dead protein cells bristling in a thread. Nobody cares about that shit. I want to yell this loud enough to make it true.
In college, cool African-American kids often wore their hair in flat braids, and my girlfriend thought this would look good on me. Just before a winter bus trip to visit a friend, she gave it a go. Whether she braided it too close to the scalp, or I have freakish follicles, I don’t know, but the braids stuck almost straight out, Coolio-like (kids: Coolio is just a quick Google away). I couldn’t wear a hat or even lay my head back against a pillow. When I walked up to the Greyhound ticket booth in downtown Chicago, the very tired-looking woman inside gave me a long look and said only, “Damn!”
I took out the braids in the bathroom.
The best solution for my hair that I could find was to cut it off, and I wore my hair so short it couldn’t start to curl.
Not long after college, playing in Indie-type rock bands, I let my hair start to grow again. In hipper regions of the US, the big afro was making a comeback, and I embraced this cultural swerve.
My hair puffed out and out and out. My plan was to eventually try the braids again with enough hair that they might actually hang down. This required a fairly long bushy stage. The first non-family compliment I ever remember receiving for my hair came from a stranger in a supermarket parking lot, an African American man in a big boat of a car who leaned out his window while I walked my huge head past him. He raised his fist and yelled, “Af-fro!” In retrospect, this may have been in jest.
When my bushy hair began to kink together, I realized my best bet might be to dread it up. My brother, despite lacking my level of frizz, had successfully experimented with dreadlocks, so I began to separate mine into small divisions and roll them between my palms. It worked.
At first, the dry little dreads hung out before they would drop, and they bounced gently as I walked through the scenes at hippie music festivals. “Sideshow Bob!” people would shout. My hair resembled a big poofy skirt, but it looked, gasp, cool.
I gained cred in the hippie music scene. People recognized me. As the dreads got longer, I could whip them around onstage, let them hang in my face while I jammed. Somehow, actually having hair in my eyes felt like being young and cool should feel. I let my freak flag fly.
As much good attention as I received in the music scene for that hair, older and more mainstream people in my rust belt town struggled to accept it. Clerks eyed me closely in stores. Kids grabbed their mom’s arms and pointed. When I was pulled over by the police just outside before a gig, they stood me against my van, frisked me, and disgustedly flipped my dreads around like they might be hiding hypodermic needles. They searched my van, which by some miracle was clean. This incident, occurring as it did in full view of the bar my band was about to play, also gave me the very brief feeling of rock stardom.
My hair became a major part of my identity, and despite my newfound pride, at times I felt ridiculous. Like some kind of party dude. People referred to me as “Dready Joe.” I wondered if I was reaching a level of societal fringe from which I might truly struggle to return.
At around this time I became aware that my hair was thinning at the telltale spots in front. The dreads there seemed to be hanging by only a few hairs. When I saw a guitar player in another band clinging to his dreadlocks so badly he had been left in the front with only two locks that he tucked behind his ears, I was determined not to be that dude. I went home and cut off the dreads. (Coolio, it turns out, should have done the same)
The next day, when my girlfriend saw me, she cried.
Another party dude on the band scene, whose white-guy afro I happen to have eclipsed, smirked and said to me at a party, “Let’s see if you can do it without the hair.”
Why do we care so much about hair? And why does the hair on our heads get all the glory? I ask this because I have discovered the cruel truth that as the hair on top thins, the hair everywhere else comes together like an angry mob. Eyebrows, ears, nose, worse. This is hair against which we discriminate. This is the stuff that leads us to call a difficult situation “hairy.” I feel like a topped shrub.
But when I read about the uses for hair other than to attract a mate, I remember that it provides warmth, and learn that it can act as an extension to touch. Hair can let us feel minute changes in the wind, or the slight footfall of an insect.
My only choice is to accept the exchange of vanity for utility. I shave the bits that are left on my head into a gleaming, reflective dome. My mate, having been attracted somehow without a showy topknot, doesn’t care. I leave the curls to my children. I walk out into the world, head razed of earlier glories, the rest of me waving its soft tentacles, open to the faintest change, ready to detect or defend.
In “Traces of War,” flash fiction by Frances Badgett, a young Croatian woman is caught between her war-torn home land, the critical woman whose son she nannies, and the ramifications of a secret relationship. She finds solace in caring for the boy and in the simple pleasure of playing with his curly hair. Badgett writes with rich detail and skillfully captures nuanced characters with the briefest of strokes in this deeply layered piece.
At its surface, “Jay Bulldog Jinx,” a short story by Nigerian writer, Crispin Oduobuk, tells the story of young lust thwarted by the crass actions of a visiting, Mohawk-wearing cousin. Beneath the humor of this not-quite-coming-of-age story lies the way reality falls short of desire and how we create our own mythologies to explain the disparity. Oduobuk navigates tricky elements brilliantly—from the sexuality of pre-teen boys to idiomatic language and dialect.
Nicole Testa’s poem, “That Time I Hit a Raccoon,” finds inclusion in this issue due to a stunning image of the animal bleeding through its fur, the hairiness of such a moment, and how we cope with the often-unintended effects of our actions. This beautifully felt poem swerves between snapshot images of happening and a later encounter from which they are examined.
Photo By: Roger Price