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The Long and (Real) Short of It


On the mind-bending event of my recent 40th birthday, I skipped work and engaged in some avoidance-behavior around town. I made a Pasadena pit stop to get my brakes fixed, then headed to Monterey Park for a quick haircut.

There I sat, faced in the mirror by an image to which I'd grown accustomed since my first haircut at John's barber shop in Vestal, N.Y., some 35 years ago: Me, white smock around my shoulders, confronting my demons and another ritualistic shearing of hair.

The clippers whirred and I watched the reddish locks fall like trees of old forest. In the 20 minutes it took to get my head as cleanly clipped, scary-short and knobby-looking as that 5-year-old boy's in John's chair, I realized something about myself--that I have yet to come to terms with that part of me that is every man's Achilles' heel: my hair.

It's not that I am slowly, steadily going bald, which I am. I will tell total strangers that a receding hairline is a hell of a lot better than the alternative: an advancing one.

You know, hair today, gone tomorrow.

But as I grow older, I realize what a fundamental part of my self-image--and sometimes serious lack of self-esteem--my dreaded hair has played.

I've always been a bit of a changeling with my look--mainly because my hair is one thing I have never been able to get right. When I was young, it was never long enough, thanks to my father. And getting the hair thing down has gotten no easier with age.

Over the years, I've had ponytails, rat tails and snaking sideburns. I've been spiked, moussed and hair-sprayed, even had foolish-looking lightning bolts shaved into the side of my head. My hair has been parted to the side, combed forward and combed back. I've also worn long unruly Father Time beards, slick Don Johnson 5 o'clock shadows, baseball player goatees and plain old mustaches.

And now, as I slouch not so proudly past 40, I have come to sporting my face clean and my hair, ahem, short. I mean really short. Marine short. Skinhead short. Shorter than I would have ever dreamed even, say, five years ago. Proprietors flinch when I walk into liquor stores.

Why so short? It's not any political or silly social statement. It's not even a fashion trend. I look around and I see teens with closely shorn hair and I know--God, I know--that I'm not trying to look like them. When people ask (or gasp), I tell them that it's easier to take care of, that it's a short, clean summer cut.

But I lie. I don't know, maybe my hair is so short because that's the way hair is supposed to be. After all, most guys like me come into this world bald as eagles and many of us will leave the same way. Everything in between is pure vanity.

And vanity comes in shorter supply when you're 40. While I'm still childless, I own my own home and am in a committed, long-term relationship. Maybe I'm sporting my new geeky haircut as a way to thumb my nose at all those other women, to finally stand up and announce, "Hey, I'm not going to lose sleep anymore over your opinion of me. I have a woman who adores me. I'm goofy-looking and loving it."

That's reassuring, of course, but it's not the whole story.

My father always gave me a hair cramp. Each time the locks fell over my ears, he'd announce it was time for a cut (read: hatchet job). When I protested, he'd say that as long as I was living in his house, I'd wear my hair the way he wanted it.

I never rebelled. I just wore my mother's wigs around the house, just to get a rise out of him. Once, I considered getting an Afro. Remember, this was the 1970s.


In college, I grew my hair to the middle of my back, grew a wiry, unruly beard my friends called the cow-catcher to match it. All of it, I guess, to spite my father.

The victory was short-lived: After college, I had to get a job.

Since then, I have engaged in the hit-and-miss hair thing. I've gone to old-style barber shops, ones with the real red-and-white striped poles, and to newfangled unisex shops where the nearest chair-sitter was getting her hair coiffed and her nails done all at once.

But nobody cut hair like Rocky, the Italian snipper in Kansas City who not only cut my hair but gave me advice about women and career moves and life in general.

Rocky warned me never to grow my hair long again. But did I listen? Of course not.

Soon after being hired at this newspaper several years ago, I began growing my hair long again, over my shoulders. I may have been working for The Establishment, but I'd be damned if I was going to look like it. While ponytails in Los Angeles were as ubiquitous as palm trees, I had one.

Then a female colleague finally put me in my place. She said that with my receding hairline and longer locks, I looked "vaguely Hasidic."

That did it. The long look was gone within days, leaving me once again in hair limbo.

Five years later, I'm sitting in a chair in a Chinese part of town, leaving my look to a man who barely speaks my language. Still confused.

With a few grunts of Mandarin-English, I move my hands in the shape of a box to demonstrate how I want it short on the sides and on top.

As the clippers hum and cut a swath across my head, I half long for the day when my hair will be gone for good, when I can wax down my scalp like some NBA player and be as bad-looking as I wanna be.

So I close my eyes and sing a few bars from that misguided 1960s rock opera, changing the words to suit myself, knowing that, at long last, I've come a long way, baby.

"Gimme a head without hair. . . ."

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