On a small metal tray resting disturbingly close to my eyes sprawled something inexplicable. How could this possibly be the key to reversing my lifelong genetic destiny? It could pass for a muskrat riding a doily. Or the codpiece of an embarrassingly smooth caveman. A yarmulke Chia Pet wasn’t out of the question. As far as I knew, horseshoe crabs didn’t wear mink. No matter how I looked at it, this monstrosity was on the verge of being fastened to the top of my head. Maybe permanently. Where I used to have hair, now I would have a “hair system.”
“Okay, Mistuh Friedmin. Are yiz ready?” asked Lenore, the gum-chewing hair technician from Brooklyn, resplendent in bright red lipstick and an acid-washed jeans ensemble.
Staring at my terrified reflection in the mirror of the Hair Club for Men styling room, second-guessing myself for far more than the second time, I tried to remain calm. There was no pressure, or so I was led to believe. If I didn’t like the way it looked, I could opt to have it removed immediately and get half of my nearly $1,500 back, no questions asked. Oh, but there were questions . . .
• • •
How did I get to this point? On the cusp of turning the big three-oh, I was about to accessorize my cranium into the realm of pathetic middle-aged man. At ten years old, I resembled a young Gene Wilder, with gigantic, wild swoops of a wavy, light brown mane. By the time junior high school rolled around, my facial features were dwarfed by a clownishly large natural Afro, or Jew-fro in Long Island Hebraic cliché speak.
“You have the most gawjuss curly hair!” said any number of elderly female relatives, or friends of my mother, as they leaned in close to play with my ringlets, enveloping me in a sickening cloud of perfume mixed with breath that hinted at cheese blintzes just lunched on.
My father was a bit less fawning. “You look like an armpit with eyes.”
My parents’ recent, tumultuous divorce left me rattled and emotionally raw. When I was a self-conscious teenager, replete with a pimply complexion and an even spottier amount of confidence about my appearance, my hair was the best thing I had going for me. It was a calling card, of sorts.
A summer job on the beach during college turned my skin tan and my ’fro blond. It also turned me into an ex-virgin, with the help of my first girlfriend, Tracey. She found me funny and cute. I found myself truly happy for the first time in forever.
The end of our relationship one year later coincided with the beginning of my baldness. Following Tracey out the door, follicle after follicle decided to bid me adieu from that point onward. The tiny spot of visible scalp on the back of my head gradually spread, akin to a patch of dead grass on a healthy lawn giving way to an eventual need for a large shipment of sod. If I once owned the equivalent of a sturdy Brillo pad above my eyes, now it had much more in common with a dainty powder puff.
In recent years I’d become resigned to accepting the nickname “Baldwin,” coined by a few of my co-workers/friends. It was a clever concoction composed in equal amounts of a popular brand of piano, the name of a town near where I grew up in Long Island, and my now increasingly reflective noggin top. In retrospect, perhaps the amounts weren’t so equal.
All those early ’90s late nights, often home alone because I was perennially girlfriendless, led me to become quite a connoisseur of the budding trend of cheesy infomercials. Nestled repeatedly between onslaughts of amazing sweater machines, food dehydrators, no-money-down real estate schemes, and Ricardo Montalban hawking “The Grillerie” was the omnipresent pitch from Mr. Sy Sperling. He was not only the president of Hair Club for Men, but he was also a client.
“Wouldn’t you like to get your real hair back, and with it, your confidence and sex appeal?” asked the persuasive announcer’s voice, over before-and-after images of sad, balding men, now newly hairy, smiling broadly, often with a large-breasted female admirer by their side.
As dubious as the claims were, after sitting through repeated viewings over the years, I found that my resolve was finally broken. I certainly wouldn’t have minded getting my hair back, but I never really felt that I had sex appeal or confidence in my looks to begin with. Why not try to reboot the outside and inside of my head all at once?
I should have been more astute about the power of advertising, because I spent my days employed as an assistant film and video editor, working on television commercials, but I was as vulnerable as everyone else. Did I believe that my appearance would be vastly improved by suddenly seeming to be years younger like the men in the infomercial? Not really. Did I think there was a chance that I might simply look a little bit better than I did normally? Perhaps. Did I have the perfect amounts of naivety, poor judgment, and self-esteem just low enough to give it a go? You bet.
• • •
One month prior, on a bitingly cold December morning, I made my way into the nondescript lobby of a nondescript office building somewhere on fashionable Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Scanning the tenant directory, I eventually spotted the letters “HCM.” Clearly the Hair Club either valued the anonymity of their clients or it was hoping to keep its presence in the building as undetectable to the public as it claimed its hair systems would be. After a few minutes sitting entirely by myself in a vast waiting room, surrounded by water-stained wallpaper, stacks of significantly outdated People magazines, and numerous potted plastic plants, unintentionally symbolic of something else fake that was meant to appear alive and growing, I heard my name called. I was welcomed into a drab office by two well-dressed older men, both of whom had heads of hair as impressive as they were unlikely.
“Just take a seat and we’ll measure you for your system,” said the older of the two, as he stretched a piece of clear plastic wrap across the top of my now defrosted skull, and made exacting notations for the size and shape of my impending system with the liquid squeaks of a black Sharpie. The other man snipped off a few bits of what remaining hair I had and placed it in a plastic zippered baggie, which was then officially certified with my name and case number, also in marker ink.
“We use your real hair to find the perfect match from our extensive database of donors. Then our system specialists will weave the hair, strand by strand, into our patented BioMatrix and style it to look just like your hair used to look. You’ll be amazed by how great it will turn out.”
The fact that they never requested to see a picture of how my hair actually used to look left me with a whiff of skepticism about how well my custom-made system would help turn back the clock on my current scalp. They were right. I would be amazed if it turned out great. But I needed to be proven wrong if there was any chance at putting a stopper on the steady trickle of embarrassment that threatened to burst into a torrent of desperation if this scheme failed to put my baldness in the past.
“The moment you walked in, we knew you would be a perfect candidate for one of our products,” said the older of the two, as he held up a chart with clip-art aerial views of the entire range of male hair loss scenarios, and pointed to my counterpart..
After their vicious volley of tag-team sales pitch and coercion landed crushing blows on my common sense, already weakened by years of rapid-fire self-consciousness upper cuts, I delivered my own potential knockout punch by signing on the dotted line, right next to my credit card information. Though it was a hefty price for something I was deeply suspicious of, at least I could afford it financially. The emotional cost worried me far more. Exiting the prep session, I was overcome with an uneasy sense that I wasn’t going to get what I asked for, but I was certainly asking for it.
• • •
The day I had been looking forward to, and also dreading for weeks, finally arrived. It was March 27, 1993, a date now scorched into my memory, not far from the location of other long-lasting damage about to be inflicted on my head. The Hair Club advised me to have a friend or family member tag along. Whether this was for purposes of giving an opinion, offering moral support, or preventing a possible homicide/suicide was unclear. My choice was Karen, the girlfriend and eventual wife of my best friend Glenn.
Karen had several qualifications for the task. She was an attractive woman—i.e., a member of my hopeful target audience once I was no longer one of those not-so-desirable balding types. She was honest, and would not shrink from offering her thoughts on the results if I requested them. Finally, she understood that I might need a slight grace period before being ready to receive withering ridicule, at least until I got home from the procedure and removed the hat I planned on donning no matter how it turned out.
This time, as we sat nervously in the now much busier waiting room, I noticed something odd. There were men of every shape and size, age, and ethnicity waiting for their appointments. None of them appeared to be apprehensive. They had already undergone the procedure I was destined for. As I glanced from one to the next, it dawned on me that they all had a trait in common. Something that wasn’t quite right. In much the same way that members of an inbred family appear to have loved one another a bit too much, each of these men looked slightly awry in the way their hair didn’t seem to completely belong to their heads. In a matter of minutes, I was about to become a member of their club. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
• • •
“So Mistuh Friedmin, this is yaw very own hair system,” proudly proclaimed Lenore, as she held out her upturned hands. In her palms rested a clump of wet, dark brown hair that had been expertly adjoined to the top side of an oval-shaped piece of vinyl mesh, bearing a resemblance to canvas one might do needlepoint on. Flipping it over to reveal its seedy underbelly, one could see that the mesh template was fortified with a solid strip of approximately one-inch wide plastic around its perimeter.
If I had been tentative before this day, now I was positively mortified. This so-called system looked more like some kind of Halloween version of road kill than the key to my future self-confidence. The hair on it, although still wet, was unquestionably much darker, straighter, and longer than the hair already on my head, into which it was supposed to be seamlessly incorporated. This was a bad enough omen to make me consider changing my mind before we went any further. What I found additionally skeevy was the idea that part of my future hair had been washed remotely, away from the rest of my body, content to be primped and fawned over as if it were some kind of pampered hair actor getting ready to play a part in the fictional story of my life as a non-bald guy.
“Just relax, Mistuh Friedmin. It will look great,” comforted Lenore, as I looked up to catch Karen’s gaze behind me in the mirror. I couldn’t quite read her expression, but one thing it was not was relaxed.
As nervous as I was feeling, I knew I still had the option to play the “give me half the money back right now and get this thing off me” card. After a deep breath, I braced myself and let Lenore do her thing.
The first thing Lenore did was grab an electric hair clipper and immediately shave off a U-shaped moat of hair from the top of my head, obviously intended to correspond with the solid plastic strip on the underside perimeter of the system. My heart sank, and this time I could read Karen’s wide-eyed expression clearly. It read “horrified.”
Some fairly stinky epoxy glue was quickly slathered around the plastic perimeter, followed rather suddenly by Lenore placing the system onto the top of my head for the first time. I thought it instantly looked very, very unpromising. Cousin It from The Addams Family was not what I had in mind. But I was willing to let her finish the process with the hopes I would come around and be amazed by its miraculous transformation into something that looked oh-so-right.
In a dazzling sweep of hot pink fingernails adorned with cartoon mushroom decals, Lenore cut the long strands down to size, and expertly styled the system. I watched in the mirror as she took great pains to tweak and swirl individual clusters of hair for maximum realism and panache. Amid determined snaps and clicks of chewing gum, she gently blurred the border between the system and my own skeptical strands with precision brush and comb work. She then completed her master class in attempted deception with a display of blow dryer technique as refined and graceful as a performance by a theremin virtuoso. As I gazed in awe and rapidly increasing doubt, realizing that I would need to duplicate her performance on my own if I wished to have any chance of pulling off this elaborate masquerade from now on, she instructed me on how I was to fasten a small lima bean–shaped chunk of double-sided tape to the top of my forehead that would also adhere to the bottom front lip of the system to hold it in place, every day.
“So, whata yiz think?”
“Um, well, um . . . Karen, what do you think?” I asked, deflecting the question transparently.
“I think, well . . . it’s really up to you, Mitch. You have to be happy with it,” she replied, expertly deflecting it back to me at a speed fast enough to knock it off my head, if I were lucky.
I was amazed at how awful, unnatural, and frankly ridiculous I looked with this thing resting on my scalp. I’d never seen the guy in the mirror before in my life. The thick hair on top of my head was a slightly wavy dark brown. Halfway down my ears was a line of demarcation clearly visible, where my new hair ended and my old hair began. The hair below the line was a bit lighter and much curlier. It also appeared to bear some relation to the rest of my head. As unhappy as I had grown with the balding view of myself each morning before that day, I’d be damned if I was ever going to warm up to the creepy weirdo staring back at me now. It felt like I was wearing a low-budget disguise after being whisked into the Baldness Protection Program, following a very public committing of follicular manslaughter.
Even worse was the stark reality that if I wanted to have it removed right there and then, and I surely did, what was now underneath it would look equally humiliating and inexplicable. Weighing my options of either sporting a U-shaped bald moat speckled with glue or walking out with this hair contraption was unfair. My choice would have been none of the above.
Eventually I decided that having additional hair, no matter how phony and clearly grown on some other guy or woman’s head, was a slightly better plan than having even less hair than I had the day before. Even more troubling was the realization that to have this gruesome interloper pried off me for good surely meant that my entire head would need to be immediately shaved to destroy all evidence of the traumatic process I had just endured. My master plan was to disguise my baldness, not celebrate it. I was in no way psychologically ready to commit certain hairy-kari.
“Don’t forget to set up yaw next appointment on yaw way out,” advised Lenore. “As yaw hair underneath grows, the system will start to get loose and yiz have to come back to get it taken off, washed, and glued back down about once a month. It’s just like goin’ to get a nawmul haircut, and it only cawsts about fifty dolliz, so don’t worry. We made a second system exactly like the one you got now, so when you come in faw yaw appointment, we’ll already have it washed and ready to go faw yiz.”
Perhaps the term “hair system” wasn’t so ludicrous after all? It was becoming blisteringly more clear by the second that for me, this was a system that would drain my bank account, degrade my self-worth, blot out my individuality, and decrease my romantic options, all accomplished with the simple combination of hair and advertising. Ingenious. Maybe their location on Madison Avenue wasn’t just a coincidence.
• • •
The subway ride back to my apartment with Karen was quietly hellish. Few words were spoken, but inside I was in a state of panic.
What have I done? I should have told them to take it off when I had the chance. How will I ever be able to look anyone in the eye with this thing on my head?
If Karen was looking at me, I wouldn’t have known because I only stared down at the dirty floor of the train as a steady stream of passengers came and went on their merry, non–hair system way. There was plenty of head shaking on my part, but gently, so as not to dislodge the unwelcome creature now residing under my baseball cap.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish