My Year of the Wig

I should tell you about the year I actually wore a wig that I bought from, and got shaped and cut by, a professional hairdresser, when I lived in Santa Cruz. I balded prematurely, and decided to do something about it at the advanced age of 32. (After all, the schizophrenic part of me that still thought I was Jesus Christ figured I’d be dead in another year…so I should do something special, right now.) I thought it looked really good on me, “tote” realistic, and such a nice shade of dark auburn. It was simple to put on every morning: just three bits of double-sided tape, and voila! I was good to go. There was hairspray, but I never needed it: the modacrylic fibers always stayed in place, even on the most blustery of days. It was a point of jealousy by certain old ladies I’d meet on the bus or at a cafe, along with motorcycle buffs who were keen observers of head gear.

I wore it everywhere: at bars, coffeehouses, on the bus to work or a pleasing journey through forest, farm and Pacific shoreline all the way up to Davenport (where I regularly stopped for lunch and coffee at a windswept, funky family bistro atop a cliff), jogging, picking elderberries beneath the San Lorenzo bridge, movie theaters, Sunday meetings at the LGBT Center (where everyone was less attractive or interesting than myself; and I’m not a particularly good-looking guy, though very interesting indeed), lounging in the lobby of The St. George Hotel (where I rented a room w/bath for a time, that overlooked Pacific Avenue, the city’s main strip; it perished in the Loma Prieta earthquake six years later…but I was long gone by then, having returned to SF in ’83…I had a handsome ex-con live with me the last two months, who was half Portugese, half Cherokee, and VERY pleasant on the eyes and between my legs, but turned out to be a disaster and I had to flee for my life, so someone invited me to live on his land in the mountains, about three miles east of Boulder Creek and off Deer Creek Road about a half mile in, which included a dizzying climb along a narrow, dirt path where one time at dusk an opposum was approaching from the other direction who blocked my way, so I had to scurry all the way back down to the road IN THE DARK with a snarling little devil almost at my heels), and dining at one of the many tasty little vegan restaurants that were so popular back then, and in that county). I was a good-looking cuss, as far as I was concerned, and wanted to show off my drop-dead gorgeous locks of bronze hair-of-the-gods in all places and times possible…even when going to the dentist. Though the drill slipped from her hand once, and she fled to another room for awhile, shrieking in wild laughter. I took no offense. “She should stop dipping into the laughing gas,” I thought.

I wore it everywhere, that is: except in bed. I rested my fake mane on a styrofoam head labelled “17” and placed it on the dresser, right beside the glowing dragon lamp I purchased along the Santa Cruz Boardwalk some months before. The hairdresser (who I found in the Yellow Pages under “Haircuts, Wigs, Toupees & Hairpieces”) was a middle-aged fop, the queeny type, who had me sit in one of the barber chairs while fussing and cooing over a variety of wigs he tried on me.

It was a spacious, narrow shop about fifty feet deep and twenty feet wide; with eight barber chairs, a grand mirror that stretched the entire length of the wall and framed in golden filigree; maroon and cream tiled linoleum floor with assorted scuff marks; picture window that looked out on an empty parking lot, bus stop and dense clump of oak woods across the road; rows of wooden shelves stacked to the ceiling with mostly wig covered styrofoam heads (several tilted on their sides, and a couple of naked ones tossed in for good measure, whose purpose I guess was to remind customers of their ugly, former selves); four ginormous electric fans spinning slowly from high above; a back door at the far end which room it concealed probably housed duplicate myriad wigs in large cardboard boxes (though it could contain god knows anything, certainly a bathroom at least); and a lifesize figure of a sad, lonely little poodle that sat eternally in a distant, dusty corner, and was either a cheap statue, or the preserved body of a real dog stuffed by someone with taxidermy skills (perhaps the hairdresser himself, who looked rather dusty and old as well).

I settled on styrofoam head #17 and, after clipping a bit here and there, primping and spraying and touching me everywhere above the shoulders, he finally asked:

“Well whaddya think, Mr. Catalano?” (Yes, I still presented myself with my birth name back then; it wouldn’t be for another thirteen years before I’d change it.)

I was stunned: didn’t realize how good looking I actually was with a full head of hair! Or I had forgotten, as in my blossoming adolescence I had many a dreamy jackoff watching my naked self in the mirror while standing on the edge of the bathtub, while my brother was at football practice, and my parents were playing cribbage in the basement den with Aunt Jean and Uncle Pat.

“Wow, I like it very much!” I cooed back. With that, he escorted me out the door by the elbow, handed me a patchouli scented business card that made me almost gag, and said:

“Now, come back every two weeks for a fresh-up; I’ll keep you happy!”

Not many people stared at me, or made fun of me, or tried to steal my wig. But it’s the few who did, that disturbed my reverie of self adulation, and ruined my day. When I first adopted my new coiffure, I lived in a single room in a rambling old three-story house with a porch, directly across the street from a popular and unique variety store/gas station called “Rotten Robbie.” I loved shopping there; it was colorful, copious, and had everything under the sun. Until one day I entered with the clink of a bell, and overheard a cashier mutter to her coworker:

“Uh-oh, here comes the hair!”

I immediatly turned about with the last bell clink they’d ever hear from me.

I lived on the topmost floor that accomodated two other occupants…UC students like everyone else there, except for yours truly. Not only did we share the bathroom, but I shared a heating vent with my neighbor, Filmore, a lanky, short black fellow who sported thick lenses and an impressive afro haircut. And thanks to this vent, you could hear a pin drop from either room. Filmore loved listening to the blues on his funky record player that I suspect was purchased at a garage sale. Every evening I’d call to him through the vent:

“Turn that music down, please!”

And he did…he was a nice person of good humor. Though when it came to my hirsute crown of glory, his good humor went way beyond the bounds of decency. He’d never prod me about it at home, but the various times our paths crossed in public (often at the main transit stop downtown), he’d let out a howl:

“You look ridiculous in that wig! Hey look everyone, check out that dude’s crazy hair!”

Most of the time I’d pretend I didn’t hear him, hoping that bystanders would think he’s pointing someone ELSE out. I’d walk further up the street and wait for the next bus. Except once, I did not. Instead, I boarded the same bus that Filmore was on, even though he was hooting at me from the window beside his seat. He stopped soon as I embarked, but kept snickering as I found my spot…the only one available was right in front of him. Ironic, and much to my chagrin.

My stop came before his. As I rose to exit the bus, I turned to him just before setting foot on the concrete island, and hollered: “You wanna talk about bad hair? That mosquito trap you think passes for an afro is a disgrace to your people!”

“My people?” he retorted from the open window, craning his neck in my direction as the bus began to roll away. “You mean doctors? I’m a third-year med school student, you chalk-faced cootie!”

That evening when I returned home after a pleasant day picking elderberries and visiting my friend Helen, I passed Filmore going down the stairs as I climbed up. He said his usual friendly “hello,” as I did likewise, before entering my aerie, returning the wig to its styrofoam perch, and crashing out on the bed.

When summer came to an end, I resumed my job as teaching assistant for the special education program at Aptos High School…an experimental project for mainstreaming mentally disabled youth, including those with Down’s Syndrome. This would be my second year in this position, and at the same location. But it would be the first year for my wig, and things did not go smoothly.

Shirley, petite and vivacious with a strawberry bob cut, was the teacher I worked under. She didn’t bat an eye on the first day of my return, or any day thereafter…behaving as if nothing was out of the ordinary. She was a dignified woman, overall, and sweetly vivacious. However, with one student, Dennis, it was a horse of a different color. He was freckle faced, gaunt and quite tall, with nostrils so wide and round, it felt like I’d be sucked into them whenever I looked up. All the students except for him said I looked different somehow, but couldn’t put a finger on it. Dennis, however, did…many times. Whenever I was within his reach, he’d extend a lanky arm and cup a broad hand over my pelt, attempting to slide it around. Fortunately, the hidden strips of tape wouldn’t allow my wig to be so insulted. What damage was done was but slight: easily rectified with a quick readjustment in the faculty washroom.

Speaking of faculty: we had our own staff lunchroom. One day early into the fall semester, I was sitting there all by myself for a few minutes before one of the employees joined me, and sat across the table. She was around 43, stocky with a crewcut, and always wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans. Definitely a lesbian, so probably a gym or shop teacher. I never really knew WHAT she did; maybe she was just the janitor. At any rate, she seemed to eat with some difficulty, consuming her sandwich and pie…guffawing as she did in occasional, short bursts as if she were struggling with all her might to contain herself.

“Are you alright?” I asked, “Can I get you some water?”

“Um-hmm, no, uh, I’m fine. Just an…umm…itchy throat from…umm…” she stopped in midsentence, seeming to be on the verge of choking on her chicken salad sandwich, but quickly recovered. “on second thought, sure, I’d…umm…appreciate that.”

So I went to the sink and returned with a glass of water from the tap. I can’t recall the things we talked about…but she seemed to be struck with hilarity, so I assumed she might have inhaled a few tokes of ganja behind the bleachers, before arriving here. She isn’t hiding it very well, I thought. But I’m not a snitch, so feigned not to notice. I think I asked how her day was going, and she answered with something like:

“Oh…uh..ha-ha…uh…pretty good…ha-ha, thanks! And…and…umm…yourself?” With that, she collapsed in laughter, dropped her head into her arms that were resting on the table, then, after a moment or two, quickly exited. I don’t remember ever seeing her again, and hoped she wasn’t fired.

Swimming was another challenge, that I didn’t know I could meet. To be honest, I hadn’t thought of this when I purchased the wig. Would the tape hold? Not very well, I soon learned. One of my requirements as a teaching assitant, was to get into the gym pool with my students, so I couldn’t worm my way out of this. Dog paddling with my head above water was fine…as were breast and butterfly strokes. I was a good swimmer of many years; just never did it with fake hair before.

My troubles began with the back stroke. After several laps, the middle tape separated itself from the nape of my neck. Pressing on it with my hand did not work. But nobody noticed, because the rest of the wig held firm, while the back part, bloated by the weight of absorbed water, fell firmly into place when I turned over onto my stomach, or exited the pool. But the worst was yet to come: I had to teach the kids to hold their breath underwater.

So I gathered my eight intellectually impaired students (three with Down’s) around me in a circle, by the low end of the pool. Then held my nose and plunged myself below the surface. With that, the lower half of my wig floated outward to surround my head like wings. I used my free hand to tamp it down, but it was a partial success. Once I emerged above the surface again, the wig fell properly into place, and I told the kids to try it now, themselves. So each held their nose and plunged, then placed their other hand on the left side of the head while coming back up, releasing their nose at the last moment.

Good enough, I thought, but did the teacher see that? No, she was chatting with two other instructors by the locker room entrance. So we did this several more times: dunking under the water just below the surface and holding our breath for ten or so seconds, then popping back up. Each time I did this, my wig’s adhesive tape began to loosen further, until by the fith dunk, it became completely unglued all around my cranium, except for a small patch that stubbornly stuck in place (thank god): barely an inch above my right temple. But even MORE worst was yet to come, as now it was time to get them to submerge a bit deeper, like a foot below the surface instead of a few inches.

“Watch me closely,” I told my charges, as I pinched my nose and disappered beneath the surface with my left hand slapped firmly upon that side of my head, my fingers stretched to the top as far as they could go. Well, since this end of the pool was a shallow four feet, I had to crouch down pretty low. And as I did, my feet suddenly slipped, due to one of my student’s mischievous ideas to sabotage me from behind, like a ninja fish. He had slid a foot between my ankles, then yanked it away. And there went my wig, floating above me like a jellyfish for a brief but frightening moment before I yanked it back upon my pate in a jaunty angle that, upon my reemergence, made the kids burst out in great guffaws and snorts.

Shirley’s attention had then focused on my belly-laughing urchins and, with half a scowl and half a smile, she came up to the edge of the pool and asked, “Where’s the party?” By then I had roosted the wig back into its proper position, thinking that I had averted a disaster: that she almost realized it wasn’t a glorious mane of real hair on my head, after all, that it wasn’t the “excellent” haircut she said it was on my first day back for the semester. I gasped a sigh of relief and simply explained I had lost my footing, and everyone had a good laugh over that. But with years of hindsight now behind me, I figure she knew all along, but kept it to herself…unlike our students. Honestly, I don’t know how she kept a poker face for all those remaining months I worked there! The kids sure didn’t. But I’m not sure if they even THOUGHT I was wearing a postiche, but just figured something funny was going on around my cranial region, that made them laugh.

The wig even gave me the confidence to move from my SRO, to a one-bedroom cottage close to the boardwalk…where I faintly heard the surf crashing, seals barking, and people joyfully screaming on the roller coaster, the whirligig and the ferris wheel. I’d sometimes go there by my lone self, and watch others having the kind of fun that I scorned. But there I DID buy myself an ink-sprayed Jefferson Airplane dragon on a white T-shirt, created on the spot by a handsome surfer-dude artist with long blond hair down to his waist. He possessed a sparkling smile with one silver tooth, and a Celtic knot hammered in bronze, that dangled from a plain black cord about the neck. Whenever he adjusted himself over his work while seated on a stool, it sometimes nested in the sternum of a sculpted, smooth chest, barely concealed beneath a loose-fitting black-power tank top.

After all, I had to get myself SOMEthing special for my thirty-third birthday, the day I imagined I would die! Well, guess what: I didn’t, I’m still here at the ripe age of seventy. And proudly bald, though I always wear a hat when outside. I was still wearing “the wig” upon my permanent return to San Francisco in 1983, where my several closest friends couldn’t keep from cracking up in front of me, no matter how hard they tried not to. So I eventually disposed of the wig in a dumpster near the Stanyan Street Hotel where I lived thanks to the geneorosity of our welfare state, which has long since grown tired of helping folks down on their luck.

Another time, I’ll tell you about how I went for a job interview at a lawyer’s firm in North Beech, wearing a black velour dress jacket in a one-hundred-and-one degree heat wave. And, just like my Year of the Wig, it boosted my confidence, and I got the job.

2 Responses to My Year of the Wig

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