From “My Cousin, Vinny”:
“You stick out like a sore thumb around here.”
“Me? What about you?”
“I fit in better than you, a least I’m wearing cowboy boots.”
“Oh yeah, you blend.”
I didn’t blend:
I hadn’t gotten a haircut since the pandemic started ( too close, too dangerous ), and it showed, in the mirror—and in the faces and voices of many I met. In the past, I was reasonably kempt, but I didn’t overthink the impression I made. However, as my hair grew longer, I could see and hear the impression I made.
Worse, pre-pandemic, my lower right eyelid developed a sag, another peril of aging.
I intended to address it surgically, but again, too close, too dangerous. Sometimes that drooped lid would redden, I had to apply medication nightly. But with the ensemble of mask, hair, and drooping red-eye—I didn’t blend.
When I went into the bagel store, there was a tone in the clerk who served me. He seemed impatient and gruff. The transaction was a challenge by itself: The TV, always on and loud, competed with my masked words.
I tried to order my “whole wheat flat sunflower” bagels through the mask and plexiglass that separated me from the masked counter guy. We both sounded like we had our faces in muffins. I had to repeat my order a couple of times over channel twelve’s: “…this week’s virus toll increased yet again…”
With my jaw flapping, again and again, my mask sliding down from my nose, counter guy frowned and ordered testily, “Put your mask up, all the way up.” As I said, it was the tone; he seemed to suffer my presence audibly. I do admit that I went to said bagel shop early, about 5:30-6:00 am, and I don’t do early easy:
The next time I went, a counter lady replaced the man. I handed her a note for my order—a note like my mom gave me when she sent me to the corner deli. Counter lady thanked me and said the note made it easier. I gave her a good tip.
Another day, to help my brother in assisted living, I went to the bank of his account. There I met a receptionist who gave me a harsh reception: “By appointment only, appointment only.”
This new policy was in place due to COVID. I said my brother was a victim of an attempted scam, and I need to ensure his account is safe. She said, “You need to go home and make an appointment.” I said, “This is an emergency.” She said, “You have to make an appointment.” The bank manager heard this exchange and intervened on my behalf. But again—it was the tone.
I wasn’t used to this kind of reception by receptionists. What was going on? People tended to like me when I spoke with them on the beach and boardwalk of Long Beach
It dawned on me that people didn’t see me as “regular Lee.” I didn’t blend. I was “different.” I was more of an old street guy who left his shopping cart full of deposit cans outside.
The long hair was high maintenance, for sure; the ends would curl and tangle. I wasn’t used to that. I learned I had to brush from the back and work forward. I tried, but the brush would still fill with strands of pulled-out hair. When walking our pup, Scout, I wore a hat to keep the mess under control. When swimming, it flopped in front of my goggles at the turns.
Many people in my building liked long-haired Lee. One loved it, said it gave me an eccentric look. Eccentric, hmmm:
So when I got two vaccine shots, I went to see if my old barber was still cutting hair. The barbershop closed during the pandemic, and I heard he retired. In the reopening, I’d hoped that he might return, maybe to work a day or two in semi-retirement.
He was an accomplished barber of half a century, his extended family barbers—even his mom was a barber. We had a friendly relationship. When he’d pass the mirror behind me to view his work, I’d say, “I come in eighty years old, I go out eighteen. You should keep an umbrella stand full of sticks so customers can beat off the ladies when we leave.” It was always good for a laugh, for him and the waiting customers. Sometimes I felt I should drop the mic and shout, “I love you, New York!”
Yes, he always took his time; he sculpted my dome like Michelangelo. But sadly, in his very short retirement—Michelangelo died.
It wasn’t COVID that brought him down but a stroke or heart attack. He did have some health issues that caused him to curtail his beloved vodka. “No, no more vodka for me.” But I’m told in COVID quarantine; he mitigated his isolation blues with libation. So sad, he was a good human being, an artist. The COVID nuclear bomb caused many collateral deaths.
The lady barber who now “manned” his chair told me about his death. But she didn’t seem too pleased to have to deal with the result of my year-long absence.
As she cut, I tried to decide if she could replace my veteran barber. I felt this was her audition:
She showed me how my hair length had already clogged her shears. I asked, “How long have you been doing this?” She said, “A long time.” I said, “How long is that?” She said, “What are you trying to do? Figure out how old I am?” She did laugh after she said it, but her response to me and my hair made me, once again, feel like a troublesome—old man. Even with my hair much longer than ever, she did the job in less time than my old barber.
When finished, she said, “Due to the Coronavirus, they raised the price ten dollars.” Twenty-five dollars for a haircut? Before a tip? I did tip five bucks, the same as I did my old barber when the price was fifteen. But the new price, twenty-five bucks, is steep for sandbar Long Beach.
I know many of you dudes have long hair and love the eccentric look. It fits you and your style: surfer, biker, or just eccentric. That’s cool; sometimes I liked mine. I was a rebel in the mirror, but it was a hassle in too many ways. For those of you who go long—God bless, and power on.
These experiences made me think of what life must be like for so many of us who feel “categorized,” who feel the pain of bias daily—a tendency based on first impressions—false impressions. But in each occurrence, one has to decide, is this counter person, this bank employee, this barber having a stressful day? Or was it a category in which they placed me?
Maybe my year’s-long experience with long hair was a good thing.
I’d never been the recipient of these judgy responses. Well, maybe when I wore a police uniform:
Some people saw us in the sixties as “pigs,” to be offed. I still hear that epithet screamed in summer riots, even hurled on the Capitol steps, hurled along with fire extinguishers and American flagstaffs. Maybe things haven’t changed so much. One victim officer of that attack said, “Is this America?” I ask the same question.
When I went home and changed into civvies, I was instantly just “regular Lee,” I blended. But we humans can’t go home and change our color, the shape of our features. We can’t change who we are. But we can change how we see each other; try to see ourselves in others, to see past surface signals that we think define people.
Maybe if I weren’t a bit myopic, I could have looked beyond the counterman’s bite. I could have seen a worker who rises at 3:00 am to sell me bagels. Maybe the receptionist was only zealous to keep her underpaid job when I pegged her as a tyrant. And perhaps the lady barber could never replace an iconic barber because I saw her as a lady barber—and I never got a haircut from a lady barber.
We are simian siblings on this tiny ball for a tiny time—in this everlasting here. We know so little about each other’s lives. Maybe if we see in others a bit of ourselves, we’ll offer compassion—including those who do leave a cart full of cans outside.