Literary Hair in New York and Pittsburgh



Neighborhood: Uncategorized

  1. Literary

Today a writer sends me a note that says she has a benefactress and the benefactress wants the writer to get a literary haircut. The writer has written to me for advice. She wants me to recommend a salon that specializes in literary haircuts.
These are the words the writer uses. Benefactress. Literary. Haircut.

The benefactress will pay for the haircut. Cost is not a factor. The writer, a stranger, says the benefactress is worried about how the writer will look at upcoming literary events. The benefactress and the writer both want the writer to be taken seriously at literary events.

I don’t know what the writer means by a literary haircut, or why she would write to me for advice. I’m not famous. I barely have any readers. My current hair makes me look like a human Q-Tip.

I believe this woman who’s written to me has never seen my picture.


“Have the guts to cut,” Kurt Vonnegut said. But he was talking about writing.


I don’t know any benefactresses in 2017. But back in the 1990s I had some friends who gave me things. I was living in New York then, working for the airlines. I didn’t have much furniture, and some of the things I did have were more like props. Since I was gone most of the time, I figured it might be good if the apartment looked lived in just in case some luckless burglar happened upon it.

I was living in New York then, working for the airlines. I didn’t have much furniture, and some of the things I did have were more like props. Since I was gone most of the time, I figured it might be good if the apartment looked lived in just in case some luckless burglar happened upon it.

I had a stereo that didn’t work and a toaster that sparked and a TV that got only one channel because I couldn’t afford cable. I had a few pots and pans and a window air conditioner that my neighbor Moose snagged from his Waste Management rounds. Moose was part garbage-man, part treasure-hunter, and even though he once worked as a leg-breaker for the mob, he was big-hearted, always finding useful stuff in the trash he was paid to throw away.
He’d bring home gifts for me and our other neighbors, whatever he found that he thought we’d need. He brought home anything metal, too, and chopped it up with a chainsaw, then sold it at the junkyard for cash.
“Everything’s money to me,” Moose said.
“It runs,” he said about the air conditioner. “Just watch out for the mold.”
I propped the air conditioner in a window for show. I set up the TV and stereo in my couch-less living room. I used the pots Moose found to boil water on my tiny apartment stove which, whenever I lit it, smelled like it might explode. I had a drawer full of take-out menus. I had a refrigerator covered in magnets from take-out joints. I had a box under the sink full of wooden chopsticks, plastic forks, and spoons.
“A couch would make this place feel homey,” my rich friend said and measured a blank wall with her eyes.
I worked for the airlines for a reason. I didn’t want homey. Life, I figured, was simpler without a couch to lug around. I considered myself a writer first, the kind of person who didn’t care about a home and material things, the worry and weight of that.
I didn’t consider that, without the weight of something like family and home, I didn’t write much. I didn’t consider that all the time spent alone in hotel rooms let me stay on the surface of things.
Stay on the surface too long and you get confused. You start thinking things matter that don’t matter.
Literary haircuts, for instance.


“Pity the reader,” Vonnegut said, which reminds me of how dangerous it is to put ego above art.
“Say what you mean,” Vonnegut said, which means no tricks.
“I am what I am and that’s a man from Indiana,” Vonnegut would say about writers worrying over appearances on or off the page.


When the writer looking for the literary hairdo writes to me, it’s her use of the word “benefactress” that pisses me off. It’s that word that lets me forgive myself for being a jerk when I should be kind. It’s not just about appearances. It’s about class. It’s about money, the lack of it, the elevation of it, how worry about money can make me mean.
I write back and say I got my last haircut at Supercuts.
I tell her it was $13 plus tip.
I tell her my benefactress, also known as my jug of quarters, thought that was cool.
I am thinking of taxes, the phone bill, the water bill. I am thinking of writing, how I want more time for it, how little it pays. I am thinking of the extra job I’ll need to get this summer to help my family get by and how that extra job means I’ll have less time for my family and writing, the things I love above all else.
I congratulate the writer on having a benefactress.
I wish her and her hair well.

Later I will write about this on Facebook. I will consider tweeting. It’s a shitty thing to do, but I can’t help it. My anger at this woman, this stranger who means no harm, muddles things.
“Keep making that face,” my mother used to say when I’d stick my lower lip out to show I was furious as a kid, “and a bird will come and shit on your lip.”
“Keep making that face,” my mother would say, “and you’ll freeze like that.”
That’s the danger of class-anger, maybe. It can become something solid, immovable, something that hardens inside a person and will not melt.


“I come from a working-class military family,” the singer Pink says. “We watch the news and read the papers and vote, so there’s always something to be upset about. I always have a certain amount of angst in my back pocket.”



2. Salon

My poor writer friends and I post many pictures of terrible haircuts.
“Consider the Ken Burns,” my friend Emily writes. She posts a link to a story titled ‘Where’s Your Precious God Now? 16 Intense Zooms of Ken Burns’ Hair.’”
Ken Burns has a bowl cut. He looks like a demented Beatle. He looks like a toddler running with scissors cut his bangs.




“You have to curate your image,” one rich writer friend says. “You have to work it.”
Having a look takes time and money, neither of which I have. I have my family, two jobs, and a bathtub that leaks. These are the things I think about.
This particular writer friend spends a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. She’s paid an advertising firm to turn her into a brand. She’s paid a publicist to spread the news. She ran a contest where people had to send in pictures of her book in exotic places, kind of like Flat Stanley. People sent in pictures of her book at a café in the French Quarter, at a barbecue joint in Texas, at The Football Hall of Fame. I forget what people won if they sent in pictures.
Another copy of her book, I think.
This writer has a sunken bathtub and no kids.
This writer has very nice hair.


“If you want to survive, you have to stand out,” my friend Debbie used to say.
Debbie was a hairdresser at Vidal Sassoon in New York. Debbie wore all black, all the time, and had a huge tattoo of an eagle on her back. She also had her clit pierced and enjoyed talking about it over dinner with people she’d just met.
“I can squeeze my legs together any time I want and come, just like that,” Debbie would say. She enjoyed watching people squirm as they struggled not to look under the table to see if Debbie was about to have an orgasm with her salad.
Debbie had gotten both the clit piercing and the eagle from a tattoo artist who worked with the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels. The tattoo guy hooked Debbie up with the Angels, who once let her do a hairstyle photo shoot in their clubhouse in the Village. She gave the Angels free haircare products in exchange for the photo shoot. The Angels, she said, liked haircare products. The Angels, Debbie said, thought a lot about their image.
“It’s not like before,” she said. “They have a guy who does their marketing and social media. They do charity work. They’re very media-savvy.”


I do not tell the writer who writes to me for hair advice that I cut my hair so short because I felt overwhelmed and had just turned 53 and Prevention Magazine said a pixie cut was just like a facelift and guaranteed to make a person look less tired.

“A boost for the spirits and cheekbones,” Prevention Magazine said.
This has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with bills and work and leaky bathtubs, everything that’s not about writing.

New York is filled with awful and beautiful people, Debbie would say.
Debbie used to do my hair for free. I’d be her hair model. We had a deal – she could do whatever she wanted and I wouldn’t complain and I wouldn’t ever have to pony up money.
A haircut at Vidal Sassoon in New York in the 1990s was well over $100. A blow-out was nearly that much.
I often bought groceries with my credit card and got cash advances to help cover my rent.
“Fake it until you make it,” Debbie said as she globbed bleach on my hair.
“Everybody needs a gimmick,” Debbie said as she took a razor to my bangs.

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