The Secret Language of Curly Hair

2 Dec

Somewhere between the court of Louis XIV and Maurice Sendak’s wild rumpus, lay clues to the mystery of a boy’s curly hair. He would travel the world, but only find elusive snippets of the real answer.

She hinted of a secret world connected by curls. The Circassian beauties who travelled in PT Barnum medicine shows had something to do with the way the afro became synonymous with black power.

I was not raised to be fancy. I was made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. My hair, however, grew in curls. I’d outwardly gnash my teeth at the sort of grown woman who took curls as an invitation to cleanse her fingers of life’s let downs. When a strange woman strokes a little boy’s curls, what she is really attempting is to physically feel potential. She is also massaging—deep into his scalp—a certain kind of expectation. And though the curly haired boy understands none of this at the time, he does know one thing: it’s just dumb stupid hair. That will not stop him, of course, from growing up to believe it’s more. From chasing the endless potential of those curls himself.

My mom, who had olive skin and tight loopy locks, knew what was in store. She’d periodically sit me on a tall chair in the kitchen, and gently trim my curls with the same squeaky scissors we used to cut Christmas wrapping and the fat off chicken thighs. The look on her face at the end of each snip was a mix of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. One day we pulled into a parking lot outside a strip mall and sat silently. She eventually sighed and said: “please just ask him not to take too much off.”

Like that I had entered the care of the barber, who not only took too much off, but took a chunk of ear with it.

A barber sees neither the mystery nor the potential. He sees a poncey periwig. He sees smug pedophilia dripping off an Athenian statue. He sees the spread of communism. The things he sees must be eliminated.

The ear, I realized years later, was no accident. It was a souvenir.

Not long after, our curly cocker spaniel curled up under a weeping willow in the backyard and died. Make of that what you will.

The hair that had covered my ear shrank in the years that followed, from wild to shorn to shaved, first with #4 shears, then the 3. By the time he got to 1, the price of a cut had reached $15, and I realized I could do the same elimination myself with a $30 electric razor. Thus I did. Until the razor caught fire, plugged into a badly wired Casablanca hotel socket, singing my damaged ear. I went out to the street. I entered to the first barbershop I found. The first one in six years.

The man inside refused to touch my hair.

“Because I’m not Moroccan?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “Because you do not need your hair cut.”

I pondered this for a very long time. As I pondered, my hair grew very long. And gradually, the world began to reform around me.

You'll recognize me. I’ll be in a corduroy jacket. I've got a beard. And dark curly hair. Like Jesus.

The curls—which I forgot even existed—were magnificent in that next year. Strange women again dipped their fingers into the potential. That is, until the hair became too long. Dry and knotty and asymmetrical. I remember standing beside a barbershop in Istanbul with the same dissatisfaction and uncertainty I’d seen on my mom’s face all those years before. An hour later, the hair in my nostrils and ears had been torched with a BIC lighter. I’d been doused with enough cologne to stun a giant squid. Every bone in my head and neck had been shifted some place else. I did not need to look in the mirror. I knew I’d had my first real hair cut since the kitchen chair.

The barber—it feels wrong to call him that—nodded confidently behind me. He seemed not just to be in touch with some great secret of the earth, but more of it himself than anybody I had met. I tried to ask him what he knew. He dismissed my questions with a knowing chuckle.

After that, I paid closer attention to the curls of other men. I made friends easily with such men. In Mediterranean countries they were confident. In North America they were weird and conflicted. We never talked about our curls. Except for Dave, who was more comfortable with his curly hair than anyone I’d met. “I haven’t combed my hair since I was 18,” he told me. “I once grew it out for a year, a wild mane. Since then I’ve kept it relatively short. It’s unruly and weird. I feel lucky to have it. I’m losing it on top, which doesn’t worry me. When I’m 50, I’ll have bushy curly sides and a bald top and wild eyebrows—and weird will still reign.”

Though he spoke of weird and wildness, Dave’s comfort really came from the fact that he had accepted the implicit fanciness of curls. He was my only friend who had set foot in a salon. He wasn’t bound to the same $25 cap the rest of us had put on a haircut. He didn’t hesitate to pay twice, even three times that. But he did not use, nor even dabble in product.

"A curly haired person is more vivacious," Ouidad exclaimed. "Let’s do a study! Meet me at 8:30. We’ll walk up and down the street, watching the body language. It’s a whole different world.”

When the strange women who stroked curls re-entered my life, they re-entered it with product. “Product” constitutes anything more excessive than a shot of Holiday Inn shampoo. Even though it’s sold to both men and women, product does not smell unisex nor is its packaging anything but fancy and fruity. And of course, it never works alone. Once you’ve got the conditioner, for instance, there’s a series of “finishing products.” (Which is to say nothing for the shampoo.) Sometimes only one of the products in the combination seems to work, but because you’re never sure which one, you faithfully go through the entire chain, hoping one of them will work again. I don’t know why the strange women became so giddy when they smelled the jasmine and strawberry shortcake scents of these products in my hair. Maybe the indication that I was a least attempting to unlock the potential inside the curls was more than they’d previously hoped. A European woman with straight blonde hair went so far as to book me an appointment with her 10th Avenue stylist. “He’s the best in the city,” she said.

I scrunched up my face to indicate—it’s too fancy.

“Shut up,” she said, putting her hand over my mouth. “It’s a gift.”

“But it’s your birthday,” I protested.

“I know,” she replied.

“Never blow dry it,” Ouidad suddenly said. “But I live in a place where it’s freezing—I'll catch a cold." “Who told you that?” she snapped.“My grandfather!” I snapped back. She exhaled impatiently and replied, “My grandfather lied all the time too.”

As fancy and overblown—and superficially emasculating—as my first salon experience turned out, the cut was good. The stylist would periodically tilt his head, exchanging conspiratorial gestures with the European girl, who smiled maniacally over the new Vanity Fair. As if they each knew a secret that I did not know myself. When it was done, curls hung from my head like the long tight waves that never totally break off the South African coast—the metaphor for potential—in Bruce Green’s Endless Summer. The cut was so good, in fact, that I felt a kind of empowerment. This did nothing but add to the mystery. And I now had a real problem, though: in the days and weeks and, ultimately, months that followed my salon cut, an unbearable craving curled up inside for another.

If you’re stubborn and resourceful, there is a haphazard trail of affordable black market salon quality cuts that you can piece together—without ever having to enter a salon. I was introduced to a stylist named Romeo, whose beltline condo was filled with big colourful paintings. He made a wonderful ceremony of pouring rare white tea while a small terrier nipped at my heels. Though I was prepared to pay far more, Romeo would never take more than $20 for what I knew he charged $75+ for at his salon.

“What kind of product do you use?” he asked one afternoon, clearly unsatisfied with the results it was producing.

“Which product should I be using?”

He said a strange word. Sheepishly I asked him to repeat it as I was leaving, but with no pen and paper, and a sudden gust of wind that blew freshly styled hair into a horizontal mullet, I quickly forgot.

“You patented ‘carving and slicing’?” “Yes.” “What if I go home and do it?” “Then I’ll send you a letter saying cease and desist.”

Because our hair is never quite complete we have the myth that it grows on after we ourselves are dead. It’s something that defies our own mortality. I thought this, when I arrived in Manhattan, and mentioned—to yet another strange female—that surely there was some old school place that did $20 cuts on The Lower East Side, a neighbourhood teeming with men with lushly styled curls—but no evident money to have paid for them. An hour later, there was an email from the woman. No words, just, but a url. The url led me to to a page for a Midtown salon, where the cost of a cut was $125.

I chastised the girl for sending it to me. “You know my policy,” I said

“Whatever,” she replied. “Think of it as a once in a lifetime experience.”

I clicked the url several times that day, drawn further into the site with each click. The salon was the crossroads for stylists who specialized in curly hair. Twirling my finger through my hair, like a chopstick through thin frizzy spaghetti, I caught myself sounding out the exotic syllables: “WEEEE-dad…OY-DID…way-DAAAAD…” And it dawned on me I was trying to say the word Romeo had said.

I was five subway stops from Mecca.

I should confess that I didn’t know Ouidad was an actual person. I though it was a string of syllables some straight hair corporate P&G person came up with to represent curls. A cross between a ouji board and an effete Italian father.

I was not prepared, rising in an elevator up above 57th street, a block up from Tiffany’s, for Ouidad to be a woman. I expected abstract version of a human being, but Ouidad was anything but that.

“Look in the mirror,” she ordered, after I sat down. “Describe your hair.”

“It’s curly.”

“Yes.”

“It’s kind of puffy. A little ragged.”

“Puffy’s a good word. Tell me texture.”

“Kind of thin.”

“You’re very intuitive,” she said, observing me for a moment. “You have tight and loose curls.”

“Do I want tight or loose?”

“You want whatever you have, and you want it to perform.”

Then she scowled a little impatiently and asked what I had done to it that morning.

“Done?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I used some product.”

“Which one?”

It was impossible to deceive Ouidad. I told her that though normally I used an Aveda product called Be Curly, that morning I had been nervous about my appointment and done something different. I was staying with a Cosmopolitan magazine editor, whose shower was jammed with samples of all the latest products, which smelled like every kind of rare fruit and flower. After several washes with my own, I became frustrated and simply started mixing a bunch of hers together—hoping for the best.

Ouidad’s impatience suddenly softened into a kind of protective knowing. “I used to do the same,” she said. “I’d buy existing products and combine them to see what really worked—because there was nothing out there. I would mix like a L’Amour with a couple of others until I got the consistency and performance, then go to the chemist and say ‘I like the way it works, but I need it to do a little bit more of this.’ They would break it down and find out exactly what’s in it.”

Not only had Ouidad patented the results of her experiments, she’d trademarked the techniques of cutting curls hair. She’d written books on curls. I wanted to run all the mystic theories I’d concocted about curly hair by Ouidad. Was it a coincidence, for instance, that the Greek symbol for infinity resembles two perfect curls? And that when you stood that symbol up vertically it was luckiest number in ancient Chinese culture?

The curls that will never stop growing. RIP.

The world famous stylist looked at me for a long time. Not just the top of my head, but my entire being. She squinted a little. Finally she nodded. “You have great hair,” she said.

Now it was me who looked her up and down, attempting to understand what that meant. “You say that to everybody,” I replied.

No. I don’t,” she shot back angrily. “You do not know me.” 

“Those girls who got you the product and sent you to those salons,” Ouidad asked. “How did it feel?” I hesitated, knowing that I was supposed to answer one way, but instead replied, “I guess it made me feel good…that someone cared—“

“—no!” she interrupted, “they were telling you were inadequate!”

Ouidad was suddenly lost in the locks of her own memory now. “Curly haired people feel like they don’t fit it. They feel like they’re not accepted because everything’s straight straight straight, which is the opposite of how it should be. Even today, if you go to a hair dressing school, when they talk about curly hair they talk about how to straighten it.”

I won't tell you about the products that were bestowed on me, some still in experimental phase, about the secret techniques I learned, about how soft and right my curls feel right now, how the way I walk down the street and confront my adversaries has changed.

It’s the strange exotic women who had come to study with Ouidad that I cannot stop thinking about. They wore black caftans and practiced the trademark techniques with monastic concentration. As one hour unfolded after the next, I could not take my eyes off this rare tribe of creatures dedicated to the practice of achieving the utmost from their curls.

“Not everyone who works here has curly hair,” I whispered, as one of them tilted my head back gently into a sink. She looked around. “We can’t discriminate,” she whispered, in an Eastern European accent.

I asked her if Ouidad favoured the curly haired. She turned the water on full blast so nobody could hear. She leaned in, and with the joy of a girl who has been given a baby unicorn for her birthday, whispered: “Yes.” And then she smiled at me. Becauase I felt the same glee. I felt like reaching up and sticking my hands into her hair. Ouidad understood us. And what’s more, until that moment I had no inclination that I needed understanding.

-CHRIS KOENTGES

ALSO: Exotic Food Literature

AND: Grandma’s Lessons About Recycling And Living Large.

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5 Responses to “The Secret Language of Curly Hair”

  1. ri wr April 7, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    you got it wrong. That piece of shit Maradonna was the devil.

  2. mexcelia March 21, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Who knew hair could be so intriguing? Not to mention the layers beneath…….. Enjoyed this thoroughly and her comment “we can’t discriminate” made me laugh, thanks!

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