Ascension of my hair apparent
Dreadlocks spoke to my style but they're now serving a higher purpose
Feb 21, 2008
Special to the Star
"Has your son fixed his hair problem yet?" my grandfather asked my
dad in a recent phone call.
By "problem," he meant the dreadlocks that reached well past my
shoulders. Grandpa may have fought for freedom in World War II, but
not just any sort of freedom – people should still look respectable, after all.
His attitude is just one of many negative reactions I experienced
during nearly three years of growing my hair out. When my bosses at
the upscale downtown restaurant where I worked heard about my
dreadful plans, I was told I'd have to move from serving the suits in
the bar to spinning salads in the kitchen. It was a stretch having me
and my ponytail bring food to Bay Street bigwig, but if I wanted such
an "in your face" hairstyle, I'd have to work in the back with the
rest of the freaks 'n' weirdos.
As I took on my new role as a dreadlocked cook alongside staff with
tattoos on their hands and neck, dozens of facial piercings, and
serious anger management issues, it didn't occur to me that I'd
willingly cast myself out of the world of the "normals."
That realization dawned on me slowly. The way people perceived and
treated me changed.
Suddenly, I couldn't walk down Yonge St. without someone trying to
score drugs off of me. "Sellin' 'em? Buyin' 'em?" asked a chap with
elaborate patterns buzzed into his head last week. Homeless people
all wanted to tell me their life stories. And I started receiving
askance looks from respectable society – police would give me a
second look, shopkeepers would watch me like a hawk and pedestrians
would cross the street to avoid me at night.
What had happened?
I figured dreads were a little daring, but I never intended to make
any grand political or countercultural statement with them. I simply
wanted a style that would reflect the hip kid I wanted to be. I
thought they looked neat, nothing more.
To the rest of the world, however, dreadlocks were imbued with a
million different meanings: I was left-wing, vegan, dirty and poor; I
was a reefer-addicted hippie; I was anti-war, anti-government and
anti-capitalist; I was a musician; I was kinky; I would aid and abet
criminals. I could go on.
Once, while waiting for a light to change, a hot dog vendor started
calling to me. "Very good veggie dog!" he kept repeating. I walked
over and tried to explain that I ate meat. He looked at me
suspiciously and promised me that they were indeed "excellent veggie
dogs." I ended up buying a Polish sausage, simply to prove my carnivorous ways.
Another time, I was strolling through the Beach when I encountered a
guy tagging everything in sight with red spray paint. "Man, I know
you're not a narc!" he said. "Will you be my six (lookout)?" I told
him to stop defacing public property and continued on.
Best of all, though, was when I had the opportunity to meet Robin
Williams. He called me "mon" and proceeded to adopt a Jamaican accent
for most of our brief conversation. Ever the comedian, that guy.
There are few people I'd rather be dissed by, but it would have been
funnier if I hadn't already heard countless versions of that tired joke.
I really enjoyed the look of my locks, but it was becoming harder to
keep them. I missed being judged by less superficial, more accepting
criteria. I even missed being employable. While job-hunting last
summer, I was told by a barista friend that I "couldn't even work at
Starbucks with hair like that." I was ready to cave right there,
until I finally found a job gardening.
At least plants don't care what their attendant looks like. It was
fun for a few months, but deep down I knew that if I wanted almost
any other career, I'd have to "sell out." It was only a matter of time.
That time finally came last Friday. It's hard to say just what the
final straw was – maybe it was the prospect of spending another
summer digging holes. Or perhaps it was the train conductor who kept
looking incredulously from my first-class ticket to my hair. Or it
could have been the drunk who heckled me: "What are you, some kinda
poet?!" he hollered. Perish the thought!
I'm a fledgling journalist but it had become clear that, with my
locks, I'd never be taken seriously as one.
I booked a haircut.
As I waited for Rocky, an affable stylist at Coupe Bizzarre, to start
pruning, I told myself I wasn't selling out because I didn't have any
principles about my dreads in the first place. However, I was giving
in, and maybe even growing up.
The thought of my encroaching Carlsberg years nearly gave me a panic
attack. Without my hair, how would people know that I was cool?
Rocky sensed my anxiety, and told me to relax. Somehow I did. But
I'll admit to closing my eyes as he snipped off the first dread.
Finally, it was over. Rocky had managed to leave my hair long enough
that I didn't look like a total Young Republican. But I had nothing
to show for my years of resistance – save for several pounds of locks
in a plastic bag.
I thought I would donate the bag of hair to a worthy cause, but it
turns out there is no Dreadlocks of Love foundation for balding Rastafarians.
However, a friend at OCAD was making Victorian hair wreaths –
intended to commemorate the dearly departed – to raise money for
cancer research. She said she could use my dreads. It felt as if the
old me was dead, anyway.
As for the new me?
It's too soon to say, but I'm looking forward to being judged on my
merits as a person, and not by my hair. Still, I feel the need to be
distinctive. Maybe wacky ties?
Joe Howell is a 22-year-old University of Toronto student who hopes
his sacrifice leads to a decent job this summer.