Redheaded Stranger

As I grew older—and balder—I realized the important thing is what's inside your head, not what's on top of it

Simply red

At one time, I had bright red hair. It was orange, really, and having it was something I resented for most of my youth.

For one thing, I was teased a lot. I heard more than my share of Howdy Doody and Opie Taylor comparisons, but the Bozo jokes were the worst. I mean, who wants to be compared to a clown? And the razzing wasn't limited to other kids, either.

I was about 8 when my parents and I went to a big regional fair in Massachusetts. On the midway, there was one of those games where a person sits over a tank of water and you need to hit a target with a baseball to dunk him. The guy sitting on the platform was trying to drum up business and was vicious. He personally insulted everybody who walked by, trying to make them angry enough to buy three baseballs for a quarter. As we stood there watching this spectacle, he glanced over and saw me. He yelled, "Hey, Red! Think you can dunk me? Nah, I don't think you can, either! Red, Red, pee the bed! Red, Red, pee the bed!" I blushed deeply and then tried to hold back tears. I had recently been having bedwetting incidents, so the taunting hit home more than he knew.

Of course, having bright orange hair makes it easy to pick you out of a crowd, so I could never hope to get away with anything. If my gang did something bad, and we were caught, I was always the first one positively identified and punished.

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Well, as I grew older, things improved. I found that bright orange hair could have some advantages. I grew it out long and joined a band, and my long red hair certainly attracted attention. I was finally starting to enjoy it. Women—total strangers—used to come up to me and compliment me on it.

I'm not kidding. When I was 22, I was waiting for a streetcar in Boston when I became aware that two women nearby were staring at me and talking to each other while doing so. Then, when they noticed me staring back with a quizzical look on my face, they approached me.

One woman said, "I hope you don't mind my asking, but is that your real hair color or do you dye it?"

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I replied that I was born with it.

The other woman said, "Don't ever change it. It's the most beautiful hair we've ever seen on a man."

I found that rather pleasing.

As sometimes happens in life, though, our pleasures are relatively short-lived. I began going bald almost immediately after that. The story of how I found out I was going bald is an amusing one, if you weren't me.

I was now 24, standing in line at a local convenience store, waiting to check out some milk and Ring Dings. The place had security cameras and a monitor was positioned where I could see the screen. I had nothing better to do, so I decided to see how I looked on camera. The monitor was a black-and-white, which will help explain why it took so long for the light to dawn in what follows.

I'm looking at the monitor and I see the checkout line. The camera was behind us, so it was shooting the backs of our heads. I was unconsciously ticking off the people I saw: fat kid, black guy with an afro, bald guy, nice looking woman …

Then it occurred to me that I was nowhere in the picture. I looked again: fat kid, black guy with an afro, bald guy … I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was the bald guy! It was like one of those dreams where you suddenly realize you're naked, except this was reality. For the first time, I found out I had a big bald spot on the crown of my head, about the size of a baseball. I wasn't balding up front in any way, so I had no idea until that moment. In a state of shock, I paid for my stuff, drove home and made plans to shop for hats. They became a permanent part of my wardrobe soon thereafter.

What's left of my hair is now mostly white. And I'm at an age where lots of men lose their hair, so I don't worry about it as much. Sometimes I skip wearing a hat and just let my skin shine. I've had a long time to get used to it and too bad if others don't like it.

If you're going through a loss of hair, my balding brother or sister, here's some reassurance for you. My wife met me when I was well past the halfway-bald mark. She knew what the future held and she married me anyway. See, the important thing is what's inside your head, not what's on top of it. And, yeah, maybe you'll hear a few jokes at your expense, but most of the people telling them aren't trying to be mean. They just don't know.

Honestly? Sum it all up and it's not a big hairy deal.