Striding across Randolph heading north on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue on my way to work one day in the early ’70s, a complete stranger (as opposed to an incomplete stranger) stopped me in the middle of the street, grabbed me by my arm, and asked, “Where did you get that beautiful mahogany hair?”
In the 70s, the only hair dye options were shades of blonde, red, brown, and black. Mine was – different – so I understood her curiosity. But how could I explain my not-so-simple procedure for attaining this unusual color before the traffic light changed?
On the other hand, could I flippantly lie to her and tell her that my hair color was natural? I was Catholic. Catholics don’t lie!
Due to circumstances, though (traffic and the fact that we were still standing in the middle of the street as Chicago taxi drivers looked for any excuse to stomp on their gas pedals), I gave her the short version of the truth: “A couple of weeks ago, in a matter of hours, I stripped it, dyed it red, and then dyed it black.”
“Well,” she added, still in the middle of the street as the light changed, “it’s gorgeous!”
We made it safely to our different sidewalks, and with the sound of honking cabbies fading in the distance, I lamented the fact that I hadn’t told her the whole truth. I would go to hell for not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (Catholic guilt plays itself out in the most unusual places). The rest of the story would have explained the results more completely, and I wouldn’t have felt so sinful, because what she missed was the following explanation:
The year might have been 1970 or 1971. Could have been ’72. I don’t remember. But at 19, 20, or 21, I was ready for a change, because, you know, I was a new adult, making adult decisions. I had long black hair my whole life, and now, unaware that white follicles were giddily awaiting their push through my scalp in the way-too-near future, I decided my hair needed DRAMA, and I knew just how to get it.
Off to my local drug store I trotted where I found something that was guaranteed to turn my black hair blonde. I was giddy with excitement. I might look like Marilyn Monroe when I was finished! Or Cinderella! What a refreshing change! All I had to do was follow the instructions.
Uh oh. I was about to implement a task I have never performed well – following instructions!
But – this was my hair I was changing, so I decided to read the instructions and follow them as well as I could in my eagerness to get the job done. However, THE INSTRUCTIONS MADE NO SENSE TO ME!
What a world, what a world!
Why start at the bottom of my hair, which was way past the middle of my back, and work my way up to the top?
A scary thought whispered in my brain, which sat inside the head that grew the hair I was about to change – what if I ran out of the stuff before I got to the top? I could at least cut off some hair from the bottom if I started at the top, but if I ran out going toward the top, then what?
Insert dramatic pause here. Keep going. You have to get the full effect of how traumatized I was by this revelation. OK, we can go on.
I could just imagine the writers of those instructions laughing as they wrote them, hoping that somebody like me would buy the product.
Wait! Stop the story!
I feel the need to defend myself right now (it’s a Catholic thing), because if the instructions had clearly stated the reason for starting at the bottom of my hair, I might have gone back to the store to purchase another box. Maybe. We’ll never know, because THE INSTRUCTION WEREN’T CLEAR!
So I blame the writers for what happened next, because when it was time to wash out the product, what I saw staring back at me was not even close to the picture on the box! LIARS (they’re all going to hell)!
In the space of less than a day I, singlehandedly, had begun the Punk Age! I would stop traffic with this – this – atrocity. It would be a Back to the Future moment before anybody heard of Back to the Future. It would have changed the direction of the musical, Hair, because though my hair was “shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen,” truly, no words existed “for the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair hair hair hair hair hair hair,” because I – and everybody else in the entire rest of the world – hadn’t yet heard of the Punk Age. I was a walking anomaly. I was a freak!
We were at the height of hippiedom, when everybody grooved to the beat of a different drummer, but this hair color would beat to a whole different kind of drum set played in a completely different solar system and would launch me into a category not yet defined.
But haven’t I always existed in a category not yet defined?
Moving on – while the future boldly leered at me from the flowing gradient rainbow of visual effects that shot out of my head, I realized I was most definitely not a blonde. Well, not all of me anyway. At the scalp, my hair was pure white, which graduated to light blonde, then to medium blonde, to strawberry blonde, to light red, to red, to auburn, and finally at the end, to dark auburn.
What would I write on my license? Was gradient even an option? I had asked for drama, though, and Ask and Ye Shall Receive was crowning my glory.
As I peered into my mirror, I frantically parted my hair and parted my hair and parted my hair, hoping that some part somewhere might make it look presentable. To anybody else I might have appeared to have been searching for lice, but no, I was searching for an appealing look.
After parting it a million different ways, which would have taken over 16,000 minutes (more than 11 days if you’re counting in days, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little), in utter frustration, I returned to the store with my head wrapped in a scarf and bought the most predominant color, red. I returned home to dye my hair red that same day.
But after 40 minutes or so, my mirror reflected a different predicament, because now I looked like Lucille Ball. Don’t get me wrong – Lucille Ball was gorgeous, but the red was so red I was afraid dogs would use me as their personal fire hydrant and fire hydrant was not the shade I wanted.
Sooo, I went back to the store again, and with my hair wrapped in that same scarf, I bought my original hair color, black. In one day my hair had gone from black to gradient, to red, and then back to black. I’m sure the store clerk was a little mystified, but nobody questioned the mysterious shrouded shopper who frequented the hair dye aisle, so I just politely paid my bill and left – again.
After a couple of weeks the color began to fade, and what was left was an amazingly rich deep auburn that netted me so many compliments I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of trying that strategy before.
I taught myself a valuable lesson that day – if you’re doing something different to YOU (meaning me) and whatever you’re doing comes with instructions, read the instructions – or don’t – the results could be dramatic, and, without your awareness, you might start a new trend! The woman who stopped me in the street was probably a hair dye manufacturer who later introduced to the world of hair colors blues, pinks, and purples.
Today my hair mocks me. Almost all of the color has drained out of it. I am – in a word – pigmentless (don’t bother looking it up; it’s not in your dictionary). Since every possible hair color imaginable now sits on store shelves these days, including blue, pink, and purple, in order to stay ahead of the game again, because, as you can tell after reading this story, I’m such a trendsetter, I’m thinking of adding hair tattoos of blue stripes, red chevrons, purple paisleys (in honor of Prince), or maybe even multi-colored polkadots to my hair.
And I will stride down Michigan Avenue and people will grab me by the arm just as that woman did on that day so long ago (oh, such a fond memory), and I will wait for the compliment I heard so long ago!
But instead the little Boy Scout will probably ask, “Can I help you cross the street, little old lady?” to which I will respond, “You know? Once upon a time, I was gradient!”