Baltimore writer Elisabeth Dahl combs the files of hairstyles past to discover, among other sweeping truths, that “good flow” is genetic.
The other day, I took my 12-year-old son, Jackson, for a haircut at a Hampden salon he’d never been to before. He got what he’s been getting for a while now — a longish cut, a variation on the shag. In celebrity terms, you might say it’s a modified Bieber.
The Bieber (which Bieber himself has since abandoned) is most easily identified by long, sideswept bangs — the eye-grazing fringe that set a billion tween hearts aflutter. Jackson’s classmates — many of whom sport a Bieber variant but would rather soak a paper cut in vinegar than admit even a remote likeness to the Bieb — call this sideswept quality flow. Some guys have good flow. Others don’t.
Good flow is partly behavioral. To keep your fringe slanting sideways, you have to jerk your head to one side about every 10 minutes — more often if you’re particularly cool and girls are around. If you slack off, your bangs will just hang straight down, like the tassels on some ancient relative’s lampshade, and who’d want that?
But good flow is also genetic. The flowiest hair is straight and silky, without interference from cowlicks or curls. Jackson’s hair is straight and relatively cowlick-free, but it’s also thick and coarse — more hemp than silk. When he showers at night, then hits the pillow with semi-wet locks, he wakes up looking like a cross between Don King and the guy from Eraserhead. It’s an awesome sight — fabulous, singular, and so not Bieberesque.
In April 1978, the short celebrity haircut that everyone seemed to want — especially girls like me, girls who took figure skating lessons — was the Dorothy Hamill. Some people called it a wedge. Others called it a glorified bowl cut. But it was cute — as fluffy and pert as Dorothy herself seemed.
Unlike Jackson, who wants nothing to do with his haircut’s namesake, I adored Dorothy Hamill. So did my friends and most of the rest of the country. We’d admired her Hamill Camels and held our breath through her triple jumps.
So, when I was nearly nine, after years of long hair and home trims, I went to a salon with my mother and asked for a Dorothy Hamill. About 20 minutes later, I had my very own Hamill, but it looked about as much like the real Dorothy’s as my figure skating did. This wasn’t the hairstylist’s fault. My hair was as coarse as Jackson’s is now — the hemp to Dorothy’s silk — and my cowlick had its own ideas about how bangs should look. While Dorothy’s bangs went straight across her forehead, the cowlick split mine into two sections.
Just as I couldn’t spin as quickly on the ice as Dorothy Hamill, or raise my legs as high, I didn’t have the perfection of her wedge cut. I guess you could say I didn’t have her flow — either on the ice or off — and no amount of sideways head jerking would change that.
The woman who cut Jackson’s Hampden Bieber has been cutting my mother’s hair forever, since the days of home perms and big hair (both of which my mother — a Peggy Fleming type — was smart enough to avoid). The stylist began her career in someone else’s salon, but recently she opened her own, in a Hampden rowhouse with pink flamingos out front. As Jackson sat in her chair, wincing through the snips, I realized that this same haircutter must have given me my Dorothy Hamill, back in the day. I did have a vague memory of her standing behind me, shears in hand.
How funny, I thought. How symmetrical! Two generations of celebrity cuts via one stylist’s scissors. When you raise a child in the same town where you were raised — a practice that has pluses and minuses both — moments like this, echoes of your own childhood, happen sometimes.
I composed a quick e-mail to my mother. Was my memory correct? Had this stylist also done my Dorothy Hamill? She responded with an inconvenient truth: In 1978 she hadn’t even started seeing that hairstylist yet.
The truth can be such a cowlick!
Within a day, I decided that I must have received my Hamill at the beauty salon where my grandmother got her perms from Miss Irene every month, in the basement of a Charles Village apartment building. One hundred feet farther down that dim basement hall was the barbershop where my grandfather got cuts with Mr. John or Mr. Vic. A few more steps down the dingy linoleum, you could buy cartons of ice cream at a small, windowless grocery.
It was a world of real barbershops, not retro ones. A world of perm chemicals whose high you could enjoy without worrying about toxicity. The kind of place where people called you “hon” without irony and considered pink flamingos to be actual decorations, not winking sendups.
I’d combed through my memory banks and reset the look entirely. What I’d thought was symmetry was actually flow, the movement of our world from point A to point B.
I could send another e-mail to my mother, asking for confirmation that Miss Irene did the cut. But I don’t think I will. This version of the truth looks just about right.
Elisabeth Dahl’s first book, a novel for children entitled Genie Wishes, will be published by Abrams Books in 2013, and she has just completed her second book, a novel for adults entitled Brood. Her writing has appeared at NPR.org, at TheRumpus.net, and in Urbanite. A Baltimore native, Elisabeth returned to the city in 2003, after a decade in Berkeley and DC. Her website is elisabethdahl.com. On Twitter, she’s @ElisabethDahl.
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