Hey, man, nice ponytail

What Pee Wee Herman and Lana De Rey have to do with my hair

I’m about to turn 60, and most of my hair is white, but I have no intention of cutting it.
  • I’m about to turn 60, and most of my hair is white, but I have no intention of cutting it.

The last time I had an actual haircut was March 1983, when I was so new to North Park that I accidentally booked myself by phone to get my ponytail whacked at a nearby African-American salon.

I had just returned to San Diego to take a job with the city’s first Subway sandwich operation, after managing a couple of Subways in Connecticut, where the chain started. My California bosses didn’t want their new guy looking like he played cowbell with Blue Oyster Cult, so I blindly booked the hair appointment out of the yellow pages right before my girl and I went off to the three-day US Festival (we hadn’t even unpacked the moving truck yet).

I knew something was up when I saw the Afrocentric hair product posters outside the salon. But I was an hour from meeting my new employers face-to-face for the first time and figured, well, hair is hair.

There was a lot of laughter when I first walked in and announced my name at the appointment desk — “You definitely don’t look related to Fred Sanford!” — but they did a fine job sculpting a socially acceptable mop for my top. It was the only haircut I ever got in front of an audience. The other staffers, and several customers, seemed amused to watch a scruffy white guy go from unemployable to paycheck-ready in less than a half-hour.

Suitably shorn Subway sandwich technician

Suitably shorn Subway sandwich technician

I couldn’t wait to grow my hair back out, and luckily I proved adept enough slinging sandwiches that my bosses indulged me. If you patronized that early San Diego Subway over the next year or so (El Cajon Boulevard near Tower Records), you may have noticed the guy behind the counter resembling not so much a “sandwich artist” as an extra from a Cheech and Chong movie.

Unfortunately, I ended up getting robbed at shotgun point and locked in a freezer one night. So I quit that job and began accepting a series of occupational engagements where haircuts were absolutely optional: record store clerk, nudie club manager, retail and wholesale comic books, video store manager, and finally, writer, cartoonist, and publisher.

I continued to get my long hair lightly styled up until the ‘90s, and then gave up on haircuts entirely, other than snipping the tip of my ponytail off twice a year. I’m about to turn 60, and most of my hair is white, but I have no intention of cutting it. Even though people often stare at me. Even though they sometimes laugh at me.

Looking back, I can see that this transition, from rebellious youth to obstinate fogey, from hip to ridiculous, has long been unfolding.

From the day I landed in San Diego at age 18, my dislike of haircuts, bordering on phobia, caused me employment problems. I spent summer 1979 living on Abbott Street, a half block from the sands of Ocean Beach, having arrived with a buddy, approximately one month’s rent, and little more than the contents of two backpacks. We made furniture out of cardboard boxes covered in fabric scavenged from alleys while I applied for jobs up and down Newport and around the neighborhood. Dishwasher, sandwich maker, janitor, box office clerk at the Strand, I figure I filled out at least two dozen applications and did a half dozen interviews.

I was offered a few jobs, including at the Sunshine Company and a supermarket. All required cutting my hair. I kept saying “Thanks, but no thanks,” even as we approached starvation. My roomie got a part-time job, but I was living off frozen grunion that I was scooping off the beach and frying up with condiments snatched from local fast food joints.

Grunion actually tasted pretty good at first; we’d fry them up whole and eat the heads and everything. When you’re that hungry, you’d be surprised what you’ll eat. But when that’s all you eat, for days at a time, mealtime can be a grim affair.

My only income was donating plasma, which paid ten bucks a pop. I’d sit there in an easy chair for a while, read a comic book, eat a cookie, and then try to scrub off the glow juice they rubbed on your arm to keep you from donating again for at least 48 hours. Really bad for you, they’d say; you could pass out or die. So they’d hold the blacklight over your arm and check before drawing more liquid gold. But there were two plasma donation sites within a short bus ride, and I had two arms and plenty of longsleeved shirts, so I’d rub off the marker and try to hit both blood banks in one round trip — 20 bucks for a day’s work.

At that point, I was so skinny, hairy, shaky, and full of holes in my arms that prospective employers probably thought I was either a junkie or a diabetic Hassid.

The lack of income got us kicked out of OB, and I ended up living in a downtown flophouse hotel at 12th and Island, the Palms. The unemployment office set me up with a graphic arts school where I got paid minimum wage to attend — no haircut required — and I was finally able to eat at the Carl’s Jr. off Horton Plaza instead of thawing out yet another plate of grunion.

Then as now, I rarely tied my hair back, and it was growing longer. This caused me problems every time I went to the nearby Skeleton Club or tried to see any live punk bands around town. I was interested in punk music and that whole scene and genuinely wanted to check it out. However, punks picked fights with me pretty much every single time, and I had to battle my way out of almost every local punk show I went to, at least until around 1982. After that, for some reason, it changed so that guys were coming up to me and telling me how their hair used to be that long, too.

I often wonder why there was such hostility toward longhairs “infiltrating” the local punk scene in its early days. I lived near New York City before relocating to San Diego in the late ‘70s, and was introduced to punk by the Ramones. I never experienced random attacks on the east coast, where most punks were more likely to wear their hair long like the Ramones, the Stooges, MC5, or even the Alice Cooper Band. I remain perplexed about why West Coast punks were so militant about uniforms and hairstyles, things having nothing to do with the music.

Of course, the weird thing is that now, as a Reader music writer for nearly 25 years, I often meet and talk with people who were at the same shows I had to fight my way out of. Nobody to date has ever fessed up to assaulting me over my hair. Although Kitten’s Pharmacy frontwoman Kit Johnson once said she remembers seeing me carried out the door and thrown onto the sidewalk outside the North Park Theater. She said, “I don’t think it was your hair so much as it was the Rush T-shirt.”

Casino Theater on 5th Avenue, as seen in the 1979 Chuck Norris film A Force Of One

Casino Theater on 5th Avenue, as seen in the 1979 Chuck Norris film A Force Of One

The first place in San Diego to actually hire me despite my hair, around 1980, was the company running all the downtown grindhouse movie theaters, including the Casino on Fifth where I applied. The manager, Freddie Bantug, almost didn’t hire me, but not because the company didn’t employ longhairs. He told me they already had one longhaired brunette clerk, and his name was also Jay, which would be way too confusing. I guess they didn’t have many other prospective employees, because Freddie changed his mind two weeks later and stationed me at the Casino while my doppelganger Jay Bagrose, aka Other Jay, worked down the end of the block at the Aztec.

Despite our mutually floppy tops, I was rarely mistaken for Other Jay. I was, however, sometimes mistaken for a woman. And not just when seen from behind. The general rule at the company (Walnut Properties, which also ran the Balboa and the Pussycat over on Fourth) was: no facial hair for box office clerks. So I was pleased when I talked them into making an exception that allowed me to grow a modest mustache. I pitched it as way to easily distinguish me from Other Jay. But, in reality, I was tired of sailors calling me “ma’am.”

When I temporarily relocated back east and worked for Subway, they were fine enough with my long hair to let me run one of their flagship stores. Their West Coast equivalent eventually loosened up about the hair, though they did eventually coerce me into a ponytail, and evolving local laws would likely have forced me into wearing a hairnet.

I did sort of have one haircut after that 1983 salon appointment in North Park. It came in the late ‘90s, courtesy of the actor who plays Pee Wee Herman.

After sitting for a breezy interview, Paul Reubens offered me a tour of his L.A. home, a memorabilia-stuffed museum full of vintage toys and advertising, 3-D cameras, View-Masters, and other pop culture kitsch.

Opening a small plastic garbage can full of snot-thick green goo, he suddenly became playful and held the stuff over my head, giggling “Look out, the Green Slime is coming!”

Goo dripped wetly from between his fingers, and suddenly the viscous fluid went kerplop onto my skull. Immediately apologetic, Reubens tried to assist in pulling the gunk from my shoulder-length hair, but it just got more matted-in.

Look out, the Green Slime is coming!

Look out, the Green Slime is coming!

Then I felt a burning sensation and my eyes began watering as if exposed to ammonia. The Green Slime, I found out later, was nearly a decade old, and the chemical breakdown was having decidedly unpleasant interaction with my scalp, hair, and eyes.

The photographer accompanying me whisked me to a hospital, where I was attended by a middle aged nurse who, happily, remembered the alcohol-based concoction often called upon to treat Green Slime-related mishaps of the early ‘80s.

Reubens was still apologizing the next day when he phoned to make sure I’d lived to tell. He kindly picked up the tab for $975, which covered the cost of both my hospital visit and the hair stylist later called upon to “fix” those spots where slime-encrusted hair had been excised from my shaggy ‘do.

The resultant haircut can only be described as a cross between a mullet and a Banzai tree, and my scalp still itches like hell anytime I see green and gooey. That was the last time scissors did anything other than snip the end of my ponytail.

Post Pee-Wee selfie

Post Pee-Wee selfie

Not that I wear a ponytail in public very often. Steven Seagal and all those douchebags with man-buns pretty much ruined that for everyone. There was a definite social shift that one could feel, a specific moment in history when hearing, “Hey man, nice ponytail” went from compliment to taunt. It started right around the time that Fabio was riding a roller coaster and his face got creamed by a seagull, and then Jared Leto went from looking like Jesus to playing Mark David Chapman, and finally everyone was screaming that the new Superman looked too much like a freaking hippie. Meanwhile, I still have the same hairstyle that I had when Reagan was president.

I can pretty much pinpoint exactly when I realized that going over 30 years without a haircut had morphed from being cool to bizarre. I recently scored general admission tickets to see Lana Del Rey, someone I’ve written about and followed since early in her career. Of course, my sideburns are older than most of her teenage fans, but I was (and remain) fascinated by her cinematic take on pop music. I decided to do what I used to do back in the day: get down to the venue first thing in the morning, and be one of the first to line up for that night’s show.

There were already two dozen young people forming a line when I arrived. A few seemed already to know each other, but most appeared to be strangers. Average ages, 14 to maybe 20. I took my spot, sat down on the curb, and began reading a paperback collection of old EC comic books. Right away, a teenage guy with really, really long hair — half again as long a mine, and mine reaches my ribcage — came over and asked if I knew what the line was for.

As soon as we started talking about Lana, he got all excited, and then others around us started getting excited, and suddenly it was like someone had switched on the greenlight for everyone to gather around and start swapping stories about how they first heard about her, their favorite Lana songs, and times they’ve seen her in concert. At one point, I was swapping some of her lyrics in an impromptu a capella rap duet with the longhaired guy’s girlfriend, and I noticed one kid was filming us on his cell phone.

“I can’t believe grandpa knows all the lyrics to ‘Off to the Races,’” he laughed. I still dread the day I spot that video on YouTube, probably under that very title.

Truth be told, I was having a blast. I’m aware that I was the cause of amusement, but it wasn’t derision. The welcoming nature of my fellow concert attendees only spread as the crowd grew to several hundred. I swear all but maybe a dozen of them came over to talk with me at one time or another. I guess it was hard to not be curious about the old guy with long white hair in their midst.

At one point, I was approached by a woman who looked about my age. At first I thought, aha, I’m not the only Lana fan nearly eligible for a senior citizen discount! But then she introduced herself as the mother of a young girl I’d been talking to a few moments earlier with her friend. Her daughter had just asked Mom to hold her place in line while she and the friend got something from the car for Lana to possibly autograph. Mom was planning to leave them on their own to attend the show.

“You don’t look like the usual Lana Del Rey fan,” Mom said to me warily. Just then, several of the kids around us chimed in “He’s the biggest Lana fan here! Just look how close he is to the front of the line!”

“And he can rap all the lyrics to ‘Off to the Races!’”

This seemed to satisfy Mom, and she looked directly into my eyes, quite sincerely, and said “Look, this is my daughter’s first concert. And you’ve got this kind of Jesus thing going for you. Can you keep an eye on her and her friend, make sure they don’t get in any trouble?”

Not being a dad myself, and not having much experience with teens since I too was a teen, I was far more accustomed to moms telling me to stay the hell away from their daughters than asking me to keep an eye on them!

Soon, we were all inside, and I was right there in the front row awaiting the headliner, just like back in the ‘70s when life was little more than the stuff that happened between concerts. The main difference was, as I realized when I looked around the entire room, that at this concert, for the very first time, I was the oldest person there! I don’t think anybody in the building was even born when I went to my first concert, and that includes the staff and security.

This was an odd feeling, to be sure, but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment. I tried to remember whether, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I’d ever seen anyone who looked like me at a concert. All I could think of was a longhaired old guy who asked if I had any acid or pot outside a Grateful Dead concert, who then turned out to be an undercover cop, and who materialized a whole cop squad to bust a dude who answered in the affirmative.

I didn’t realize just how much I’d stood out in that crowd of Lana fans until around a year later, when I had the opportunity to do a phone interview with Miss Del Rey. I mentioned having been the old guy with long hair in the front row at that concert.

Del Rey, who had been somewhat unresponsive until that point, suddenly seemed fully engaged. “Wait, you’re that white-haired guy I was taking pictures with at the end, right?”

I was flattered to have been remembered as part of the crowd that she hugs and poses with for stage-front selfies during her closing number.

“I have a picture of you on my cell phone that I’ve been showing to everyone,” she announced. “I tell them that Gandalf the Wizard came to my show!”

You can’t imagine the bi-polar rush this gave me. Lana Del Rey has a picture of me on her cell phone! But, then, to be likened in her mind to Ian McKellen. A man in his late 70s. Who plays a 2000-year-old wizard.

Well, it beats being called "ma'am."

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