Thursday, June 07, 2007
I received an e-mail from my brother-in-law John today. He had seen an article on the BBC website concerning "Gingerism" and he thought I'd be interested in reading it. I was. If you want to get the most out of what follows, you should read it, too.
OK, now that you have some background, let's travel back to the days of my youth - my bright orange-haired youth - for some interesting memories.
Memory # 1
I'm perhaps 6 years old. I'm sitting on the low cement wall outside of my house in Dorchester. I'm surrounded by my "friends," all of whom are about a year older than I am. It is the height of cold-war anti-Russian sentiment, about 1963 or so.
Because "Red" is another name for a communist, and because I have flaming red hair, all of the other kids have made a connection in their minds and are calling me "Little Baby Communist."
I'm a good American. I say The Pledge Of Allegiance every day at school, same as they do. I know all the words to The Star Spangled Banner, and sing it proudly whenever it's played. Despite their (in retrospect) immaturity, I'm not as mature physically or mentally as they are, so I don't know how to fight back. And I don't understand why they're singling me out for this treatment. I always thought I was a nice kid.
Tears start slowly rolling down my cheeks. This just eggs them on, of course. The chants become louder, right up in my face. I don't know what else to do, so I get up and run into the house. I can still hear the laughter outside while I'm up in my bedroom, crying.
I'm 8 or 9. I'm with my parents at The Brockton Fair, the biggest summertime fair in Eastern Massachusetts. It's a yearly ritual to go there and enjoy the rides, eat corn on the cob and cotton candy, and try to win stuffed animals at the games along the midway. There is thoroughbred horse racing at the fair and my Dad bets a couple of dollars on each race. And Kelly The Candy Man has his booth, where he sells chances to win huge boxes of chocolates - a guaranteed winner in every game. We always end up going home with a couple of pounds of chocolates, sometimes a few extra bucks in my Dad's pocket (he's a good handicapper), and a new teddy bear or two.
We're walking along the midway and see one of those games where a person is perched on a seat above a swimming pool full of water, like this:
This was a really huge tank, though, bigger than the one pictured above, and there's a clown in full make-up sitting on the seat. He's insulting the hell out of everybody walking down the midway. That's his job, of course, to make you so pissed off you buy three baseballs for a quarter and try to knock him off his perch into the water.
This guy is so downright rude and crude, some people were buying the baseballs and winging them right at the cage itself, trying to hit him square in the head instead of giving him a bath. Of course, the bars on the cage were close enough together so this didn't work.
Anyway, we're watching this spectacle unfold and then the clown yells out, in my direction while staring straight at me:
"Come on, Red, put me in the water! I bet you can't throw the ball hard enough to dunk me! Hah! Red, Red, pee the bed! Red, Red, pee the bed!"
I felt a hot surge in my stomach that travelled up into my head. I blushed. I tried to smile, but couldn't. I fought back the beginning of tears. I wondered if everybody was staring at me.
I had just recently gone through a period of bedwetting.
We walked on, my father muttering under his breath about what he'd do to that %#$@#! clown if he weren't protected behind bars. It is the only bad memory I have of the Brockton Fair.
I'm about 15. I'd started feeling pretty good about my looks more recently. Some girls had shown an interest in me. I was singing in a heavy metal band, so I had grown my bright orange hair over my shoulders and had been trying to cultivate some sideburns.
I had just started attending a church in downtown Boston and I enjoyed the community feeling. I was doing some sweeping up in the church basement, where there were coffee and donuts served after mass. As I'm engrossed in my sweeping, a male voice, coming from perhaps thirty feet behind me, says, "Excuse me, miss?"
I turned around, looking for the female he was addressing. There wasn't one, of course. He got this horrible look on his face, started sputtering an apology, but the damage to my fragile teenaged male psyche was done. I decided to start trying to grow a beard, as well as the sideburns.
I'm 18 and I'm finally, truly, comfortable with my hair. I've been in bands for a couple of years now and long bright orange hair has tremendous freak value on stage. I've taken to putting a hot comb to it to make it as straight as possible and I condition it every day to make it even brighter and shinier.
I'm sitting on a bench at Ashmont Station, waiting for the trolley, and two little old ladies come along and sit down next to me. They sort of stare at me for a minute, then talk amongst themselves, then one of them asks me, with a genuine smile, if my hair is really that color or if I dye it.
"It's the real thing."
"It's the most beautiful hair I've ever seen on a man."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Don't ever cut it. It's absolutely gorgeous!"
The trolley came, we all got on, and they stared at me the entire time until I got off at Central Avenue.
That almost made up for every time I overheard women of my own age making comments about Howdy Doody and Opie Taylor.
Of course, almost as soon as I finally became proud of my hair, I started losing it. I had a two or three year period where I wasn't ashamed to be a redhead and when I hadn't gone bald. That's all I got - that short time span.
Now, I don't think it's all as big a deal as the BBC makes of it. I rather like the terrorist joke, actually. I think it basically says that redheads will not be fucked with easily. It's sort of the same thing as being named Sullivan and hearing that old saying about never picking a fight in a bar with anyone named "Sully." It isn't an insult unless you think it's one.
The one thing I'll say for sure is that being a redhead is much more of a problem for men than it is for women. Women with red hair are usually considered sexy and hot. Men with red hair are more often than not compared to Bozo The Clown. Many women dye their head red. I've never known a man who did.
All things considered, I've got no big complaints about being a redhead. It's less annoying than hearing blonde jokes, I suppose, and if you start comparing it to, say, being black in a bigoted society, then you've gone off the deep end; there's no real comparison in any way, shape or form. But if the government wants to make my kind a protected minority, I suppose I'll take it. I'd have to be some sort of clown not to.
Soon, with more better stuff.
P.S. For another interesting story concerning my hair, please go to the "comments" section. Thanks to James Cooper of Visbly Worn for jogging my memory!