Paulie Malignaggi’s Hair Makes Me Think of Death, Again

I’m not sure why but back when I could grow hair, I shaved it off. It likely had something to do with where and who I grew up with and what that shaved head meant. I could force machismo, teenage insecurity, both nature and nurture into some explanation. But really, it’s easier explained by saying that like many others, when I was younger I did lots of things that now seem unexplainable. By my count, I wasted a decade of my life, right after high school. Perhaps, afraid to think what a higher number would mean, this is a conservative count. Still, they’re gone. Wasted. Incidentally, those years overlap with the time my hair grew best.

Unlike Paulie Malignaggi, I never had great hair. No braids. No frosted-tipped, spiky hair. No pony tails. None of that. Instead, my hair had only 2 options; either cut close to the skull or long enough it would collapse under its own weight. Anything between and my once-thick, straight hair looked like the human version of a pineapple top. For a while, before I shaved it, I tried hairnets and sprays to keep it in place. But in the desert heat my sweat eventually dissolved the chemicals which then flowed into my eyes. After a few hours, I’d have red eyes, a sticky face and again, a pineapple top for hair.

When I finally shaved my head, my mother felt embarrassed. I think she worried what people would think. That my shaved head made me seem like a cholo and that, reflected badly on her as a mother. For the same reason, when I let a neighborhood friend with a homemade tattoo gun mark my forearms, I wore long-sleeve shirts for weeks. When she found out, she yelled. I responded with, “Your eyebrows are tattooed, and your name is on dad’s arm.” She didn’t care and kept yelling.

Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve thrown something away until the trash has long been taken. At that moment, the repetitive weekly or bi-weekly act of taking out the trash—an almost silent metronome marking the days of each week, then months, then years—suddenly matters. Fuck, it’s gone. Other times, you’re lucky and remember before it’s been collected. You run to the trash bin and find it; a little stained, maybe torn, but still worth saving. On certain days you’re so grateful to still have what you once thought lost, that those stains virtually disappear.

For several years before I allowed my hair to grow back, I went from cutting it weekly with clippers to shaving it completely; daily with a straight-blade razor. For those 5 minutes each morning, I’d think. I’d think about how in the American culture you almost can’t talk about death without others thinking you’re suicidal. How, conversely, in the Mexican culture many of our folk tales revolved around death. Jokes and songs did too. Other days I’d shave and pondered the meaningless like, “could I survive training under Ann Wolfe?” Or, more philosophical albeit still meaningless questions like, “can God microwave a frozen burrito long enough it burns his mouth?”

Other days, I’d quietly follow the mundane routine of shaving—turning the blade at exact points to go against the grain, rinsing it in cloudy water before finishing with an open palm slowly moving across my head checking for patches—and all I could think of, were the stains.

Sometimes I’d get lazy and days passed without me taking a razor to my head. Peach fuzz grew and a few days after, something rougher. I always knew it was time to shave my big head—again—when, instead of gliding, it felt like a slight struggle to slide it through my shirts when I got dressed.

You do dumb shit. You get away with it—or don’t—and immediately regret it. You vow to never do it again. You claim that that moment there, scared and scarred you onto the straight path. That one day, when things have meaning and make sense, you will point to that moment as when it all changed. And then you forget and do dumb shit again.

Same as I don’t know why I shaved my head, I couldn’t really tell you why I let it grow. I could, again, force maturity, having a better understanding of who I was, both nature and nurture into some explanation. But, again, it’s easier explained by saying that like many others, when I got older, I did less of the unexplainable. And when I did that, I threw away my straight razor. But not before lining up a few cardboard boxes and multiple times, slashing through them.

When my hair grew back, my mother was the first to say it out loud. “Roberto, te estás quedando pelon”—Roberto, you are going bald. She was right. And rather than balding in a way that would be easier to ignore, some silver dollar-sized patch of skin at the crown of my head, I had a peninsula of thinning hair right above my eyes where a straight coastline used to exist. Fuck. Again.

Further, the hair I could grow—on the sides—was gray. Since I had a few straggling strands of gray thread growing from my chin, I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, I was, and that’s my fault. But what I can’t take blame for is suddenly, in my hair, seeing tangible evidence of my creeping towards death. “I used to have hair and now I don’t” feels like the prerequisite to “I used to breathe and now I can’t.”

Because apparently, that drive to do stupid, unexplainable shit never quite dies, I let my hair—thinning and all—grow to cover my neck. If only I had the self-confidence, or self-delusion, to wear a Hulk Hogan-type bandana, people may not have realized I was losing my hair. But I was, and people knew. And more than just my mother, they pointed it out. “You’re balding,” they’d say, as if I’d never stared into a mirror. “I know,” I’d respond, usually rubbing my head and forcing a smile as if that was all I wanted to say.

Eventually, I returned to keeping my hair at a respectable length—whatever that means. I’d go to the barber and tell them to go tight on the sides, fade out above the ear, and keep the top a few fingers long. As I always did, I’d sit in the barber’s chair trying to convey that I didn’t need small-talk to pass the time. But perhaps I did. Without it, I sat there and wondered how many more trips to the barber I had left. How many more times before, instead of calling me by name, I’d become, “the balding guy who still gets his hair cut.” How many more times before the barber would mercifully say something.

“Listen man,” I imagined him saying, “I appreciate your tips and even your silence. It lets me think. But you keep coming in here, pretending like you’re not dying. Pretending like, with your balding head, this is the place for you. You’re fucking dying, man. Stop wasting 15-minute increments of whatever life you have left. Stop coming in here and reminding us—who still have hair—that we’re also dying. Go die among your loved ones because your hair is depressing us all.”

Wanting to avoid this scenario becoming a reality, I stopped going to the barber and went back to shaving my head. Maybe, afraid of what I’ll think each morning while staring into the mirror, I don’t use a straight razor anymore. Now I use clippers, every 2 weeks. Again, since I never had great hair, I tied no identity or symbolism to it, making it rather easy to shave my head and just go about my life.

But if given the choice to have it back, I’d say yes, let me have hair again. No matter how unremarkable it was. It makes dying—or at least thinking about it when Paulie Malignaggi silently and awkwardly stares into the camera, and into my soul—much less obvious.

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