The Look

It hasn’t been this long since my early 30s. And it is getting longer.

The other day I was in line at the bank. Saturday morning, just about quarter ‘til noon. The gentleman in front of me was wrapping up his business at the counter and noticed the rush of activity and new customers appearing. “Is it always this busy today, or is it just last minute?” he wondered out loud.

“I know I’m last minute,” I said. He turned around the acknowledge me with a smile, then did a double take, looked me up and down and turned back to the counter.

It wasn’t the stained work shorts or the T-shirt. It could have been the bandana around my head. But it was most likely the hair.

I’ve been growing it out since November. Now it is reaching the barely-controllable stage. Not long enough to tie back, but just enough to make it look pretty crazy should a sudden breeze come up. And stay that way until the end of the day.

Back in March I first got The Look. Having parked at the West Chatham Post Office, I got out of my car and saw a man in his late 60s was heading into the building ahead of me. He looked at me, turned, and with his key fob, locked his car.

In the mid-'90s, I had grown my hair out. A local restaurant manager said that along with my beard, it me me look “like an Aryan Jesus.” As I was approaching my 33rd birthday, perhaps I wasn’t as apprehensive as I should have been. Just before then, I decided to cut it after years with it.

Part of my motivation was the feeling that, with a change in home and work, it was time to let that go. But mostly it was I was getting tired of being stereotyped. While working as a paralegal in Boston, I stepped into a courtroom between sessions to ask for directions to the clerk’s office. A court officer looked at me and instead openly speculated as to my sexual preferences. The magistrate shot the officer a look, shook his head and directed me to the next floor up.

More than a few times I would find a police car make a U-turn when they would pass me walking down the street. Very often senior ladies would clutch their bags a little tighter. Even in downtown Chatham. And car alarms were audibly switched on at the post office. This latest was a blast from the past.

On the other hand, I would be offered drugs much more frequently than when I had short hair. More than one person actually inquired if I was single, thinking I must be a drug dealer. Anyone who knew how much a teetotaler I am would be amused at the thought, but perhaps could see it still.

In short, I got tired of being judged – and harshly – before I even opened my mouth. To be seen as a predator, an aggressor, a criminal, day in and day out, even in the town I was born and raised in, was getting in the way of regular daily life. I didn’t want to have to prove I was worthy of – what, lack of fear? – by demonstrating proper diction and manners, perhaps at a higher level than I normally use.

So I cut it. Did I notice any improvement in my life? No. It’s hard to notice the absence of occasional absurdity and inconvenience. Mostly people who did know me remarked on the mane having departed. And so it went for 19 years.

Now at 50 years old I am getting to enjoy the anxiety and biases of someone half my age. I guess I should take it as a compliment that I’ve managed to otherwise retain a youthful appearance to match the mop on top. But perhaps it is my experience of growing up in Chatham in the '70s, when this appearance was common, that it was the more uptight, clean-shaven people who might cause real trouble in the community.

Freaky-looking hippie-esque people rarely bulldoze wetlands, usually don’t sue the town to push through a maximized subdivision, and don’t try to block public access to the water. At least that’s my experience around here.

Sure, I could avoid The Look by simply cutting my hair back to something that dries in less than a minute after a shower and takes the same amount of time to brush into something presentable. Save money on shampoo and conditioner, too. Stop embarrassing my 13-year-old daughter. Well, that last one is too good to give up.

Many people I know have to deal with this sort of thing every day. The marginalized people who cannot be their authentic selves because they’ve already started the day at least one step behind because of their race, gender identity, sexual preference or disability. As a middle-aged heterosexual white male, I can cut my hair and jump instantly to the front of the line. I can put on a suit and command respect, anywhere in the world, undeservedly.

These thoughts become more profound in the light of horrible mass murder in Orlando. People in their own space could not be physically safe as they enjoyed themselves. Not out in a public space, but where they were comfortable to express without worry. Where they should have been.

Last week, I was picking up my car from a service station. A police officer was parked next to my car. As I passed, I smiled and said hi. He turned, paused, and said hello. The pause. The look. I could have gotten rid of that by heading to the barber right then and there. But, each day for the past seven months, I have exercised my choice not to.

That is privilege.