Looking for a Dharma Bum by Sabrina S. & HeadBoy
The car rolled down the freeway. Carlo held his head out of the rear window, or where the rear window would be if we had one in this rag top ’58 Chevy. Like everything else we know, the car is almost cool: a ’58, when the ’57 Bel Air is clearly the cooler ride, a cassette deck forced into the space where the factory stereo originally sits instead of a CD player and a boat load of ideas swirling in our tea-addled heads.
Not the kind of tea you drink, the kind you smoke. The kind of tea the Beats used to smuggle into and out of the nightclubs of San Francisco. The kind of stuff that makes your mouth a bitter kind of dry. The kind of tea that makes you so hungry for Doritos, you’d run over your mother for a bag of them. There is little solace in smoking this much on a night this dark, on a freeway this empty in an America so wide open, but it does have the feel of absolute freedom – we drive from town to town, find women, seduce them, talk them into cutting their hair, and blow out of town in three to four days.
Little solace? Probably not, but there is the outright look and feel, and smell, of America: the scent of summer crops sprouting on the sides of the interstate, growing to feed a hungry nation that has grown rich from internet stocks and booming economy. We are the three people that the boom has left behind, the lost children of the 1990s, the last bastion of an America that still has growing pains, and an apathy toward the rich, and a near-hatred of anything that is new, different or beyond the pale. We are into women with buzzcuts, and in every town where we stop, we find at least one girl willing, hell eager, to undergo our whims. It doesn’t take long to find them, it usually ends up being the first girl that smiles back at us in our ragged flannel and faded jeans. She almost always falls for Carlo’s crooked smile and lightning-fast wit. Some swoon for Neal’s movie star good looks, and some of them get weak knees over my dark eyes that they always term as “soulful.”
Soulful? That’s an odd term, isn’t everyone full of soul? Except for John Tesh, I mean. But aren’t we all souls being held into these mortal coils? Aren’t we all greater than the sum of our parts. There is only one me, one Ben Infante, failed writer with a pair of electric clippers and a seemingly unhealthy desire to crop the world. Soulful, as in cup runneth-ing over? As in Woody Guthrie’s “This Train Is Bound For Glory?” As in Aretha Franklin? Hell, if I knew the answer to that, I’d be a success at this, instead of a failure… well, no one is truly a failure until they give in, and I haven’t given in yet. I just find it more enjoyable to drive all night, banging the dashboard to Hank Williams Sr. and Joan Jett with the other two “Trouble Boys” and wreak havoc on the hair of young willings everywhere. It’s liberating, really. You should try it. Try it and discover why a freshly-buzzed head being rubbed is just like an electric shock to the spine.
Like a multiple orgasm going off all at once. Like a nuclear explosion on the surface of the sun. Like a fresh doughnut at three a.m. on a cold night in the middle of Wisconsin, the doughnut fresh and steaming in the chill air, competing with your breath to see which makes the bigger white cloud.
We pulled in to some faceless Wisconsin burgh, and found the only open place in town. It was freezing outside, and the fresh-faced girl behind the counter was sweet, helpful and ready with the pot of coffee as soon as we needed more. She had an innocence, and a Marcia Brady look that begged to go away. She talked with us like she knew who we were, and knew why we were. Knew we were here to change her life, well her appearance anyway.
It took a little convincing. Here in cold depths of conservatism, she was attached to her long hair, not only to keep her delicate pink ears warm, but because girls in this part of the world just weren’t cropped. Poor things. Be different, I persuaded her, using the soulful eyes to their best. There’s a life outside Wisconsin, outside the cheap diner, away from long hair and dirty aprons and a kitchen that smelt like the freshest thing it had cooked for years was the rat the chef found under the counter last Tuesday.
“How short?” she said finally, tossing the long hair over her shoulder. Her eyes were saucers in the bright flourescent light.
I ran my hand over my own hair, which was growing out. It hadn’t been cut for almost six weeks and it was about 1/2 inch long around the sides, spiky on top. “Kinda like mine,” I lied, knowing it would be shorter.
She hesitantly lifted one chapped red hand to touch my head, and gasped. My hair looks harsh and spiky, but I knew it felt like silk, and it had persuaded more than a few young lovelies to lose their locks.
“Will you do it now?” she said softly, letting her fingers dance down my neck and making me feel like midsummer had suddenly hit Wisconsin and melted the frost outside.
She locked the door, and asked us into the back room… “One of you will clean up the mess, right?” she asked, letting us know she had plenty of work to do on the graveyard shift, and she still had two chapters of homework to read too.
We did our fastest work, Carlo with the camera snapping photos each step of the way, me with the clippers, buzzing her to 1/2 inch on top and much less on the sides, and Neal offering encouragement to her as she giggled away. Her hair looked so soft as I approached, but it felt like hay. The kind of hay we slept on on the long, empty Iowa roadside one night last month.
The weather was warm then and there, here it is cold. Bone chilling cold. I wondered why she’d be so eager to let us clipper her when the weather outside was such a bitter thing. It didn’t matter, it was such a rush watching this coed ask me, hearing her ask me, feeling her tender hands on my shoulder as she asked me.
Her hair did feel like straw, hay, whatever, but it peeled away with long, easy strokes. “I don’t have a mirror, do any of you?” she asked. Her cheeks looked rounder as her hair fell to the floor. It hit the spread out copy of the Wisconsin Ledger that we’d spread out on the floor below the footstool that she sat upon with that plump, gorgeous ass of hers that looked like an upside down heart. She asked us if we’d send her copies of the pictures when we got the chance, I said “sure,” because I figured she was entitled.
Her ears folded easily, like they were designed for this haircut, they had that perfect ear-shape that can only be described as “ear-shaped”. She had bright eyes, and an innocent grin, all of which stood out more when those long, blonde, bangs fell to the well-oiled clippers that drilled away at them.
“Hey, do you guys want to help me clean this place up so I can get to my homework?” she asked, we all nodded and said sure, because she looked like a good kid, and we didn’t get charged for the coffee. Her Wisconsin accent sounded nearly lyrical, like a beautiful concert set to a chorus of Green Bay Packers’ lineman humming away. It was really just the sound of the clippers, making yet another swipe. Her head shined through the shorter parts of her new clipper cut. She looked at the mirror as Neal held it up.
She nodded that it was to her liking, and asked us if we wanted some doughnuts to take with us when we were done cleaning up. She filled our thermos as we swept up and washed the pots and pans in the back. She put together a box of two dozen, piping hot, chocolate doughnuts. You could see her catch her reflection in the glass cabinet and smile.
She rubbed the, very short, back of the cut and asked, “How long does the euphoria last?”
“I’m going on six years myself,” I said, shoving sugar packets into my chest pocket.
“Next time you boys come through, you can do it again,” she said, buttoning Neal’s top button. “Drive safe, it’s cold and dark out.”
We headed out into the night, with her name and address safely in my back pocket, to mail her pictures when we developed them, probably in Denver. Carlo’s parent’s had a house in Denver, but they never stayed there.
Carlo had the keys, and the PIN number to their bank card. They were so well-off, they never missed the $500 he took out every other week. We lived on that, and whatever money we could pick up on working day jobs in the mid-west, or selling plasma in the Bay area when we’d get there.
My sister always let us stay in her basement. She could cook enough food to feed an army, and since the Trouble Boys ate like the pigs that we are, well, she almost had to. Once, and only once, I had clipped her hair. It was last year, when we turned up tanned, broke and stoned. Unbuttoning her rigid middle-class American psyche for a night she smoked some tea with us and then lay on the sofa with her head over the end and her hair touching the floor. I never thought I’d hear her say the words, “OK, then, cut my hair off, show me what it’s all about,” but she said them all the same.
She’d sat primly on a stool in the kitchen, a towel around her shoulders. Five years older than I, she was part mother, part sister, part friend, part enemy. It felt peculiar touching her hair and I had both a desire to clip it to extinction but then not to, as if in a way I was breaking a taboo. In the end I opted to give her a half-inch crewcut, not short enough so her scalp showed through, but short enough so she could run her fingers over her newly mown hair and gasp.
She’d closed her eyes as I started the clippers. Carlo and Neal were well stuck into her beer by then, they’d drunk well over a six pack each and lounged around the kitchen, watching my sister’s thick dark curls fall lushly on the floor.
It was the closest I’d ever felt to my sister. My breath was on her cheek as I carefully stroked the clippers in front of her ears, peeling away the hair in shining clumps.
“It tickles,” she murmured, with a hiccup of a giggle in her voice. She didn’t watch as I cut off all her long hair, but sat primly like a novice nun as Mother Superior clipped her head. Did I feel like Mother Superior? Hell no! But I did feel that rather than tying her to a life of routine, I was freeing her of all her inhibitions.
The next day it was as if nothing had happened. She didn’t mention her hair as we drank her coffee and ate her food. It sat superbly short on her head, dynamic and confident, the opposite of its owner. She still dressed in her stuffy business suits and went to work, her ears pink and naked, her hair proclaiming her individuality far more than she’d ever dare to. She never let me cut her hair again, but grew it. Last time I saw her it was down to her chin, and she looked like her old self. It was as if that one night, that incredible giggling night when I sheared away her hair, had never happened. She still didn’t understand me; why I did what I did, why I travelled the country cutting off hair.
She always looked at me with the same look Mom always had… “Why, Ben, why?” is what it always said. She loved me, but never comprehended the need to do this. Maybe it was our way of avoiding growing up. Maybe it was our way of trying to change the world one heart, or head, at a time. Maybe it was just because we had smoked too much tea and never eaten balanced meals on a regular basis. Maybe it was the smell of America that lured us on the Road? Maybe it was the smell of hair as it gets clippered away? Maybe it was just the way a woman’s scalp looks, getting exposed for the first time, as the clippers reduce the mane to stubble, as the girl morphs from girl to woman, the buzzing sound as it tickles inside her ear while the teeth tickle her skull and the moment tickles my fancy.
Maybe it was all that damned Jack Kerouac I read as a teen, and it seemed to make more sense than the 9 to 5 life the teachers always told me I needed to have to be a success. Maybe it was the lure of making my life a literal “Screw you, I’ll do what I want” to all those who said I’d never amount to anything. Like Joan Jett says, “I don’t give a damn about my reputation / yer livin’ in the past, it’s a new generation / Don’t really care if you think I’m strange / I ain’t gonna change…” That may be it more than anything else.
I don’t have the answers to any of the questions in my head. I have a backpack with a change of clothes and a pair of clippers, a copy of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” and a droll sense of humor. I have about $35 to my name, and a set of parents back home that don’t, or won’t, understand me, like that matters now, but I always wanted to find that place where the air didn’t feel stifling, where the stench of America becomes the smell of Freedom. Where that Iron Lady in New York Harbor actually lives up to her creeds. Where buzzed women are plentiful, even the norm, and clippers flare up on a regular basis, reducing mountains of hair, from New Jersey to San Diego and everywhere in between, fall to the floor, on the local newspaper, and the girls all end up converting two of their friends to the look as well.
Like the time the clippers roared up the back of Jenna’s neck, she was a gorgeous woman, early 30’s and had seen a lot more than I had, you could tell by the look on her face. The clippers in my hands were busy ridding her of five years of growth. Five years of growing out the Gwenyth Paltrow “Sliding Doors” cut her pals had talked her into at work.
They hummed and purred near her ear, like a sweet melody from some poet folky strumming his out of tune guitar, the excitement rumbled inside her. She felt a breeze over her ears, her temples were near-naked and finally exposed. Her head was quickly being denuded. It would be, in a matter of a few minutes, a stubbled masterpiece, some of my finest work.
Jenna bit her lip, almost to the point of drawing blood. Blood, the stuff coursing through her veins and her obviously racing heart. She was ready for the cutting mentally, but not emotionally though.
Jenna got up after the clippers had worked their magic, after the last traces of anything over 1/4 inch remained on her scalp. She was damn-near bald, the nice, middle-class girl gone astray was now a different sort of person entirely. She just didn’t know what. Neither do we, we are the Trouble Boys, not the Shell Answer Men. We’re not really the social outcasts we try to make ourselves out to be after all. We just need to learn to look in different places for our friends and compatriots. We’ll drive until we find it, how long we’ll have to drive is the question.
Carlo, Neal and I will be driving for a long time, clippering away at the willing, gently nudging the unwilling, so they’ll at least consider something new, and finding the late night joints in the corners of this great, if stuffy, land called the U.S. of A.. We’ll keep looking for Little America, will it keep looking for us?