I begin, sounding very much like a ticket agent, by saying, “Let’s see, we’ve got bald men, chemo people, people who cross-dress, and transsexuals. Who else?”
“Well, there are also women,” says Donna Good, “who lose their hair and people with alopecia.”
Ms. Good should know, since she’s been in the hair business since 1968 and in the wig business since 1974. She is presently with Elements Day Spa, which can be found in the 3300 block of Third Avenue in Hillcrest.
Good shrugs. “It’s loss of hair. There’s no gender anymore. There is a huge increase in women who are losing their hair, even male-pattern baldness happens to them now. I’ve seen a 30 percent increase in women’s baldness over the last ten years. More and more women in their 30s and 20s are going bald. Nobody knows why.”
Donna Marie Good was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, raised in Azusa, California, and arrived in San Diego 33 years ago. She’s five foot two inches tall and has a personality that stands six foot three. Good has brown hair, brown eyes, a Roman nose, full lips, and a default countenance that declares, “You should eat something.”
“How about men? Anything different there?”
“Men go for hairpieces to cover a certain area first,” Good says. “They’ve looked in the mirror and thought they were ten years older than they are. That’s fine if you have a baby face, but if you’re 40 and look 50, or you’re 30 and somebody thinks you’re close to 40, it’s not the most flattering thing.
“With all the commercials on TV there isn’t much stigma to wearing hairpieces anymore. You either want to try one or you don’t. Most people want to be well groomed, and a piece does make a difference. Until you use a hairpiece, you think, ‘Oh, I’ll never wear one.’ But when you see yourself in a hairpiece, especially when you’re used to seeing yourself without hair, the look is…”
I think, “Like a middle-aged man wearing a wig.” I say, “Do men often stop wearing a wig after they’ve worn one for a while?”
Good laughs. She has a from-the-bottom-of-her-stomach rolling laugh. “I had a wonderful man in here. He was working on the Navy base. He needed a new piece, and he’d seen me teach a class to Navy barbers on how to make molds. In fact, I used him as a model in the class.
“Well, he came in for quite a while after that. And then, all of a sudden, he called and said, ‘I won’t be wearing it anymore.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I had a girlfriend, and my wife found out. She thinks it’s because of the hairpiece. So I’m not allowed to wear it anymore.’ ”
“His wife runs a merciful court.” I look past Good to a wall-mounted mirror and note that 30 percent of my hair has been devoured by male-pattern baldness. “Have many male clients gone back to bald?”
“It’s rare. When that happens it’s normally due to their wives.”
Actually, I think it’s more like 35 percent. Hmm. Sigh. Heave. “People buy wigs to hide their baldness or illness. Does anyone come to you who wants a wig just to flat-out party?”
“Cross-dressers or transvestites or transsexuals or whatever are always making themselves look better in whatever role they choose to play,” Good says. “I had two of them in. They were truck drivers. They were going to have the surgery and had to go through therapy. It’s a big deal. I think they have to be tested to see if they’re more to the female side. They have to do hormones and take shots.”
“What did they look like when they walked in?”
Good considers the question, then replies, “Like men trying to look like women.”
“Were they wearing dresses?”
“Pantsuits. But some of them wear dresses, and they look beautiful.”
“Good-looking, some of them, but they’re always going to have that…”
Good smiles and moves on. “These two were hoots. They were really nice.”
“Since they were cross-dressing, they must have been wearing wigs when they came in?”
“They were, and they were tired of them. They wanted to know what else they could do. That’s when I showed them the integration, which they really, really loved.”
“What’s integration?” This is asked in a where-do-babies-come-from? tone of voice.
Good picks up what looks to be an oval, webbed yarmulke. “Instead of wearing a heavy wig, you integrate the piece into your own hair. That makes it nice.”
I get it. You stick the oval thing to your skull. Wig hair is laced into the oval thing. Natural hair is “integrated” into the wig hair. “What happened to the truck drivers?”
“They were getting ready to get the operation, and I had to get my big hug. I don’t care who you are, getting that operation takes a lot of guts. So I gave them a hug and said, ‘You know what? You guys have more balls than I do.’ And they go, ‘We won’t have them for long.’ ”
I wince…and wince again. “Were they happy about getting the operation?”
“They were thrilled. They’d been wanting to do it forever. It wasn’t expensive either. I was shocked, it costs 10, 15 grand, and they only stay there nine days.”
Still wincing, but manage, in mid-wince, to say, “Then they go home and return to driving a rig. How does that work?”
“Well, there are a lot of lady truck drivers. They were partners. They were together. They weren’t lovers; they just drove the truck together. I think they felt protected by that. And they’re big. They could probably hold their own.”
I visualize two large, wide-shouldered truck drivers climbing down from a Freightliner cab wearing blond wigs, pink blouses, ruby hot pants and say, more to myself than to Good, “Makes being gay look like Christmas morning.”
I mean, all you’d have to do is tell everyone you know there’s been a mistake: you were given the wrong sex at birth. Then after your parents, siblings, relatives, friends, acquaintances, and coworkers are through with their declarations of praise and understanding, hand over thousands of dollars to a surgeon (why did he pick this particular specialty?) and have him amputate your sexual content.
Good says, “It’s a very hard thing to do. It’s very difficult. I have one in Washington D.C. He goes to work as a man. He’s almost ready to retire, and once he retires, that’s it, he’ll have the surgery and that will be the end of it.”
The end of it, indeed. “How about men in general. How are they as clients?”
“They’re really faithful. I don’t care if it’s a man who’s wearing a toupee or a full piece. Men are faithful, even with their barbers. I had a 25th anniversary party five years ago, and some of the people there had been with me since I moved to San Diego in 1970.”
I don’t change barbers until they die or are imprisoned, because looking for a new barber ranks right up there with standing in line at the dmv. Still, I can see how wig loyalty would be different, more of a co-conspiracy foxhole. This leads me to wonder, “Have you ever had a customer walk into your store and thought, ‘This person shouldn’t have a wig’?”
“Absolutely.” Good moves toward a ringing telephone. “They can do what they want — it’s their money — but if they’re not ready, or they’re expecting too much, they shouldn’t buy a wig.”
“Expecting too much? Expecting to be 25 again?”
“They’re expecting to have their hair back.”
“When was the first time you wore a wig?” I’m speaking to Moné, an exotic dancer at Exposé, a Miramar Road strip club.
Moné replies, “A wig?”
Our conversation is taking place in the back, way back, of the club. To get here, you walk through the front door, go past the bar, beyond the stage floor, open a black metal door, travel down a narrow passageway, and turn left into a storage area. Three of us sit on metal chairs placed alongside coolers and cardboard boxes. I’ve asked the club’s owner, Dino Palmiotto, to sit in.
Moné is young, just on the right side of legal, and small, maybe five foot two. An inventory of her working tools includes an oval pubescent face, large brown eyes, full breasts, flat stomach, diminutive waist, wide hips, firm ass, and proportionally long legs.
I ask again, “When was the first time you wore a wig?”
Moné says, “You mean a wig, like, for wearing, or a wig as in costumes, or…?”
“Doesn’t matter. The first time you wore a wig. Anytime. Anyplace.” My voice sounds too cop.
Moné seems confused. I repeat, s-l-o-w-l-y, “When was the first time you put a wig on your head, for any reason?”
“I was, like, five.” Moné makes a little-girl smile. “I was a witch for Halloween.”
“Where did you get the wig?”
“At Target. It was a costume wig.”
“Did you pick it out or did your mom?” Oozing warmth here.
“I went to the store and picked it out. It was long and black, with white stripes that glowed in the dark.” Moné stops, thinks for a moment, says, “I was a witch.”
I’m beginning to sense the presence of a conversational black hole. “So there you were, you’re five years old, you’ve acquired the wig, brought it home, put it on, and looked in the mirror. What did you feel? What did you think?”
“I thought I looked good.”
“Did you think, ‘This is cool’?”
“Yes. I loved it.”
“Did you feel like another person?”
“What kind of person?”
“I don’t know. I’m five. I felt my character. I was a witch with long hair and a broom.”
I am adrift in a monosyllable bog. “So you went trick-or-treating, came back home, and took off your wig. Did you feel different after the wig came off, like, ‘Okay, showtime is over’?”
It’s lonely in the bog. “When did you get your next wig?”
“Man, I was a witch for, I don’t know how many years, and then I turned into Catwoman. I got a Catwoman wig for Halloween. That was high school.”
“Did you ever wear a wig other than on Halloween?” The bog doesn’t appear to have a beginning or end to it.
“I got a real wig during my sophomore year. I actually wore it. I used to trip people out because it was a short wig in a bob. I wore it when I didn’t feel like combing my hair.”
Land ho! Four complete sentences. “Which high school did you go to?”
“Kearny High School. I graduated in 2001.”
“How did you come by the high school wig?”
“From my mom, because she goes to wig stores sometimes.”
Got a rhythm going now. “Whose idea was it to get you a wig?”
“I brought it up to her.”
“Did you say, ‘Mom, I’d like to have a wig’?”
“Oh, yeah, I was, like, ‘Girl, let me borrow that wig.’ ”
The shoreline has disappeared. “What did that wig look like?”
“That one had a short bob, came down like that.” Moné touches her forehead.
There will be no coming home from the monosyllable bog for me. There will be no hot meal and toasty evening in front of the fire tonight. “What color was the wig?”
“It was black.”
Who will feed my dog? Who will fix the kitchen door? “Was the wig made out of human hair?”
“No, it was synthetic.”
And what about lawn care, particularly that brown section by the barbecue pit? “How did you attach the wig to your head?”
“It had a little Velcro snap,” Moné says. “You pull on it and snap on the sides to make it tighter.”
It isn’t fair. There was so much more I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to learn French…hold it! Maybe there is a way out of here. Indeed. Yes. I’ll answer my own questions!
Swelled with restored hope, I take a deep breath, look directly into placid brown eyes, and say, “I wonder, back in high school, when you got up in the morning, if you had a thought or a feeling that made you decide, ‘I’m going to wear my wig today.’ Maybe you thought, ‘I don’t have time to do my hair,’ or ‘I don’t want to do my hair this morning,’ or ‘I want to be sexy today.’ ” I beam as if this is the happiest moment of my life and then bark, “PICK ONE.”
Moné smiles, shakes her head, and says, “I don’t know if you want to ask me that question. I got a whole lot of reasons, different reasons, a lot of different reasons.”
ZOUNDS! “Tell me every one. Don’t hold anything back!”
Moné settles into her chair. “It depends on how I feel when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and be like, ‘Hmm.’ Or maybe I feel like I need to be adventurous. Or maybe I’m going to have to do a whole lot of errands and I feel like being cute. Or I ain’t really going nowhere, but I still need to be cute. So I might throw on a wig, just to do something different.”
I have witnessed a verbal avalanche. “How many wigs do you own now?”
“I have two since I moved out of my mom’s house. She has three. We used to rotate them. She goes for the shorter, flipped, more sophisticated style. She’s a nurse, so it has to be short and clean. They be cute. For me, I wear the short one in public, because it’s more calm. You know what I mean?”
I nod my head with great enthusiasm.
“The other wig I wear to work sometimes. It’s long. It comes down to here,” tiny fingers touch tiny shoulder tips, “and it has a little bang thing. But I don’t mess with that. I just brush some hair over it, make me a little swoop, and then let it hang down.”
Of course. Precisely so. “When you’re dancing, do you like one style of music when wearing one type of wig and another kind of music when wearing another kind of wig?”
“The wig I wear to work, the long one, the one I wear my purple dress with, well, I’ll tell Lou to put on something upbeat, you know what I’m saying? Music like that. Because normally I dance to a lot of reggae with the braids.” Completely engaged now, Moné chirps, “It changes with the hairdos. I change my hairdos, which makes the music change.”
So that’s how it works. I wonder if wigs “affect your money, since the way you look influences how men react to you, and how men react to you determines how much money you earn.” Moné’s face is blank. I resize the question. “Do you get more tips wearing a short wig or a long one?”
“Hmm.” Moné takes a moment and considers the implications. “I haven’t noticed. It doesn’t matter, to be truthful. My face is soft, it has that little-girl quality. So no matter what hairstyle I have, it’s not…”
“Men are attracted to the face and not the hair.”
So much for my wig unified field theory. “Everybody I’ve talked to who wears a wig has a story about the time it fell off…”
Moné interrupts, “I was onstage. I was getting dressed.” Full stop. “Was I getting dressed?” Stop. “How did I bump the wig?” Long stop. “Oh, yes, I was taking my clothes off. It was the second song. Everybody was looking because I’m about to get naked. I was taking off my dress, and I bumped my wig and,” Moné giggles, “I looked in the mirror to see who’s looking at me, like I usually do, and saw that my wig had come off. So I played like my dress was caught on my hand or something. I pulled my head down and started taking my dress off and got the wig back on.”
The Heimlich flesh maneuver. “If you could buy any wig, which one would you buy?”
Moné says, “It’s just way bad. It’s brow level, and it’s layered in front, and it has that human part down the middle. It’s human hair. That’s a bad wig.”
I look down at my leg and beam as if a little human-hair wig were sitting on my knee. “What color would the wig be? Purple, blond…?”
Green is good. “When you wear a wig, do you feel more confident?”
“I feel that. But number one, I feel it’s different. It’s different without having to do too much. Or when I’m lazy, it’s like, ‘I’ll throw this one on and go to the store.’ Or if I feel like clubbing…it’s a lot of things.”
Moné adds, let me stress, she adds voluntarily, “Let me tell you something. I wore a wig here. I was going to school. I have to shoot from school to here and I don’t have time to do my hair. But I’m out in the daylight. I can’t have everybody thinking, ‘She’s wearing a wig.’ The wig I have has the little fake human part in it. So I part it, put a cute little barrette on, and no one knows.”
That’s the question, isn’t it? Why wear a wig if everybody knows you’re wearing a wig? I ask, “What about sex? You’re being intimate; people’s hands are in people’s hair. At the appropriate moment, do you drop a ‘Hang on, baby, while I take off my wig’?”
Moné, sounding for the first time like a full-grown woman, says, “If I’m having sex with you, I’m very comfortable with you, and we’re very comfortable with each other. So I’ll go into the bathroom and take my hair off, and when I come back, it’s going to be gone.”
“When I measure a head for a wig,” Good says, “I have to measure a little smaller. When your hair is gone, you’d be surprised how tiny your head is.”
I’m back on Third Avenue talking to Ms. Good. She’s explaining how things work. “Most wig stores do not employ a licensed cosmetologist or barber. The state of California does not require that. You,” Good points to my chest, “can cut on a wig. I can teach you how to cut a wig, but you cannot cut a person’s hair without a license.”
Got it. No cut human hair. I ask about matching a person to a wig. Good retrieves several catalogs containing wig lore. Many pictures. Actually, many more than many pictures. In fact, after perusing only a few volumes of the styles and colors and lengths and sizes and manufacturers of wigs, I’ve come to believe there must be vast sections of our country inhabited solely by bald-headed people.
Good says, “Let’s say you’ve been coming in for three years and you’re wearing a hairpiece. But your hair starts to shift; you’re getting older. So instead of this color [auburn] with 1 percent gray in it, you might have the same color but with 10 percent gray.”
“They look like two different colors, but they’re not, because your base color is still there. Very rarely does your base color change. So we just add more and more and more gray to the hairpiece. Redheads are the hardest to match. Their hair might look like it’s a solid color, but if you hold it in the light you’ll notice lots of colors.”
I decide to accept this as a fact.
Good shows me a photograph of what looks to be a rust-belt factory and says, “New Man and New Woman, been in business 35 years. I’ll send them a hair sample and they’ll match the color perfectly. They might mix together 8, 12, 15 different colors to make that one color. They’ll custom blend anything you want.
“They have barrels filled with raw colors. They’ll say, ‘Make number 44,’ which is very popular, or ‘Get two ounces of that and three ounces of that,’ and they’ll mix. All the dyeing is done by hand. It’s an art.”
“Where do they get the hair?”
“The factory buys human hair that is not overly brushed, and then they strip all the color out of it. Somebody who grows hair fast can grow a half inch to three-quarters of an inch of hair per month. That’s fast. Six inches takes about two and a half years.”
Good graduated from Gladstone High School in Azusa, California. The year was 1967. “I’d already enrolled in beauty school going into my senior year. By the time I graduated from high school, I only had a few more hours to do. That September I got my beauty license. In ’69 I went back to school at the Pasadena Barber College for my barber’s license. Vidal Sassoon was in; businessmen were getting pedicures and manicures. The hair business was starting to turn. I could see that.”
Ms. Good moved to San Diego in 1970. “I was 21 years old. I had a girlfriend here. I told her, ‘Look, I want to go to an upscale salon. I’ve been trained, and I don’t want to go to a greasy flattop shop.’ My girlfriend said, ‘The only place I know is in Fashion Valley. It’s pretty new.’
“It was the first upscale salon in San Diego. It was called the Razor’s Edge, and it was in Fashion Valley. The boss, Jerry Piatt, who’s down the street now, was a Roffler dealer. They specialized in men’s razor cuts.
“So I went over and saw this gorgeous salon and thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is, wow, big-time.’ I begged Jerry for a job. He didn’t have an opening for a stylist. I said, ‘Hey, I’m a barber and a beautician. I can manicure. I am excellent.’
“I was hired as a manicurist. I wasn’t there a day before one of the guys didn’t show up for work, so I spent the day cutting hair, and it was, ‘Okay, you’re hired.’ And that was it until two years later when I opened my own shop, the Captain’s Quarters, in the Cabrillo Building.”
“Tell me about the Captain’s Quarters.”
“All the rooms were private. I had a sign on every room, ‘Closed/Private.’ Women loved it because each room had its own sink. My rent was 350 bucks a month. I put 18 grand in the shop. It was buffed. We were written up in articles all the time. Two guys came with me from the Razor’s Edge. One went into the beauty-supply business, and Teddy moved away. Then two girls who happen to be barbers came in. So we were written up again for being a salon with all-girl barbers. I had the shop for eight years.”
Girl barbers, razor haircuts during the day. Disco fever at night. “I don’t hear anything about wigs.”
“Before I left the Razor’s Edge, a boss — there were two of them — was selling hairpieces. That was his thing. He was a real country boy. People thought he was as sweet as pie.”
“I don’t understand. You’re working in a hip barber shop, and one day you decide, ‘Gee, I’ll sell wigs.’ ”
“Because men were coming into their own. They wanted hair replacements, discreet ones. My boss used to sell those pieces, but he wasn’t always kosher about it.
“That’s what used to drive me nuts. I thought, ‘I’m going to learn wigs. I’m going to pick his brain, and I’m going to work right next to him, and when I open my shop, I’m taking his clients.’ ”
I have zero doubt Good acquired his clients. “So when you opened Captain’s Quarters, you sold wigs as well as the customary services of a salon?”
“Yes, for what little clientele I had. It’s a hard business to build.”
During this interval, Good “entered a hairpiece competition at the Town and Country Resort [in Mission Valley]. I won first place, and it just so happens someone from the [Roffler] factory was in the audience. He was looking for a new rep and offered me a job teaching the Roffler razor cut.
“I would work my salon, and on weekends I’d fly to wherever they told me to, like Boston or Lubbock, Texas. I was a ‘guest artist.’ I would check into a hotel, the dealer would pick me up, and he’d invite all the Roffler stylists to come in, give them crappy hairpieces that were rejects, and I’d show them how to cut them in.”
“Roffler made wigs?”
“They did men’s razor cuts — that’s what they were known for. They brought it in from Italy. We’re talking the ’60s here. They [Roffler] decided, ‘Why not do men’s hairpieces? What a market.’ So they shifted from razor cutting to men’s hairpieces. That’s when Terry Bradshaw came in with us. I did it for six years. What an honor. I got so much education.”
Good owned the Captain’s Quarters for eight years, sold it, leased back a booth, and stayed there until 1991. She’s been at Elements Day Spa for the past seven years.
I wonder how many fashion cycles Good has seen, which leads to the question, “What about going the other way, shaving all your hair off when you begin to bald? I’m thinking of Shaq, Jerry Tarkanian, and Bruce Willis. Has the voluntarily bald fashion blip cost you business?”
Good maintains professional neutrality. “It’s been very popular with balding men in their 30s and 40s. They’ll say, ‘The hell with it. I’m not going to wear a hairpiece. It’s not important.’
“The ones who are the most fearful about wearing a wig are the ones who would love to have hair, but for whatever reason, they won’t allow themselves to think about a hairpiece. I don’t believe they’ve accepted being bald. They don’t want to be bald, and I can’t blame them.”
For the first time I notice, really notice, I’m in a wig store, surrounded by wigs. It’s a little like waking up in a primate exhibit. “I assume most people who come into your shop have passed the threshold of whether to wear a wig or not.”
“I think so,” says Good. “The men, seems they’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. They’ll wind up saying, ‘Let’s do it, let’s just do it.’ For a man, it’s a $500 or $600 investment. He might never wear it, but it’s done, it’s over with, it’s in the box and out the door.”
“Being a woman is something that’s hard to get used to. Women don’t seem to have a problem touching me. I’m a little nervous yet about touching them.”
Speaking is Gayle No-Last-Name, who, as they say in the gender business, is “living as a woman” and is a patron of Donna Good’s. I’d asked Good to introduce me to a sample of her clients and within a few days was presented with a list of names and phone numbers. Gayle and I have been discussing the difficulties of learning how to act like a female after a lifetime of being male. I observe, “Male humor is very different than female humor.”
“Yeah. And bathroom etiquette. Public restroom etiquette is totally different. These are things you need a tutor for.”
At first glance, the list of differences appears immense. “What about expressing annoyance, then moving on to irritation, frustration, exasperation, and anger as a female versus the way men do it.”
Gayle says, “And swear words.”
“What’s the difference there?”
“It’s mostly a matter of holding it in.”
So…much to learn. “You’d have to become aware of all the unconscious characteristics and quirks peculiar to men and then be able to suppress those and learn a like number of unconscious characteristics and traits peculiar to women and express those. Learn how to walk. How to sit. How to eat. Makeup. Hair care. Clothes.”
“Yes.” Gayle’s “yes” has the sound of hard-earned knowledge. “One of the problems I’ve had,” Gayle says, “was my fingernails. As soon as I started on hormones, they went to hell. They turned brittle and cracked and broke. If you grow up with one set of hormones, you’re fine. But if you change, it can affect your nails. For a long time, my nails were broken off at the nail bed. And that doesn’t look good on a woman.”
Looking back, I don’t believe I’ve ever told a girlfriend, “Baby, your fingernails are magnificent.” Even so, I do have a murky sense that fingernails are important Over There. Moving on, “When I see women put on makeup or do their nails, I’m looking at a pro. I’m looking at somebody who’s put thousands of hours into that activity. How long has it taken you to learn how to apply makeup?”
“I’m still not very good at it.” Gayle is chemistry-test serious. “The basic face makeup isn’t very hard. What is difficult is eye makeup, putting makeup around your eyes and mascara and stuff like that. I’m still struggling with it. My sister had to show me how. For the most part I don’t wear much eye makeup. I put on foundation, lipstick, a little blush, and it looks pretty good. But eye makeup takes a while. Of course, girls learn how to do that when they’re 12 years old.”
“What else have you learned?”
“How to get in and out of a car wearing a skirt. That’s an experience. The way you do it, you sort of sit down and swing your legs in and grab your skirt with your outboard hand.”
“Do you wear high heels?”
“Low high heels.”
“How’s that going?”
Gayle says, “Heels up to two or two and one-half inches aren’t a problem. As soon as you get up to three inches, then it becomes a problem. I’m six foot one, so I can’t wear high heels. I’ll wear a one-inch heel, something like that. It looks more dressy, but it doesn’t raise my height. With three-inch heels you’ll tend to not stand up straight. You tend to flex your knees, and you can’t do that as a woman. You have to keep your knees and legs straight.” Silence. “Shoes are about the worst thing a woman wears.”
Listening to Gayle, I’m not sure if I hear a woman’s voice, but it’s definitely not a man’s, and it’s not effeminate. I ask, “What was that first day like? Did you say to yourself, ‘Okay, on the 15th of January I’m going to live like a woman, and that’s it’?”
“Not quite. I got into it gradually. The conversion from full-time-male living to full-time-female living took place over three or four months. It became serious last June when I had a legal name change, because then I had to start telling organizations and people, ‘Hey I’m a different person now.’ ”
How many people would you have to tell? How far down the acquaintanceship chain would you need to go? Would you tell the mailman, the guy at the dry cleaners, the supermarket checkout lady, the gas station cashier, the jerk at the hardware store, your dentist’s receptionist, your pharmacist, your mechanic? Continuing that thought out loud, “Lots of stuff to change. Social Security card, driver’s license, car insurance, medical insurance, bank and credit cards for openers.”
Gayle says, “Social Security and dmv have been through this before. Basically, you get a letter from your physician saying you identify with the other sex, you’re under his care, and he’s been prescribing hormones. You get your name changed through court order and go to the dmv and Social Security offices, and they say, ‘Okay.’ ”
“It can’t be that easy.” I am more certain of that than I am of tomorrow’s sunrise.
“Well, it comes and goes at being tough. Last summer the Social Security office and the dmv office were extremely concerned about identity theft. The dmv said, ‘We’re not going to change the gender on your driver’s license until Social Security does.’ And Social Security said, ‘We’re not going to change it until you have a new driver’s license.’ Everything came to a complete stop for four months.”
Only four months? “Who gave in first?”
“They sort of cooperated.”
I inquire about a stash of wigs. Gayle replies, “I buy a new one and give one away. I’ve probably never had more than two or three wigs at any one time.”
“Did you buy the same color but different styles?”
“Generally. The color varies a little bit, but mostly it’s a difference of styles and length. It’s very difficult to change the style of a synthetic wig. You can easily change human-hair wigs, but synthetic wigs need a heat treatment to effect a new style. So the style you buy is the one you’re stuck with.”
“What don’t you like about wigs?”
“They’re somewhat uncomfortable. Scratching my head feels different because I’m not really scratching myself, I’m scratching the wig. Now, the one I’ve got on right now, the webbing is very wide open toward the back. So if I scratch my head in the back, I can scratch my scalp, but up in the front of the wig — the front of my scalp — if I scratch there, I’m not scratching my head.”
“And what do you like about wigs?”
“Well, when I look in the mirror I look like a woman. That’s what I like best about it.”
Honest answer to a stupid question. “What else has surprised you about womanhood?”
“I don’t feel as free going out alone, like going out to a store or having a meal by myself. I feel more comfortable if I’m with somebody else. Then another strange thing,” Gayle says, “I’ve always been a handyman around the house. I had to laugh and the neighbors laughed. They’re used to seeing this guy mowing the lawn or up on the roof trimming branches. Now they see a woman up there.”
Women in trees. Landscaping triumph or suburban blight? “How old are you?”
I would have guessed mid-40s. “Why are you going through all the expense and difficulty of an operation rather than, ‘What the hell, I’ll just ride it out the way I’ve been riding it’?”
“Well, what can I do with the rest of my life that will mean something to me? Do I continue to live in San Diego? Do I move somewhere else? Do I go on a world cruise? I’ve got my savings. I’ve got a certain number of years. What can I do that I’ve always wanted to do? This is something I’ve always wanted to do.
“I could have lived out my life as a man, and sometimes, when I’ve looked at the seriousness of this, the commitment of this, I’ve said, ‘Whoa, maybe I should wait a minute.’ But I’m glad I’m doing it. I’m having a ball.”
“What’s the fun part that makes the rest of it worthwhile?”
“The emotional feeling of being part of society. I feel more empathy toward other people’s problems and how they might feel, how they might react to things. I’ve always been a loner, always felt like I was a loner. I felt like I didn’t belong. Now I say, ‘Okay, I’m a loner, but I really do belong. I’m part of society. I fit in somewhere.’ ”
“You’ve worked with teenage girls who were dying?” I’m back in Good’s shop. It’s noon and she’s between appointments.
“Teenagers come in until they don’t need me anymore. They’re in remission and they’re fine, or they’re gone.”
“Does someone come to mind?”
Good exhales. “Oh, I don’t know. I had a girl with a brand-new baby.” Pause. “And who else? My neighbor sent me a friend who raised two children by herself. Then she found out she had cancer. It was terminal. She came in just before Christmas.
“She was seeing a wonderful guy who adored her. When he found out, he said, ‘We’re getting married.’ So they got married. They’d been married for a month, and then she started with all the cancer treatments.
“She was so fighting me. Everybody pushed her to come in. She’d stand me up. She’d blow me off. I said, ‘Honey, when you’re ready, you know where I am. It’s okay. You come when you want to come.’ We finally got her a piece. She looked so beautiful.”
Good sighs. “As my chemo patients lose their hair, I try to trim what’s left. I like them to keep their hair as long as they can.”
I…don’t…know…what to say.
“I’m feeling the same thing they’re feeling. I’m hoping that maybe they won’t lose it all. I hate to shave their heads. I just hate it. If I can scissor their hair, they can feel like there’s a lot going on. If they can keep some hair, it gives them some hope. Then when they’re home with their husbands they can fake it a little bit. And then their chemo is over, and they start to grow their hair back.”
Suddenly, selling wigs doesn’t seem so lighthearted. “What’s that first 60 seconds like? A customer walks through your door, probably feeling shame, guilt, and fear. That first minute must be tough.”
“It’s very tough. The hardest thing for all of them is losing their hair. I don’t care if it’s cancer and they’ve got three weeks to live or what. When they see their hair going…”
I say nothing.
Good continues, “We have a lot of tears in this place.” Silence. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine. Your hair is less today, but let me cut it short. Your wig’s ready to go.’ And then I get so many hugs it’s unbelievable.” Silence. “And some come here in total denial. They’re angry. They don’t want to be here.”
One more medical humiliation. “Do people usually come in alone or with friends?”
“I’d say half come in alone, brave souls. The rest are referred. Someone has told them to come in.”
“Do you get a lot of ‘I’m only here because my damn doctor told me to come’?”
Good says, “Or their nurses, hairdressers, whoever. If they’re in denial, I’ll say, very nicely, ‘Honey, I’ve got it all. I’ve worked on your size, your color. We can get everything here in three days. Don’t worry about it. I’m on a mission. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy it.’ Then they relax.”
A thought jumps up. How does Good get the right hair color for a bald woman? “Do you ask to see photographs of what she looked like when she had hair, or do you work from what she looks like when you first meet her?”
“Normally, I take it from the first moment I see them, even if they’ve got this much hair,” Good rubs her forefinger and thumb together. “If they wait until all their hair goes and bring in a picture that was taken ten years before, even if I matched the picture perfectly, it wouldn’t work because they’ve changed.
“So if I’m on the phone talking to them or one of their friends, I’ll beg, ‘Please, there’s no charge, let me see you, let me make some notes. If you never come back again, it’s okay.’ It takes a hell of a lot of pressure off me and a lot off them, and pressure is the last thing they need.”
I had…no idea. I came in thinking selling wigs was like selling hats, only funnier. “Is there a moment for a chemo patient when things are okay, or at least they are no longer living in hell?”
“The moment when they’re done with their treatments or they’re in remission, or the doctor says, ‘That’s it for now.’ Then their hair grows back. In four months you’ll see an inch, an inch and a half of new hair.
“Then we can pick through their hair.” Good smiles. “They look cute. They can start dyeing their hair if they want to. Because for most of them, hair comes back curly and stays that way for a year. The chemo does that. And the chemo makes it grow fast when it does come back. You think chemo is bad, but it’s also good in strange ways.”
I make an idiotic, reflexive smile as if to say, “Good chemo, good boy.”
Good continues, “At first they’ll choose to get a full wig, because the integration won’t work if they’re totally bald. Later on, we put them with an integration for six to eight months. They can always keep the integration and the wig if, God forbid, they have to go and do chemo again, because it does come back.”
American medicine is just another fast-food outlet. The seven-minute, make that the five-minute doctor’s appointment. The endless hassles with hmos. The endless hassles with insurance companies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Good spends more time with cancer patients than their doctors do.
Good says, “I do what they call ‘Look Good…Feel Better’ classes for the American Cancer Society. We celebrated our tenth year. It’s nationwide. It’s in every tiny town you can think of.
“We’re three sisters: the cosmetic industry, the toiletry industry, and the National Cosmetology Association. The American Cancer Society sponsors the program and gives us a place to do the class. I’ll be teaching a class on Monday.”
The toiletry industry. Has a ring. “What’s the class about?”
“The women get the most beautiful kit of makeup, over 300 dollars’ worth, unopened. The kit has their colors, their lipstick, and their foundation. And we show them, step by step, how to put makeup on when they have no eyebrows and no eyelashes.”
My stomach tightens. “For cancer patients?”
“For ladies, because men do not wear makeup. The ladies are our guests for two and one-half hours. It’s free. A lot of nurses refer women, and we have notices in every hospital, from Balboa Hospital and Grossmont all the way to Palomar.
“There are women in these Look Good…Feel Better classes who are in their 30s and 40s, successful women, women who wear no makeup. We tell them they need to put on a little blush, because they look so pale they look sick. Depending on the group, sometimes I’ll make a joke, like, ‘You’re not dead yet.’ ”
I can see Good getting away with that. “Have you found, after years of dealing with the cancer patients, that your compassion has grown?”
“Oh yeah.” Good takes a moment. “I always felt if I did my good deeds cancer would never hit me. I’ll tell you a story. My husband’s surgeon was a total jerk. He never met my husband and didn’t know what the results of his tests would be, and yet, when he talked to us for the first time, he used the words ‘death’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence. If I hadn’t been sitting in a chair, I’d have fallen to the ground.
“We got to know him a little better, and I went to see him a couple of days before my husband’s surgery. He knew that I worked with cancer patients, so when I went in to see him, he said, ‘I’d like to share something. I’m going through the same thing with my wife. She has ovarian cancer and breast cancer.’
“Well, believe me, he’d put us through some pretty nasty, sleepless, and angry nights because of his behavior, but after he told me that our views changed. And all of a sudden compassion came back. We went and got a get-well card and gave it to him. He said, ‘I never thought it would happen to me, because I was doing my good deeds.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, just like me.’ So it comes home for everybody.”
“Did he wind up being a pretty good guy?”
“His wife was going to have surgery the next day. We talked to him on the phone a few weeks after that, and he was a total… I don’t want to go there again. The nurses said that had been his personality before the operation.”
The unpleasant return to authentic self. “Did you have this developed sense of compassion ten years ago?”
“Yes. Yes. But it drains you.” Silence. “But they are so thankful. I’m on a high.”
“The high is because you’re helping?”
“It’s a gift. I know it’s a gift. Not everybody can do this. I have friends who say, ‘How do you do it?’ and they’re in the nursing profession. My husband says I’ll always be doing this, because I love people. When I got married four years ago, I had 145 people show up at my wedding. I’d say 100 of them were clients. I’ve been through their children’s deaths…” Good shrugs. “It’s a family, my customers are family. It doesn’t mean I can please everybody, but it’s like a party for me. I remember how their aunts are doing. They invite me to their children’s events and graduations.” Good shrugs again. “I’m Italian.
“In this town a little business normally doesn’t survive. And I’m a little business. I’m a one-man show. I think I’ve survived because of the passion. You have to have the passion or get out and try something else. The average person spends about ten years in the hair business. After that they burn out. I’ve never wanted to switch careers, except, if I could do anything, I’d be a detective. I’d like that.”
I laugh. Hard. Good would be a great detective.
“What’s your connection to Donna?”
A crisp, masculine voice replies, “I’m a client. I have a couple of her pieces.”
I’m on the phone with a fellow I’ll call Warren Cote, male-pattern baldness casualty. I ask, “How did you meet her and when?”
“By referral, five years ago, maybe.”
“Had you ever owned a wig before?”
“Oh, I’ve been wearing them for 20 years.” Cote’s voice tightens. “I don’t call them wigs.”
“What do you call them?”
My voice tightens. “Are you talking about one of those wigs that are very small and light and intertwine into your hair?”
“Yeah. I cover the part of my skull that doesn’t have any hair.”
I get it. The bald place. “Did you know the kind of wig you wanted the first time you saw Donna?”
“No, but I had some ideas about maintaining what I’d always looked like, so to speak.”
“How much of your hair had you lost at the time you acquired your first wig?” Wig, wig, wig, wig, wig.
“I’ve never thought about how much.”
“What made you say to yourself, ‘Gee, I’d better get a wig’?”
“Transplants were just coming in, but they were only good for, I’ve forgotten how many square inches, but I exceeded whatever number that was.”
“When did your hair start to fall out?” Note the graceful transition.
“My first wife got my hair. As well as the house. I was 32 when I went through my first divorce. That was in the early ’70s to mid-’70s. My barber felt I had a personality that could handle a hairpiece. He was right, and I’ve been happy with it ever since.”
“Buying a wig 30 years ago, wasn’t that a bit bold?”
“It might have been,” Cote says agreeably. “It might have been.”
“How do you attach your wig?”
“There’s various ways of attaching. When I first started out, a friend told me the best thing to use for attaching a hairpiece was Velcro.”
“Velcro your skull?”
“Yeah, put a sticky piece on your skull. I use two.”
“Velcro sticks to your skin?”
“It sticks, it stays. After ten days or so the adhesive tends to weaken. By then, oils in the scalp or skin interact, and the Velcro can lose its stickiness. So it’s time to change. It’s very, very inexpensive and effective.”
I envision Cote wearing a Velcro sports jacket. “Here’s the part I don’t get. Many people, and all women, can tell if you’re wearing a wig. That being the case, why bother?”
“The first thing is, if you think you’re fooling anybody, you’re not.”
“Then why buy a wig in the first place?”
“If you accept the fact that everybody knows you’re wearing a piece, then you don’t have that hang-up of ‘What happens if I’m exposed?’ because you know the trained eye will eventually observe a slight difference.”
And again, back into the breach: “If everybody knows, then why wear a wig?”
“Well, maybe not everybody, but if you’re going to get close to somebody, don’t try to fake it.”
“What happens when you get close to somebody? Do you say, ‘By the way, baby, I wear a wig’?”
“You could always surprise her, I suppose. You could whip it off, throw it, and see if you could make it land on the bedpost. You could say, ‘By the way, honey, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,’ and when you tell her it’s about your hair, she goes, ‘Oh, my God, I thought it was something worse.’ ”
Rolling on. “How long does it take to put on your wig in the morning?”
“Doesn’t take long. Just touch it to the hair, pull it back, then ruffle your hair on the sides and the back. They blend.”
“What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“Versus what you see when you don’t?”
Excellent. Got me. Fair and square. “At the end of the day, what’s good about wigs?”
“I don’t know anything else that will do the job with as little hassle. I mean, you get measured, select the style you want and the color, they make a crown for the base, a few weeks later it’s done. You throw a little Velcro on your head, stick the piece on, and go do your thing.”
“Do you wear a wig every day?”
“Do you ever say to yourself, ‘One of these days, the hell with it’?”
“Yeah. I said that to my wife, and she told me, ‘No, forget it, keep it on.’ She likes it on. I have a younger appearance. She’s a babe, and she doesn’t want us to look like there’s an old dude hanging with a young thang.”
It’s Saturday morning and this is a Look Good…Feel Better class. Today’s class is taking place in a meeting room on the second floor of the Kaiser Permanente on Zion Avenue (classes are held throughout San Diego County). The institutional space is softened by a gray-blue rug, gray-blue swivel chairs, and maroon wallboards. In the center of the room, five cafeteria tables have been pushed together to form one large conference table around which sit six cancer patients. Actually, make that five. Kelly, who is 14 years old, has cancer. She’s here with her mother, who is not sick.
Donna Good and Mary Kitchel are the instructors. Sitting in on the class is Donna Davidson, breast-care coordinator for the hospital, and Mary Wendt, from the American Cancer Society. As Good said, the class is courtesy of the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association Foundation, the National Cosmetology Association, and the American Cancer Society. A handout tells me “the free, two-hour, hands-on workshop includes a 12-step skin care/makeup application lesson, demonstration of options for dealing with hair loss, and nail care techniques.”
Which doesn’t describe what’s happening. What’s happening is four women and a girl who have serious cancer. All of them are losing hair or have lost all their hair. All of them are living with the kind of death-fear torment only participants understand. Some of them, odds are, will be dead by the time this is published.
At my request, Ms. Wendt has written a one-sentence background on each of the women.
Ethel has breast cancer and she is in chemotherapy.
Rhonda has ovarian cancer and is in chemo.
Kim has breast cancer and starts radiation tomorrow.
Karen didn’t share any info other than that she has never worn makeup.
Kelly has a tumor in the muscle of her arm. She is going through chemotherapy.
I look up from the paper and study Kelly, the 14-year-old girl who has a tumor in her arm. Later her mother will tell me she has a 65 percent chance to live.
Grown men are not supposed to notice gorgeous 14-year-old girls. Of course, we do notice; we just don’t let on that we notice. I’m saying this because Kelly is the most beautiful 14-year-old girl I can remember ever seeing. The cliché is true. Her beauty is so intense that it hits me in the stomach like a fist.
On the table in front of each woman is a pink plastic cosmetic kit containing a mirror, blush, foundation, lipstick, lip pencil, eye pencil, powder, Q-tips, cotton balls, face cream, lotion, and more. Good, standing at the head of the table, explains, “You put the makeup over the foundation. It takes practice adding and feathering. You want to make sure the foundation is the same color as your face, not a different color, not lighter or darker. Otherwise, when you get to your jawline, when you feather it down, if it’s dark it’s going to show a line; if it’s light you’re going to look like a ghost.”
Mary Kitchel, the other instructor, says, “Makeup is meant to blend with your features, not cover them. You’re not making a mask. You want to put makeup on your eyelids, under your eyes, and on your lips too.”
Women buzz. I hear someone murmur, “Where do you start?”
“I know it seems like a lot,” says Kitchel. “Some people might feel they don’t want to put on eye shadow, they just want some mascara. Whatever is comfortable, that’s the most important thing. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this.”
The room is quiet. Good, the pro, softly says, “I don’t know about that.”
Women laugh. Karen says, “That’s why we’re here.”
Kitchel waits for the room to quiet. And begins, “What powder does is set the foundation. You all have moist foundations on right now. Powder is going to make it feel like velvet, so when you put on dry cheek color and dry eye shadow, they’ll sprout like cherries.”
Polite chuckles. I picture cherries growing out of faces.
Good asks Rhonda to volunteer as wig model. The startled conscript appears to be in her early 30s, but it’s impossible to tell: she is utterly hairless. Rhonda blushes, but after an easy nudge allows a barber’s bib to be put around her shoulders and jokes, “I was a blonde.” Stop. “I have no way of proving it to you guys.” Some laughing. “I’m sorry, I’ve lost every hair on my body.” Full stop. “I have my ID.” Everyone laughs.
Good begins working on Rhonda’s face, says, “You can use a cotton ball, but I like using powder. Put powder on your lips and your eyelids too. It will make your lipstick and eye shadow hold better.”
I note Rhonda is following…every…single…word. In fact, all the women are. The desperate emotional overlay of cancer has fallen away, and enjoyment of being with others who are busy about the same task takes hold.
Good, eyebrow pencil in hand, is hovering above Rhonda’s eyes, explaining how to do the job “in case you don’t have any eyebrows or if you have light ones like Karen and I do.” Good stops in midstroke and instructs, “Start from the corner of your eye and the corner of your nose, go straight up, that’s where it should start. Go to the far corner of your eye, go straight up, that’s where it should stop.”
“Looks great,” says Kim.
“Ex-beautician,” says Rhonda.
A ten-minute break is announced. Women mingle and chat. Very quickly the room fills with buzz and polite laughter. I walk over to a table holding snacks and small plastic bottles of spring water. Along the way I overhear Rhonda say, “Took a really long time for my eyebrows to go. Three to six months.”
Kelly asks, “That long?”
“Yeah, before you lose it.”
Three months later, I’m on the phone talking to Good and I inquire about Kelly, the 14-year-old girl. Good says, “She was going to chemo during the week and once a weekend every month. She had 40-some treatments of chemo.”
“Have you seen her since the class?”
The conversation moves to other topics, back to the class, and then, returning to Kelly, I ask, “How did you meet her?”
“When Kelly and her mom first came to me it had only been three weeks since she’d been diagnosed. The mom couldn’t sit still for two seconds. I could see tears in her eyes. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is serious.’ That was my gut feeling, and I didn’t want to think that, because she’s so beautiful.”
“I knew it wasn’t good,” Good says, “because the mom was so emotional, and she was trying to hide it from her daughter. And, of course, when Kelly’s hair started falling out, I was in tears. Later, when I got home, I had to call her and tell her she was the bravest soul I’d ever met and I was honored to work with her. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say, because I was afraid I’d put the little girl into a depression. But I just had to call. I’ve never done that, that’s how strong I felt about her.”
There is something about Kelly. “How long before the Look Good…Feel Better class was that?”
“Two weeks, maybe.”
“Was she bald then?”
Silence. And more silence. “She lost all her hair in two weeks?”
“She lost it in my hands. In my hands.” Good hurries on, “She came in and I saw how she wore her hair. I said, ‘Come back, honey, and I’ll get some wigs for you to try on.’ When we tried them on, her hair was already starting to ball up in the back. She was afraid to lose it because her school was taking class pictures that next week. I said, ‘Don’t worry, sweetie, we’ll have a wig ready for you.’
“She came in on a Wednesday in her little soccer outfit. She said, ‘I haven’t washed my hair in four days.’ I could see that it was totally knotted. I said, ‘Don’t worry, honey, we’ll get it out, but I don’t know how much hair you’ll lose.’
“I leaned her back in the chair, and she asked me, ‘Could you wash it?’ I said, ‘Of course, I’ll wash it for you.’ So I leaned her back, and it was like a freak show. It all came out. Afterwards, I said, ‘You’re just going to have to be a brave soul. When I lean you up, don’t look if you don’t want to.’ Her mother was in tears. And I’m trying not to cry. Kelly got up and looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh, Mom, I don’t want to go to school. Please, let me go to home school. Look how awful I look.’ All she had left were three little strands.
“They were going to take class pictures at school. All her little girlfriends were going to school wearing hats in case Kelly lost her hair, so all of them would be wearing hats for their pictures. I went and got some wigs, and Kelly came in on a Monday. I put a wig on her that day, and she looked fine for the pictures.”
“Hello, is Kelly there?” This is the phone call I haven’t wanted to make. I’ve put it off and off until it’s become the last thing left to do.
A young girl says, “No, she’s busy right now. Can I take a message?”
I hear a loud whoosh of air. It’s mine. I’d been holding my breath. I introduce myself, explain that I’d met Kelly at the Look Good…Feel Better class, and state the obvious, “I called to see how she’s doing.”
“Doing great, actually.” Speaking is Kelly’s sister, Colleen, who sounds like a younger sister. Colleen says, “She has been off treatment for six months. All her tests have been clear.”
“Has her hair come back?”
“Yes, her hair is really cute. It’s short and it looks good.”