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'Hey, blondie! I love yer hair!"
Striding the city sidewalks, frizz flapping in the breeze, I am amazed at how much street tastes have improved in Toronto in just a few years. Scarcely a day passes without an accolade from one or another admiring gent.
This one was taking his ease on a bench in St. James Park. His shout-out was a little slurred but perfectly intelligible.
The other evening, it was a chap leaning heavily against a building on the Esplanade, just off pub row, its terraces thick with stylish upward strivers who gave me and my hair not a single glance.
"Yo! I like yer hairdo!"
His own hair had not been recently styled, nor were his laceless combat boots from any known designer. Two women walking behind me sniggered.
I stalked on. He hadn't called hosannas to their hair – mundanely neat, as I recall.
It was not always thus.
Oh, I had always longed to be acclaimed for my distinctive look, begged for my beauty secrets. To be snapped in the street by a style-wise photographer like that fellow at The New York Times. Or to hold forth in one of those articles – you know, the Vogue or Vanity Fair kind – where the celebrity gets to describe her indelibly personal style, her skin regimen, the touch of this on the eyes, that on the lips, cheeks, nose, hair …
My little sister, in her days as an entertainment reporter and later as a TV health and wellness guru, has frequently had that kind of coverage. "Kathy swears by …" and "She maintains her fresh natural look with …"
But me, never. So, some years back, at the urging of an art-director swain, I gave up trying to batter my hair straight and let it go its own bushy way. I fought the salonistas' anxiously-murmuring attempts at ringlets, glossiness, control. When I went natural, I went big.
It did not have the effect I dreamed of right away.
"Are you paying them to let you go out like that?" fluted a dear colleague, watching me leave our mutual hairdresser's with a coif resembling a bramble bush begging for the weed-whacker.
"Let me guess: You put your finger in a light socket," chuckled one (short-lived) suitor.
A nadir of sorts arrived one night in Emergency at a desperate downtown hospital where I had taken my son with an elbow injury. The hospital, a willing haven for the needy at all hours, was that night hosting George. Grey, frowsty and malodorous, a paper cup of juice in one tremorous hand, a half-eaten sandwich in the other, George was holding forth for the diversion of the weary night staff. "Ackackack! Down come the howitzers! Watch it, doc. Look out, nursie!"
A trembly jester singing for his supper, he suddenly drew a bead on me.
"Hey! Why'ncha do something about that hair?"
"Yeah, you! Ya look like a ragbag!"
I tried to look benevolently diverted. My son inched away from my side.
"Where'ja get that hair? Jesus! Yer a goodlookin' woman, but that hair, jeezchris', you could mop the floor with that hair …"
He went on that way for most of the three hours we waited.
Never mind that this was coming from a fellow whose thatch couldn't have seen water, much less a comb, in recent memory.
Never mind that I was, at the time, a newspaper columnist who prided myself on my bond with regular folks – happy to imagine that I might cause puzzlement in Yorkville, but knowing I could touch a chord with a cafeteria worker, a baggage handler. The People.
So it hurt. But I moved on. I stuck to my fuzzy guns, grinned gamely at the jolly gibes, on the street and off.
And then one day not so very many months ago, I started to notice it was all changing.
"Hey, curly! Love that craaazy hair!"
He was halt, he was sere, he had a paper cup in his hand and was covered in dust, but my heart sang.
I thought it was a one-off. But a couple of days later there was poetry from a park bench:
"Hey, blondie! I dig yer hair so wild and fair!"
It hasn't stopped.
A nice-looking, earring-wearing, grey goatee rattles by on an aged bike: "You've gotta promise me: Never ever touch that hair."
A second later, he rattles back. "Is that your own colour?"
I assure him it was bought and paid for.
He gives a thumbs-up. "I hear ya. Keep on rockin'."
My friend Louisa, who has long, blond, shiny beach-girl hair, gets more respectful, and respectable, attention.
"I'm single!" sings the guy on the park bench as Louisa goes by. In restaurants, distinguished fellows send notes asking for her number.
My sister still gets asked for beauty tips in posh places.
But street cred? My hair and I have got it in spades. Got it most authentically – straight from the pavement.
"Yow-wee! Sister, that mad hair is too froggin' much!"
Like my column, the 1-per-centers don't necessarily get it. But my people, they get it. New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair: Eat your heart out.
Susan Kastner lives in Toronto.