Hair-raising city sights

July 19, 2004|By John Waters

As visitors descend on Baltimore during the summer tourism season, staff writer Larry Bingham offers an occasional look at how the city has been portrayed by writers over the years. Today, an excerpt from John Waters' 1981 book Shock Value. Filmmaker Waters, who grew up in Baltimore, once said, "I wanted an Elvis Presley haircut more than anything."

"Once you get downtown, don't check into a hotel: Rent an apartment. The old buildings are quite beautiful, and unless all the greedy liberals from D.C. have hogged them by now, spacious, moderately priced apartments are easy to find. Don't pay any attention to the guide books - they'll tell you all about the "new Baltimore," the Inner Harbor, the Baltimore City Homesteading Program, and the City Fair; but this is not why I choose to stay in Baltimore. It's the unbelievable people. Just go out on the street and meet someone. It's not hard, the streets are teeming with all sorts of lunatics quite eager to make friends.

The first thing you will notice are the hairdos. Baltimore women have, per capita, higher hair than their counterparts in any other American city. I like to go out and look for especially exotic hairdos much in the same way a bird watcher clutches binoculars and stalks a rare scissortail flycatcher. A good hairdo voyeur knows it's easy to spot "barrel curls," "bubbles," "artichokes," and "split levels," but if you really have some patience, you'll be able to come cross a rare bird, such as an authentic "beehive," or my all-time favorite, the "airlift."

The best "hair-don't" area in Baltimore is Belair Road. It's made up entirely of sub shops and beauty parlors, and if you're willing to spend some time in this neighborhood, you can see the entire hairdo ritual from beginning to end. Cruise around until you spot a sour-looking housewife trudging her way to the corner, embarrassed by her deflated, week-old hairdo that no amount of "lifting" or spraying can disguise. She's in a bad mood because she needs a new hairdo and she needs it badly. ...Follow her to her favorite beauty shop, but don't get too close. Her hairdo is so stiff that it can cut you on contact. Wait the required several hours and thrill at seeing her emerge victorious, pleased as punch and ready to face the world with her new "height."

Eastern Avenue is another fertile spot for watching hairdos, and you can usually see women struggle to fit their huge heads into their cars as the wind blows old newspapers and garbage up against them. Bonnie was once riding on the bus in this neighborhood, and a woman got aboard with such a massive "bubble" that other passengers laughed in her face. Ignoring them, she sat alone and adjusted a scarf that could barely contain this fresh coiffure. Bonnie watched in amazement as the woman spotted a friend on the street, primped her hair, and yelled out the bus window: "Hey! How do you like this `Easter Bonnet?' Bonnie said the woman cackled to herself for the rest of the ride.

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