Oct 28 / Simcha

Purple Hair, Purple Heart (J. Schwartz)

Illustation: Holly Wales; NYTimes Magazine

I loved John Schwartz’s piece in today NYTimes Magazine (Purple Heart, 10.28.12).  I was impressed by his readiness to first process with his son the latter’s motivations for, and possible repercussions from, dyeing his hair purple, and to then fully support his son once he decided to go ahead with the plan.

Notice (and admire!) how this parent did not concern himself (for even a moment) with how his son’s actions might reflect on him, the parent.

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Is my son’s purple hair asking for trouble?  Not the way he wears it!

One evening in the spring of my son Joseph’s freshman year in high school, he brought up something he said he’d been thinking over since the previous summer. “I really want to dye my hair purple,” he said.

When he was little, Joe wanted to paint his room purple. It had always been his favorite color. He came out to us a couple of years before and made no secret of his sexual orientation to his fellow students, who, for the most part, supported him. But this would be taking things a step further.

My wife, Jeanne, and I didn’t try to argue him out of it; dye, unlike, say, a tattoo, isn’t permanent. Besides, adolescence is a time to try on selves. But I did want him to consider the possible consequences.

“You know, Joe, there is a pretty significant possibility that you will get pounded at school.” That was certainly what would have happened to a purple-haired me in my high-school days in the ’70s, even if purple and gold were the school colors. Joe said that he understood but told me he didn’t really think that would happen.

I called around to the local salons in the leafy suburbs west of Newark; none said they could do a purple dye job. So the next Saturday, after Joe’s regular discussion for teenagers at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on 13th Street in Manhattan, we headed over to Astor Place Hairstylists, the venerable salon in the East Village.

The colorist tried to talk him out of his purple idea. “Purple is for ladies,” she said. “It’s not a good color for a boy.” She recommended blue. Joe agreed, and she set to work applying the peroxide that would bleach his dark brown hair enough to take the dye.

As his hair was going yellowish white — and his scalp was burning from the harsh chemicals — Joe decided to dig in. He got up and told the colorist, “I really want the purple.” She nodded and got out two small jars of dye. After a couple of hours (and about a hundred bucks, with a very nice haircut thrown in), his hair was an eye-popping shade of purple.

We drove back across the Hudson, and Joe reminded me that he wanted to attend the school play that evening. I walked him into the school to buy the ticket and saw the principal from across the entryway. And the principal saw Joseph. His eyes got big. I couldn’t read his expression exactly, but if I were to guess, it was one of self-pity — as in, “I’m going to be dealing with this on Monday. . . . ”

I went home and posted a few pictures to Facebook with the caption “Joseph Schwartz has decided to see what life is like with purple hair for a while. . . . ”

My brother Bob, who is bald, wrote, “I am jealous.”

A friend, who is a professor at a top-ranked law school, wrote: “Buy black towels and pillowcases. I speak from experience here.”

I waited nervously for something bad to happen, but disaster never came. Then, a few days after going purple, Joe was in the locker room after gym when one of the jocks came up to him and asked, “Why did you dye your hair purple?”

“Because it’s awesome,” Joe said, with insouciance.

The other boy didn’t accept that answer. “Yeah, but — why didn’t you dye it orange, or something?”

“Because orange would not look good with my coloring,” Joe explained.

The kid became even more insistent and pulled out some of the high-dollar vocabulary words from SAT prep: “But don’t you understand — don’t you understand — that the color purple has been appropriated by the homosexuals?”

A kid piped up from across the room, “He’s really aware of that.”

The jock responded, “I was just trying to warn him — ”

At that point, another of the jocks came up and slammed Joe’s questioner into a bank of lockers. “He can dye his hair hot pink if he wants to,” the boy shouted, adding an unprintable expletive along the way. “He can dye it any color he wants!”

The two boys walked out of the locker room, arguing with each other about Joe’s hair as if it were a controversial call in a football game, a fact that could be debated but not refuted.

Joe later said he felt unsettled, as if a storm had passed over. But in the moment he simply turned to the boy he shared a locker with as they packed up their things. “That was surreal,” he said.

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John Schwartz is a national correspondent for The Times. His memoir, “Oddly Normal,” from which this essay is adapted, will be published next month by Gotham Books.