As spring of his freshman year rolled around, Joseph decided to act on something he had been thinking about since he had been to camp with the kids from YES. A counselor whose hair color seemed to change by the week had suggested that Joseph might want to dye his hair. Joseph first mentioned this desire to Jeanne at the end of the summer. Jeanne initially put him off, telling him to ease into the new environment and test the waters first. By the spring, though, Joseph was insistent. He was doing reasonably well in school; teachers had learned to say to their classes, "Okay, let's hear the answer from somebody other than Joseph." This time, Jeanne thought that the request was serious enough that we should discuss it as a family. So, one evening in March, Joseph told me, "I really want to dye my hair purple."
When he was little, Joseph had wanted to paint his room purple. It had always been his favorite color. But on his head? I didn't try to argue him out of it; dye, unlike a tattoo, isn't permanent. 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." He said that he understood but told me he didn't really think that would happen.
I called around to the local hair salons; none of them said they could do a purple dye job. So I decided that on Saturday, we'd head over to Astor Place Hairstylists, the venerable salon in the East Village. They've been cutting, fading, and dyeing since 1947. It's a place that has always been up for anything.
So on a chilly Saturday in March after Joseph finished up at the Gay Center, we walked over to Astor Place. The colorist, however, tried to talk Joseph out of his purple idea. "Purple is for ladies," she said. "It's not a good color for a boy." She recommended blue. Joseph 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 to yellowish white — and Joseph's scalp was burning from the harsh chemicals — he 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 the very nice haircut thrown in), his hair was an eye-popping shade of purple.
We drove back across the Hudson, and Joseph reminded me that he wanted to attend the school dramatic performance 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 pretty big. I couldn't read his facial expression, but if I were to guess, it was one of self-pity — as in, "I'm going to be dealing with this on Monday. This kid is going to get picked on, and it's going to end up in my office."
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. Purple hair was Joe's version of Sam's poncho: bright and attention getting, but ultimately part of his school persona.
Still, not all of the attention was friendly. A few days after going purple, Joseph 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?"
Joseph said, "Because it's awesome."
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," Joseph 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 Jock #1 into a bank of lockers. "He can dye his hair hot fucking pink if he wants to," the boy shouted. "He can dye it any fucking color he wants!" The two boys walked out of the locker room, arguing with each other about Joe's hair. Joseph turned to the boy he shared a locker with and said, "That was surreal."
Reprinted from Oddly Normal by John Schwartz by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2012 by John Schwartz.