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Plastic Pie 

Thursday, May 20 2004
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Illustration by Mitch Handsone

For more summers than you’ve lived, Hector Schechner has gone toupee hunting in Century City. Schechner doesn’t capture the toupees or cause them harm in any way; he simply catalogs them — date, time, location, victim’s approximate age, and a short essay on each toupee’s successes and failures of verisimilitude. On his last four expeditions, he invited me along (I’m writing his biography), and I learned a lot — mostly that Schechner’s skills and accomplishments as a toupee hunter are extraordinary, likely unsurpassed. No matter how hard I tried, whenever I spotted a rug, Schechner had already cataloged it and moved on to the next one.

I may never develop the rug-detection chops of Schechner, but I’d still like to improve my skills. I think it’s a good exercise in paying attention, which is always the most rewarding thing to pay. As fortune had it, my old dorm floor, the Dungeon (Dykstra Hall basement at UCLA), held an informal reunion in Las Vegas over the weekend. Not even the plaza between 2029 and 2049 Century Park East has a higher density of toupees per capita than the Vegas Strip. I figured this was my chance to hone my hunting skills.

Thirteen middle-aged Dungeonites stayed, in various states of intoxication, at the Treasure Island hotel and casino, a middlebrow demi-resort attached by tram to the upscale Mirage, owned by the same company. More expensive rooms means more expensive toupees, so after a newspaper and breakfast with Beef at a very silly in-house restaurant called Kahunaville, old friend Brellis and I took the tram to the Mirage. The Mirage courtyard hosts a vast network of putty-beige lounge chairs, cerulean pools, hot tubs and waterfalls, packed with human flesh. Atop a small hill in the center of the courtyard, we located the bar, ordered two buckets of rum mixed with strawberry-daiquiri ice-mush, and settled in at a shady table with a sprawling view of a thousand white bodies browning, burning and swimming in the sun. Brellis was taking his first pass at Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. And I soon soiled an empty notebook with the following misrevelations:

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Poolside, where the Caucasian flesh of Middle America fries beneath coconut oils unseen elsewhere since the discovery of melanoma, even with Brellis duly worshiping Franken out loud and all this What Happens Here Stays Here going on in all directions, I imagine any of us could discern textile composition from 20 paces or more: the glow of the shiny-ass rayon blazer; the distinctive pleats of starched and bleached Egyptian cotton; the untamed, flowing foliage of Turkish terry cloth; the sensible microtufts of handspun Scottish cashmere. So what makes anyone think it’s any different with hair?

Toupees are everywhere. Distinguishing even the best of them from real hair poses no more difficulty than discerning Bush from Franken.

Almost all people who wear toupees do so not simply to annoy relatives and appease Satan but to try to conceal their baldness. To that end, they install rugs similar in texture to their remaining hair(s). What caught my attention, after half the daiquiri had washed down half the hash cookie, was the significant number of rugmen whose rugs were far kinkier than the adjacent real hair, and shaped in perfect, symmetrical V’s, like slices of pie.

A dozen or more seem to be pursuing a more sophisticated form of communication: Men with dark or gray fringe hair have topped their noggins with red, orange or yellow slices of plastic pie.

 

Schechner has, over the years, made some remarkable discoveries. In 2002, for example, he was the first to suggest that increasing numbers of women were wearing men’s toupees. “Fourteen percent of women wearing high heels in Century City also wear toupees,” Schechner told a local news crew at the time. “At night.”

“You mean wigs?” the reporter asked.

“No,” Schechner replied. “Men’s toupees. The same varieties the men wear during the day, the women wear at night . . . But they never, never share, even though it would save a lot of money. It’s complicated.”

So I was somewhat proud to have discovered — before Schechner — this season’s new toupee trend: merkins.

 

A merkin is a feminine pubic wig popularized by syphilitic 18th-century European aristocrats who wished to mask the localized hair loss associated with their V.D. When I realized, licking crumbs from the bottom of the daiquiri bucket, that I’d been seeing merkins, I thought immediately and equally of two things: 1) The president of the United States, as portrayed in 1964 by a very bald Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was named Merkin Muffley; and 2) Today, our actual president is named Bush and pronounces the word American as merkin.

It seemed like something more important than coincidence, so I contacted my senior research coordinator, Chlamydia Pines. Told her of the men wearing contrasting hair pies in Las Vegas. She shared my enthusiasm for a full-scale investigation.

 

I returned to Los Angeles late the following afternoon, and that evening Chlamydia came over with a pound of Peet’s Anniversary Blend and an impressive stack of Nexis printouts and porno magazines, and by this morning we’d put together most of the puzzle.

A few years ago, merkins apparently reappeared as fashion accessories for pornographic entertainers and others who occasionally favor the textural contrast that a merkin lends to certain sheer, clingy dresses but who must, for professional reasons, keep their pubes shaved. Pubes on for real life, pubes off for work. Then, sometime last year, balding members of a porno-video production crew taped discarded merkins to the tops of their heads, just for fun, and correlated certain sex acts to certain colors: yellow = oral sex, orange = straight sex, red = anal sex. Zany antics ensued, and eventually the color coding spread to the prostitutional entertainment business; only in the past few months have middle-aged Vegasmen been observed wearing these yellow, orange and red merkins to signify their interests and predilections, just like back-pocket bandannas on Santa Monica Boulevard.

One bit of information — the “only in the past few months” part — wasn’t from a Nexis printout or a porno mag, but from a handwritten note. I like to be thorough with my fact checking, so I asked Chlamydia where she’d found out about the first sightings.

“You’re not going to like it,” said Chlamydia, trying not to smile.

(Fuck you, Schechner.)

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