Ode to a wondrous hair explosion

It was like a solar event radiating from her head, explosive yellow curlicues twirling and boinging into the stratosphere. Flaring, flaming, the bleached helixes formed a magnificent afro that any ethnicity could pull of with high-fashion finesse. It was positively Kaepernickian.

This vision appeared today in a cafe and I oddly did not see the woman’s face, just the back and side of her head. It was plainly a woman, but I have no idea if she was white, black, brown or what. I stared at the flaxen shrubbery from behind. Its corona of frizz entangles you, startles, transfixes. 

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A lot like this.

It’s so loud, so brash, it’s like a bulletin, a manifesto, a mission statement. Hair, like clothes, is like that: It’s an articulate communicator, revealing much about a person, like the choice of your car or your dog does. It says This is me, and quite a bit more. 

What this gigantic yellow afro says is: YES DAMMIT!

If you want a piece of that, you can buy the big ‘do for $19 from Amazon:

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But that tilts toward offensive, never mind the repugnant artificiality of it. 

I like what I saw, the real deal, the brazen authenticity and screw-you audacity. I like the sheer follicular electricity, all zap and fire.

Drinking outside the box

Summer’s steamy curtain call is almost here (woo-hoo!), but we’re still in a light wine state of mind. Rosé is our go-to beverage in the seasonal swelter — with citrus-laden gin and tonics right behind — almost like sody-pop for the kids: refreshing, quenching, yet still retaining that sneaky bite adults crave (and sometimes require).  

These days we’re getting our rosé from a faintly unorthodox source: We’re drinking from a box. They call it bag in box wine, or simply boxed wine. Either way, you extract a plastic nozzle or spigot from a cardboard box and wine spritzes from it, or more specifically, from a shiny bag inside the box.

It’s resplendently dorky.

And yet …

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After a period of snooty ignominy, boxed wine is back in vogue, shorn of shame and stigma amongst those who know a good deal and, yes, a good wine. Excellent boxed wines abound, including the crack rosé we’re drinking in almost blushing abundance: Lab Rosé, from Casa Santos Lima winery outside of Lisbon, Portugal. (Rosé, incidentally, is defined as “a light pink wine, colored by only brief contact with red grape skins.” It’s exceptionally fruity, just a tad dry, ideal for the hot months.) 

Three reasons boxed wine rules:

— It’s way cheaper. A standard 3-liter box holds as much wine as four regular wine bottles. Our local outlet sells a Lab Rosé box for $17. Do the math and get misty-eyed. Then guzzle. What you lose in sleek glass aesthetics you make up for in sheer value.

— It’s environmentally sound. Say several sources: The production of boxed wine generates about half the emissions per standard bottle of wine.

 It lasts forever (almost). “Thanks to its handy-dandy vacuum-sealed spigot, boxed wine has a longer shelf life after opening than its bottled counterparts,” writes one pro. “And I mean a lot longer. Up to six whole weeks, in fact.”

IMG_1161And that brings me back to Lab Rosé, which is that much more of a bargain because of its prodigious quality. It is, for example, far more luscious and drinkable than its more expensive Provence Rosé counterpart, whose gloppy malty finish is ruinous. And though Bota Box Dry Rosé is quite fine, it too is several dollars more than trusty Lab.

Lab indeed earns consistently strong reviews from wine experts and sundeck sippers alike. Wine Enthusiast bestows Lab Rosé a respectable 86 points, noting, “This is a pale colored, attractively perfumed wine. With red berry fruit flavors, bright acidity and a lively orange zest texture, it is fruity and ready to drink.”

Ready to drink, for sure. Right out of the dorky, yet somehow radically cool, box.

My best fiend: remembering a childhood pal

My best friend between ages 5 and 10 was a freckled scamp named Gene, who even at that age seemed to conduct life on the razor’s edge, courting trouble with a highly evolved sense of mischief and the occasional snap of malice.

Always cooking something up for us to perpetrate, be it leaving dog poop on someone’s porch then doorbell ditching or setting small fires with gun powder in his bedroom, Gene earned the nickname “Gene the Machine” from my dad, who didn’t know the half of it.

Small and short — he sat on a tall step stool at the dinner table — Gene provided my unsentimental education. He taught me every cuss word I know. When he blurted “Go to hell!” at a girl in our fourth-grade class, I was too overcome with snickers to be shocked. He introduced me to nudie magazines, some of which he buried in plastic bags in his backyard. He sold me on the rock band Kiss and the dubious pleasures of pyromania. 

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Matches and firecrackers were always on hand. We scorched many things, including, by accident, ourselves. At our mildest we would torment plastic army men, igniting them and watching them melt, black, acrid smoke curling up. Eventually Gene, with another pal, burned down a large field. (That misbegotten episode attracted the authorities.)

Something of a holy terror when he was in form — like the time he tortured to death two frogs he found under a rock — Gene also exposed me to twin thrills: the breathtaking delights of high-impact rollercoasters and the gnarly waves at our Southern California beaches. To this day, a mean, uncompromising rollercoaster is a peerless high.  

And then he’d do something reckless, like toss shotgun shells into a bonfire or pour rubbing alcohol on the garage floor in a circle, light it and stand in the middle of it as if performing some kind of pipsqueak pagan ritual.

We were young and he made me laugh harder than anyone. Yet this incorrigible gremlin exposed me to dangers and things wrong and taboo, even illegal. (Where were our parents amid the devilry?) Once he convinced me to throw rocks off a cliff into dense traffic. A man, enraged, saw us and we ran like hell.

Even Gene’s jokes were warped, naturally. He told me that he was going to stick a firecracker in the neighbor poodle’s butt and light it. Seeing my horror, he admitted he was kidding. Thing was, I didn’t put it past him. (Then again, he was a bleeding heart animal lover, lavishing cooing affection on his dog and pet rat.)

After I moved, at 10, from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco Bay Area, Gene and I kept in touch, seeing each other twice a year to hit the next rollercoaster, smoke cigarettes on the railroad tracks and listen to heavy metal as our teenage years blossomed.

Gene picked up the guitar and played metal like a madman — he was good at whatever he tried, from surfing to skiing — and I continued playing the drums I started as a kid. We jammed, copying riffs we heard on vinyl by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Metal Church and Metallica.

And then Gene’s heedless path took him down bum detours, drug addiction being the worst of it. We saw less and less of each other as we hit our 20s — college, jobs. He struggled mightily with his demons, and lost. At 26 he was dead from an overdose. I was a pallbearer at his funeral with a few other guys I’d never met before.

I still have dreams of Gene — impish, funny, alive. He made an enormous imprint on me, shaping and influencing me in ways to live (loud, with a scrap of healthy risk) and not to live (like a kamikaze). Age has tempered, filtered and refined all that. I’m (arguably) well-adjusted, considering the Gene factor.

In the end, Gene was just a neat kid, scrappy and irrepressible, taking a bite out of life with enviable gusto if too little restraint and a sometimes shaky moral code. I facetiously call him that devil child. But, thing is, I don’t think he’s anywhere near hell.

The cafe’s human carnival

It is on Saturdays in the teeming cafe that the grasping hodgepodge of humanity is on circusy show, performing a bustling if familiar boogie starring tip-tapping lap-toppers, laughing friends, wailing toddlers, softly groping couples and expert baristas, frenzied, always frenzied, deploying tentacles behind the long curving counter, confecting elaborate beverages for the restive masses. 

It’s not quite as crazed as it sounds — well, it kind of is — yet characters abound, vivid regulars I see several times a week. Like:

The frowzy old codger, pants up to here, who shuffles through the cafe, pacing to and fro, issuing random quack-quacks like a grizzled duck. Or The Wayward Whistler, who sort of bops in, sunglasses on, whistling blithely, lost in his own groovy cosmos, loud and vexing. He’s like the guy strutting with a boom-box on his shoulder, self-awareness at zero, tweetling away through lips like a Cherrio.

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And let’s get her out of the way: one of the most unfortunate stars of the show, a barista I’ll call C. (as in Crazy). She is the worst kind of “funny,” the aggressive kind. She inflicts her humor on you, weaponizes it. She uses her post behind the counter as both launchpad and stage.

C. is loud — screeching jetliner loud. And she weirdly believes that feistily abusing customers and colleagues is a hoot. “Every single last one of you, even my coworkers, gets on my nerves!” she booms in a strangled bray directly at a customer whose icy, confused half-smile makes you want to shrivel up and die. Hilarious!

Another time, C., a squat, stout woman, waddles up to the register and thunders: “DO I HAVE TO RING THEM UP? THEY DRIVE ME CRAZY!” She is pointing at two customers. She is smirking, this distaff Don Rickles. They don’t know what to do. Hysterics!

One day C., a dumpling of ear-shattering zingers, actually starts barking like a dog. “You all right?” a coworker quietly asks, eyebrow cocked, embarrassment flooding the room.

The cafe, much like C., is a frequent shambles, with boxes scattered across the floor, unkempt bathrooms, backed-up orders. That said, many of the baristas are pros: efficient, conscientious, polite and often doting.

Yet it’s the people-ly parade that’s most engaging, the variety of voices, the panoply of personalities that eddy through what is, at its best, an aromatic oasis from the familiarities of home.

It’s the nebbishy white guy with the foot-tall afro of such fluffy resplendence it could be a follicular monument. It’s the pretty, modish woman with the irresistible bangs and regrettable tattoos who consorts with a dubious bearded fellow in too-short skinny jeans.

It’s the gabby, globular ex-cop who wears black and yellow Steelers regalia — cap, jacket, shirt — everyday and clearly doesn’t know what an “inside voice” is. His guffaws are small earthquakes registered as far away as Idaho.

It’s the just-retired mailman who looks roughly 90 and has the ashen, cadaverous facade of a slain vampire, yet is endlessly friendly, despite the fangs. It’s the knots of teenage girls who come in giggling and gabbing, texting the entire time, mad multitaskers who have this smartphone shit down.

Amid all this, the chatty din, the roiling throngs, I read and write. Inconspicuous as I am, head buried in the computer, I’m not quite invisible. A few baristas know my name, including cackling C., who has unleashed her corrosive humor on me to no effect, except my urge to barf.

Yet I lay low, tucked in, watching the human carousel, that merry microcosm, by turns fascinating, alarming and heartening, spin on.