The Perils of Dreadlocks

by Jesse Fask
        I was standing on the corner in my new neighborhood, waiting to meet my landlord and sign the lease. My friends and I had found a rowhouse for rent one block over from the 34th Street Christmas lights and I was loving Hampden. I have this romantic John Waters view of my new neighborhood. I was ready to be in this new place, watching “Pecker,” making annoying comments like “Hey, I know where that is.” But the landlord was late.
        As I waited, a long-haired burly gentleman walked up to me and asked for a light.
        “Sorry, man,” I said.
        “Can I ask you something?”
        I knew what was coming next.
        “How’d you get your hair like that?”
        As a white boy with dreadlocks, I was used to this question. I gave him my standard “I twist my hair. Don’t comb it. No, I don’t put anything in it. No, I doubt it. I don’t think you have the right kind of hair. I have naturally tight curls.”
        This 36th Street wanderer continued, telling me that he had lots of Black friends with dreads, “Jamaicans that get me weed,” he said. “And they don’t wash it and it reeks.”
        “I wash mine,” I assured him.
       Then, strangely, he asked to smell my hair and he wasn’t shy about it. People were walking down the Avenue and this dirty-looking man was smelling my locks. I just smiled innocently, ignoring the surroundings like a man buying porno would do in a crowded convenience store.
       When he finished his nasal inspection, the long-haired guy nodded, saying, “You’re straight, man. That’s cool. I think it looks wild.” I thanked him, we bumped fists, exchanged smiles, and he continued on his quest to find a lighter.
        Meanwhile, my landlord was still not there, so I decided to cross the street to use a pay phone to call him. As I reached for the phone, I spied a pack of local teenagers glaring at me. No eye contact was my rule as I dialed the number. The operator spoke to me about dialing 410 before...
        “Eh, look at how dirty his hair is,” one teenager said. His friend in a gray sweat suit continued, “I bet he hasn’t washed it in f---n’ years.” They laughed.
       I refused to acknowledge their existence. I redialed. “Hey, look at us, b--.” I didn’t. My landlord wasn’t answering.
       “Hey you f-- n---, look at us when I’m talking to you.”
       I hung up and started to cross the street, careful not to look in their direction, so it’s hard to remember exactly what they looked like. I pictured them in Webster’s next to a listing that ought to be there defining ‘ignorant white boys’.
       They shouted at me until one of their girlfriends pleaded with them to leave me alone. As I crossed the street, I saw my landlord and I followed him towards his car.
        “It’s a part of Hampden that’s on its way out,” my roommate told me that night. “Why weren’t you like, ‘I’m white, you dumb ignorant f--’?”
        “I wasn’t going to f-- with ’em by myself. There was like six of ’em.”
        “So did you sign the lease?”
        I remember getting into my landlord’s car and him handing me the lease to sign. He told me how he couldn’t keep a place on the market in Hampden for more than a day or two before people’d snatch them up. I believed him because I’d waited too long on two other Hampden rowhouses and I was going to snag this place on 34th Street, down by the Christmas lights.
        “It’s a great little neighborhood,” he told me. I told him about how my friends and I were also looking in Mount Vernon, Charles Village, and Bolton Hill. He shook his head and told me crime stories about each of those neighborhoods.
        “ ‘You see,” he explained, “in Hampden, you’ve got the big blue-collar guy who may not look so nice on your street, but it’s the same guy who’ll save your life by chasing a heroin dealer out of your neighborhood with a two-by-four. You know what I mean?”
       I nodded and signed the lease.
       I love my rowhouse in Hampden. My mom says that Hampden is in a time warp. It’s like something out of the nineteen fifties, she says. Everyone tells me how safe it is.
       I look out of my window as I write this and there are loud cops in front of my house, cursing on a Sunday morning. But, I guess, as a writer, what I like most about Hampden is that it constantly gives me something to write about. It always keeps me on my toes. The corner store with old men playing video poker at five A.M. while I’m trying to buy my first breakfast in Hampden before work. The bar open late, selling 12-packs on a week night to a clientele of wise guys and transvestites, razzing us as we buy Budweiser before bedtime. The hair-smelling guy. The confused racist teenagers.
       I mean, it’s a great neighborhood for me, but I can understand why other people wouldn’t want to live here.

Jesse Fask, a graduate of Baltimore City College and Beloit College in Wisconsin, works full-time while building his writing career.

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This story was published on January 5, 2000.