Just as with religion, genetics and the current state of pop music, I have long been mystified and intrigued by the 'cornrow' hairstyle. Somehow, and for some reason, cornrows more so than any other 'do have remained exclusive to African-American populations. Only in the past year or so has this trend begun to change, spearheaded by the Caucasian cornrow-ings of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo and Posh Spice do-er David Beckham. Inspired by their efforts, I embarked on a pursuit of knowledge to better understand and document the small yet illustrious world of tremendously painful hairstyling.
The first phase of the process required that I devote eight months to the growth of a mane that has never been confused for 'attractive.' Recently deeming myself sufficiently hairy, I enlisted the assistance of good friend and frequent collaborator Jonny, who having been involved in some shiner-yielding fisticuffs during a past weekend met me at the subway station wearing massive white-rimmed sunglasses. That (plus the video camera that he brought, but mainly the shades) made him the perfect companion for my perilous mid-evening sojourn to East Harlem, if only because he looked more absurd than my cornrows ever could.
Though initially reluctant to leave the Village, we soon discovered that there were nearly as many braiding salons in Harlem as there were pedestrians skeptically glaring at us. I settled on "Fanny's African Braiding Salon" due in no small part to the proprietor's name and popped my head inside to ask for an appointment. "20 minutes," Fanny replied, a number that described both the wait and the duration of awkward silence that followed my request.
We used the downtime to lay the foundation for our epic. As with any good documentary, we had framed our topic (getting cornrows) with a fictionalized story (my upcoming wedding). As our fabricated plot was to unfold, I was in the process of documenting my wedding preparations as a keepsake for my fiancee. The cornrows, I revealed, were intended to not only add some style and neatness to my unkempt hood of hair, but also to act as an olive branch of sorts to my fiancee's African-American father, who hated my guts. This was the introduction that we recorded five times at the corner of 110th and Lexington at nine in the evening. I spoke quietly.
45 minutes later, Fanny informed me that she was ready. Though my request for cornrows had seemed normal to Fanny she was, after all, in the business my outfit certainly did not. In an attempt to 'establish a character' (which, I learned, is remarkably similar to 'get beaten up'), I had traveled to Harlem in a fully-buttoned, tucked-in white dress shirt, khaki shorts, knee-high argyle socks and a set of boat shoes. As if this outfit wasn't peculiar enough, Fanny was then introduced to fearless cameraman Jonny, who followed soon after me with a video camera and a set of sunglasses that could, if elevated high enough, completely eclipse the sun.
Ignoring Fanny's bafflement, I plopped myself into the barber's chair and announced that I was getting cornrows done for my wedding. Upon asking Fanny if she thought that my fiancee and every friend and family member that we knew would appreciate my wedding weave, she insisted "oh yes" much in the same way that a herpes salesman (Katie Holmes', perhaps?) would encourage the purchase of a raging case of sores.
The documentary quickly took a turn for the worse. Shortly after having started, Fanny really noticed the documenting equipment. Apparently harboring a burning hatred for cameras, Fanny told Jonny to stop filming. When she caught him covertly recording off the salon mirror (a move which, in retrospect, wasn't especially covert), Fanny erupted and insisted that my faithful cameraman bury the camera deep in his backpack. With massive chunks of my frail hairline clenched helplessly in her fist, we had no choice but to concede to the demands.
Of course, this now presented something of a dilemma. Having been forced to abort our cultural exploration, the question arose as to whether or not I should continue with the procedure. Unable to make such a decision on my own, I whipped out my cell phone and secretly asked Jonny, via text message, what we should do. He replied in similar fashion, inciting a flurry of back-and-forth text messaging. For as perceptive as Fanny had been regarding the camera, she seemed completely oblivious the cyclical texting habits of her only two patrons.
What emerged from this discussion was an idea so brilliant that I'm ashamed I didn't think of it earlier, or at all. Having whined to Jonny, "But I really want cornrows for [that weekend's] University of Rochester spring festival weekend," I received the response, "Well I really want a beer, so leave with a half-head of cornrows."
The idea was like original Nintendo: simple, yet perfect.
The suggestion was particularly welcome considering how tense the salon had become following the 'camera incident,' a debacle that seemingly led Fanny to pull my hair with horsepower-like strength. So explosively, abruptly, half-corn-row-edly I whirled around (which hurt) and asked Fanny how I looked with only the left half of my head in cornrows. Revealing wisdom that solidified her place as the worst wedding planner in the known universe, my thoughtful braider assured me that the half-cornrows were fantastic, and sure to be warmly received by all wedding guests. Satisfied with the answer, I paid a discounted fee and departed with my bespectacled associate.
In the end, I only kept the cornrows in for about 36 hours half of which was spent either sleeping or with a winter hat on. Though the cornrows-and-costume received some good-natured chuckles from subway occupants on the ride back from Harlem, I soon found that when not dressed like a dork, I just made children cry and drew ire from everyone else. Plus, I didn't get the braids to be a permanent hairstyle. Rather, I had the cornrows done so that I could better understand them. And now, I do. I understand that they take an eternity to braid. I understand that African-American hair is better suited for 'rowing than thin and receding Caucasian hair. And I understand that a (half) head full of rows hurts like a grenade to the face. But, on a positive note, I also have come to understand that I am one dashing son of a bitch when my hair is half-'rowed up. Don't believe me?
Just ask Fanny.