The Purple Racing Stripe

“Like the purple stripe,” mumbled a hooded young man in baggy jeans as he and his leather jacketed, chain-jingling buddies jostled past me on the sidewalk. Every bit of their angular swagger shouted, “Make room, make room.”

“That’s so-oo cool,” chirped smiling young things behind cash registers, at the neighborhood café, even in the doctor’s office.

“Wow! I wish I’d thought of that,” said some women of my age, reaching out to touch it, their eyes alight with the fun. Others quickly averted their gaze, as though embarrassed by the sight.

The purple stripe has added unexpected richness to my experience of city life – connecting me to people I otherwise might simply have passed by.

Several months ago I dyed a 2-inch wide strip of my hair purple. I have a short, wash and wear hairstyle that used to be dark blonde, now mixed with streaks of silver and grey. The purple stripe stands out vividly; taking different shapes as my movements or the wind shift my hair. Sometimes it’s a Nike swoosh, sometimes the racing stripe on the side of a car. If I part my hair slightly differently a feathery fan flicks across the top of my head. The purple fades slightly with each washing, becoming subtler as months go by, eventually just a hint in the grey. I have it re-done about every four months, when it becomes electric again.

You may have seen the television advertisement for Walgreens, in which two grey-haired women, nice-looking but a bit on the drab side, approach a counter and spot a funky young woman in black, with short, jaggedly arranged, purple hair. With appreciation for her jazziness, and conspiratorial looks at each other, they decide to put purple in their own hair in anticipation of their 50th high school reunion. The ad closes with the two women, sleekly dressed and dancing exuberantly in the crowd, purple curls flying amid their grey. Walgreens titles the ad, “Carpe Diem,” seize the day. If Walgreens promotes non-natural hair colors as a vehicle of fun, such colors clearly have reached the mainstream; though judging from the reactions to my own purple stripe, not always among women of my generation, at least not in my neighborhood.

I had my purple stripe put in several months before I saw that ad, prompted by an equally funky young woman. We met in the middle of the street in front of my little house near the sea, she checking the state of her garden, I taking groceries from car to house. “Hi, I’m Abigail. My friends and I are renting that house for the coming year,” she said, pointing behind her. “We’re moving in today.” The house, a small, white cottage, once the parish house for a nearby church, is rented each school year by groups of female undergraduates who attend a nearby college. They add swing and energy to a neighborhood otherwise populated largely by little boys with harried parents. Abigail was lovely, with café au lait skin and a soft, light green Afro.

“What day does the trash pick-up come?” she asked. “And do you know a place to get good fish?” As I answered her questions I marveled at how strikingly mundane they were, to concern one with green hair. I would have expected questions about art galleries or rock concerts. This moment of incongruity, between her appearance and her concerns, caught my attention.

I have always loved the dissonance of contrasting elements and the tension that holds them together. Early modern music (the early Stravinsky or Prokofiev), art (Chagall, Matisse, Picasso), and fiction (Joyce or Woolf) push against the traditional but are not yet wholly modern. One can sense traces of both the old and the new in an edgy balance. Films that have cultural fractures at their core – Brokeback Mountain, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud – also carry an appealingly edgy tension. More prosaically, the disjunction between Abigail’s green hair and her concern about the trash pickup schedule; or the tension between a middle class senior’s apparently quotidian life and the zest of the purple stripe, which hints of something beyond.

Many women of all ages dress defensively; with the aim of masking some perceived imperfection in their bodies. For women of my age this may involve covering wrinkled, sagging necks with scarves or turtlenecks (see Nora Ephron’s essay, I Hate My Neck); loose tops to disguise sagging boobs (small-breasted women have the advantage); skirts and pants cut to disguise sprawling hips. I have done these things too. (Why women feel the need to do this is a long story, for another time.)

But I have found it more interesting to dress with an attitude of play, just for the fun of it, as at least Walgreens appreciates. For as long as I can remember I have felt the mischievous desire to adopt some minor oddity about my person, anticipating the dissonance between the relatively ordinary me and the appearance of eccentricity that it would create. (Have you seen Theresa May’s leopard-print heels? Evidently she’s into dramatic shoes.) Wearing black all the time was one of those ideas, hatched in my mid-twenties. It would have been eccentric then, but soon became a regular costume among the young, and then amongst all of us. This turned out to be something of a pattern. Each time I hit on an appealingly whimsical idea, by the time I got around to doing anything about it, the particular thing I had in mind was common practice and, therefore, no longer eccentric. So I did nothing.

But this time, I finally I did it.

An attitude of play is a larger feature of my life now than earlier – an irreverence toward established patterns, joy in the simple fun of disjunction with expectation. There is little to lose any more, as professional concerns recede. The stress of reaching a desired social or academic status is gone. Financial issues have resolved themselves to what they are likely to be from here on. This is a time for fun. And a time for the purple stripe. Those who appreciate my purple stripe do so because it is in the hair of someone my age. It would be unremarkable on a younger woman. It may be the very irreverence of the purple stripe that upsets some women of my age.

As I comb my purple stripe into a feathery cap to suit my mood today, I look forward to its opening even more doors than it already has. And its fun may be contagious. A lively friend had promised herself she would do something jazzy when she reached seventy. She recently asked for the brand and color of the dye that made my purple stripe. She had told her grandchildren of her thought to do this and they have been pleading, “Gamma, Gamma, when are you going to do it?” She said, with a wink, that she planned to color just the tips of her hair, but all around her head.

© 2016 Barbara Scott Nelson

16 thoughts on “The Purple Racing Stripe

  1. Another fabulous essay!! I love the richness and complexity of your writing……there are always hidden layers to contemplate, and there is always fun and quirkiness…an unbeatable combination.


  2. Hi Barbara,
    Very charming. You let guys eavesdrop on this lifelong development to the springboard of daring feminism. Being a Man of a Certain Age I’m more ready to take my part in the Comedy. Perhaps if I drift down Norseman Ave on the lookout for an epiphany on trash day, grace will appear.


  3. I loved your “Purple Racing Stripe” essay–beautifully written and so joyful. The closest I’ve come to stepping out this way was putting one of those annoying “13.1” decals on the rear bumper of our car after I completed a local half marathon. So now when someone behind me honks, I pretend that the driver is celebrating my running accomplishment instead of expressing irritation at my old-man driving.


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