Wig-making may be the only industry that relies on religious devotion, Hollywood glamor, and raw materials harvested from human heads.
Spend any time in the San Fernando Valley and you'll come upon a house like this: ceiling pocked with acoustic spray that could easily contain asbestos; gold-flecked wallpaper and beveled mirrored tiles; bulbs that sear Stasi-watt light onto a mute carpet; bedrooms with doors ajar just enough to know you don't want to enter. It was in such a house on an evening in the mid-1990s that I found myself drifting past guests chattering in Continental tongues into the kitchen where my host, Isaac Bracha, was chopping mint. We had met a week earlier at some chic gathering in Los Feliz. He had mentioned what he did for a living, but I suppose I had thought he was joking.
Now, standing amid stacks of cookbooks, I happened to look down. On the worn linoleum floor next to the stove lay a blue plastic vat. Inside it, floating in a dark liquid, was a thick coil of human hair. Shiny, silky, medium brown.
"Come see my office," Bracha rumbled, and tossed aside the towel he'd been using as an apron. He opened a door off the living room and descended into the darkness of the basement. Fluorescent lights buzzed alive and I blinked.
A disembodied lock of hair recalls Freud's essay on the uncanny: the familiar that is oddly frightening.
It might have been a hydroponic marijuana farm. It might have been a crystal meth lab. Double wrong. For starters, there were the plastic vats, just like the one in the kitchen, but rows of them arrayed here on metal shelves. The silent mounds within these vats were further evidence that the sodden clump nestled by the stove upstairs had been just a tease. Once I surveyed the contents of the basement, it became clear that I beheld the fledgling business of a human hair merchant.
Human hair. When we cut it, the cut is painless, bloodless -- and often devastating. En masse and gleaming, it can be alluring. But a disembodied curl lying in a vat calls to mind Freud's essay on the uncanny: the familiar that is oddly frightening. Even while lying reassuringly on the head, hair is charged with paradox: by the time it is visible, it is already dead. "Come hither," it teases. "I am a sexy omen of your very mortality. I am death in life's trappings."