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For a while, I only trusted gay men with my hair. As a child, my mother cut my hair: every two months or so, I sat on a chair set upon spread-out newspaper on the basement storeroom, and my mother worked my head with a trimmer set that nicked my ears and spewed out hot ozone. In middle-school, she started taking me to haircut franchises: Great Clips, the Hair Cuttery—but after one too many fucked-up cuts, we settled on a Vietnamese woman who had shop in the Far East Shopping Plaza. While I got my hair cut, she shopped for groceries.

Patrick, though, was my first stylist. He worked first out of Cherry Creek, but when he opened his own salon in Englewood, I followed. We hung out for  coffee and occasionally hit the bars together. He introduced me to having my hair slightly askew and tousled, as if I’d just woken up. (How can anyone tell the difference? asks Matthew.)

When I returned to Denver after grad school, Patrick had closed his salon and had moved to San Diego. I tried other gay men, but results were spotty, depending mostly on the mood of the stylist that day. But Matthew introduced me to Meechie, who worked at the Supercuts not far from our apartment, and from that day on, only sassy black women have cut my hair.

I have great respect for hair stylists. When I told Tomacina, my current stylist, that I’d like a Mohawk for the summer, she didn’t bat an eye, but worked the clippers until all the white hairs at my temples were on the floor. “Not too bad,” she said.

In The Rock, the gay barber (“stylist,” he insists) is played for laughs. He’s a hideous stereotype: prancing, mincing, and prone to the vapors. His complaint that he’s not allowed to use scissors is played off as evidence of frivolity. What’s a pair of thinning shears when compared to the fate of San Francisco, a city under threat of being poison gassed? He’s on-hand to give Sean Connery, a wrongfully-imprisoned British intelligence officer, a haircut. They sit, guarded by FBI officers, on a high hotel balcony, with the San Francisco hills roll behind them.

Michael Bay admits that Connery essentially reprise his most famous role: “a rusty James Bond,” he describes the character. A friend recently explained why she doesn’t like James Bond movies. “Whenever I see Bond driving through a crowded marketplace, overturning the stalls and sending everything flying, I don’t care that Bond is trying to save the world,” she said. “All I can think about are all the poor merchants who’ve just had their lives upended.”

“I guess I’m not the right audience,” she concluded.

Connery uses the haircut as a pretext to escape, of course, flinging his captor off the balcony. The stylist flees into the elevator, where he cowers from Mason. But he knows that his work is no less important than Mason’s work to save the world. “All I care about is,” he says, “Are you happy with your haircut?”


Armageddon:  the bête noire of the Criterion Collection.  When I explain what the Criterion Collection is to friends who aren’t familiar with it, I rattle off the usual suspects:  Kurosawa, Truffaut, Fassbinder, Hitchcock.  But each and every time, I leave out Michael Bay.  His name slips my mind.

The rabid fans of the Criterion Collection have conflicting feelings regarding Armageddon:  more than a few think that having Michael Bay in the Collection legitimizes his brand of filmmaking:  big, noisy, and hyper-masculine to a fault.  Others see Bay’s presence as “guilty pleasure,” the cash cow that funds overlooked gems.  But why can’t it be both?

As to where I fall on the Armageddon divide, that question has already been answered.  In the summer of 1998, when it came out, I had already chosen the other “killer asteroid” movie, Deep Impact, over it. My small, reptilian brain casing only has enough room for one apocalypse at a time, and Hollywood has a penchant letting similar films compete with each other — witness 1997’s battle royale between Volcano and Dante’s Peak.  This cutthroat release schedule is the entertainment-biz equivalent of Godzilla vs. King Kong.  Except that no one wins.

Why I saw Deep Impact instead of Armageddon, I’m not sure.  It might be that Deep Impact came out first.  Or it could be my innate distrust of Bruce Willis.  Or, it could simply be that I snuck into the film after watching something slightly more reputable.  While I was living in Washington, D.C., I did this often:  paying to see one movie and spending the entire afternoon wandering from one theater to another, taking in whatever spectacle happened to blossom after the trailers.

I try to be immune to Hollywood blockbusters, but part of their charm is their inherent ridiculousness.  Michael Bay recognizes it — on his commentary track, he explains the reason his asteroid-exploration vehicles have machine guns was because of the Mattel tie-in:  trucks with guns sell better.  Ben Affleck, on the same track, compares the über-patriotic scenes of Americana to a commercial for Miller Genuine Draft.  So even if I groan during the ‘heartland of America’ sequences, I also duly note an increased heart rate as the Russian space station is about to explode, threatening to take the poor cosmonaut with it.  (Ben Affleck, I don’t care so much.)

With Deep Impact, all I remember is end of the world:  Téa Leoni embracing her father as the mile-high tidal wave comes to consume them.  1998 was my last summer in D.C.  Soon, I’d return to my parents’ house in Denver, that momentary post-collegiate freedom swallowed by economic necessity (also:  an extravagant trip to Vietnam).  At the time, I didn’t feel like embracing my parents in the face of the cataclysmic destruction of my God-given American lifestyle, but if I could kill a few hours wallowing in some harmless, ear-shattering blockbusters, why not?  No one watches these movies pretending they approach anything to real life.  Real life waits outside the theater, waiting to clobber you over the head, like the piece of asteroid the crew don’t manage to destroy.

For someone who dislikes moving, I end up doing a lot of it.  For a five-year period (2003-2007), I moved every single year, schlepping my net worth across the country:  Houston to Denver, Denver to Minnesota, Minnesota to Denver, and finally, Denver to Delaware (not counting a final, intra-Delaware move from Newark to Wilmington).  I briefly befriended 10-foot U-Hauls, turned down the optional insurance, and went about transporting whatever crap I had accumulated during the year.

I’ve never been as efficient as Matthew at packing — he subscribes to the “no wasted space” philosophy.  I don’t fold clothes to pack for a trip; they sort of just bend themselves.  Matthew, with Tetris-like precision, carefully distributes weight in the truck, balancing crates full of books and CDs with mattresses and furniture as the truck sinks lower and lower onto its tires.  I sit back and act exhausted.

Once I step into the cab of the truck, however, I feel a surge of energy.  In that moment, I’m elevated above lesser, weakling passenger cars.  I’ve got diesel-powered brute force.  So if Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear seems overly masculine, I understand the impulse.  It takes balls to drive a truck — the bigger, the better.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the scene when Yves Montand jumps out of his hammock clad only in underwear.

Thankfully, I’ve never had to contend with ravaged South American dirt roads (though parts of I-70 can be rough), and I’ve never transported anything as volatile as nitroglycerin.  But, just in case, I turn up the music in the cab.  It drowns out the whinnying of the engine.  It gives me a certain pace at which to drive.  But most importantly, it smothers the sound of things shifting behind me:  the muffled crashes, the thumps of objects falling from great heights and spilling open.  Items shattering and tinkling or splintering and ripping.  With each move, I try (for a few hours, at least) not to become too attached to anything — an on-the-road moment of Zen.

There’s only been one moment during a move when I feared for my safety.  On the Houston to Denver leg, in Southern Colorado, the wind blew as if it were shifting the desert from one side of the highway to the other.  I slowed to forty miles an hour.  I saw “slowed” but actually, it was as fast as I could drive.  The truck strained against what felt like a hand pushing against its side.  Going up hills and crests, my speed dwindled to thirty, twenty-five, and I struggled to hold the wheel steady.  And while I really never believed that the truck would tip, occasionally I wondered.  Against my will, the truck shunted left and right across the road, like in the final scene in The Wages of Fear.  But with more abject terror and less maniacal glee.  We both had things to look forward to on our respective arrivals:  for Yves Montand’s Mario, a spinning and passed-out Vera Clouzot.  For me:  a bed, a pillow, and possibly a cat or two, in a home that I didn’t think would be temporary.

Most gangster movies suggest a moral imperative:  no one who receives ill-gotten gains will prosper.  Witness Bob Hoskins’ decline in The Long Good Friday:  despite his high-rolling lifestyle (yacht! champagne! a young Helen Mirren!), his and his compatriots’ lives seem to be shorter, more nasty and more brutish than most.  But few people watch gangster films for moral instruction (at least, I hope not).  They go to see a pre-Remington Steele Pierce Brosnan.  Wet!  In a Speedo!

My own gang knowledge remains thankfully non-existent.  During the mid-90s, I heard about Vietnamese gangs terrorizing Little Saigons around the nation, but I never suspected Denver had a problem.  Asian gangs were, after all, a California phenomenon.  I remember my parents talking about a brazen robbery during a Catholic Mass:  the gang members made everyone lie on the floor and went through the congregation’s pockets, one by one.  No one was killed, but Vietnamese communities coast-to-coast were on high alert:  these could be your neighbor’s gelled and spiky-headed sons! Not your own, of course.  Never yours.

Before I went to high school, my family faithfully attended Tết (New Year) and Tết Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn) festivals sponsored by the local Buddhist temple.  After dutifully bowing to my parents’ friends and acquaintances — arms crossed, back sore from the repetitive stress injury, I got to mill about with the other bored kids.  The smell of spent firecrackers hung in a colloidal suspension with oil spritzing off the egg roll frying vats.  You could hear dice rattling and cheers of excitement and disappointment as people played bầu cua cá cọp.

There were always handful of white people at these events — befuddled but patient spouses, hip-before-their-time Buddhists — and one tall guy who always stood out.  He wore a polo shirt tucked into his acid-washed jeans with no belt.  Armed with a few halting words of Vietnamese, he circulated, courteous but watchful, like a guard dog looking for scraps.  My sister, who, at the time, went to the University of Colorado–Denver, a hotbed of Vietnamese pow-wows, told me, That’s JamesHe’s a cop.  The liaison for the Vietnamese community — gang patrol.

James was personable, good-looking.  A trustworthy face, as my mother might say.  He would have had a hell of a time going undercover, but engaging the community was the next best thing.  He tempered his easygoing camaraderie with a firm handshake and steely voice, as if suggesting, You know what I am, I know what you are, let’s all play nice.  I always wondered if he was packing.  But it seemed excessive:  Colorado was not California.  No one had inducted me into a gang.

But chalk this up to my lack of gang-desirable qualities.  As I’ve since learned, the Viet Pride Gangsters (VPG, not to be confused with their nemeses, Asian Pride) have operated in Denver since the 90s.  In 2003, they took a major hit when the police arrested 23 gang members (including one white boy).  Ironic:  they call themselves “Viet Pride” but victimize primarily other Vietnamese.  I suppose nothing says pride like burglarizing neighbors, friends, family.  But not your own, of course.  Never yours.

Everyone — particularly lovers of genre movies — needs a movie buddy.  Certainly, there’s something to be said for watching a movie by yourself, especially if the film is cerebral and requires focus and concentration. But genre movies lend themselves to the buddy system, because, for the most part, their premises are absolutely harebrained. Take Robocop, for instance.  I can’t even write the sentence dead cop gets reconstructed as a cyborg to be the ultimate law-enforcement machine without rolling my eyes.  Every now and then, you need a buddy to lean to, to tap on the shoulder and whisper, I can’t believe that crap I just saw.

I remember seeing Robocop in the theater.  When it came out, I was barely out of middle-school, having finally packed my Transformers and Gobots, still in robot form, into cardboard boxes and stashed them in the basement of our house — where memories go to die.   My sister, who is nine years older than me, was my ticket into R-rated movies.  Not that theaters were more strict about their age policy back then, but I wasn’t about to take a chance.  I was a good boy.

So my sister, in effect, was my movie buddy.  I’m not sure who had convinced whom to go see Robocop, but most likely I was the guilty party.  When, during the movie, the fake ad for the board game “Nukem” came on, we howled with laughter:  Are you serious?  Surely, they can’t be serious.

As I entered high school, our buddy system continued, but in a new incarnation.  We no longer saw movies together; instead, we merely told our parents that we did, which allowed:  1) me to see a late-night movie, and 2) her to go out with her friends.  So, on Friday and Saturday nights, she dropped me off in downtown Denver, at the brand-new Tivoli Center with the 12-theater AMC.  I saw mostly schlocky horror (The Guardian, The Exorcist III, Repossessed), while she went to any number of downtown Denver nightclubs (23rd Parish, Fish Dance).  Afterward the movie, I go next door to the diner and order a plate of atomic fries, eating them one at a time, until she arrived to pick me up.  For the life of me, I can’t remember what made those fries ‘atomic.’

On the nights my sister was late or didn’t show up until the clubs had closed, I wandered the bowels of the Tivoli, following side halls and stairways that seemed to go nowhere.  The whole complex seemed to be a work in progress:  exposed pipes, floor tiles waiting to be laid, plastic sheets taped floor to ceiling to indicate that I shouldn’t go any further (I did).  I dodged security guards and often found myself standing before the boiler room — not The Boiler Room, the brew pub on the other side of the movie theater — but the room that hissed and sighed like it was full of deflating balloons.  On those nights, I became my own movie buddy, leaning against a sheet of drywall and asking myself, Remember that scene where the guy gets covered in toxic waste? so that I could reply, Oh, yeah, that was cool.