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  1. Life & Culture

They’ve discovered a cure for baldness! The baseball cap.

But really, he’s just blinded by the light.
Roy Peter Clark's hat collection.
Roy Peter Clark's hat collection. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published Oct. 11, 2020

Not all babies are born bald, but I was. That was 72 years ago, and, what do you know, here we are again.

My dad was an amateur photographer, and I have hundreds of pictures of me. In many of the early ones, they’ve covered my weirdly shaped head: with a diaper, an exotic headdress (like Carmen Miranda’s) and, eventually, a little baseball cap.

Roy Peter Clark's parents dressed him like Carmen Miranda.
Roy Peter Clark's parents dressed him like Carmen Miranda. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

From that modest beginning, I have become the Imelda Marcos of caps. When the first lady of the Philippines and her husband were deposed, it was reported that she left behind 3,000 pairs of shoes. In 1987 she protested: “I did not have 3,000 pairs of shoes. I had 1,060.”

I deny that I own more than 3,000 hats. “I only have 51,” he capitulated. I have paid full price for a few and received a few as gifts. The value of the lot at, say, $20 a cap, is over a thousand dollars.

Which invites the question, “Why so many hats, Roy?” Before we get to the B word (baldness, not baseball), I will list two other important reasons why I wear caps almost everywhere I go, inside and outside, so that the cap has become something of a trademark.

Blinded by the light

I wear hats because I am a bit sensitive to light, the result of cataract surgery decades ago.

When I was in my 40s, my nearsighted vision became worse and worse, until it hit 20/400. I failed a driving vision test. I assumed I was going blind. Nothing helped. Then, Dr. Ambrose Updegraff looked in and went “hmm." Not always a good sign, but in this case, he recognized cataract tissue descending like a portcullis over the lens of the eye.

Advances have made cataract surgery easier than having your teeth cleaned. Two simple procedures implanted artificial lenses and corrected my vision, almost immediately, to 20/30 without glasses. No other medical procedure has improved my life more. But there was a side effect.

I began to notice that flashes of light would be blinding, leading to what are called “floaters,” occasionally resulting in ocular migraine headaches. I can avoid them by wearing my sporty Maui Jim sunglasses and, of course, a baseball cap.

You want a piece of me?

Speaking of sunlight, been to the dermatologist lately? In the 1980s I coached soccer for most of a decade, often without wearing a cap, loving that deep George Hamilton tan that so many in my generation used to crave. Until that little spot appeared on my nose.

First it was basal cell carcinoma and then squamous cell, mostly just mildly disfiguring annoyances. Over the years these have appeared now and then on my nose, cheeks, forehead, ears and an eyelid. They can be frozen, burned off or cut off. A nifty procedure called Mohs surgery minimizes the amount of tissue that has to be removed.

I have a theory of how I got skin cancer. In my teenage years, my mom sent me to a dermatologist to treat a case of acne. The doctor, who had nurses with perfect skin, would conclude treatments by sitting me under a sun lamp, burning off the surface skin until it peeled. Weird science.

Our national symbol is bald

God has a good sense of humor. As we get older, he takes away hair from the places we want it, and makes it grow in places we don’t.

Let it be known that when it comes to baldness, white privilege does not apply. I envy heads of color. Thank you Michael Jordan, Steve Harvey, Shaquille O’Neal and my friends, the Rev. Kenny Irby and Eric Deggans — even Grace Jones — for trying to make baldness fashionable, dare I say even sexy, for all of us.

It doesn’t work for guys like me. We need the hat. A pale bald pate shows enough bumps and crevices to drive phrenologists — those quacks who measured lumps to predict personality — to ecstasy. A caucus of bald Caucasians reveals more topography on top than a flight over the Caucasus Mountains.

That’s why the last time you saw Ron Howard without a hat he was fishin' with his Pa.

My wife joins the club

My wife has a peanut head. I have a balloon head. The hats that fit me perfectly slide over her eyes and make her look like a 12-year-old.

Her oncologist told her that her hair would begin to fall out on day 17 of chemotherapy for breast cancer. On that very day, she came out of the shower crying. I persuaded her to let me give her a haircut, right there, right then.

I sat her on a stool in the kitchen where there were no mirrors. First with scissors and then with clippers I began cutting her beautiful hair, something I had never done before. Like my piano work, I was playing by ear.

When I finished, it looked like a 10-year-old had just mowed the lawn for the first time. Her hairdresser would clean it up the following day. But I could see something I would not have otherwise noticed. “Of course,” I blurted. “You have a perfectly shaped head.” I handed her a mirror. “Hmm,” she said. “That doesn’t look so bad.”

It took many months to grow back, and when it did it went from straight to very curly. Until then, she bought a couple of blond wigs, which looked fine, but I could tell were uncomfortable. I knew what she needed. Bring on the caps.

She built a small collection and is now an official member of the club. Her favorite was purchased in Sanibel, a pink hat with a daisy in front and a logo on the bill: Life is Good. She wears it so often her sweat stains have seeped through the fabric. We’ll put it in the dishwasher, take it out wet before the dryer shrinks it, stuff it with newspaper, let it air dry, and it will turn out good as new.

Why do I wear a hat?

I wear a hat in the movie theater because the AC blows down and turns my bald skull into a polar icecap. I wear a hat when I Zoom because I don’t want you to be distracted by the reflection off my head. I wear a hat when I teach a class because I don’t want to be blinded by the overhead lights glaring into my eyes. I wear a hat at the coffee shop because I know how to accessorize, and that tie-dyed hat really pops with my white golf shirt.

I wore a Providence College hat when I delivered the commencement speech at my alma mater in 2017 because that mortar board looks so geeky.

I have six Converse hats, my favorite brand; I have three pelican hats, my favorite bird; I have 12 Tampa Bay Rays hats, my favorite team; I have two hats for each of these great institutions: the Buccaneers, the Lightning, the New York Yankees, Notre Dame and, most important, Bob Evans Restaurant.

I am not alone. I learned that Rick Kriseman, the mayor of St. Petersburg, has a cap collection, built from souvenirs acquired during his travels. He texted me that he may have as many as 50: “One of my favorites is one I brought back from Havana celebrating their 500th anniversary. Any hat from Margaritaville is a favorite.” (Our mayor’s a Parrot Head! Who knew?)

Since I began this story with my childhood, I will end it there. It is possible that the first book I ever read on my own was a classic called Caps for Sale, written and illustrated by Esphyr Slobodkina. I love this story so much that I have read it to children for decades and even dramatized it for adults.

In it, a peddler walks through town with a tower of caps atop his head. “Caps for sale,” he cries. “Fifty cents a cap.” He falls asleep under a tree, but when he wakes up, the caps are all missing, except for one. He looks around. Then he looks up to see a tree full of monkeys, each one wearing a cap. When he shakes his fist at them or stomps his feet, they imitate him, as monkeys do. In frustration, he takes off his cap and throws it on the ground. So do the monkeys! Off goes the peddler, selling his caps, which makes me wonder what I might look like with 51 baseball caps stacked on my head.

How about you? What looks good on your head?