The Search For Cool
I was either nineteen or twenty years old when I jumped into Dennis McPhail’s mini-truck and headed to California for a couple of weeks. Our objectives were clear and had been planned out for months. McPhail was going to hang out at some famous tattoo parlor to learn the tricks of the trade and I was gonna go on a number of job interviews hoping to land a gig as a designer. In between all of that, we both planned to hit the Rat Fink Reunion.
I had a secret though… Weeks before I had seen a documentary called “Desperate Generation” that featured, among other things, the shenanigans of the Shifters Car Club. To do this day, it remains one of my favorite pieces of “hipster hot rodding” editorial. It’s creator, Emily Dutton, painted a picture of Southern California bliss where hot rodders were friendly outlaws that lived in this sort of deliberate time warp. Their houses were vintage. Their furniture was vintage. Their clothes were vintage. And, of course, their hair was vintage.
Living in Oklahoma, I had never seen anything like it and was completely awe struck by the idea of it all. To me, these guys had life by the balls and were blazing a trail of individualism that absolutely captured my young sensibilities. I had just gotten my undergraduate degree and was, unwittingly, going through the phase of trying to figure out just who in the hell I was and what I wanted to do with myself.
I was searching for cool… And I found the holy grail.
In one segment of the documentary, a club member is being interviewed while getting his hair cut. I remember the barber shop appearing as if it came straight from a Humphrey Bogart movie set – everything was perfectly appointed, even the man with the scissors. And he cut the most perfect of pompadours while smoking a Lucky Strike and using his vintage tools of the trade with a masterful grace that can only come from generations of experience.
So naturally, one of the first things I did when I got to California was have Dennis drop me off for a trim. For an hour I sat in that antique barber chair and stared at myself through the old mirror and watched as the same guy from the documentary transformed me into a cooler version of myself. It was a $20 haircut and I tipped him $10.
When I got back into Dennis’ truck, he smiled ear-to-ear and laughed his words. “Oh my god, you’re a greaser!”
I’ve never felt more insecure in my life and I think Dennis could sense it. He’s nothing if not kind hearted and quickly changed his tune. “Looks good,” he said. “I like it.”
And thus began my greaser phase – one that would last for two, maybe three, years. I don’t know if I grew out of it so much as I just got tired of dealing with the grease stains on my pillow cover… and my couch… and everything else that my head might have come in contact with.
And then there was my girlfriend’s (now my wife) Halloween Party.
“Hey man,” some stranger said with exasperation. “That’s a fucking GREAT James Dean costume!”
Anyway, about the time all of this was going on I was taking a design class at the University Of Oklahoma. One of my assignments was to create a “look book” for an American fashion brand. I built mine entirely using vintage hot rod imagery. I found the inspiration folder on my hard drive last night and it took me back to my quest for cool. Looking at them now, I don’t feel nearly as stupid as I once did about my greaser phase.
We all grow up I guess… and, at some point, I think we all wish we didn’t. Or maybe we don’t really grow up. Maybe we just run out of energy living the life we chose for ourselves and have nothing left for phases of any kind. But I’m certain about one thing. Cool is just a phase.