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Austin Chronicle Cleaner Than a Handshake, Cleaner Than a Kiss

The Follicle Art of Barber Bill Black

By Jay Hardwig

AUGUST 30, 1999: 

The 1990s is surely to be a decade of change -- new technologies, new markets, new challenges, and new concepts replacing old ways. Overnight package delivery, anywhere in the nation? Americans preferring Hondas to Cadillacs? MCI long-distance sold through Amway? Many notions that were previously thought to be ridiculous or impossible are now fact, simply because the world and its needs have changed. Over the next few minutes we're going to describe just such an opportunity, one which takes advantage of one of our most natural and untapped resources, while at the same time safeguards the environment. But first, we'd like to introduce you to a man with an idea. Bill Black is a barber... -- Bill Black Investors' Video

Bill Black is a barber, all right, but at the moment he's not cutting any hair. He's taken a break from the old snip-snip to come and sit in one of his plastic waiting chairs and extol the endless wonders of human hair. It's a recyclable, renewable resource, Black preaches, 95% protein, 19% nitrogen, and endlessly available. All there for the taking, but we're too queasy to grab it. If we could just get over our shivers, he nods sadly, hair could flat-out save the world. His pitch is part science, part faith, and part medicine show, but give this much to Bill Black: The man believes.

He turns from the talk and begins pawing happily through a large cardboard box, a grown man's treasure chest filled with small, hairy things. He pulls out a ball of yarn. That's hair yarn, pardners. "Two hundred yards of one-ply hair yarn," to be exact, swept up from the barbershop floor and spun into a thick thread. "Approximate value of $57," Black estimates, "if it's compared to fine wool." It looks more like something you might find in your shower drain than fine wool, but it's no use quibbling. From that yarn, Black continues, he can make bolts of cloth, and from that cloth...

...a hair bikini. It is stylishly cut, a B-cup maybe, and quite furry. It is made, oh yes, from human hair. It's twin sits in a Myrtle Beach curio shop alongside a pair of hair skivvies. "My wife tried it on," Black says, absently stroking the bikini, "but she took it off real quick." He chuckles lightly. "It was very itchy."

Black gingerly puts the bikini aside and pulls a hair tie from his box. It's a clip-on, a little short by modern standards, and speckled throughout with stray hairs. Loose and lively strands wriggle up from the cloth. The effect is something akin to staring into your granddad's ears, but Black wore his proudly when he was invited on the Tonight Show, and after that Late Night With David Letterman. He gave a hair tie to Leno, in fact, who quickly promised to pass it on to Johnny Carson. It's not hard to see why.

photograph by Mary Sledd
photograph by Mary Sledd

It's a deep box, and more treasures await. There are hair tassels -- a lovely shade of red -- on a pair of penny loafers. There is hair underwear, and a long, brown hatband. There are hair vests and, yes, a hair shirt (not for penitence; Black lines his with cotton). Hair felt, he admits, didn't come out too well, but he does have hair fishing lures and a hair bird's nest complete with toy bluebird. In the bottom of the box lies the famous Hair Bear, a dilapidated little teddy bear who has had his original stuffing removed -- and replaced by human hair. "He's been everywhere," Black says proudly of his bear, and lays it in the bottom of the box.

Reluctantly, Black leaves his treasure chest behind and walks over to his barber's chair. From a nearby cabinet he pulls a prayer cloth, stitched from hair yarn and embroidered with a hair cross. The cross, he says, came from four different heads -- red, brown, black, blond -- and represents Christ becoming one with humankind. "Hair prayer," Black intones solemnly. Then his eyes sparkle, and he flips a loose end of cloth over his shoulder. "It could also be used as a scarf."

"For poverty-stricken areas that can't afford fertilizer, the answer's right there on the top of their head." --Bill Black

photograph by Mary Sledd
photograph by Mary Sledd

The Hair Bear, for all of its questionable charm, is mainly a prop. So is the hair bikini, to be honest. Hooks, snares, curiosities, all designed to get a little attention so Bill Black can talk about what's really on his mind: how human hair can save our poor exhausted planet.

The story begins in St. Louis in the 1970s, a slow decade for the nation's barbers. While waiting for customers one day, Black noticed that certain houseplants in his barbershop were doing exceptionally well -- the ones that were close enough to his chair to get a regular dusting of trimmings. "I neglected them, but they grew like crazy," Black recalls. Acting on a hunch from his barber school days, Black looked into the chemical composition of hair. In addition to being 95% protein, Black found, hair is composed of 50% carbon, 21% oxygen, 7% hydrogen, 4% sulphur ... and 18% nitrogen, a chief component in commercial fertilizers.

"The good Lord enlightened my mind," Black says of his discovery. "Plants love everything that hair is!"

Black immediately set to work concocting a hair-based plant fertilizer. After each shift, he would descend into the basement of his St. Louis shop to grind up the day's trimmings, mixing them with potting soil in varying concentrations. In time, he settled upon 20/80 hair-to-soil ratio, using both chopped hair for quick-release nitrogen and longer strands, which biodegrade more slowly. Armed with a few handy facts -- seven pounds of human hair can contain as much nitrogen as 200 pounds of animal manure -- Black hit the market with his FertHAIRlizer® concentrated plant food. Sales weren't exactly brisk, but he did gain a few fans in the organic gardening community. He also prevailed upon the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis to try some FertHAIRlizer® in one of their experimental plots, to see how it performed against 23 other soil amenities. While the staff botanists complained that the hair was hard to mix into the soil (one compared the plot to a coonskin cap) Black is proud to report that his FertHAIRlizer® did exceptionally well, outperforming its more traditional neighbors. Black still keeps a test garden outside of his Austin barbershop, Sportsman's Barber Shop, on Jefferson Street, growing peppers, tomatoes, and canna plants to hush his skeptics.

While FertHAIRlizer® hasn't yet become a commercial success, Black still believes in it. He's been trying to get someone -- a soil scientist somewhere, an accredited by-god university Ph.D. or some such (hell, he'll settle for eager undergrads) -- to do some thorough research on the effects of hair on soil fertility. He's confident they'll get results.

"I think someday it's going to be used in a big way, like in rice paddies and fields," Black says confidently. "Wherever there's lots of people and poor soil. Mix hair and soil together, and you can come up with some good ground to grow something again." What's more, you'll be keeping that hair out of the landfills.

America alone, Black will tell you, produces 240 million cubic feet of hair a year, equivalent to two million pickup truck loads, or enough to build a mountain of hair the size of the St. Louis Gateway Arch four times a year. (What a roadside attraction that would be.) The hair that falls on New York City barbershops in one day, Black claims, could supply the fertilizer needs of India. In addition to giving your backyard cantaloupes a sorely needed boost, hair mulch can save our overflowing landfills, according to the gospel of Bill Black.

photograph by Mary Sledd
photograph by Mary Sledd

"It looks a little like a toupee with buttons." -- David Letterman, when presented with one of Bill Black's hair vests.

For a man waiting for the world to see the light, Bill Black is uncommonly calm. He's happy being a barber, he says, and has little time to push FertHAIRlizer® on an unsympathetic public. In the meantime, he says, he'll continue to "slow peddle" the stuff on the Internet, and take whatever free publicity comes his way.

Free publicity comes his way pretty often, truth be told. Black has a thick file of newspaper articles on his pastime, most dating to his St. Louis days, and a personal Best of Bill Black videotape which includes his appearances on Leno, the BBC, and Letterman, who introduced Black as a "barber and humanitarian" before trying on the hair vest himself. (As Black was showing off the hair waistcoat, Letterman paused and fixed the barber with a quizzical stare. "Is everything all right at home?" the gap-toothed host asked. Black laughed nervously and said "no.") In addition, Black has done scads of radio programs, including broadcasts from Australia and South Africa. He calls his presentations "informative but entertaining" and says he doesn't mind if people have a laugh at his expense. "Even though it's a joke, they still learn about it," he says mildly. "And there are reasons to feel funny about it."

There are reasons to feel funny about it. Indeed. But that's about as close as Black will come to acknowledging that his passion is, well, weird. Even weirder, Black maintains, is the distaste people have for their own hair. "It's all between the ears," Black mutters, and plunges into deep psychology. If clipped hair gives us the collective willies, Black says, it's because of our discomfort with our own bodies, particularly with disease and decay. He mentions traditional taboos against waste and excrement, and about how our own dead skin can give us the shivers. When our hair is alive -- when it's rooted to our beautiful heads, anyway, we worship it, stroke it, brush it, and think nothing of spending all manner of money just to make it gorgeous. But the very moment it's clipped from our head, it becomes gross, nasty ... weird.

A bagful of hair? You might as well be pitching a bagful of toenails.

Black says our caution is misplaced. "Once sterilized," he says, "hair is cleaner than a handshake, cleaner than a kiss." Black sterilizes the hair he uses in his kitchen microwave, by the way.

Black concedes that we may not be ready for human hair products here on our unenlightened earth. "I really kind of see this thing as a 'someday-in-the-future,' more than a 'now' sort of innovation. I think when there are some shortages and people are in a situation where they can't get raw materials, they'll turn to hair." When they do, Black will be ready. In addition to the FertHAIRlizer®, he's experimenting with hair as insulation.

Black keeps a layer of human hair, bagged, sterilized, and sprayed with fire retardant, in the attic of his Cedar Park home. He's also made adobe bricks using hair in the place of straw, although he admits he hasn't tried to build himself a hair house just yet.

He's also excited about the possibilities of "hydrogized human hair keratin protein," a compound best described as liquefied hair. He grabs a lotion that uses the compound and squirts some on his hands. "You can't tell it's hair," he says with a wink. Black thinks the "hydrogizing" may be the wave of the future; with its form changed beyond recognition, people may accept hair as a natural, renewable, recyclable resource. He talks about the possibilities of liquefied hair as a dietary supplement for animals. "It's a suitable, edible, digestible product," Black claims excitedly.

"For animals, right?"

Black mumbles noncommittally.

"Would you eat hair?"

"I probably ate a lot of hair in my day," Black says finally. "I've been cutting hair for 32 years."

In the pause that follows, Black starts talking about Abraham Maslow's famed hierarchy of needs. Three basic human needs, Black says, are food, shelter, and clothing. Hair meets all three: You can grow food in it, build bricks from it, and make clothes from it. As the world's population increases and its resources dwindle, we would do well to use all of the materials at our disposal, even if they're swept from a barbershop floor.

There lies Bill Black's dream. More than being on Letterman, more than being on Leno, more than getting his hair bikinis into cheap museums on the Florida coast, Black wants his ideas to make a difference, to change a few things in a world that could surely use a few changes. Is he a crackpot? Maybe so. But if the seeds of his ideas have any merit, if they grow and sprout and flower and spread -- if someday some Indian farmer gets a better yield on his rice crop, or an Australian shepherd gets more protein to his herd, or an African laborer builds a better brick when the straw crop is thin, or even if a local weekend gardener simply grows a better backyard tomato -- Bill Black will not have labored in vain.

"God would be glorified," Black says of that distant possibility. "The Lord's will be done. I might not be here when it happens, but I will have had something to say about it."

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