Ron (Puppy) Cavallo is one of Jane Leaf’s best customers. Puppy, as everyone calls him, has been getting his hair cut by Jane for nearly 30 years, long before she opened Wavelengths Hair Salon in 1989.
And yet he’s also one of her worst customers. In the last 12 years he’s been to the salon only three times.
Puppy (age 58) grows his hair for one purpose: to donate it to Locks of Love, the organization that makes wigs for children with cancer who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy treatments.
“The goal is to donate it,” he said on a recent Wednesday just before heading out for his first haircut in four years. “It’s not a fashion statement. It’s the reason to grow the hair.”
Hair grows approximately one quarter of an inch per month and the minimum length Locks of Love will accept is 10 inches of hair. This means he could be getting his hair cut every two years.
“I usually wait longer to give them more length,” he said. “Plus, you get attached to it after awhile.”
Puppy’s appointment is at 2 p.m. but at 1:55 he’s still in his shop more than willing to shoot the breeze. He has made a hair appointment each of the past three weeks and then rescheduled. His ponytail hangs more than halfway down his back. As he walks around it sways gently back and forth looking as luxurious as, well, a horse’s tail.
He checks his watch.
“I should bring some brownies,” he says and then begins filling a bag full of ganache brownies.
Puppy and his partner Dede Rabaioli, in life and in business, have owned and operated Soigne, a fine food and catering business located on Upper Main street in Edgartown, for the past 28 years. He was born on the Vineyard and spent summers here, but grew up in Queens.
“I started working at the [Seafood] Shanty when I was 12, and then a dozen places after that. Then it was six months on, six months off. I chefed around for awhile then I got tired of making money for the man, so we decided to open our own place,” he says.
When the clock strikes 2 p.m. Puppy puts on his coat. In two minutes he is across the street standing inside Wavelengths. Everyone at the salon gives him a warm greeting, calling out loudly, “Puppy.”
He shrugs. “Nobody knows my real name. They only know me as Puppy.”
Ron Cavallho became Puppy just a few days after he was born. Even those few who do know his real name, like his parents, call him Puppy.
“When I came home from the hospital Coo was two years old. They told him they were bringing his brother home. And when I came back he said ‘that’s not a brother, that’s a puppy,’ because I was all wrinkled and pink. No one calls me Ron.”
When asked why his brother is called Coo, he demurs. “I don’t want to divulge the story. He may get mad at me.”
Just then, from somewhere deep inside the salon, Nancy Pritchard calls out from under a hairdryer, “Hi, Ron.”
“I always call him Ron,” she adds. “He doesn’t look like my puppy.”
Jane Leaf, who is now inspecting his hair, shakes her head. “In all the years of knowing you, I never knew your real name,” she says.
“Well, are you ready?” Jane asks.
“Make me handsome again.”
Puppy is led to the back of the salon to get his hair washed. As he walks past Mrs. Pritchard, she calls out,“I always wanted hair like you have, Ron.”
When he finally sits down to get his hair cut, the ponytail now wet and looking even longer, Puppy appears rather uncomfortable as if unsure what to do in this unfamiliar setting.
“The last time I cut it was for a movie,” he explains. This was a walk-on part in a Farrelly brothers movie, the filming coinciding with his Locks of Love appointment.
“That was four years ago. It was Fever Pitch. I was supposed to have a part as a UPS driver and UPS drivers don’t have long hair, so I cut the hair and then when I showed up for the part, they changed the part. I was now a bleacher bum. I didn’t let them know I was cutting it anyway. I made them feel guilty.”
The full haircut takes about 25 minutes but the main event is over in three seconds. One snip of Jane’s scissors and the ponytail is gone. She holds it out in front of her and inspects it.
“It looks like something you find under the refrigerator,” she says.
Already Puppy looks quite different. In a way, his ritual hair growing and hair cutting is like a time lapse case study in stereotypes and profiling. In other words, because he gets his hair cut so infrequently, Puppy has a unique understanding of how people are treated based on their looks.
“When it’s first cut I look like a banker,” he says. “And then during the different stages, who knows what can happen? I’m always getting pulled out of line at the airports for the random search. It’s not random. I was broken down on the highway once and a state trooper gets out with his gun pulled. In Australia I was in a bank lobby waiting for Dede to come down. I’m walking by and I do it again and again and then the woman calls the police. I was just pacing back and forth.”
This never happens when he has short hair.
“Usually when I go through customs I tuck it under my hat.”
After taking care of the finer points, the crisp lines at the back of the neck, the sideburns, and behind the ears, Jane puts the ponytail in a plastic bag to be mailed to the Locks of Love organization located in Lake Worth, Fla. Jane has other customers who donate to Locks of Love, but “Puppy is the only regular.”
Puppy declines the offer of putting gel in his hair and after saying goodbye to everyone at Wavelengths heads back across the street to Soigne. Dede is in the kitchen making chicken salad sandwiches. She says hi and continues working. There is no mention of the drastic change in how Puppy looks.
“After 35 years of this it’s no big deal,” she says. She takes a longer look. “It looks good.”
In a few days Puppy and Dede will close-up Soigne to take their annual month-long trip. They are seasoned travelers going far off the beaten path. They are still undecided about this year’s location but are considering Uganda or the Canary Islands.
“New Guinea is also on the list,” Puppy says. “We’re packed, I got a passport, we just go. I’ve been everywhere and we know how to travel. We just pick a spot and go.”
Last year they went to Myanmar, the year before they travelled to Borneo where a headhunter gave Puppy a tattoo the traditional way, using two sticks and needles and tapping the ink in with a small mallet. “This was the old-fashioned way. No gun. Tap, tap, tap for five hours.”
The newly-shorn Puppy will have an easier time this year clearing customs. But out in the bush, long hair can be an asset.
“I’m not a target,” Puppy says. “I’m more of a detriment. I don’t look like an affluent American. Not that I know how to look affluent anyway.”
Sandwiches and more ganache brownies are passed around. During the meal, when asked how the whole thing started, whether there was a particular person in his life or an event that made him want to grow hair for cancer patients, Puppy shakes his head. “I had the ability to grow hair quickly and thought I’d put it to good use. I just wanted to give something back.”