Bald? Things could be worse Choices: A new pill that grows hair but occasionally results in impotence does not produce a difficult decision for most men.


Jay Schwartz, a Baltimore lawyer, considers the question for all of a nanosecond. Really, what's to think about?

"I'd pick baldness," says Schwartz, a 51-year-old man with gray hair and a receding hairline. "And being someone that is losing his hair, I'd still pick baldness."

During a break from shopping at The Gallery downtown, Schwartz takes a moment to consider a question that may soon confront millions of men afflicted with "male pattern baldness," a receding hairline and bald spot in the crown of the head. It's no-brainer, Schwartz says. He'll take baldness, he says, if the choice is baldness or, well, impotence.

In the good old days it was merely a matter of choosing between baldness and an embarrassing toupee. Now this.

Yes, the drug Propecia is supposed to be progress. It is, after all, the first baldness pill ever approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And the product from Merck & Company showed results from fair to excellent for male pattern baldness in eight of 10 men included in laboratory tests.

But as Joseph Heller once said, there's always a catch. The Propecia Catch hasn't quite the sublime circular irony of a Catch-22, but it's poetic nonetheless. In maybe two out of 100 cases, the little tan octagonal pill causes the customer to lose interest in sex and to become impotent.

In which case, the menu would include two options: hairy or functional. A bargain with Faustian overtones. In at least a few cases one would be trading actual virility for what is usually taken as its appearance.

So what's to think about? says Schwartz.

"You might want to ask my wife as well," says Schwartz. But his wife, Laura, isn't at The Gallery because he's buying gifts for her. Asked to predict her response, Schwartz takes another nanosecond.

"I think she'd prefer baldness."

Unleashed in pursuit of a solution, technology offers a dazzling array of options. What'll it be, pal? Baldness or a hair weave? Baldness or hair plugs? Baldness or frequent marinades of Rogaine? And then the moral dilemma presented by the comb-over, a living fulfillment of the biblical pronouncement that all is vanity and striving after wind. Or before the wind, as the case may be.

In this case, the stark choice that might confront future Propecia users presents no problem for those quizzed in an exceedingly unscientific survey of men and women at The Gallery. Compared to certain afflictions, baldness seems no affliction at all.

"Well, it's just whether your hair is more important or your sex is more important," says Juanita Hicks, a retired hospital secretary from Detroit who is spending Christmas with family here. "I'm a widow," she says, "but if I were married I'd take the baldness."

A few of the men have a question. If you become impotent from this Propecia stuff, can you just stop taking it and restore yourself?

Well, yes. You'd restore certain parts of yourself. You'd trade whatever hair you gained for whatever else you may have lost.

Fair enough, says Rick Simmons, 50, a Northwest Airlines pilot from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He's got gray thinning hair and is not in the market for a baldness treatment at the moment. But if he were, he says "I would take a chance on it, take it for a while."

If side effects appear, he says, he'd drop it.

"Hair is important, but sex is more important," says Simmons.

"It's an interesting question," says Jennifer, who works at the April Cornell store.

When she is asked about the subject, she makes a face as if she were watching sausage being made. Jennifer won't give her last name, but she acknowledges that at the age of 21 she had never before considered whether she'd prefer a man bald or impotent. A few moments of contemplation over a ham and cheese sandwich yield the answer: "I think I'd rather go with bald," says Jennifer.

Bill Mooney, 49, is reading the Washington Times on his lunch break but takes time to briefly consider the two options. Baldness vs. impotence. As a certified public accountant, he's accustomed to complex calculations. This one's easy.

"I'd rather go au naturel, I would think," says Mooney, who has a full head of hair behind one of those high, receding hairlines that makes him look brainy. "I'm not sure tinkering with the cosmetics is worth trading off the basics of life.

"I'd rather be Yul Brynner, be bald and virile."

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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