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About five years ago I was, well, let's be honest about this, loitering in a shopping mall just outside Pittsburgh. I can't recall why I went there. All I remember now is a little girl, about 8, perched atop a stool at some establishment called the Piercing Pagoda.

What caught my attention were her eyes. She was trying to be brave, mind you, but the eyes betrayed her. A woman stood over her holding something akin to a large stapler and -- yeeow!! -- zapped that child right in the lobe.

Ladies and gentlemen, it was barbaric. My first impulse was to hail a constable and put a stop to the carnage. Fortunately, I checked that urge. For the only person likely to have been arrested was me -- for disturbing the peace.

Since that day I have found myself wondering why otherwise intelligent people have been poking holes in their ears -- and nipples and lips, too -- for the purpose of hanging an ornament in it. What are we? Christmas trees?

What makes a person do that? How long have we been doing that?

All of these profound questions and more will be addressed here. After all, any trinket that can be used to hook salmon in the morning and attract a man in the evening is one of history's landmark creations.

Indeed, few topics are as close to a woman's heart as earrings. They can conduct filibusters on the subject. But little do they know the whole story . . .

Earrings have been in and out of vogue since at least 2100-1800 B.C., when the basket shape was the rage during Britain's early Bronze Age. Over the centuries people have been piercing their ears and wearing such styles as the ear-clip, the Greeks' eardrop, the Mayans' ear-flare, the Egyptians' ear-plug -- sort of a spool harpooned by a chopstick -- the ear-loop, ear-spool and the boat earring, extremely popular in the Middle East during the 4th century B.C.

The Indians at one time had an earring so heavy that it had to supported by a hair pin which, in fact, acted as an added support since the wearer already had a band that encircled the ear.

Dr. Michael Gramly, curator of anthropology at the Buffalo Museum of Science, says you don't have to warm up the time machine to unearth odd customs. The 20th century can more than hold its own.

"Americans are so conservative," says Gramly, who spent five years at the national Museum of Kenya. "So some wear two or three earrings in one ear. So what? That's so tame it makes me sick. They think they're doing something bizarre and they don't know what bizarre is."

All right. So let's talk bizarre. Shoot your best shot, doc.

"I have seen Masai men (of Kenya) wear ear lobes to their shoulders with aluminum beer cans or Coca-Cola cans in them," he says of lobes that are distorted some four to five inches.

And can you imagine what you might get for a pair of Billy Beer-rings?

The 4-inch lobes, incidentally, got that way when the Masai would use a cleft stone -- which looks like two pears united at the top -- and hang it in the pierced ear. The sheer weight (as heavy as a hard ball, Gramly says) did the rest over a period of time.

Unfortunately, the elongated lobe could become a problem when rumbling through the bush. Some macho types, or maybe just the unwise, have been known to have their ears literally bushwacked -- swiped clean off -- by a branch. The smart men tucked the lobe over the ear. Don't ask.

"It just stretches, like a rubber band."

And if the lobe eventually split at the bottom, no problem. They would simply staple it together and reinsert the earring. Or the Billy Beer can.

He said the Pokot people of Kenya wear assorted metal earrings so heavy they require a brace which goes over the forehead -- sort of a precursor to the Walkman look.

With fax machines, 747 jets, and head honchos of one nation sending personal videos to the infidels of another country, the world has become a much smaller place. And many of those erstwhile unusual customs are being phased out by the hour.

"Fashion becomes silly, doesn't it?" says Gramly. "But if you're a closed society and nobody from the outside is observing you, fashion is often taken to the extremes."

"Barry Bonds has a different kind of earring today: It's a loop."

-- Jerry Coleman, CBS radio broadcaster, Game 3 of 1990 Pirates-Reds playoffs

A few centuries ago, it was no big deal for the well-dressed man in Spain or England to wear an earring. For the last five years or so, men ranging from all-star baseball players to second-string accountants have been making a return to yesteryear. Like the Berlin Wall, more barriers are being eradicated each day.

"It used to be left was straight and right was gay," says Joseph VonDohlen, who has been sporting an earring for about eight years. "But now it doesn't matter."

The reason why men have been groping into the jewelry box after some 400 years can be attributed to one word.

"Fashion, really," says Chris Rauen of Kay Jewelers in the Walden Galleria mall. "Younger kids are a lot more fashion conscious than they used to be. . . . Prep kids will buy them a lot. It's not just your heavy-metal kids."

Sales people say male customers tend to be between the ages of 12 and 30. But the boundaries are expanding everyday.

"I even have some who buy the Dungeons and Dragons characters who are into their 30s," says Lila Hoffman, purveyor of ear spangles at Fashion Island in the Boulevard Mall.

One of those packing a dragon in his lobe is Mike Lesner, a patron at the Pink Flamingo on Allen Street.

"I got my first one while I was in the Marine Corps, about a month before I got out," says Lesner, of that glorious moment in 1987. "I put in a clear plastic (stud) so I wouldn't get caught by the first sergeant or he would have tore my ear off."

Lesner says he a few other "short timers" all took the step together while based at Camp Pendleton in California.

"I always wanted one," he continues. "I got my tattoo first and then I got my earring. It comes as a set, y'know: Every guy who has a tattoo gets an earring sooner or later. I'd be willing to bet money on it."

A guy who calls himself Joe Pinhead, bearing the name of his rock group, says he was feeling as freaky as his name when he made the move.

"It was Halloween two years ago," says Pinhead, who was answering to the name Kennedy until about a year ago. "I had a fake earring on and some chick come up to me and said: 'That's cute. I like that.' . . . It's strictly for the women."

Joe Cannizzaro of the musical group Green Jello has two hoops in his right ear and three in the left. A married man, he confesses to how he got started.

"Actually, it was this girl I used to know," he says. "She'd buy one and give me the other one."

Although seeing a certified nurse is recommended, most ear-piercing today is done at specialty shops where the merchandise is purchased. Which is definitely a step up from what transpired during earlier periods.

Debra Poles of Buffalo says that back in her collegiate days, in the early 1970s, there was a piercing device that when applied to the lobe would become a self-drilling apparatus.

"I must be sadistic," she laughs. "It's really thin (wire) that works its way through for about three weeks. And then you hear it go 'pop' and you wear it as an earring."

She doesn't recall much pain because "it got kind of numb there and then you don't feel it anymore."

Heather Walker of Claire's Boutique in the Lockport Mall says the self-ear piercer can be safely classified as a collector's item. They just don't make them like that any more.

"I just had someone come in 10 minutes ago and ask for them," she says. "People ask for them all the time. I don't know anywhere that carries them. I've never seen one in the three years I've been here."

Different cultures have relied on various traditions in making the ear piercing transformation. Ruthel Dumas, an African-American, says she had her ears pierced by her grandmother back in the 1960s at age 9. The deed was done by having her ears rubbed briskly to encourage a numbing sensation. Dumas says other methods used were to apply ice or -- the more tortuous route -- using a clothespin.

"That's the worst type," says Dumas of the spring-clasping device. "I'd never use that."

But her aunt did, much to Dumas' dismay. The pain was enough to cancel the whole affair for several months. Round 2 began with the rubbing process followed by the sewing needle. A heated sewing needle. A cork was placed behind the lobe not only to act as a cushion, but to prevent too large a hole. Then thread was inserted and left in the hole for three to four weeks.

"We had to clean it with alcohol twice a day," Dumas recalls.

Also, the thread was coated with Vaseline and pulled through the hole daily -- something like flossing a lobe.

"That was so you wouldn't get infected," she says.

In the early 1970s, those masters of haute couture -- the French -- invented an ear-piercing gun, says Regina Clauhs of Littman Jewelers in Eastern Hills Mall. And a new era was ushered in. The gun had a 14-karat gold stem which basically eliminated the infection factor and -- as they say at the firing squad -- only stung for a moment.

Clauhs says the gun, combined with the women's lib movement, brought back the pierced-ear look after decades of dormancy. (It is so predominant nowadays that the clip-on is close to extinction in some stores, trailing in sales by as much as 85 percent to 15 percent.)

The French, meanwhile, kept plugging away with their newfangled technology and perfected a gun that made it safe for even teenie-weenie ears, Clauhs says.

"In the early 1980s, piercing started for infants and younger girls," says Clauhs. The French "started with a children's device that caused no pain."

When a child gets her ears pierced is wholly at the whim of the parent -- or based on how long the parent can stand the nagging. There are basic guidelines, however.

"I'd like kids to be over two months so that the ear can be big enough," says Dr. Thomas Gerbasi, a Lewiston pediatrician. "The big issue here is, can you restrain the child well enough without butchering their ears and can they keep their hands off their ears."

When speaking of small children, the good doctor on a number of occasions refers to keeping one's ears clean. He finally confesses that there is a major drawback when dealing with small fry who are, shall we say, still exploring a new world.

"My daughters used to put their hands down into their diapers and smear stuff on their heads," he says. "You can imagine it's not a proper thing to do, hygienically. But you can't talk to a 2-year-old."

Gerbasi says his "personal bias" is for a child to be at least 5 or 6 years old. But he keeps his mouth shut unless a parent brings up the subject.

"It's one of the things most pediatricians would rather not do," he says.

Amie Claire of North Tonawanda totes her own piercing gun. She zaps her friends -- and an occasional customer or two while formerly working as a waitress.

"I'd give it to them in the bathroom," says Claire.

Claire, no slouch herself, can match her ornamental hardware with anyone. In her left ear she wears a pearl, a gold hoop, an onyx, and three more hoops ("I usually wear six hoops, but I feel funky today"). Claire explains she only stopped at that point because once you forge into the upper portions of the lobe, you encounter cartilage and piercing that is only asking for infection problems.

"This took me, like, six months to heal," she says. "Friends say: 'What do you do when you turn 70? You gonna wear six earrings?' Sure. They're like a part of my body now."

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