I’ve worn a full beard since I was old enough to grow one. I was old enough to grow one when I was 17. Since then, I’ve been clean-shaven only once, and that was nearly 30 years ago. This happened not because I had a desire to pick up a razor and get a good look at my mug but because other people did. And they were offering me $500 cash to play along.
These weren’t just any people either. One was the woman I would later marry; the other, my kid brother Joe. The transaction (five crisp C-notes out of Joe’s own pocket) took place just after the dessert course at my mother’s Christmas dinner table. So did the shave.
Both my mother and the woman I would one day marry broke down in tears when they saw my smooth, clean-shaven skin — but for very different reasons. One was happy to see her "beautiful" son’s face again “finally!”; the other, horrified at the first sight of it, begged me to start growing a beard again, "right now!"
It’s been three decades and I’m still wearing that same beard. You wouldn’t know it was the same beard by looking at it, though. It’s not a full black beard anymore, it’s a full gray beard. I’m surprised that I’m still wearing it. Back when I was in my late thirties, and the first gray hair sprouted above my upper lip, I swore myself a solemn vow: The beard could work its way through the salt-and-pepper stage as long as it still looked all right, but as soon as there was more salt than pepper, it would have to go.
Except that the salt started to outflank the pepper nearly a decade ago now. Five years ago, it took over almost entirely. And yet the beard is still with me. So much for solemn vows, I guess.
The woman whom I married says that she likes my beard better now that it is gray. “You looked pretty intimidating when it was black, but now you look way more approachable,” she has said many times and under a variety of circumstances. “Besides, it’s very distinguished-looking. And that’s not so bad, is it?”
I can’t say that I have ever agreed. Let’s face it, this beard of mine makes me look old. Because of it, women don’t pay much attention to me anymore, and men don’t show the respect that they once did. OK, so I could be imagining the thing about men not respecting me as much, but the women? I am on totally firm, if drearily unpleasant ground here. Trust me on this: I know.
And yet not even a finely honed edge of male vanity moves me to take action. I could no more imagine taking a razor blade to my face than chopping off a finger or a toe — not even one of those itty-bitty ones that don’t have much use. Of the 56 years that I’ve been knocking around this Earth, the beard has been part of the package for 39 of them.
Some years ago a psychologist named Ron advanced the theory that my then very black beard might be a “mechanism” by which I could “protect” or “hide” my true self from others. We were chatting in his darkened office off of Gramercy Park in Manhattan, on a brilliantly sunny autumn day. I laughed at this and then reached over and opened a window shade to allow some of the afternoon light in.
“I’ve had three different shrinks who were dudes, and guess what, all three of them wore beards,” I said as scornfully as I could manage. “Including you.”
Ron noted that I had referred to him in the past tense, just as the others, and wondered if there might be some deeper meaning in this that might require further discussion. But our time was up. And my beard and I never went to see that joker again.