To be honest, I expected people to have little to say when it came to their beards. In the beginning, the Beard of the Week feature struck me as trivial, a little vain and very shallow. Unless I discovered Northwestern’s bearded Narcissus, I figured I was going to be plum out of luck.
But my conversation last week with Chris Wade surprised me. People want to talk about their beards. Wade’s beard lead to a discussion covering the early films of John Carpenter and the radical ideas of Karl Marx (more his sense of style than his Socialism). Asking about someone’s beard is similar to asking a couple how they met. They don’t often downplay it, saying, “Oh, it was nothing special.” Behind every beard there is a story and, as surprising as it may seem, usually a face too.
The story of the beard in many ways legitimizes it, serving as an owner’s permit and validating what others might see as crude. But you may ask, “Uncle Mattie [whiskers lend an aura of sophisticated older relative], whatever is your story?” While there may not be a saga of Antarctic treks by sled or an irrational idolization of a historical figure behind my beard, I have a story. You’re reading it at this very moment.
A person’s Beard Story could fill pages if allowed to grow long enough. If a beard were ever to be novelized, I imagine the result would be positively Dickensian (Charles Dickens, by the way, had a rockin’ beard). The protagonist would no doubt be an orphan or some unfortunate ward whose past is unclear and future uncertain (pick from your choice of Twist, Nickleby or Copperfield). He, like the beard, must rise from nothing in the face of insurmountable odds.
From the beginning, the world is against both beard and boy. The beard must fight persistently against the enticing calls of the shaving industry. Meanwhile, the boy struggles against the demand to conform of industrial England, escaping conflicts by razor-thin margins. Boy and beard eventually emerge from dark and uncertain beginnings and embark on a lifetime’s journey of growth.
But even if you haven’t been orphaned, working since you were six and after dinner you and your friends don’t draw straws to see who must slink up to Stir-Fry Steve to ask, “Please sir, may I ’ave some more?,” despair not! I am certain that for each beard there is a different tale, fraught with uncertainty and excitement and perhaps, if you are lucky, an extra bowl of gruel.