End of the Line

Growing Pains

On tangling with facial hair

Illustration: Illustration by Barry Blitt

A man in Clarksdale, Mississippi, once said to me, “I’m seventy-four already.” Now, all of a sudden, that is my age. No telling how old I’ll be tomorrow. And I am mindful that at seventy-four, humorists have generally worn their risibilities to the bone. Mark Twain was dead. Here is what I have done, by way of coming to terms: I have grown a semiretirement beard.

“Retirement beard” is a term media commentators use when a host gives up his TV talk show and can just let himself go. David Letterman, seen in the street, is all but swallowed up in whiskers. When I was on his show, two or three times, years ago, I took his oddly desperate up-close facial expression to mean, “Oh my God let this guest pass from me.” Now I know he was thinking, “If I can just put in ten, fifteen more years of this, I’ll be able to walk about swathed in hair.”

I don’t plan to quit writing, voluntarily, but I like to think this new beard makes me look like I would be entitled to, if I could afford it. My wife is okay with my beard, and even our cat, Jimmy, seems to be coming around. For a while he was giving me looks, like, “Half a fuzzy face? Really? If you’re thinking in terms of intimidating a rival male, forget it.”

Here’s what you may not realize if you see me in my beard: I went through my first seventy-three years doubting I could grow one, a good full one. Let me express my insecurity as follows:

It is as I have feared.
I’m coming across as weird.
“That man over there
With the odd facial hair,”
They’re saying. “He thinks it’s a beard.”

But when you get to an age when you work at home, and you’ve got sciatica, and half the time (no, let’s say 30 percent of the time) you’ve forgotten to check whether your fly is zipped, you get less inhibited in most respects. So I looked at the photos of bearded Letterman and decided to go for it.

“I hear you have a beard-ish,” my own son said on the phone. Okay, okay. But when he saw my beard in person, he had to concede it was in fact a beard, and that was a month ago. Now I’m trying to figure out how to control my beard.

For my sciatica I have been going to a neurological clinic called Southern Brain & Spine. (I’m gonna love ya, come brain or come spine.) Is there a Southern everything? Southern Breathing? Southern Trigonometry? The Southern Foot? I Googled “Southern Beard.” And there it was, the Southern Beard Company, of Mount Pleasant, North Carolina.

“I got into the beard business,” the company’s CEO and founder, Nick Harrison, informed me in reply to my e-mail, “because I knew there was a way to make the same (if not better) product than the competitor for WAY less prices. I currently do not have a beard but used to; and all of my close friends that help me have full beards. Our best seller is the Appalachian Morning Beard Wash [which] consists of vanilla, Virginian cedar, oak moss, and tobacco flower. The smell itself smells more of just Virginian cedar and vanilla, but the small hints of oak moss and tobacco flower give it the ‘touch’ any beardsman would love!”

His competitor? There are many: a Northern Beard Company, a Texas Beard Company, a Southern Scruff Beard Company. But I am not in the market for aromatic oils. I just want to walk the streets in my good old beard.

Problem is, this sciatica is taking the spring out of my step. The other day while shuffling along Dauphine Street in New Orleans I was hailed by a one-armed man standing next to a truck full of house-painting materials.

“Looking for work?” he asked. “Ever done any painting? I can teach you. You’re never too old to learn.”

I said, “No thanks, I have to go write a humor column.” But I could tell he didn’t believe me. At least he didn’t call me “Pop.”

My wife and cat are okay with my beard, I mentioned. But when I came shuffling in and told them about my painting opportunity, they both sat there looking at me. It was the missus who spoke. “Lose one of them,” she said. “The beard, or the shuffle.”

I’m afraid the shuffle is going to be harder to shed.