Lessons from a handlebar mustache

When I earned my first paycheck from a real post-collegiate job, I headed out onto the town to Buy Stuff. I was intoxicated. I was finally self-sufficient and eager to celebrate my new found spending power. The first order of business: cast aside a lifetime of sartorial decisions guided by back to school sales, the Coast Guard exchange, and hand-me-downs. I needed to get some clothes of my own. I began this exercise at PacSun, a faux surf shop that had wandered away from the suburban mall rats and ended up in the West Village. In retrospect, it was a dubious decision, but I was a fashion newb and the clothing reminded me of comic books and graffiti. I purchased 2 items that remain with me today. The first were my “blue shorts,” blue and grey board shorts that have traveled the globe, swum in foreign seas, and become a running joke with Shannon after she’s seen me wear them every day for consecutive summers. The second was a bright red long-sleeve QuikSilver tee, silkscreened with silver lettering, that has now achieved Golden Boy status in my wardrobe, it’s hue faded to a dusty rose. That shirt, my Red Shirt, was my first mustache.

Red Shirt Diaries

Nowadays, when I don Red Shirt, my thoughts tend towards pre-nostalgia, a familiar comfort mixed with the knowledge that soon the shirt will be too threadbare to wear. But on that first day in 1999, after I’d cut the tags from the shirt, I remember feeling some trepidation as I pulled on the strange tee. It was so… red. Not brick or cherry red, but the undiluted shade of a fresh crayon whose label simply reads “red”. When I took to the city sidewalks, the early fall breeze chasing me, I tried to maintain my composure but I couldn’t help thinking “EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT MY RED SHIRT.” A red shirt in New York? Was I crazy? Only a lunatic would deviate from the utilitarian winter palette of whites, blues, blacks, and grey that were handed down to us from the designers at Gap, Inc. (With exceptions made, of course, for the pink-shirted Wall Street assholes.) A red shirt was a deviation, a frivolous act of defiance. Yes, it was neato perhaps, but it was also, subtly, wrong. I nearly went home to find the receipt and return the shirt, but the thought of returning a bright red shirt, knowing the clerk would recognize that I’d chickened out, was even more embarrassing than wearing it around town.

It was only after several outings that the feeling of otherness wore off and Red Shirt passed into it’s middle phase of existence as My Only Long Sleeve Tee. This was before hoodies were popular, so it saw a lot of use and I stopped thinking about the rare color altogether. Through all of those years – nearly 10 now – it only drew 2 comments: one from a suit on a plane who suggested that with a shirt like that, I wouldn’t mind sitting in the middle seat, and another from a 6 foot tall blonde real estate agent who asked if it meant I surfed too. In the former case, I was happy to answer that no, it was just a shirt I liked, while in the latter case the same answer carried the unspoken consequence that I would score neither the East Village courtyard apartment nor her mobile number. Net positive, had I bothered to take a surfing lesson or 2 along the way.

Legacy of a fashion don’t

Red Shirt helped me gain the kind of axiomatic wisdom that is easily spoken but rarely taken to heart: most people are so caught up in their own world that they’ll rarely notice your own narcissistic neuroses, particularly when it comes to the cut of your cloth. I had been hearing that kind of caring advice since 7th grade, and now it finally made sense. The realization opened up a whole world of fashion experiments, most of which have ended well (excepting the too-tight pants debuted to a board of directors presentation – eyes on the slides gentlemen, eyes on the slides). Nowadays, my wardrobe is a mix of 70% I’m-a-het-guy-who-can’t-be-bothered collection of crappy tees and jeans and 30% hey-this-is-the-real-me shirts, jackets, and shoes. The 30% is the real me, and it’s all unusual. It’s not bigger because it’s so hard to find personally relevant clothing without becoming a professional shopper, but I still enjoy the occasional effort. When Shannon and I first began dating, I made one request: neither you nor anyone in your family may buy clothes for me. I’ve made a similar rule with my own family. (Only my mother-in-law routinely breaks the rule, but she gets a buy after telling me to marry her daughter.)

Nowadays, I may not look like much, but I know what I like and it’s my own peculiar fingerprint. And as for that 70% fashion slackness? Well at least that was my choice too, and it feels a lot better than walking around in a blue collared shirt and the relaxed fit jeans that I saw on a mannequin.

All of which leads up to my handlebar mustache, or more correctly, the facial hair constellation that I affectionately call my FuManMuttonPatch. Because frankly, if you’re going for the James Hetfield look, you gotta go all the way and do the chops and chin soul, even if it starts with a grizzly Chuck Norris phase and ends up looking like Jason Lee instead. And here’s the fruit of my labor.

The mustache is like a Red Shirt turned up to 11. Initially, the reactions were great. When I first walked out of the bathroom, having sculpted 2 months of unkempt beard into this new thing of facial hair beauty, Shannon stopped in her tracks, stared, and then laughed. And laughed. A lot. When she finally stopped convulsing she asked “so when are you going to shave the rest of it?”

In fairness, I had promised to “finally shave my beard” that weekend, and I hadn’t fully delivered, but it was Saturday so I still had a day to fulfill my contract. I stalled and said I wanted to enjoy it just for a few hours. By Sunday, Shannon had decided that she kind of liked the new Wyatt Earp look and said I could keep it. The new look had passed muster.

On Monday morning, I was greeted with whoops of joy from my exhausted coworkers who had been up all night launching our latest software release. Photos were taken, laughs were had, comparisons to Australian cricketers were made by people who know cricket. It was a damn good time, topped of by my friend Mike’s bid to pay me a dollar for every day I didn’t shave the new ‘stache. 3 dollars in, I think he’s regretting his decision. Mike, a fashion rebel in his own right, realizes too late that I’ve worn the Red Shirt of Courage – it might be weird, but once it’s on, it starts to feel comfortable real fast.

But those were reactions from friends, most of whom knew the plan was in the works. The best part has been the strangers’ sidelong glances on the street or in the subway, occasionally from hot hipster chicks but more often from people like me, underfit, balding, 30-something white collar dudes who are thinking, I suspect, the unkind thoughts that have often plagued my mind: “Man, that guy looks like ass!”

These thoughts aren’t particularly inaccurate, but the aesthetic outrage is a symptom, really. I think it’s motivated by a bit of sadness and envy. Not envy of the stupid facial hair per se, but of the fact that some people are willing to have stupid facial hair for fun and most people aren’t. At the very least, that’s the kind of envy that has motivated my own quisling critiques as I’ve found myself lost in Williamsburg or some other hipstery environs. “What gives that guy the right to look like that in broad daylight and still enjoy himself? Shouldn’t he be worried, embarrassed, and ashamed?” The answer is no, he should be psyched and so should you and I. Don’t believe me? Ask the hipster chicks.

Unlike Red Shirt, I still get lots of comments about the mustache even after I’ve become accustomed to it. Questions of how long I’ll keep it, more comparisons to famous facial harriers, offers of chaw, quotes from Westerns. But, the comments don’t sound like the voices that haunted me when I first punched my red shirt v card. Instead, perhaps because they come from friends and family, the comments all feel like we’re enjoying a joke together, a joke told in follicles around a psychic campfire. And I know that if I had a chance to speak with the strangers, they’d have the same reaction.

A big part of what this new year (now not so new) means to me is living life the way we want to live it. It’s that whole Obama thing: sure, we may not all agree on the right political answer or the right clothing style, but we all agree to care. We agree to give a damn. To take a shot. We agree to do something because it’s interesting or fun or good, not just because it’s fast, cheap, or easy. Is this ‘stache a thing of beauty? Probably not, and soup consumption has become a tremendous pain in the ass and it’s slight asymmetry is driving me a little crazy, but it sure is fun to wake up every morning and think “I have a handlebar mustache!” It’s also fun to stroke it while I’m thinking or reading. Oh yeah, it’s also fun to imagine gunning down the man who had the gall to cheat me in a game of Texas Hold’em while I walk to work.

Where to now, Wyatt?

So, abruptly, here are the lessons:

  1. As with most ad-driven consumer behavior, contemporary fashion is based on fear: it’s more important not to look wrong than to experiment and enjoy the fulfillment of self-expression, and possibly looking really good. What if your color is lime green? Will you ever know?
  2. As an extension, contemporary fashion is not only based on conformance, it’s also an indicator of one’s tribe and role. Occupation and income, mostly. But it doesn’t have to be, and it’s a lot more fun when it’s an indicator of your quirks, your soul.
  3. Having a style, any style, is more appealing than looking good. Just ask Mick Jagger. Most people seem to enjoy someone who gives the finger to a fear-based establishment and says “I am me (and you can too)!”
  4. When you live life on your own terms it becomes very easy to laugh at yourself. I know this mustache looks silly; other people’s observations of this fact become grounds for connection rather than an indication failure.
  5. Hungary (yes, the country) is currently sponsoring a mustache contest, but I failed to take a “before” picture on February 1 so I won’t win the trip to Budapest. But that’s okay, I’m already a winner, right?

I’ve been meaning to follow Shannon’s first birthday letter to Winnie with one of my own, but somehow all of the words of pride and joy seemed stilted and inappropriate. So this is it, from your father who watches you dream and laugh at dogs and wave at buses and gravely pick dust bunnies out from under the couch: your father has a goofy mustache and your mother laughs a lot. This is your legacy. Keep dancing your own goofy, staggering one-armed dance until you’re one hundred and thirteen, your face simultaneously ecstatic and serious.

Go out and get those weird Doc Martins or that piercing or tattoo that you’ve always sort of dreamt of. Do it now, especially the tattoo, for precisely the reason you’ve avoided it: because it will permanently mark you as someone different. As yourself. Because if you’re scared of taking the plunge then you probably need something to push you off and hold you under. The water isn’t cold and shark-infested as they’ve told you, it’s warm and embryonic and breathable like in The Abyss. Sure, it’s unprofitable for them but there are so many treasures to find here, buried in the murk. Actually, the sharks are real, but they’re hammerheads, tiger sharks, great whites – all the sharks you could name when you still new how cool a shark really is. And you’ll discover, if you’ve forgotten, the words your mother spoke on the day you were born:

Thank you for having all of the things that you need, and none of the things that you don’t.

It’s sometimes scary, sometimes hard, but it will always be true.

1 comment

  1. Umm…. do I get to have a say in whether our daughter gets a tattoo? Cuz, when you say “do it now,” you don’t mean like, NOW. Obviously. You mean, like, NOW, when you’re 25, right?

    It’s funny to think that, someday soon, Winnie will become conscious of us as her parents and as separate from her. She will refuse to hug us in public. She will make us walk behind her. She’ll whisper to her friends so that we can’t hear their secrets. In short, we will be the goofy, embarrassing parents that we’ve always never wanted to be. Will she find your “red shirts” (whether they come in the form of clothing or facial hair or some other outlandish decision) embarrassing? Will she hate her mother’s loud laugh? The answers to both those questions are probably yes. And yet.

    I’d like to think that any risk-taking we can model for her, any yearning, or dancing, or reaching, will only serve down the road to help her see a wider variety of options for herself. When it comes time for her to make her own choices, it’ll be tempting to guide her toward the safer paths. I hope we can remember how exhilarating, and how empowering it felt to walk down the street rocking a handle-bar mustache.

    You wear it well, honey.

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