The long, curling tips of the moustache the man sports while standing outside of the rock club on Saturday night droop and dangle, like alien testicles responding to Earth gravity upon first contact.
But he shows no shame: As the several dozen contestants and about 265 attendees of the inaugural Oak City Beard and Mustache Competition take their places in line outside of Kings, as the sun sets, the man emerges as a simultaneous jester, cheerleader and town crier. He slaps people on the back, guffaws at the size of the big brown beards hanging from the big pale faces and welcomes wives with a wide smile.
His not-quite-alabaster ringlets are like marionettes affixed to the face instead of the hands; as he laughs, they bounce up and down or sweep from left to right, standing at attention only during rare moments of rest. To watch their almost anthropomorphic dance is to know that Mister Whiskers never lacks for love and companionship.
Inside the club, the feeling of existential dependence on that which hangs from one's face is as oppressive as it is depressing. Justin Cox, the president of the Triangle Beard and Mustache Club, cavorts in a tight black T-shirt that reads "Chubby & Tattooed Bearded & Awesome," a slogan that makes no concessions to grammar while preemptively apologizing for commonplace, harmless physical characteristics.
Women in the crowd suspend fake moustaches from their eyeglasses and pucker their lips upward to meet them. Men stand before bathroom mirrors, fretting over every hairy vector. An aromatherapist doles out free samples of beard oil—"made with the finest ingredients for your finest asset"—in brown cocaine vials. (Alas, this is more of a bacon and craft beer crowd, I presume.) On stage, one middle-aged judge squeezes every beard that comes her way as though she were a teenage boy making a furtive lunge for his first love's décolletage.
I understand this reflexive beard adoration. I've had a beard for the last nine years, and I have no plans to employ clippers or razor anytime soon. It's safe to say that I've touched my beard more often than I've ever touched another person, stroking it like a pet as I stare off into space, awaiting the arrival of an idea.
And to the chagrin of anyone who spends any substantial amount of time around me, I chew it compulsively when I'm nervous, a truly disgusting habit that, nevertheless, pacifies my anxiety.
Somehow, over time, these habits attach themselves to your identity, becoming more than mere secondary-sex follicles.
And that's precisely what I find so perplexing about "beard culture." At the competition, people parade on stage, juking their way along the apron and toward a panel of judges, anticipating applause for something that—no matter the amount of flat-ironing and finessing, preening and pomading—is just a patch of hair on your face, even if it's inwardly meaningful.
Growing a beard requires no special effort (it requires, at best, a lack of effort), so I don't see how it deserves a special commendation. It's a concession to casualness, an acceptance that your appearance is yours alone.
At times, then, Saturday night's competition felt like a very awkward beauty contest for a very personal physical feature.
"Congratulations, Miss Universe, your ass is the best ass," is how I imagined one perplexing parallel scenario.
At other times, the competition felt like an IRL extension of endless status updates and Instagram posts, where doing something matters only insofar as you are then able to proclaim you have done that thing.
"The man with the alien testicles likes this," Facebook might say. "And so does the woman who fondled your face as your friends cheered." A beard, in itself, simply is. But a beard on the Internet, on the stage, on display? Give that guy a prize.
It was enough to make me want to run away and shave my beard. Almost.
This article appeared in print with the headline "S(h)ave me."