Last Saturday night, I was greeting a couple who’d just come in to the bar when the guy turned to me and said something that made me chuckle.
“This sounds weird, and I don’t know if you read the paper at all [Ed note: I did everything in my power not to laugh right out loud], but you look an awful lot like a columnist they have that’s Australian and writes about his life in Maine…”
I admitted that it was me, and we joked about it for a bit. Later, they asked me what I was writing about in the next day’s paper, and I told them: “It’s about having a beard.” Mishearing me, he said: “But you write about having a beer every week!”
Shit. Do I have that much of a one-track mind?
Anyway, here’s last weekend’s column, which indeed is about having a beard. It’s similar to a blog post I wrote back in January, only with interviews with REAL LIVE BEARD-HAVERS!
Everyone knows the old expression about first impressions lasting.
If that’s the case, then it’s probably lucky I was even offered a job here at all. Because within an hour of arriving in Maine in December 2013, on my initial visit to get the lay of the land in Augusta, I found myself apologizing.
My boss-to-be had picked me up at the Amtrak station in Portland after an eight-hour train ride from New York City, where I’d spent the weekend (drinking) after Thanksgiving.
“I’m sorry in advance,” I sheepishly told Maureen. “I have every intention of being clean-shaven tomorrow, but I was up so early to leave this morning that I didn’t have the chance.”
As I would soon find out, that would be one of the more misplaced apologies of my life.
“Man, this is Maine!” Maureen reassured me. Everyone’s got facial hair here.
Over the past few years, the beard seems to have undergone a renaissance in its trendiness, which is kind of a strange thing to be en vogue, but whatever.
Here in central Maine, though, beards seem to be less about style and more about function. I’ve never seen so much facial hair worn so naturally. But I probably didn’t quite fathom just how much a part of the “furniture” beards are here until I saw a hooded sweatshirt a few weeks back emblazoned with the logo for something called the Maine Facial Hair Club.
I didn’t get the chance to ask the owner about it, but with the most token piece of effort (read: searching on Facebook) I discovered it wasn’t a one-off but merchandise for a group with quite a strong following.
Club co-founder Steve Trask said he and a bunch of equally hirsute buddies started the club four years ago after being inspired by a T.V. show called “Whisker Wars.”
“We already had some facial hair and thought, ‘what a great idea to have a club of our friends with similar interests.’ So we met at a local bar and asked some others to show up and a couple did. We decided to continue and meet once a month and it took off fairly quickly.”
Trask, who builds furniture for an antique store in Portland, says the club now has chapters in Portland, Rockland and Bangor as well as the capital city.
With members representing a wide spread both geographically and demographically, I was curious to know what role facial hair plays in Mainers’ identities.
“I think … a beard or facial hair is a strong part of a Mainer’s identity because we are a hard-working group of people from different backgrounds and we don’t have time to worry about shaving through what seems like five different season changes a year, and working our jobs and our families,” he said.
Convenience, time management and climate reasons all make sense to yours truly.
Those sentiments also ring true for Hallowell musician Josh Shain, who until recently, wore a beard that inspired awe (and probably a lot of unsolicited touching.)
“A beard on a Mainer is like grilling cheese on bread; it makes sense,” he told me (rather poetically, I might add.) “It’s satisfying, easy, and it gets you through the day. Lord knows Maine brings a bone chilling winter. A beard protects us Mainers in the face of these harsh winds.”
Luckily the mercury has just started to tip the 60s, negating the need for as much facial insulation, because Shain was recently shorn.
“Day to day interaction is interesting being without the beard. Some folks give beards enthusiastic compliments and a high level of respect,” he told me.
“On the other hand there are folks and their dogs who may be intimidated by the beard. While some women are less attracted to me without the beard, there have been some nice ladies eager to help me adjust to my facial changes.” Talk about that Mainer hospitality!
Of course, this column didn’t materialize in a vacuum. I probably wouldn’t have paid much more attention to Vacationland’s facial hair strengths than passing envy had I not decided to grow my own last winter. My mother, whose first visit to Maine is getting closer by the day, has been on my case for the better part of a decade to grow my hair out from its buzzed-every-other-week length to something “less criminal-looking.”
When she saw pictures over Christmas and the New Year of the beginnings of a beard, she was none too impressed. My sister calls it “gross,” and I see a much stronger resemblance to my old man when he was my age. The girlfriend loves it – which is all the approval that matters, since she has to wake up next to this face – and after some initial doubts, I’ve come around to the look as well.
None of this will please my mother. All she wanted was a son with hair on top of his head. But the job doesn’t require a clean shave every day, and since that’s where the pay check comes from, it’s probably just as well.