Tarry at Jericho until your beards be grown.
--II Samuel 10:5
I wish I had a pencil-thin mustache.
The point break at Malibu Beach is not a particularly friendly spot. Surfers flock there to ride on boards across waves that peel toward the cove. Because nature provides a limited number of such waves to a seemingly unlimited number of riders, tempers can flare. It is the oceanic version of the Pasadena Freeway at rush hour.
In the surfing crowd, my limited abilities hardly command respect. Nor am I, in shape or form, physically imposing. Yet, on a recent afternoon, one of Malibu's gruff old-timers paused while paddling by to give an approving nod.
A month earlier, he would have passed without so much as acknowledging my presence. But I had changed. I had allowed whiskers to grow on my chin, specifically in the form of a Vandyke beard.
"You look mean," the surfing elder muttered.
Facial hair is solemn stuff among men, a primal experience, a ritual for the ages. Mohammed ordained the sprouting of whiskers. Ancient Greeks used the same word, pogonotrophos, for both a philosopher and a bearded man. Elvis had his sideburns.
Even a goatee, a pee-wee of the whisker genus, can inspire flights of male fancy, allowing the meekest office worker to catch his reflection in a window and dream that he has dismounted a Harley at curbside.
For facial hair--whether neatly trimmed or floweringly full--is manly. It is, after all, testosterone that sows this crop on our cheeks and chins.
"I do it because my wife can't," says Dean Masserman, a downtown attorney who periodically grows a mustache that he describes as "the Joe Namath Fu Manchu."
"In this day and age," he continues, "there aren't many things men can do that women can't do just as well."
So whiskers may be anchored as solidly to the ego as they are to the face. A man will actually risk life and limb to keep his beard.
"It allows for accumulation of bacteria, virus particles, yeast particles and fungal elements . . . infections can develop," says Carl S. Korn, assistant professor of dermatology at USC. Even worse, Peter the Great once levied a tax on the wearing of beards in Russia. Men still wore them.
"I've had so many girlfriends tell me to shave, but I never will," said Kirk Konrad Skelton, a chef at the World Cafe in Santa Monica, where he works behind the grill in sunglasses and a particularly scruffy goatee. "It's me, dude."
Such devotion may be perplexing to women who spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on waxes, depilatories and epilator devices in a struggle to rid themselves of hair, according to the International Guild of Professional Electrologists.
It might also be mystifying to the average man, who spends 3,300 hours shaving during his lifetime, according to the foremost students of facial hair, the people who make Gillette razor blades. They say the average man has 30,000 whiskers, which grow half an inch a month, 5 1/2 inches a year and 27 1/2 feet before he dies at an average age. Beards can be as coarse as copper wire, which explains why even those women who admire the style from afar may cringe at proximity.
"They look nice," said Carol Schuil, a Los Angeles secretary. "But if you're involved with a man, you want him clean-shaven because it's nicer to kiss and cuddle."
History has been equally fickle. Ancient Egyptians shaved their faces, while Jews allowed their beards to grow freely. Mohammed commanded his followers to wear facial hair but keep it trimmed. Beards were almost entirely frowned upon in England and Northern France after the Norman Conquest.
Centuries later, American colonists considered whiskers the mark of a radical, and not one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence could have tugged at a beard or pulled at a mustache in contemplation. It took the Western pioneers to make woolly faces fashionable again, and it took Abraham Lincoln in 1861 to bring a barbate visage to the White House.
Facial hair enjoyed another heyday in the 1960s, but again as a mark of radicalism. Mostly, whiskers remain the exception in Western society.
"It makes you look like either a professor or a rough guy," Masserman said.
Or a musician. Tom Lewis, drummer for a local rockabilly band called the Dave and Deke Combo, sports a semi-circular tuft beneath his lower lip which he calls a "soul patch." Lewis says he could never part with it because "I always pull on it. It's like a nervous habit."
Melrose Avenue hairdressers say that such smaller samples of facial hair are once again a rage among the trendy, although that could change by next month.
One of my colleagues, Mark Geers, insists there are more important reasons for sprouting hair. Geers has just turned 40 and is losing some of his conventional hair, the stuff on top of his head.
So he's growing a beard "just to show the babes I can still do it," he said. "I actually lost interest in this beard about two weeks ago. But I can't back down or people will say, 'He's lost it.' "
He was joking, but only partly. Facial hair is solemn stuff among men. Besides, I think the beard suits him in his job as an editor. It makes him look meaner.