A San Diego survey of mustaches

Men behind the hairy upper lips

Terry used to wax his own tidy handlebar, "but the wax gets into the drink, and you see it floating at the top."
  • Terry used to wax his own tidy handlebar, "but the wax gets into the drink, and you see it floating at the top."

Mustache also mous-tache (m s-tash, m -stash) noun

1. The hair growing on the human upper lip, especially when cultivated and groomed.

The man I married couldn't grow a mustache if he tried, Still, there's enough there that if he goes a day or two without shaving, I'm hesitant to kiss him.

The man I married couldn't grow a mustache if he tried, Still, there's enough there that if he goes a day or two without shaving, I'm hesitant to kiss him.

2. Something similar to the cultivated, groomed hair on the human upper lip, as (a) A group of bristles or hairs about the mouth of an animal. (b) Distinctive coloring or feathers near the beak of a bird. (c) Food or drink sticking conspicuously to the upper lip, as after a deep draft: a milk mustache.

Raphael: "I wear it this long because my father and grandfather did."

Raphael: "I wear it this long because my father and grandfather did."

The first time my lips brushed against a mustache, I was 15 years old. I was babysitting. The missus was out of town. When the mister came home, we sat and chatted. The kids were nestled in their beds, upstairs. We were friendly. I had babysat there several times before. The family owned a fancy hot dog stand at the local mall's food court; I was thinking of working for them. The kiss was brief, the mustache wiry and foreign. I said I had to go, got cab fare, and left.

Terry: "My dad was in the military, and he looked very handsome with his mustache."

Terry: "My dad was in the military, and he looked very handsome with his mustache."

Two years passed before my second mustache encounter. This time, I was working in a corporate restaurant in downtown Kansas City; I made soups and sandwiches. Most of the other kitchen workers were men; besides me, the only women were two matronly black women. The thick, black mustache came up to me in the walk-in cooler; I was standing next to trays of stuffed potato skins that were awaiting the deep fryer. The mustache belonged to the head chef and reminded me of the badger-bristle shaving brush my father used to lather up his shaving soap: mostly soft and pliable, with a stiff prickly bit at the end. Soon after, I moved to the front of the restaurant and started waiting tables. I noticed that both head bartenders and the restaurant's general manager wore mustaches.

Bob: "My favorite mustache in history belonged to Captain Smith of the Titanic."

Bob: "My favorite mustache in history belonged to Captain Smith of the Titanic."

The encounters didn't traumatize me. I didn't start regarding mustachioed men as sinister figures of ill intent, à la Snidely Whiplash. I slid out of both situations without incident and carried on. However, most of the men I dated after that had smooth, even boyish faces. The man I married couldn't grow a mustache if he tried; the hairs come in sparse and patchy. Still, there's enough there that if he goes a day or two without shaving, I'm hesitant to kiss him. I compare the irritation on my lips to the effect of uncomfortable shoes on my feet -- I can take it, but only for so long.

Fletcher:  "It's fuller, and I wear it in a semi-handlebar style. Now it looks like Sam Elliott's."

Fletcher: "It's fuller, and I wear it in a semi-handlebar style. Now it looks like Sam Elliott's."

Now, I notice mustaches, especially extravagant ones that must demand maintenance of the sort I give my hair. And I notice them on guys not noted for extensive, metrosexual grooming. Tough guys: cops, firemen...bikers. So, passing by the row of muscular Harleys at La Mesa's Thursday Night Car Show last summer, I start chatting with the men behind the mustaches.

John: "When I see a mustache, I'll check it out to see how guys grow it, how they manicure it, what style they use."

John: "When I see a mustache, I'll check it out to see how guys grow it, how they manicure it, what style they use."

I marvel at the mustache on Raphael. The mustache owns his face below the nose, grudgingly sharing its claim with a patch of hair beneath his lower lip. His mustache looks almost two inches wide and sprawls a good two inches past each side of his mouth. "It is hereditary," he tells me. "It comes from my grandfather, to my father, to me. I wear it this long because my father and grandfather did. I never asked them why they let them grow, but since they did, I did too. Also, it was easier to let it grow than shave; shaving is a bitch. For me, there is no care and maintenance. Once you trim it, then you have maintenance. But if you just let it do what it wants, then that's that. I think at a certain point, you start eating it, and then it just trims itself."

Tim: "One woman I dated pleaded with me to grow my mustache back after I shaved it."

Tim: "One woman I dated pleaded with me to grow my mustache back after I shaved it."

Something that big begs for a reaction, no? "Some look at my mustache as dirty. Others, it doesn't bother them. If I apply for a job and they want me, they have to take me the way I am. I once worked for FedEx, and I got promoted to driver after doing everything else that you do. Their rules for mustaches were that you could only have an eighth of an inch above the lip. I would have gotten full benefits, the whole package, if I took the position. But I turned it down because my mustache meant more to me. It is part of me now. I've had it since I was 15, and I'm 40 now. I've had women ask me to shave it, but I never will. I'm Chicano, and in the Chicano culture, the mustache is a masculine symbol, probably because of history. They were worn by the Mexican cowboys, the vaqueros and the charros."

Peter: "I would just as soon shave my eyebrows off as my mustache."

Peter: "I would just as soon shave my eyebrows off as my mustache."

Raphael thinks that a mustache expresses strength. "I think it says a man is confident in himself. He wears it and doesn't mind what anybody thinks of him. He is okay with himself. It's everybody else that has the problem." But whether he cares or not, he is aware that "people make assumptions about me all the time. 'Vato is no good, vato is no good. He can't be trusted.' Yet I am probably one of the most trustworthy guys you will ever meet. A man of his word."

Richard: "At SeaWorld, it used to be that you couldn't work there and have one."

Richard: "At SeaWorld, it used to be that you couldn't work there and have one."

He also knows that a mustache is not without its implications. His favorite mustache from history is the one belonging to "Zapata, one of the revolutionaries from Mexico." And he admits that, in his culture, a bushy mustache can indicate prison time. "Unless it is natural, the only way to grow something like that is to constantly trim and shave. And only in prison can you constantly shave. That's what a lot of guys do in there to kill time. Nobody really notices it until the day you hit the streets. Then everybody says, 'Hey, where did you get that? You didn't have that the last time I saw you.' 'Yeah, well, that was three years ago.' "

John:  "My wife read in the paper that they were looking for extras to play in The Far Side of the World."

John: "My wife read in the paper that they were looking for extras to play in The Far Side of the World."

A few pairs of wheels down from Raphael, I meet Tom, who hails from another group of frequently mustachioed men. "I'm in the fire service. A lot of the firefighters do have mustaches," he granted. "I think it's just tradition; if you look back at the old-time firefighters, a lot of them had mustaches." Tom's inch-wide reddish-brown mustache is neatly trimmed, but it is not constrained by his upper lip; it wanders down the sides of his mouth all the way to his chin. "The fire department won't let us grow a full beard, so this is the next best thing." He professes an admiration for the big handlebars sported by Wild Bill Hickok.

Terry used to wax his own tidy handlebar, "but the wax gets into the drink, and you see it floating at the top."

Terry used to wax his own tidy handlebar, "but the wax gets into the drink, and you see it floating at the top."

Terry, also nearby, is a 43-year-old African-American construction worker. Like Raphael, his choice of mustache was influenced by his father. "My dad was in the military," he says, "and he looked very handsome with his mustache. So I grew one at 19. I added the goatee when I was 25, because some ladies thought that was sexy." Unlike Raphael, he spends considerable time maintaining his mustache's appearance. A mere eighth of an inch in width, it runs along the top of his upper lip, well below his nose. The black hairs curl up snugly against each other, forming a delicate line. Out at the ends, it is clasped by the upward-reaching arms of a narrow goatee. "It's a ritual. It takes me about 35 minutes. I trim and shave about every four to six days. I use soap and water and then a moisturizer for the skin and a hair moisturizer, which softens the mustache and keeps it from getting dry. I shave up above it to keep a little space between the mustache and my nose, and I use a little brush to keep the hairs lying down."

The mustache remains the same; what the ladies think, however, changes with his ride. "When I'm on my bike, it's like, 'Oh, there's a rough guy.' And when I'm not on my bike -- when I'm in my car -- they look at me like, 'Oh, there's a handsome guy going to work.' But my girlfriend likes my mustache."

A second Terry -- this one 60 and a mechanical engineer -- sports a goatee as well, but the mustache is far wider than the first Terry's, and far whiter. A well-gnawed cigar protrudes from beneath it. My notion of the connection between bikers and mustaches has thus far been confirmed, but Terry dismisses the idea. "I've been riding motorcycles since I was 16, but I didn't start growing the mustache until I was 30. I don't know why -- I just let it grow one day, and I've had it ever since. I just trim it every couple of days," unless he's going on a long road trip. Then it gets more careful attention, for purely practical reasons. "Last year, while I was going to Colorado, it just slapped the heck out of me because it was really long. It's like somebody is putting you in a sandblaster; it was stinging. As soon as I got to Denver, I went snip-snip and shortened it up."

Bikers, firemen...gays. One of my favorite moments from The Simpsons is when Homer starts leading a protest march against a bear that has wandered into town. He leads the crowd in a chant: "We're here, we're queer, we don't want any more bears." "Great chant, Homer!" someone cries. "Thanks," he answers, "I learned it at the mustache parade!" That was the '90s; Allan Peterkin, author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair, offers some account of what led up to that point. Back in the '70s, leather-clad gay bikers, their machismo confirmed by their mustaches and sideburns, formed one subculture within the gay community. But, he notes, "The look of the blonde, smooth, muscular type was also popular. By the end of the decade, a hybrid look known as 'the clone' appeared. Short, cropped, military-style hair, obligatory mustache, bomber jacket, beefed-up shoulders, and muscular butt under tight jeans."

But the clone vanished with the onset of AIDS, and Peterkin notes that the gay pornography of the '80s and '90s presented images of baby-smooth men. He opines that the look reassured viewers of the performers' purity and youth and, by extension, freedom from disease. Gay men flocked to salons for electrolysis and laser hair removal, a situation Peterkin finds dismaying. "Fortunately, by the late '80s in San Francisco," he writes, "men blessed with beer bellies, ample body hair, beards, and mustaches rebelled against the oppressive image of distorted physical perfection. These men adopted the bear as a symbol." Oh, those clever Simpsons — the chant from the "mustache parade" being used to protest an invasion of bears.

When I meet Bob, a 39-year-old manager at Dixieline, he squires me through a gallery of mustaches popular in the gay community today. "There's the cop mustache — short, straight hairs combed down flat across the top of the mouth but extended about a quarter to a half inch past the end. The Army or Navy mustache runs above the top line of the lip and does not come out past the end of the mouth — it's only a tiny little thing. Then there's the Club Kid mustache, which is trimmed almost to the point of just being a week's worth of growth, almost prepubescent looking. Finally, there's the bear, a big, full mustache that really accentuates the mouth. I think my own beard and mustache — although not necessarily nondescript -- is just a bear beard."

Bob has sported some sort of facial hair since he was a junior in high school. "I don't like my face without facial hair," he explains. "I have soft, flabby features and a rounded, moony face. I think a beard goes well with that. Also, I find mustaches and facial hair very attractive. My favorite mustache in history belonged to Captain Smith of the Titanic. His mustache and beard engulfed his face; it was big and fuzzy and furry. His mouth wasn't even visible until he opened it."

Before the bear beard, Bob wore only a mustache, one that began as a sort of plea for individual identity. "I was working in a big corporation where I was kind of assimilated in a way that made me uncomfortable. I wanted to make myself a little bit different. I had a full beard at the time, and I sat down in front of a mirror one day and spent eight hours" reducing it to a mustache. "I just plucked and plucked and plucked, one hair at a time, to shape the mustache. I wanted it to be perfectly shaped. I even plucked my sideburns. My face was red the next day."

The result was as individual as they come. "It went above my lip and then across my cheek in a big swoop and grew off the end of my jaw -- about seven inches on each side. It was really long, but not like a handlebar. A handlebar has long hairs that are waxed; mine was just short hairs that grew across my face. To maintain it, I would just pluck the top quite carefully -- I'd take 10 to 15 minutes for that -- and then I would shave up to the pluck line. I used a disposable razor with a very narrow head, and I shaved in three different directions -- up, down, and sideways. Then, once a week, I'd pluck around the whole thing. The mustache was complicated -- it had a curve that came up and then went down. My barber always wanted to trim it; I said, 'No! One hair off and the whole thing will look lopsided.' "

"I was just trying to cry out, 'I am an individual,' " says Bob. The cry was heard. "I never got forgotten. If I was on an airplane full of people who wanted coffee, I always got mine." But with individuality came inconvenience. "The joke was that if I got food in my mustache, I'd have to chase it around the back of my neck and it would just fall off. But because the mustache covered my mouth, I couldn't eat corn on the cob or chicken on the bone. I couldn't even eat a hamburger without cutting it up into very small pieces. I thought it was disgusting to have 'secret sauce' in my mustache; no one wants to look at that. And for some reason, hair retains odor. If I ate a hamburger or some other messy food, for hours afterward I would be inundated with this horrible smell -- like a wet-dog smell." And it got him unwanted social attention. "If I was standing in Disneyland and the characters were dancing nearby, they would always grab me and want to dance. That was uncomfortable sometimes."

Eventually, individuality exploded into notoriety. People would assume things. "They would say, 'I knew that he was gay; the mustache was just too flamboyant.' It was so recognizable that it sometimes caused problems. When you live in a town long enough, ultimately, in some circumstances, you seek anonymity. I couldn't have that with the mustache. I would walk into a bar and the guy at the piano would say, 'Let's hear it for the mustache!' I would go to Mexico, and the guys at the door would say, 'Mr. Mustache! Come in!' If I wanted to meet a friend somewhere, every head would turn when I walked in. The negatives started to outweigh the positives."

Bob kept the mustache for ten years before giving it up as "youthful folly." His current ursine look is less eye-catching, but he says it still brands him. "It's not flamboyant, but people know I'm gay even when I'm not talking, walking, or gesturing."

Bob mentioned the ponderous fullness of the mustache on the Titanic's Captain Smith, so that's who I think of when I meet Fletcher, a 60-year-old computer technician. He doesn't have a beard, but his white mustache is so substantial that it reminds me of walrus tusks. "I get a lot of feedback about my mustache, because it's big and prominent," says Fletcher. "I have white hair and fair eyes, and when I wear black, the mustache really stands out. When I was younger, my hair was brown, and my mustache looked like Tom Selleck's." Now, besides being white, "It's fuller, and I wear it in a semi-handlebar style. Now it looks like Sam Elliott's. I started growing it in my early 20s, and it's gone from small to large as I've gotten more comfortable with it."

When he first allowed his face to sprout, he wore a full beard. "Then a goatee, and then a Fu Manchu. I didn't like the Fu Manchu; it made me look so damn sinister. I would actually frighten little kids. So I transitioned away from it. I went to a small mustache." The years passed, the mustache mushroomed. "It became like a part of me; a signature. I couldn't be myself without it.

"I think my mustache is an indication of strength," he says. "That's the feedback I get from people. And it's an excellent conversation piece. If I meet a guy in the store who has an interesting mustache, we compliment each other. 'You go before me; yours is bigger than mine...' "

However wonderful for starting conversations, it does pose some trouble for ending them, at least with the fair sex. "It's initially annoying for the opposite sex to kiss a person with a big, long 'stache," grants Fletcher. "They say, 'It tickles,' or 'Eww.' In my case, since my lip is not full on top, you have to part the mustache to find the lips. So it's kind of an adventure, particularly for women who aren't used to kissing someone with facial hair. Frankly, I have heard that some females just won't have it."

Mealtime inconveniences: "It gets in your beer. And it's very difficult to keep clean. I have to wipe it constantly. Sometimes, I have to splash water on it. The most expedient thing to do at the table is to take a drink of water. You can get some water on the longer hairs and then simply wipe it away with a napkin. But it does have a downside with respect to ice cream or pizza."

A semi-handlebar needs waxing to keep its shape. "I find mustache wax at the bigger stores, Target or Rite Aid. It's sort of hit-or-miss; there are different kinds of applicators. There's a stick, like ChapStick: you smear it in, spread it around, and form the mustache with your fingers. Or you can get it in a tube, apply it to your mustache comb, and comb it in. I twirl the ends a little bit. It's best to apply the wax after you've showered, when the hairs are a little damp. Sometimes, I find black hairs that are kinky and won't respond to coaxing. I cut them out. I've made the mistake a couple of times of letting the barber trim it. They butchered it. They don't do what you want, they do what they want. It's such a personal thing that it can set you back for months."

Fifteen years ago, he trimmed it so that he could wear a scuba mask. "You need to have a really tight fit under your nose so that you don't have water climbing into your eyes." Other than that, there isn't much that will make him cut it back. He told me he had been denied jobs at both La Costa spa and Panda Express because he refused to cut his facial hair. He reckons he'll have it till he dies. "My mustache, in my opinion, is unusual. I notice people who have mustaches, and it's like I have some sort of kinship with them."

John, for instance. John is a drummer in his mid-30s. Like Fletcher, he thinks he'll take his mustache to his grave. "I've always had a mustache," he says. "I've never shaved it off. Not once." Reddish-brown, it grows from under his nose and hangs just past the top of his lip. The ends push out about a quarter inch from the ends of his mouth, then drop straight down to his jawline.

"I think my mustache says, 'I do my own thing. I don't follow fads.' I trim it every three or four weeks and groom it with my fingers. When I shave, I buy stuff for sensitive skin. I get razor burn that turns into zits, especially if it's hot or humid. Or if I play drums for a half hour and sweat, the sweat gets into the pores and they get irritated." Also like Fletcher, John is a mustache-watcher. "When I see a mustache, I'll check it out to see how guys grow it, how they manicure it, what style they use. I've seen them from really tiny to handlebars. Our German teacher in high school had a handlebar mustache. He was full-on German: his name, his attitude, and his dress. He grossed the kids out -- in the middle of class, he would dig into his ear, get the wax out, then stick it on his mustache and roll it in so that the hair would curl up on the end. That is gross."

Tim, a silver-haired retired urban planner in his 60s, wears a tight, trim mustache. He first grew it not as a statement of individuality but rather because it was fashionable: Tim lived through the transition from the clean-shaven '50s into the hair boom of the '60s. "It seemed everyone was clean-cut in the '50s. No one had facial hair. We'd get our hair cut so short that the barber would have to shave a part in." In 1964, after a little college and a stint in the Navy, Tim returned to school and grew a goatee. "I was 24 at the time. It was a statement of being within the average profile of a student. I felt a bit out of place on campus, being older than most people." Facial hair helped him blend in.

By the time he graduated, the mustache was gone, replaced by long hair and sideburns. It was as far as he could go at his East Coast job. Then, in the summer of '70, "I got hired for a job in San Diego. The day I resigned to head west, I started growing a full beard. I drove cross-country, and by the time I got to San Diego, I had a full beard and mustache and hair not quite to my shoulders."

Unfortunately, the West Coast was not quite as freewheeling as he had anticipated. "When I got to San Diego, I started looking for housing. I wanted to live in Pacific Beach, so I just drove up and down the streets looking for 'For Rent' signs. Finally, I started out the day with a newspaper. One place sounded pretty nice, so I called ahead and asked the lady if it was still available. 'Oh, yes, it's available,' she said. I had called her from a pay phone a few blocks away, so it was just five minutes later when I got to her door. She opened the door and looked at me, and when I asked about the apartment, she said, 'No, we don't have any vacancies.' I was frustrated, but I thought, 'Now I have a better understanding of other people's experience.' Coming out of a completely WASP upbringing and background, I had never experienced discrimination."

But it wasn't discrimination that scraped Tim's face; it was vanity. "I was 28, and I worked for the County. Other people in the office had facial hair; there wasn't any pressure to get rid of it. When I started getting silver strands in my mustache, I thought it made me look older. So I shaved the beard and kept the mustache."

Since then, he's worn a mustache more than he hasn't and grown two or three full beards. "My mustache is easy to grow; there are no wild hairs. And my beard is nice and full; when I grow it, I get lots of compliments. But then, whenever I shave off my facial hair, people tell me how much younger I look. One woman I dated pleaded with me to grow my mustache back after I shaved it." Either way, his vanity gets stroked. Beyond that, he says, "I have somewhere in the back of my mind that growing a mustache or facial hair is like a symbol of emancipation. When I retired, that was true emancipation, so I grew the mustache in celebration -- it had been at least five years since I'd had one."

Maintenance is no trouble. "I trim it twice a week. I hate electric razors -- they leave me feeling uncomfortable, and they don't do a good job. I have always used a safety razor. I use a mug with cake soap and a very good badger-hair brush to whip it up. I don't like the instant lather. I have to shave my neck, otherwise I get ingrown hairs. And I have to shave my cheeks or hair starts growing right on my cheekbones. I shape the mustache around the perimeter. Since my cheeks are chubby when I smile, I have these two natural lines on my face -- it's the obvious place to let the mustache go. I'm going to keep this one for a while, as long as it feels comfortable. I may have it the rest of my life, or I may take it off in a week. I don't have a timeline."

Peter, a 37-year-old self-employed business writer, is not so capricious. He feels his mustache is an integral part of his face. "I would just as soon shave my eyebrows off as my mustache," he says of his bushy growth. Peter's mustache is something of a wild thing, a thicket instead of a garden. "It's dark, although there are reddish hairs in it -- I don't know where they came from, since I'm not a redhead at all. And now that I'm getting older, it's getting gray hairs too. The hairs are kind of coarse and a little bit curly, thicker at the base and thinner out at the ends. The tips are sharp when they first grow out, but they get worn down over the months as they grow.

"It wasn't a conscious decision to let it grow long. I just let it go, and once it starts bugging me -- getting in my mouth so that I'm biting on it when I'm eating dinner -- then I think, 'It's trimming time.' I'll also trim it when I'm going to see a client and need to spiff up. I just get the scissors, cut it back out of my mouth, and cut a bit off the sides." When it comes to shaving, "I've gone back and forth between a regular razor and an electric shaver. I prefer the regular razor, with shaving cream -- it gives a better shave. But I always cut myself. I have blood coming down, and I have to stop the blood. That's not fun."

Like Tim, Peter associates the mustache with "a sense of freedom." In general, he doesn't think there's much societal pressure not to wear a mustache, "but I was an Air Force kid, and they were very strict about facial hair. I think there was a lot of pressure when I was growing up not to have it. The last week of my senior year of high school, I let my facial hair grow; it was sort of liberating." These days, however, "I don't notice any reaction to my mustache, just like I don't notice any reaction to my eyebrows. Only once, when I was working for the San Diego Housing Commission, did someone comment. It reminded the person of Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary guy. I took it as a compliment; I thought it was kind of cool. I think I project some individualism with this mustache."

Richard, who is 47 and works at SeaWorld, also started his mustache early. "I first grew it when I was 16. I didn't like the way my upper lip looked — it's very feminine. I grew the mustache so I would stop getting razzed in high school." Now, it's easier just to keep it. "It's really tough to shave there. I don't know how guys do it without cutting themselves all the time. I've shaved it only two or three times. The last time was back in 1991 when I was looking for work. I figured it would be easier to find a job without one." He found work at a 7-Eleven, and after about six months, he grew it back.

"There is a perception on the part of certain very conservative elements that a man should not have any hair on his face whatsoever. At SeaWorld, it used to be that you couldn't work there and have one; that was back before Anheuser-Busch bought the park in 1986. Now, there are strict requirements: they can be only so wide and can't go past the corners of your mouth. It must be very short and trim but not a toothbrush like Hitler's. That's strictly against company rules. A few guys in my area of the park have mustaches, and the supervisors are always eyeing them."

Once upon a time, Richard went for the full handlebar, but it kept getting in his mouth. Then, for a while, his hair started graying but his mustache stayed dark. "People thought I was dyeing it." Now, things are better. "The mustache is grayed, and it's short, neat, and military looking. I look like everybody's favorite uncle. I like the way I look with it. I don't like the way I look without it. Somebody once offered me $50 to shave it. I said, 'Add another zero and you're talking.' I can always grow it back. It takes four to six weeks. It itches a lot, but once it hits the six-week mark, it stops."

Some people decline jobs to keep their mustaches. Some people shave their mustaches to get jobs. John's was a professional requirement — he was planning to take it onto the silver screen. Says John, a retired postal worker, "I just happen to look somewhat like Captain Smith" of Titanic fame. "My wife read in the paper that they were looking for extras to play in The Far Side of the World. They wanted me, and they said not to cut my hair or trim my mustache — they would do it. I let my hair and mustache grow, but the mustache still wasn't long enough for them. So when they trimmed my hair, they took a bunch of it and glued it onto my cheeks to make the mustache more of a handlebar than what it was. For the next few days of filming, they used fake hair from someplace. When I got home and showered, I had to work like a dog to get it off my face."

Today, John's mustache descends neatly into a white beard. "When I was in the Navy, we had to be clean-shaven. When I got out at 21, I grew a mustache. I've had it for 26 years. After I got out, I joined the Naval Reserve. Admiral Zumwalt had come in and allowed Navy men to have beards, as long as they were neat and trim. I grew a beard and kept it for 26 years as well. Then, right at the end of my Naval Reserve service, they changed the policy. So I shaved it off for the last six months of my service. When I retired, I grew it back. No one in my family liked my look without it. The beard gave me a fuller face. I have a saggy neck; people said I had no chin. It defined my face."

My third Terry also wears a mustache for professional reasons — he's a magician. "When I was first doing my shows, I would wear a tuxedo, and people would think I was the maitre d' when I was working in restaurants. I thought, 'The old-fashioned magicians had mustaches; I'll grow a mustache and wear a hat.' All the guys in the magic books had them. There was one magician named Alexander Hermon; he had a goatee and a really big handlebar. That was my favorite." Terry used to wax his own tidy handlebar, "but it makes a mess when you drink. The wax gets into the drink, and you see it floating at the top. I use regular hair gel to get it to curl up."

For Terry, the mustache provides a distinguishing characteristic, perhaps even an added element of mystery. "A lady once told me, 'My dad told me not to trust anybody who hides their smile.' " When sleight of hand is your stock-in-trade, that might not be a bad thing. "My logo even has a mustache on it. I don't think people would recognize me without it. I do a lot of school shows, and I have one routine where I tell the kids that the mustache is what makes the magic. I do all sorts of funny things with it to make it move around. I'll call a girl up onstage and tell her she can be a magician; all she has to do is grow a mustache. She says, 'I can't grow a mustache!' So I get a big old bushy one and put it on her."

My last mustache wasn't there anymore. Larry had shaved his mustache off and said he would consider growing it back "only if I ended up in Alaska. There, you do what you can to stay warm." Larry was 40 but looked much younger. "I tried growing a mustache when I was 17," he said. "Then I joined the Army. They made me shave it; they said, 'Anybody with a half-grown mustache like yours, private, needs to shave it.' "

Larry experimented with goatees and other combinations but eventually shaved to avoid the hassle with work. "They all want you clean-shaven -- no mustaches, no nothing. But with my last job, I went on vacation for the first time in years, so I decided to grow my mustache out. One, because I had the opportunity. Two, because I volunteer on a tugboat every Saturday for a refurbishing project. The captain who runs the thing said, 'You know, the boat guys are macho, tough guys.' He was trying to give me a hint. So I thought a mustache would help. When I grew it out, my girlfriend -- who is older than me and likes my baby face -- wasn't happy. I kept it because of the tugboat thing, so she tolerated it."

The mustache changed things. "I felt people treated me differently, with a little more respect. Younger women liked me more -- that daddy/paternal thing." He started thinking about himself, "There's a manly man who works on tugboats, trying to get his life together. An older, wiser man.

"Then a film crew from Channel 4 came out to do a story on the tugboat. So there I was watching myself on TV, and I had this big, obnoxious mustache. It didn't fit my face; I was just some guy with an out-of-place mustache. I think that if there is a God out there, He does something for our mental sanity -- we look in the mirror and see ourselves subjectively. We look pretty good in the mirror, but in reality, maybe we don't look as good as we think."

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