By Chris Bowman
I’m doing some research right now which includes a lot of pictures from the 1870s and 1880s. Times were tough in old Canada back then; you had to be pretty rugged if you weren’t some city slicker from Ottawa. She’s an unforgiving country, though fair if you’re willing to work for her favour.
Studying these pictures, I notice a definite trend among the men: thick, black moustaches, lustrous and glistening in the winter sun — a symbol, if you will, of integrity and strength. These men had earned their stripes; they had hacked and burned and hammered their futures out of an unrelenting environment. And they wore the result across their top lip.
My father has sported a moustache for as long as I can remember. The only picture I’ve seen of him without one is a black-and-white in which he’s goofing off with some army buddies. He is 16. Once, when my brothers and I were very young, he decided to shave it off. My mother says we screamed in terror, and then cried every time he was in the room, until it started growing back.
So the moustache is, for me, an emblem of male authority. But not for me only. A couple of years ago, I grew a moustache for the benefit of a Hallowe’en costume. I was working construction at the time, and we were building a concrete highrise in downtown Vancouver, so a lot of time was spent running hoses and craning buckets of cement from street-side. My job was to land the buckets behind the cement trucks that were pulled up on the street. Ordinarily, when someone comes to a jobsite with a delivery or any administrative duties, that person heads to the office, regardless of who’s milling about on the sidewalk. However, as I had this moustache, time and again delivery guys, truck drivers, and even developers and architects would approach me as soon as they jumped out of their trucks. It was bizarre; the moustache was their automatic totem of leadership. You could almost see them thinking, “Ah, that must be the superintendent.”
Such power is not wielded easily. It’s like going into Tim Horton’s with a broadsword on your back. People fear you. It’s no accident that we associate moustaches with the police. I’ve got a book titled Mountie: 1873-1973 A Golden Treasury of Those Early Years. It’s a photographic record of . . . well, the title’s pretty informative. Anyway, the book is crawling with hard looks and black moustaches. If there’s a cop or even a citizen without a moustache in any of the pictures, he looks really young, and scared. A moustache, on the other hand, seems to cause the eyes to toughen. They squint. They gaze through you, past you. Onward to the horizon. Oh, he’ll give you directions, the mountie will, maybe even help you find a hotel for the night or a stable for your horse. But his concerns are larger than you, and you recognize this with one glance at his lip-decor.
I look around me today and I see this thing which I call the half-beard. It’s like a beard, but it’s not. In between the smooth cheeks and pink neck is this shadow region of very short, very styled hair. The half-beard is beyond stubble (don’t even get me started on the half-stubble-beard), but skin is still visible beneath: it’s anywhere from two millimetres to one or two centimetres long. There are no stray hairs top or bottom. It looks careful and time-consuming. It looks like a Lego beard.
I suppose it’s meant to portray both an inward ruggedness and an outward sense of social propriety. You, there, with your half beard. You think you look like a gold miner freshened up for a crazy weekend in town, spending some of that gold dust before heading back out into the wilderness. But I see you, man. You’re in line at the grocery store, sighing quietly to yourself and wondering if maybe you should put that second bag of Doritos back. Yes, they’re on special, but you don’t even really like Doritos. You can’t decide. Do you even have room in the pantry? You better sigh again while you think about it. It’s not like the line’s moving.
Like, come on man. Do you want a beard? Do you want to shave? Just make up your mind, because you’re annoying me. Those mounties didn’t fight crushing blizzards and scorching prairie summers and deliver diplomacy at gun-point to maintain order during the growth of this country so you could spent 45 minutes perfecting the line across the middle of your tender neck-flesh in comfort. Next time you get pulled over, tell that cop that you respect his facial prowess. And if you have a moustache or a full beard of your own, maybe you’ll both hear, faintly, the howl of a prairie wolf out there on the horizon.