Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The elephant in the room

The spittin' image of old Sam …
I am bewhiskered. Temporarily hirsute.

I know: The shock! Sit down.

You who know me personally believed facial hair impossible. You who've seen me, knowing that, go into shock and fall to the floor when no chairs are provided.
My dad embraced the barbate zeitgeist of every age he lived. Could I make a movie of the snapshot-choked scrapbooks, you'd see his sideburns fall and rise and fall again, his mustache widen and take wing, his jawline shine, then grow dark, then gray, then bare again before settling into a steady grizzle.

All because he could.

Such a gift skipped a generation, and I've been fine with that. At best, my hair sprouted into a barren archipelago on my face. Maybe it was a secret treasure map, like the tattoo on the mysterious child in Waterworld. But we'll never know.
S. Brannan, the very picture of fun!
My hat covers the fact I can't match his hair.

Or will we?

Because I just had to go and be Sam Brannan on the Old Sacramento Underground Tours.

Unlike Michael Kearney, the Irish clerk/shirker/seancha√≠/Everyman I portray, Brannan was real — the brutish visionary who sparked the California Gold Rush.

(I started feeling sorry for Brannan because few people on tour, I discovered, had ever heard of the guy. His story is so peculiar, he makes J.R. Ewing look like a Cub Scout. But his story — bringing San Francisco and Sacramento into being, and becoming the state's first millionaire while stepping on all the little people —  is going untold.)

As such, Brannan left behind all manner of parlor portraits, all of which showed his muttonchops trimmed "in the imperial style," including a mouche (though, really, soul patch is a vast improvement).

At first I faked the facial hair, assuming my own deficiencies. From a novelty shop in Old Sacramento I bought a theater beard, a small bottle of spirit gum and another of gum remover. The beard matched my peppery hair and didn't cost too much, so I was buoyant.

After an hour or so of splitting the beard, then cutting and fitting and cutting and fitting and cutting and fitting some more, I fashioned two muttonchops with plenty left over for soul patches of different sizes. Who knows? Some days Sam might feel kickier than other days.

Michael Sean Aloysius Finbarr Kearney, at your service.
A fake bloke made a bit less so.
As a new character, Brannan vexed me, requiring new facts and a new fake dialect. He was born in Saco, Maine, and spent his teen years in Ohio, and I make him sound a bit like Hal Holbrook as the stage manager in Our Town

(Fast aside: I managed to make a man on tour from Scarborough, Maine, believe I was a fellow Mainer. So there!)

The fake beard didn't help. Just the thought of gluing and placing it just right made me sweat, and required at least 30 more minutes than Michael Kearney did to get in costume.

Properly and oh, so carefully applied, the fake beard managed to look like … a fake beard.

Fake beards are perfect if you are:
  1.  On a stage, 55 feet from the nearest theater patron;
  2.  20 feet away from a makeup artist who will paste you back together;
  3.  In the company of people who don't believe your beard is real, any more than they believe you are the person you're playing on the stage, but accept the prop and the conceit that we're all "pretending."
Fake beards are far from perfect if you're hoping visitors, standing a hot breath from you, will believe your bristles are authentic, even as temperatures approaching 100 work to part you from your fakery, revealing buffoonery.

Swimmer Shawn sez "Owie!"
It was in front of high schoolers in close quarters, my beard — which I could feel at every moment — curling away from my jaws like the wings of pigeons, that I decided to stop faking it.

Also the daily baths in professional-grade acetone (yes, I bought a bigger bottle of remover) to wash away the crusted boogery spirit gum had reduced the beard to mesh and a few bristles. It looked like I had glued patches of a possum-tested screen door to my face.

Maybe — just maybe! — I could grow my own!

After three weeks of not shaving, I carved around the barely longer whiskers in the shape of muttonchops. I finally learned to stop shaving under my lip so the soul patch would grow.

It's taken three months, but now I have long whiskers that drape white and gray (with one odd patch of black) over my jawline. After a careful shave around their shape, ironically, the mutton chops carry out the look of a fake beard, bristles jutting sharply out of my face.

But I don't feel them, except for the moments when I twirl them in my fingers and stare at the ceiling, faking pensiveness. Familiar people unfamiliar with my new face often look at me funny, and this time it's for the weird beard.

The beard is not growing any fuller. New follicles are not springing out between the whiskers I already have. It is a spare forest of bare aspen trees separated by a hill of chin. What meager volume derives from the length of the whiskers, looking for somewhere to go and banging into one another.

My wife hates the look (though instead she says she wishes I'd just trim the hairs), which means it won't last long. Maybe after the tour season winds down after Halloween, it'll go.

The good news is that the whiskers work well for Michael Kearney too. 

In fact, it's the cheapest manifestation of a mid-life crisis I can imagine.
Actual un-retouched,

(Fast aside: The Mulcahy family, real Irish people from County Cork who brought Dave to swim with me last month in Lake Natoma, made gentle fun of my Irish accent when I explained the mutton chops are not my usual mien. In my defense, I have made Americans who have been to the town I say I'm from — Kilfenora in County Clare — believe I really came from there. And almost made them believe I'm 185 years old.)

The bad news is two-fold. For one, I must shave more often, and more carefully, two conditions to which I am unaccustomed.

Two — and I've yet to figure out the mechanics of it — the bristles wear abrasions on my chest as I swim. I'm either doing something right or very very wrong. When the rest of my body somehow manages to feel fluid on a swim, it's a bummer when my chest stings from a new worn spot.

Make that three-fold — so far, no discernible treasure map.  

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