Personal Essays

Jonah Freeman, "San San 3," 2010, courtesy Mitterrand+Sanz

My Kingdom for a Ginger Beard

Faced with a city full of strangers, you do what anyone would do: You give them nicknames and puzzle out their stories. Herewith, the story of an unemployed redhead.

Have you ever met a man with a beard whom you didn’t think of as a bearded man? If you have, you are a better person than I am.

I, we, both of us encounter every day many anonymous bus drivers, faceless commuters, and random passersby. In my efforts to invent snappy ways of identifying those charming people who form the basis of so much of my amusement, I often find myself unable to see beyond a handful of arbitrary aspects of their physical appearance. That one defining characteristic becomes the only thing I remember about the person. In memory they are no more than a walking pair of glasses, or a voice. When I recount whatever adventure they have been involved in, they go by Dome-Head, Vomit-Breath, Jesus Face. They are labeled without consideration. Sometimes I might not even look any further than the person’s clothing, such as a stupid slogan on a T-shirt (which might make someone T-Shirt Guy), or a particularly ugly jacket that might bring about the moniker Denim Guy or Tassels.

Of course I know I am not the only person out there who labels strangers. It surely goes both ways. With remorse I sometimes wonder what my own defining characteristic is. Would I be Chews-With-Mouth-Open Girl? Sneezy Lady? Sweat Patches? Sometimes none of these, I’m sure. Sometimes, all.

Since I moved to London, where all but four or five people are complete strangers, the labeling has become profuse. Perhaps it’s because I’m new and more alert, and perhaps it’s because I am just so filled with anxiety that I need to distance myself from every situation by committing it to immediate narration. Perhaps I’ll never know (she said).

Recently, I found myself sitting in the waiting area of a recruitment agency where I had been summoned by a small lady, hereafter to be referred to as Small Lady, to ascertain whether I was suitable for unspecified employment in London cafes and restaurants. Can I carry three plates at a time? Is it likely that I have showered in the past three days? Small Lady seemed to think she could answer both questions in the positive and so handed me a sheaf of papers to fill in. Perhaps because it was boring and perhaps because it was new, as I worked through the papers I found myself already recounting the experience live in my head. It was written in the present tense.


* * *

I am sitting in the window of a recruitment agency in Victoria, and there’s a guy beside me with bright red hair. He may have the reddest hair I have ever seen in my life. More importantly, however, he has a beard.

I begin to fill in the papers. A lot of the questions are about the best ways to get food poisoning. Small Lady comes over after a little while to speak to the Beard.

“Would you be willing to shave your facial hair?” she asks him. Just straight out like that. I’m very impressed. She’s not even embarrassed to say “facial hair” in mixed company. I make a mental footnote to the story.1

Beardy is less sure of himself. Would it be OK if he just trimmed it?

With clean-shaven people losing their jobs every day, can he really say no to employment just because he has managed to push some hair out of his face and it turns out he kind of likes it? No, says Small Lady. She needs him to be clean-shaven. At 9 a.m. on a Thursday in Victoria, this guy is facing an ultimatum: It’s beard or job.

Beardy is thinking about it. Can he really justify giving up a job to save his beard? In this day and age? With clean-shaven people losing their jobs every day, can he really say no to employment just because he has managed to push some hair out of his face and it turns out he kind of likes it? The mature choice here seems obvious, but Beardy has reservations and he’s not willing to give in straight away. Small Lady makes a patient noise, smiling, and he knows he’s being silly but he’s still hesitating. After all, he knows how it will go. First it’s his beard. Then it’s all his dreams. Not just the ones related to beards, but the dreams that make him who he is; the core of him. He’s unsure how much of himself he is willing to cede for a buck.

More importantly, however, he probably also knows that if he gets rid of the red beard, then he will no longer be identifiable in the writing of observers as Beardy. How will I be identified? he wonders. But he knows already. He will be Red-Haired Guy, or Guy With Bright Red Hair. If he’s lucky. A less kind writer might identify him as Ginger. Or worse. The most inglorious fate of all: He might cease to exist altogether. He might slip namelessly into the role of Man, or even be cast merely in the background, as one of Men. Men, the root of Many when pronounced Menny as many do pronounce it, making it the perfect blanket description to be turned to men without distinction. Men without beards.

And as much as he is unwilling to sacrifice his identity as a bearded man, it’s not even really about the beard, is it? It’s not even about the red hair. It’s about freedom. Small Lady understands that he might need a minute to come around, so she leaves him to think about it. A stream of people has flowed in and accumulated like a pool at her desk. They’re all annoyed because the girl they were supposed to meet with isn’t here and they came all the way down here, and where is she?

Small Lady doesn’t know. Absent Girl left no message.

I look at Beardy. He’s having a bit of a stress, and I willingly stress on his behalf. I wonder what his deal is, besides his having invested some time in this beard. He seems surprised to be sitting in a catering agency first thing on a Thursday morning. He doesn’t seem to know exactly how he got here. And I would bet money that he hasn’t been up this early in a long time. I could be wrong, but he probably has a degree in something like philosophy and aspirations of a career in teaching, or perhaps with an NGO. People have always told him he is very bright and he feels he can definitely do something with his life if only he can focus. His friends all smoke weed and tell him he should write. He tends to agree. But first he needs some cash to pay off a student loan. Hence the agency, and hence the dilemma. Hence all this my-kingdom-for-a-ginger-beard.

He never thought he’d end up here. He’s already begun down a path of certain sacrifice, embracing parts of life that never fit with who he thought he was. I smile sympathetically at him while with one eye I answer questions about when and where I should wash my hands. The questionnaire is designed to help you pass by asking basically the same questions over and over again in such a way that the answer is revealed through the series of questions. Should you wash your hands in a) the sink, b) a bucket, or c) a pile of rotting chicken meat? When washing your hands correctly in the sink should you a) just use hot water, b) use hot water and antibacterial soap, or c) rotting chicken meat?

Oh, Beardy. Do you really want this? Do you really think you can go this far? He clearly doesn’t want to be a waiter; he never thought he’d end up here. He’s already begun down a path of certain sacrifice, embracing parts of life that never fit with who he thought he was. He’s had to swallow a part of himself to get this far, thinking, I won’t let it change me. And the first thing they ask him is, how much is he willing to change? He’s a long way from his philosophy degree now. Although, I think to myself smugly, playing my own version of the Bearded Philosopher, perhaps not as far as he thinks.

I own I might be wrong here, and you might argue that I am underestimating Beardy’s knowledge of himself and his ability to be himself even without a beard. Perhaps I have cast him in an unlikely role where he knows himself as little as I know him, and where he internally refers to himself as Beardy or Red-Beard Guy. As if he wakes up every morning and looks in the mirror for clues about who he might be. People don’t do this very often, it’s true. I may be wrong. However, he is clearly deeply attached to this beard. It has sprouted in his soul as well as on his face. And the clues as to who one might be are often few and far between for a man without a job. The beard itself might just stem from some desire to know himself as a bearded man. For if he has no control over his career, then surely there is something to be said for the firm control one might exercise over one’s beard.

Yes, the further he goes down this road, here at the agency in Victoria, the tougher it will be to get back to himself, whoever he is. If he doesn’t cling defiantly to the core of himself now, he might end up one day soon unable to distinguish his true self from the bald-faced silver-service robot he sees in the mirror.

The Small Lady is standing in front of us again.

“Well, what do you want to do?” she asks him. She doesn’t care either way. It’s just another morning to her. Just another jobless beard.

“I’ll do it,” he says.

In the end it is I who has too many reservations about the road I’m on, and I don’t take the waitressing job they offer me. Maybe I can’t stand to be Brown-Haired Waitress. Maybe the story of Beardy is really my own. In a way all the stories are, aren’t they? I do hope that if Beardy shaved off his beard that he doesn’t regret it, and I hope he’s happy. With sadness I realize that if I passed him in the street now, I would never recognize him without the beard. After all, there can be no Beardy without a beard. But perhaps my eye would be drawn to him anyway, and I would make a mental note of the man who passed me in the street as Helpful Directions Guy or Nice Chin Guy. I don’t know. What do you call a man without a beard? If I do see him again, I might have to just ask him.

1Small Lady clearly doesn’t mess around.