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Ancient hairstory

May 22, 2009

You want a perfect synonym for fickle? It's fashion. And no fashion is more fickle than hair fashion.

When I was a callow lad and the U.S. was stoned on a post-WWII high, the look for guys was Barracks Chic - short hair all around, and no facial hair.

There were some men with mustaches, but almost all of them were leftovers from the 1920's, when 'staches had been in vogue.

I remember only one man with a beard, Mr. Grey's brother. Mr. Grey owned Grey's Bookstore, now where the Blue Moon is (and on whose outside wall the bookstore's plaque is still affixed). Mr. Grey was dignity personified -- tall, thin, articulate, and always in a suit and tie.

His brother was remarkably different. He was also tall, thin and dignified, but he lived alone in a tiny cabin somewhere in the woods near McColloms. He was in effect a hermit - or at least that's how everyone referred to him. Certainly, he had a classic hermit's beard - long, thick, and flowing down the length of his shirtfront.

Infrequently, he hitch-hiked to town and back, and one time my mother picked him up on our way to Malone. While I can't recall any of the discussion, I remember being charmed by his gentle demeanor, pleasant conversation and of course his beard. For all I know, he was my first inspiration for growing a beard, which I did as soon as I could , at the tender age of 18.

Pick of the crap

It was summer 1965 and I was gainfully employed by the New York City Department of Parks as a "crap picker" on Orchard Beach, the only beach in the Bronx. My job was as glamorous as it sounds - with my stabber (a three-foot dowel with a nail on its end) and my bag, I and a crew of 25 other young clods walked about picking up crap...some of it literal. It wasn't back-breaking work, but it was hard enough. The idea of using trash cans to dispose of food wrappers, newspapers, soda cans, cigarette packs, diapers, or anything, hadn't yet dawned on the denizens of Gotham. Instead, their trash can was the beach.

We started work at 7 a.m., finished at 2:30 p.m., and aside from a half-hour's break, spent the entire time spearing detritus on the beach and in the picnic areas.

The Curse of the Crap Pickers was the morning after July 4th. I heard of its horrors as soon as I joined the crew, but I thought the vets were just giving a newbie a good ribbing. However, when I showed up on the morning July 5, I took one look and my jaw dropped. The beach had disappeared and in its place, as far as the eye could see, was a huge landfill. It looked less like any kind of recreation area than the losing side's battlefield, after WWIII.

We lined up the width of the beach, as we did every morning, and started to stab and bag our way forward. Our pace was almost nonexistent. Usually we cleaned the whole beach in under three hours, but after four hours on the 5th, we'd only slogged to the halfway point. We took our lunch break, then resumed our Herculean labors, somehow actually cleaning up the whole beach by quitting time. If you ever thought there was anything even remotely interesting about spending eight solid hours picking up mounds of garbage, don't.

So what, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with beards? I'm getting to that, OK?

Working at Orchard Beach, while literally a crap job, was also a highly desired one for a young guy. The Parks Department, like all New York City agencies, paid huge wages compared to the private sector. Also, because it was a city job, the only way to get hired was through connections. Luckily I had one, since my uncle was a parks department landscape architect. It was, by definition, nepotism at its best.

The uncivil servant

Something else about it being a city job: It had a huge, top-heavy bureaucracy, so for every poor shmendrick who actually cleaned up the beach, there were two or three supervisors. What they supervised, other than their constant coffee and bathroom breaks, I never found out, but I never cared either, since they left us alone for the most part. An exception to this was a mid -level flunky named Connor.

He'd missed his calling as the officer of a Georgia chain gang, but did his level best to overcome it, always dressed in starched and pressed khakis, topped off by mirror shades that he wore indoors and out. Like the others, Connor didn't actually work, but unlike them, he pretended to, his "work" consisting of driving around in a city jeep, making sure the crap pickers weren't slacking off. Unfortunately for him, the crap pickers were some of the only people in the place who couldn't slack off since the results would be immediately noticed.

Not being able to criticize our work, but wanting to criticize something, anything, toward the end of the summer, Connor suddenly noticed me and my beard.

"Hey," he called to me from his jeep with a Bronx accent you could cut with a chainsaw. "Dat beard, ya gotta shave it."

"I do?" I said. "Why?'

"'Cause it's against Park Department regulations, dat's why."

"Really?" I said. "I didn't know that."

Actually, I knew it wasn't against any city regulations. A few weeks before, the Daily News had run a feature about a bus driver who was ordered to shave his mustache. The driver not only refused to shave, but fought it and won, since there were no regulations about facial hair, except for cops and firefighters.

But I also knew my place in the hierarchy, which was at the very bottom. So if someone like Connor made a personal crusade of ridding me of my beard, he probably could. At the least, he could make my remaining time there miserable. And sure enough he tried, bugging me every day about my beard.

What to do? On my days off I thought it over and decided I'd not only had enough of Connor, but of Orchard Beach and the Bronx as well.

At the end of my next work day I went in the office and gave my two weeks' notice. Ironically, Connor was there at the time.

"You're leavin' before Labor Day?" he said. "You do dat and you'll prolly never work for da city again."

"That right?" I said, looking at the little twin Dopes reflected in his lenses.

"Yeah," he said. "You should think about it 'cause you could end up regrettin' it big time."

As it turned out, Connor was half right: In the 44 years since I decided to quit being a crap picker, I have thought about it... and I've never once regretted it.



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