I developed my first crush on a bearded man, named Sam. I’d recently moved to Melbourne last July, and was recommended his services as a hobbyist bike restorer. I visited him at his modern single unit in an east Melbourne suburb, where he appeared to live alone. His place was cosy, had an excellent boutique beer and single malt collection, and a garage teeming with vintage bike frames. He was a tradie by profession and possessed an effortless yet gentle masculinity: mid 30’s, short strawberry blonde hair, deep blue eyes, reassuring smile, and a well-groomed, grey-flecked beard – obviously straight, but I was immediately attracted to him. He sold me a restored blue late 1970’s Malvern Star for $200. I named it Mordechai, because of several Malvern ‘Star of David’ logos on the frame.
Since childhood, I’ve had a mix of fear and fascination for hairy men. When I was four, my father, a product photographer, had a client named Bob – who bore a striking resemblance to Colonel Sanders. As the youngest sibling of four, therefore most naive, I was duped into believing him akin to a werewolf. My siblings would impersonate him by holding up Shrewsbury biscuits to their eyes – an impersonation of his glasses – and chase me around slowly in a zombie-esque drone chant of “I am Bob! I AAAAAAAM BOB!!!”. Whenever Bob came to visit Dad, I’d run away screaming and hide in the nearest wardrobe, leaving a bemused Bob and a deeply embarrassed, apologetic mother. My simultaneous fascination of hairy men was probably influenced by my relative hairlessness – owing to my Chinese heritage. My Chinese and Irish-Scots genes to locked in constant battle over my characteristics. My Irish side allows me to drink copious amounts of alcohol but gives me deep pockets of Catholic guilt. My Chinese side won the battle of being able to eat glutinous amounts of food and possess jailbait looks, but I suspect that on my 35th birthday, I will wake up, my youthful looks gone and I’ll resemble either Mr Miyagi or Fu Manchu/ Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China. The wisened Zen master or a cartoonish super villain. The Chinese half easily won the body and facial hair battle. My fascination also extends from being gay. Masculinity is still presumed to be a quality we do not possess. Many reject the notion of traditional masculinity, others chase masculine men. For me it was the latter: beards were a symbol of this attainable masculinity.
This purchase coincided with the move to Melbourne which happened months after a breakup, and gave me time to reflect on my trainwreck of a romantic past. Problem was that I tended to go for boyish guys who followed an eerily similar type. My previous two boyfriends were both English graduates, aspiring writers, eldest siblings of large families, wore glasses, intensely bookish, an born in early May (which unless you believe in astrology, is utterly forgettable), and because of mutual lack of compatibility, both didn’t last. Apart from vowing never to date eldest children or English graduates, my attraction to boys waned, replaced by the notion of a older man: more pragmatic, mature, and, hairy.
Sam was a refreshing contrast to Melbourne’s urbane masculinity. Upon arrival, I was in dropped-jaw ogle at Melbourne’s men – both gay and straight – who were immaculately dressed in vintage and bright coloured fashion, clean cut, and often bearded. These feelings changed negatively as I gradually observed men with beards lacked the maturity and wisdom of how I imagined men with beards should be. Overhearing them at bars and cafes, they seemed too fancy free, shallow, and most importantly, overly intellectual – which I found unacceptable without wearing tweed, smoking a corn cob pipe, or planning the next tiger hunt and exchanging tips on where to buy quality pith helmets. I reserved a special prejudice for the ‘Ned Kelly’ beard – aka the Paul Bunyan, or the ZZ Top; a thick, bushy beard. Unless you live rurally, chop wood, wear flannel, and rob banks, it serves no practical purpose – the fashion equivalent of an SUV. Young men mimicking bushman fashion essentially adopts the aesthetic without adopting the experience. I rationalised that Sam must deserved his beard because of his mature nature.
After a month, my bike experienced a major problem: the left crank shaft was loose. I called Sam and he generously offered to come over and repair it. I listened to his complex explanations that I couldn’t fully understand, mainly just stared at his beard and nodded politely. I am still a sucker for guys who talk about their passions. He could have been talking about a ceramic angel collection and I’d still have swooned. He explained that Malvern Star ceased production of this unique crankset in the early 80’s, but committed to sourcing a replacement part, was given an excellent loan bike for three weeks. Once the repaired bike was returned, the jubilation was short lived. After one day, the sealant had ground off and the crank was loose again. A bike shop told me that gaps in the crank had been filled with a rubber sealant that easily failed. My image of Sam was shattered. I almost gave him an angry phone call to demand a new bike, but stopped. He’d willingly offered to fix my bike after months of purchase, but why was it his job? I relented towards the only option: fix it myself.
I took Mordechai to the Ceres bike shed, a bike repair shed run by volunteers as part of an eco-farm that sources cheap and scrap parts. I’d previously been there with an old work colleague to repair a donated bike for a teenager. A lead volunteer was delighted to do more charitable good, lamenting that “This used to be a working class neighbourhood, now we mainly help latte-drinking students”, despite that most of the customers within earshot fit that stereotype. We promptly left and didn’t pursue a partnership with them, because of their attitude and that they were too conditional on offering only minimal assistance to clients. That weekend confirmed this rudeness was rampant, and I gained an introduction to the subculture of the hippie bike jerk. During my repair experience, I found many of the bearded volunteers aloof and unwilling to offer a modicum of help. One volunteer yelled at me for doing something another repairer told me to do, though I’d inquired about how to do it earlier to no avail. They seemed to use their eco-values and bike knowledge to elevated themselves above us peasants, with a misogynist exception of giving special attention to young women with fixies. Their progressive aesthetic disguised a closed, conservative ethic. After two days of slow progress, droplets of advice from volunteers and excellent help from others repairing their bikes – all in 30 degree plus heat – I learned how to grease and install ball bearings properly, and replace an entire crankset.
In hindsight, I was too hard on Sam. Sam was a comparatively good example of how hobbyists should behave, the sort of person you want fixing bikes or teaching you; someone with something still to learn, which is real character. My mistake was that his character and facial hair were synonymous, same with Ceres’ progressive ethos with treatment of outsiders. Among young men, we often substitute character with aesthetic and intellectual symbols to prove our maturity. We mistake music, fashion, literature, and symbols like beards, large penises, deep voices and outgoingness as representative of masculine character. Overemphasis on these conceals and condones what I see as major issues such as avoidance, possessiveness, sexism, sensitivity only to ones self and not others, inability to express feelings, and fleeing from difficulty. Real character means owning up to mistakes, taking things into your own hands, being pragmatic, and gentle; universal with any gender. Character is developed and earned, not bought or groomed. What could build character more than replacing a bike crankset? Or any craft or knowledge-based activity: stamp collecting, woodwork, gardening, cooking, chess, learning a language, knowledge of Sondheim musicals, or knitting? As a gay man especially, we often seek qualities we wish we had in others, but are fully capable of cultivating admirable qualities ourselves.
In fixing a bike with no knowledge or experience, I realised underutilised skills, wisdom, and character. In the months that followed, I have been able to grow a short, trimmed beard – my first ever. I theorise that my Irish side is fighting back – and I base this on the stray ginger hairs within. Having a beard is fine, but what values we think it might imbue ourselves with is worth pondering. Now, when I think of the name Mordechai, I think of the hawk from The Royal Tenenbaums, who was freed from his New York brownstone rooftop enclosure by Richie Tenenbaum to return at a pivotal moment, with grey streaks that symbolised wisdom and growth. While not grey yet, I like to think of that experience as something that gave me a little grey inside?
That being said, I’d like to future proof masculinity. I propose a set of Grooming Ground Rules:
Reverse Taliban: under the Taliban, men of a certain age without a beard of a certain length would be jailed until they grew longer. As a rule, all men between 15 and 25 should be banned from having beards. This can really differentiate the difference between boys and men
A probationary period for men from 25 to 35. A probationary beard can be grown only during times of bad breakups, real work difficulties, and the test being administered to prove that you’ve earned it. Or if you can whittle a seaworthy canoe or grow one pallet full of vegetables.
Anyone who has been deemed brave and a positive role model should be awarded the ‘Beardie Award’ by the Australian government, which should come with a complimentary beard transplant from an urban man in their 20’s who is picked up in a Government van and shorn.
Ned Kelly beards should only be allowed to be worn by robber bandits, truckers, American Civil War recreationists, and gruff public transport attendants – and only by residents of suburbs and regions at least 5km outside of an inner city radius. Exemptions for builders and tradies, anyone who can play the banjo, pipe-smoking academics, Bond-esque supervillains, or pantomime actors.