“That’s a hell of a beard,” I said to the tall Caucasian at the next urinal, in the men’s room at the Old Town Bar on 18th Street off Broadway. These grand urinals are the bulging porcelain monuments you’ll find in old high schools, the New York Public Library, and modernist art.
He was about 6’ 5”, and that ugly mass of graying hair straggled all the way to his waist. It had to be three feet, anyway. It was the beard of a prophet, like the one that flows from the harrowed face of John Brown on his way to the hangman.
He looked at me in the mirror in front of us and realized I was looking at the beard, not the reflection, so he turned toward me. It’s not often that you’re face to face with someone when you’re peeing, unless of course you want to pick the guy up. I didn’t, he was an ugly old white guy, missing some teeth, I just wanted to witness the real thing. He looked back in the mirror, shook his head, closed his eyes, started peeing again.
“Yeah, well, I don’t even know where it came from.”
I thought, I can probably tell you that, you madman, but instead I asked, “How old is it?”
Now he was thoughtful, eyes open and fixed on the mirror above his head. I looked there too.
“Can’t really say. I know I had one this long in Jamaica, in the early 90s, I think, and I shave it off. While I am there.”
“While you are there?”
“Yah, mon, a long time.”
“A very long time,” I said, “maybe longer than you think.” What an asshole you are, I thought. “You mean you’ve been growing this one since then, the early 90s?” By now I had backed out of the porcelain.
“Yah, a long time, I think.” He was still staring at that same point on the mirror.
“Do you trim it ever?”
“Yeah, I used to.” He paused. “Because I carried my own golf bag.” He looked down into the urinal. I think he was still peeing.
“Ah, golf in the islands,” I said, as contemptuously as I could, having never been near my own origins, “that must have been a treat.”
“The ends would catch in the strap, down here,” and now he gestured with his chin toward the bristling apron of hair he wore, “so I trimmed it.” He finished peeing, stepped out of the urinal, went to the sink, where he looked in another mirror at me. “I don’t carry my own bag anymore.”
“Are you leaving now?”
“No, man, I’m drinking.”
“Good,” I said, “I’ll buy you one, where are you sitting?”
“Upstairs.” The Old Town has an upstairs, no bar, just tables, that’s where the ladies room is.
“All right, I’ll find you.”
I walked to my stool at the back end of the bar, ten feet from the men’s room, where I was drinking with another New School graduate student. I told her my story of the prophet’s beard and its bearer. She laughed and said, “You’re the only guy who’s come out that door in the last ten minutes. What took you so long in there?”