When my last dispatch ended, I had been plunged into an existential crisis and confounded by a seemingly irreconcilable dilemma.
The crisis arose from my decision to grow a mustache to raise money for a volunteer writing center, even though growing a mustache was the last thing I wanted to do and there were other ways to volunteer for the writing center. My entry in the CLWC Mustache-a-thon raised myriad questions that cast me into a world of doubt: Why did I so eagerly sign up for something I would not enjoy? Then again, is growing a mustache for a good cause really so bad? Which is more important, vanity or citizenship? In general, why don’t I think things through more?
The dilemma was whether or not to abandon the contest in its first week, in order to avoid having to wear a five-day-old mustache to a Kennedy Center performance by the New York City Ballet.
In the end, I resolved my dilemma in the time-honored tradition of residents of my home city of Washington, D.C.
I could, I decided, grow a beard during the first six days of the fundraiser, wear it to the Kennedy Center with my friend Monaliza on Friday night, then shave off all but the mustache before the first Mustache-a-thon check-up the following Tuesday. Problem solved. I’d have an edgy starter-beard to sport at the Kennedy Center, and the Mustache-a-thon crowd would be none the wiser.
Confident in my ingenious play-both-sides-against-the-middle solution, and impressed by the extent to which it eased my existential crisis, I decided that I would, in fact, attend the Mustache-a-thon’s kickoff event: A group straight-razor shave at the DMC Beauty Salon in Columbia Heights.
The easiest way to travel from U Street, where I live, to Columbia Heights is to take the Metro, the increasingly unreliable but still modern D.C. subway system. You enter at 13th Street, down the escalator behind the Starbucks owned by Magic Johnson, within view of the colorful mural of Duke Ellington, who looks back over his shoulder and from behind his high collar, gazing down on U Street as if he is performing from the second-story brick wall of the historic True Reformer Building.
One stop later you come up across the street from a chain-store mall built into the architecture of a huge brick box. The mall and the modern condominium development across 14th Street have displaced two city blocks of characteristic row houses and store fronts. It’s as if they fell from the sky and squashed them. On the block behind the box-like mall there is row of shops that looks more like the whole neighborhood once did. The barbershop is just down from a great Vietnamese restaurant and up a short flight of concrete steps from the street.
DMC may offer the services of a salon, but it is, in essence, an old-school urban barber shop, complete with a turning red-white-and-blue barber pole, worn linoleum floor, and red leather chairs that lean all the way back and can be raised by pumping a long silver arm.
On a cool Saturday in early March, twenty-one of us take our places on the Mustache-a-thon starting line. Over the course of the afternoon, we lay back in the red leather chairs, get straight-razor shaves, and have our pictures taken. I close my eyes and Rolando pulls the razor over my jaw and down my neck. After so many shaves that afternoon, the blade is dull and scrapes my skin. When it finally cuts me, Dolores, the owner, comes over and dabs some liquid on the cut with a cotton swab, making me feel like a boxer in the corner of a ring. Sure enough, the liquid congeals and stops the bleeding. The cost of the shave is nine dollars.
Jackie and Kira are there, acting as ringmasters and taking pictures to post on the Mustache-a-thon website. When Jackie snaps my picture, checks the back of her pocket camera and says, “Perfect,” I know I’m in for the long haul. I was not keen on growing a mustache and I have problems asking friends for money, even for a good cause. But you can’t quit a contest after sitting for a straight-razor shave and posing for a photo on the Internet. For the next month I’m growing a mustache, whether I like it or not.