I grew up in Laramie, a small Wyoming town with so much community it made you want to move to Manhattan. Now I live in Washington, D.C., which, despite the attractions of its European-style traffic circles and international citizenry, lacks everything Laramie had in abundance. Everyone is from somewhere else. They are constantly arriving and never stay long. The only open public space − the Mall − feels strangely barren, and is perpetually overrun with tourists. The city’s architecture consists of cold marble façades and federal row houses. There are too few public parks. Dupont Circle, the best of them, is actually a traffic conveyance. And did every other traffic circle in town need to be decorated with a Civil War general on horseback? No, it did not.
None of this is so terrible, of course. But it does sometimes make it hard to feel that you belong.
On Tuesday I run into Jackie on my Metro ride home. I mentioned Jackie in my first dispatch as the Capitol Letters lead volunteer with an amazing smile, and it’s true. She has Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club‘s smile. I’m not foreshadowing anything here. This entry does not end with Jackie and me tipsy and mutually awestruck in the twilight glow of Asylum, the 18th Street bar where Capitol Letters holds its Tuesday night mustache check-ups to collect donations, photographically document the contestants’ mustache growth, and raise participant morale. I’m just saying: Jackie has an amazing smile. It’s a true fact.
I’m reading on the Metro, engrossed in Robert and Jean Hollander’s excellent translation of The Inferno, Dante’s mid-life crisis story of his journey to Hell and back at the elbow of the Roman poet Virgil. The translation is so good that I don’t notice Jackie until she taps me on the shoulder.
“Oh, hey!” I say.
“I almost didn’t say hi,” she says, “you look so caught up in that.”
Jackie is in her biking clothes, ferrying her hybrid to Columbia Heights before heading to Asylum for the second of Capitol Letters’ Tuesday night soirees. Naturally, she’s curious to see how my mustache is coming in. She leans in and furrows her brow.
“It’s sort of hard to see,” she says.
The truth is, the mustache is coming in unevenly. There is a tiny bare patch on the right-hand side and even a few gray hairs, which deliver a small emotional setback and force me to be braver than I would like.
At Asylum, we crowd into the back of the bar’s upper floor, an even mix of stylish women and nervous men with baby mustaches. I wonder what the other patrons think of us. That we are a support group for early mustache growers? That mustaches are the newest trend and no one told them? Kira, Jackie, and Jen sit in a pile of jackets on a long bench against the wall. Kira has a clipboard and a ledger to track each Moustache-a-thon participant’s pledges.
“Do you have anything for me?” she asks.
“Anything what?” I ask.
“You know,” Kira says, “pledges? Donations?”
I realize I have completely forgotten the Moustache-a-thon’s fundraising component, arguably its most-important aspect, the reason it is being held in the first place. I confess to Kira that I haven’t yet e-mailed my fundraising letter to my friends.
“Uh, you need to get on that,” she says. I cross to the bar and order a Guinness.
No one’s mustache looks really good, except for Adam’s. His looks amazing. Its evenly spaced, individual black hairs lie straight on his pale upper lip, as if drawn in ink. He looks like he stepped out of the 19th Century. I work my way over to him and ask how he did it.
“I didn’t do anything,” he says. “It just grew in this way.”
“Impossible!” I say. “You didn’t trim it or anything?”
“No!” he assures me. When I tell Adam he has natural mustache talent, he smiles bashfully. “I never thought of it that way,” he says, “Thanks!”
Later there is “Pin the Mustache on the Tutor,” a variant of the party game involving a paper mustache and a line drawing of a Capitol Letters volunteer helping a student read from an open book. Alyssa only spins me around three times, but I’m convinced I’m pointed in the wrong direction, about to walk blindfolded into the crowd at the bar. She assures me I’m pointed the right way, and guides me to the drawing, her hands resting lightly on my shoulders. Feeling dizzy, I pin the mustache on the paper. When I lift the blindfold, I see that I have aimed about two feet too low, and have fixed a mustache to the open book in the student’s hand.
Toward the end of the evening, a man with a thick, well-developed mustache leaves his friends and wanders over to our group. I’m not close enough to overhear the conversation, but from his enthusiasm and easy laughter I can imagine his questions. Used to wandering the city, a lone mustache-wearer in a sea of civil servants in twill pants and button-downs, he thinks he might have found his people. Naturally, he wants to know who we are, and if he’ll ever be able to find us here again.