I have never been good at asking people for money.
It’s part of a larger problem. I lack the practical life skills that everyone else seems to have in abundance. Skills like knowing precisely how to behave in social situations, and pretending to like the people you need things from. Another one that’s a problem for me: Never being distracted or slowed by the despairing sense that you are, through ignorance, blindness, or cowardice, letting some magnificent destiny chosen for you by fate slip quietly through your grasp in these, your best years.
I have labored to learn these skills. I am still not good at them.
Another skill I’ve never mastered: Asking friends for money. Every successful businessperson and politician does this, but I have no idea how. I live in awe of their resolve. I have learned to cover for my inability in this area by never volunteering for fundraisers, but the Mustache-a-thon is an exception. For the Mustache-a-thon, all bets are off.
At the first weekly Mustache Check-Up, Kira asks me for the contributions I am supposed to be collecting. Her question makes me realize that I have, until that moment, completely ignored the Mustache-a-thon’s fundraising aspect. I offer a good-natured apology, promise to get on it, and then spend the evening wondering how I’ll raise the $137.23 each contestant has promised to bring in.
The answer comes from William, the tallest of the Capitol Letters volunteers, and a strong contender for Most Easy-Going. William is not just tall, he also dips and sways. Even indoors, he’s like a tree bending in a gentle wind. Like Lincoln, he has the tall gentle person’s natural advantages—the relaxed demeanor, the part about waiting to speak and then saying the smartest thing, and of course the “benevolent giant” radiance, which taps into something primeval, something from the universal experience of pre-consciousness. Children, I’m sure, love him.
William has it all figured out. He’s already sent an e-mail to friends laying out mustache-themed donation categories. I only remember the first one—"Friend of a Follicle: ten dollars"—but the others are just as funny and smart.
“That’s really good,” I tell him.
“Thanks,” he says, smiling and hunching down a little.
The following night, I struggle with my fundraising e-mail. The problem, of course, is the barrage of solicitations I myself receive every week. They’ve created a small but cranky corner in my life. Others might want to keep that corner of their life quiet, too.
Still, I work up some righteousness and tap the keys. “Dear friends,” I write, “I’ve entered a mustache-growing contest and I need your help!” I ask for a five dollar contribution. Later in the e-mail I up the ante, borrowing William’s theme and his “Friend of a Follicle” category. I add two categories of my own, a $20 category (five dollars for every clock in Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”) and a $35 category (one dollar for the first 35 books written by president Theodore Roosevelt).
Within the first week I have raised $85.00. My commitment to raise $137.23 already in sight, I promptly stop all fundraising activity. “If anyone else sends money,” I think, “great.” “If not, I’ll just meet my goal by writing a check for $52.23.” Too easy.
I breeze into the next Mustache Check-Up ready for Kira’s question, but before it comes I learn that the contest, which is half over, has already raised more than $5,000.
Five thousand dollars!? I do the math. Each of the contest’s 20-some-odd participants has already raised, on average, $250. But because I have raised only $85.00, the others have, probably, each raised more than $250, give or take. Even feeble math is science, and therefore cannot lie. By my reckoning, every other Mustache-a-thon participant has raised more than triple what I have.
It’s probably mathematically impossible for anyone to have raised less than me. Thankfully I can’t prove it, because I have forgotten calculus.
It gets worse. One week later, I’m still at $85, but now the group is closing in on $8,000. This time, I can’t bear the division.
In the end, the Mustache-a-thon raised more than $10,000. It was an amazing feat, made more so by the fact that one contestant, who shall remain nameless, never crossed the $85 mark and, in the end, had to meet his goal by writing that check I mentioned earlier. Do I need to say it? Everyone else raised more than six times more than me.
Through it all, I told myself it didn’t matter. “I’ll find other ways to contribute,” I said. Still, my Mustache-a-thon fund-raising failure drew me briefly into the black hole of life’s imponderables. “What is wrong with me?” I thought. “Was there a year in school when the basics of getting by in life were explained? Did I just miss it? Perhaps I was asleep?”
Even now, months later, I carry an artifact of the fundraising skills I lack, and the Mustache-a-thon’s cool reminder of their absence. It is a check from one of my donors that I kept forgetting to sign over to Kira. Finally, I just covered its amount with my own check, thinking I would cash the one from my friend, but then I never did. The check is still in my wallet, folded in with my other money, worn and faded and straight like a dollar bill.