It’s impossible to ignore a mustache.
Even if you look away, it lingers, tickling at the periphery, pleading for a second glance.
But a good mustache deserves more than mere acknowledgement and should command at least a little extra attention.
Oklahoma is mustache country, a state forged from the sweat that pools beneath the lip-whiskers of hardworking, mustachioed men “¦ and more than a few women.
It’s an iconic look historically grown here by the blue-collar set. The ‘stache is part of the uniform for ranchers, laborers, roughnecks and cowboys of all manner of industry ” men with skin as tough as their boots and whiskers as stiff as a grill brush.
The mustache has seen a recent renaissance, however, this time from the follicles of young men whose working toils are decidedly less rugged.
In the Oklahoma City metro, mustaches now sprout out of bars, coffee shops, art galleries, trendy eateries and hipster hangouts of all ilk.
The true spirit of the ‘stache, it turns out, is embodied by the bearer, not the beholder.
“A mustache changes everything,” a sturdy, grime-knuckled man reluctantly told me, while fueling his work truck at a south Oklahoma City gas station. “It’s weird. I can’t explain it. If you have one, you know. If you don’t “¦ you don’t.”
I didn’t know, but I desperately wanted to, so I decided it was time to grow my own.
As a man, I’m barely passable. Six Flags likely has coasters my height would prohibit me from riding, and the rest of my physique wouldn’t raise any alarms if I were to wander into a middle school cafeteria.
It took a few weeks for those without knowledge of the month-long experiment to take notice of my deliberate lip-whisker growth, but reactions quickly flooded in, falling largely along gender lines. Men largely loved the mustache, or at least appreciated the effort. Women, including my ever-tolerant girlfriend, were uniformly revolted.
Even mustachioed manliness must yield to the lips that make the rules.
Eric Walker, an Edmond native and committed “mustachee,” recently picked up a razor at the demands of his fiancée, Jennifer, who wasn’t keen on a whiskery wedding.
“We’re getting married in two weeks, and if she doesn’t like it, well … she’s the boss,” Walker, 28, said in an interview from Las Vegas, where he attends art school.
A slender 28-year-old with closely cropped hair, Walker has always been fascinated by mustaches, a curiosity he said was embedded early, thanks to hirsute heroes like MLB pitcher Roland “Rollie” Fingers, who manned the mound in the ’70s and ’80s for the Oakland Athletics, the San Diego Padres and the Milwaukee Brewers.
A few years ago, Walker made a move to ensure no razor could ever whisk away his love for whiskers. Dark and curled at the tips, a mustache is tattooed on the index finger of his right hand. The bride-to-be, Walker said, is less affected by the tattoo than the real mustache that often adorns his face.
“She’s OK with that because I don’t walk around holding my finger up by my mouth all the time,” he said, before pausing and adding, “usually.”
Mustaches have been dealt an unfair hand by Hollywood. Historically, the television and movie industries seem to have been a lot kinder to bearded brethren, reserving the ‘stache to depict villainy and to illustrate evil twins or the not-quite-right results that inevitably occur when a character messes with space-time.
In real life, a mustache might more subtly color a scene, but the shade cast on the bearer’s character is almost always darker.
With fur on the lip, standing is seen as lurking, looking becomes leering and walking is regarded as stalking. Smiles I delivered with good nature and intent while mustachioed were met with anxious, averted eyes.
The repellency, in Walker’s experience, comes with mustaches devoid of professional context.
“If you aren’t doing something, like arresting someone, you become creepy,” he said. “There’s nothing in the middle. Either you’re a police officer or on the back of a fire truck, or you’re just a weirdo who sits in his creepy van, sitting and watching kids on a swing set.”
THE TAO OF ‘STACHE
Zachary Cox isn’t creepy, but his mustache is.
Born and raised in Yukon, Cox now lives in Oklahoma City where works as a manager of the Hideaway Pizza on Western Avenue. He hasn’t shaved his upper lip since 2005, when he grew what he could as a surprise birthday present for his mustachioed dad.
Cox is tall and pale, rail-thin with an unruly mess of dark, shoulder-length hair. Clean-shaven and tattoos concealed, the 24-year-old could easily pass as an awkwardly tall adolescent. Context, Cox agreed with Walker, determines how society sees a ‘stache.
“There’s definitely something repulsive about it, to some people,” he said. “With me, I think it’s my youthfulness mixed with the mustache. Youth is not associated with facial hair, so it’s easily off-putting.”
Cox estimated that “eight out of 10″ Oklahomans reacted negatively when he first grew his mustache. Mirroring both Walker and my experiences living with one, Cox described the polarizing effect the ‘stache has on others, but with a strange, Zen-like philosophic confidence, said he uses the reactions to assess the true nature of man.
“My mustache is more of a divining rod,” he said. “I know everything I need to know based only on how people react to it. Some say, ‘Hey, nice ‘stache!’ and come talk to me, or they stay 50 feet away.”
Cox describes himself as “obsessed” with mustaches and freely admits that much of his free time centers around the curious whiskers. Recently, his fanaticism spurred an ongoing public art crusade he leads on the streets of OKC. When he spies a facade, shape or architectural element that resembles a face, he returns at night and, employing an “organic form of graffiti,” slaps a paper or fabric mustache on the object.
“I use things that will wash off in the rain, so they come and they go,” he said. “It’s just for giggles.”
DIARY OF GROWTH
Day 4: Made my intentions clear by shaving the rest of my face smooth. People took notice today, which made me self-conscious. I feel like I’m touching my face a lot.
Day 9: It’s weird to see something on your face without looking in the mirror. I can’t be sure, but girlfriend’s kisses seem unusually hurried.
Day 15: Accused of “lurking” in the break room today while merely examining the vending machine for snack options.
Day 17: I can’t stop washing my face. Should I be able to smell my own mustache? It doesn’t smell bad, but it definitely smells … organic, maybe that’s the word, like tree bark or a bath mat. Horrified girlfriend denied a request to smell the mustache to offer outside perspective.
Day 24: While getting dressed today, I seriously considered wearing a bandana around my neck. The false mustache confidence later inspired me to approach a man near the stockyards to ask about his impressive lip beard ” a bad idea. Through the unfriendly mumbles, he clearly annunciated every letter of a gay pejorative before driving away in a ratty pickup. “Joe Wertz