Of Beards and Beers

Going Home and Growing Up

PORTLAND, Ore. — Tracing this story back to its beginning means tracing my beard back to its wispy roots. They first took hold a month ago, when my apartment in Cambridge was starting to heat up. For most men (and presumably some women), an increase in temperature means shaving regularly; it means avoiding beard tans. But I had ambitions and no one to discourage me. I was turning 21, and I was determined to grow a beard. The product wasn’t flattering. My nascent beard and reedy mustache refused to link, as if both feared whatever small parasites the other scraggly patch might have harbored. But when I woke up on my birthday and looked in the mirror, my bleary, hungover visage had hair on it. I was damn proud. On that same morning, I boarded a plane for a week’s vacation at home in Portland, Ore. Shortly after landing, I was in heaven: not only was I spending time in the beer capital of America as a newly-minted non-minor, but everyone around me was rocking a beard. I guess I had forgotten. Portland’s a haven for hippies and hipsters—not to mention lumberjacks—which helps explain the local popularity and prevalence of the beard. In the past year, facial hair has even played a minor role in mayoral politics.But whenever I return home, Portland and I always share a short love affair that quickly sours, and I end up remembering why I don’t always miss it. Usually I tire of the constant rain. But sometimes I get sick of the powerful undercurrents of irony and apathy that hide beneath the city’s reputation as a cultural mecca. When I’m home, I always run into the same alternative kids from high school, still working in the same old coffee shops with their old lackluster ambitions. Portland sometimes seems like a graveyard crowded with the vintage-clothed skeletons of these young people’s art-house-film dreams. (That metaphor may be florid, but it would be right at home on any of these barista's blogs.) This time the disillusionment started in a neighborhood pub. I met up with a friend there, one with whom I hadn’t had much contact in a while. At first, all was well. The beer was cheap! It was good! My friend was also growing a beard! But then the empty pint glasses started to add up. Something in me turned, and nothing seemed right. This friend—a smart, funny, creative young guy—was still in Portland, living with his parents. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t doing much of anything with himself. Plus, I had a ridiculous beard that I shared with all the other sad alternative sacks frequenting a bar on a Saturday afternoon. For that matter, I, too, was drinking—a lot—on a Saturday afternoon. Didn't I know better? Why was I in Portland? I stumbled home. It took me until the next afternoon to recover. I had plans to meet another friend. When I showed up at the same pub, I had my reservations. I hadn’t talked to this friend in a while either, in part because I felt he also epitomized the listlessness that I associated with Portland, that I wanted to leave behind. But when we got to talking, I could tell he was happy, and I realized that my other friend had been, too. And I saw that a large part of my angst stemmed from elitism. I liked to think that choosing an East-Coast college—especially one like Harvard—meant leaving these friends behind in order to grow up. But in truth, I had no right to scorn my friends for not conforming to my own idealized ambitions. I was mistaking having a beard for being an adult. When I left the pub that second time, I was much more sober. I knew I had to get over my bouts of disenchantment with Portland and accept my roots, because, no matter how wispy, they’re what constitute my past. Plus, the beer’s cheap in Portland. And my beard’s always welcome. —Jake G. Cohen '09, a Crimson arts chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House.