Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘beards

“Wanted: actor to play homeless man for 2 hours Saturday morning. No pay, but you can eat lunch with us afterward.”  That’s what the email read. It was sent to everybody on the mailing list for the University of Colorado’s Department of Theatre & Dance.

With the beard that I’m growing for my upcoming role as Darwin, I realized that I certainly looked the part. As a sometime actor, being convincing as a homeless person sounded like an interesting challenge.  And as a playwright and author, I find it useful to experience as many different situations as possible. So I emailed back. “I’m a 57 year old actor, with grey hair and a scraggly grey beard. Attached is a JPEG. Let me know if you want me.”

A few hours later, back came a response. “We’re a Christian student group on campus and we’re doing a series of exercises that we’re hoping will help our students get a better understanding of what it means to be a man.  (Not that any of us organizing the event have it all figured out, but hey you have to start somewhere, right?)  The exercise I want your help with is about ‘accepting responsibility.’  Normally this means accepting responsibility for living a “moral” life and looking out for your friends, and that’s good, but I want to expand that idea.  The participants are going to have a short time to get from on place to another.  I’ll also give them a “hindrance,” like tying two guys’ ankles together.  I’d like you to dress as a homeless person and position yourself somewhere on their route. Make up a compelling story, and when they come by, ask for their help in taking you somewhere out of their way.”

At 10:30 the next morning I was sitting on a low concrete wall on the appointed route. I was dressed in some ratty old clothes that I normally use for painting around the house, and had my cover story devised and rehearsed. Along came four students, two of them with their ankles tied together. I kept my eyes down until they were opposite me.

“Hey, could you guys help me for a second?” I asked, half looking up. With barely a glance, they walked past. Strike one, but I figured they deserved a second chance. “I could really use some help,” I pleaded after them, my voice cracking. One of them stopped and looked back. The others stopped a few steps further on. “You go on. We’ll catch up” the one who had stopped said to the two tied together.   They hurried on, and he and the fourth student came back to me.

“I’ve been staying at the Homeless Shelter on North Broadway, and I was supposed to meet somebody at a place called Half-Fast Subs to talk about a job painting houses. I walked five miles down here, but someone told me that I’d gone a block too far. Now I’m feeling really bad and I’m afraid I’m going to pass out if try to make it back on my own.

“Do you want us to walk you over there?” asked my benefactor? Bingo! “That would be great,” I responded. “I don’t want to fall and crack my head open.” I put an arm around each of their shoulders, and we set off, followed by the stares of dozens of curious passersby.

They walked me to my destination, about a block and a half away, while I told them the sad story of my life. I used to own a painting contracting business, but I’d had some bad luck and …” We reached Half Fast, where they dropped me off, and they ran off to catch up with their colleagues.

“God bless you,” I called after them.

An hour later, changed into regular clothes, I walked up to the picnic table in a nearby park where the four students and their mentors they were having lunch. They smiled at me without recognition, and then four jaws dropped in unison. I introduced myself, and the event organizer explained what had gone on.   Then we discussed the exercise and all agreed that both missions had been accomplished – theirs and mine.


Don as a "grey-bearded, homeless, unaccompanied-minor" in one of the cartoons from "Ups & Downs"

I guess it’s natural to yearn for things you can’t have, and my yearning for a beard goes way back.

I was fairly late going through puberty, and even when it finally arrived I wasn’t all that good at it. So while my high-school and college friends were all displaying manly five-o’clock shadows and growing impressive full beards, I was cultivating 6 or 7 straggly hairs on my chin.  When those hairs got long enough that they curled up on each other several times, I could almost kid myself into thinking that what I had was a beard.  But then some young lady that I thought was attracted to me would make a disparaging remark about my “Sillygoat scruff,” and reality would set in with a bang.

Fortunately, moustaches can be made up of 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs — or so I imagined — so by the time I was 23, I decided to abandon my beard attempts and try my luck with a moustache.  (By this time, Rhonda and I had left Iran and moved to Germany, where I was teaching English as a Foreign Language to American soldiers.  Yes, you read that right.  But that’s another story.)  Within a short time, however, it was evident that 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs on my upper lip didn’t look much better than 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs had on my chin.

Then I discovered moustache wax!  I bought a big pot of the stuff and a tiny brush, and devoted much of each day to dipping the brush into the pot and stroking my upper lip horizontally away from my nose in both directions.  And when I wasn’t dipping and brushing, I was pulling and twisting.  All day long — dip, stroke, pull, twist; dip, stroke, pull twist.  Very therapeutic, really.  It gives you something socially acceptable to do with your hands when you get nervous.

And it worked!  After 4 or 5 months, I had what appeared to be a respectable handle-bar moustache.  OK, it was mostly dark brown goo, but that wasn’t obvious to anyone who kept their hands off my face.  Boy, was I proud of that moustache.

One morning, though, I didn’t pay attention when I was shaving my lower lip and cheeks, and when I looked up, the tip of one side of my pride and joy was gone!  Nooooo!  I trimmed the other side to match it, but got it too short.  Back to the first side.  Back to the other.  Back.  Forth.  By the time I finished, I had a nice little Charlie Chaplin (Hitler!) moustache in the center of my lip.  That wasn’t exactly the thing for an American to have on his face in Germany in 1975, so off it came.

The next year, I started work for a computer company that had a rule against facial hair, and for the next 20 years, my urge to grow a beard was frustrated.  But unbeknownst to me, by the time I was in my early 40s, all those little hormones that had been so recalcitrant in my youth had finally decided to pay me a visit.  And when my company lifted the ban on facial hair, I went on a beard-growing orgy that lasted  — well, it’s still going on.

Rhonda has always hated beards, and generally refuses to get too close when I’ve got one.  So every year or so, I shave, get a fix of affection, and then grow the beard again.  Now that we live apart most of the year, it’s not so much of an issue.


A tanned, bearded Don at the end of the trek through the Alps

Usually, I keep the whole affair reasonably neatly trimmed.  But a few weeks ago we started rehearsing a play that I wrote on Charles Darwin (see the Plays tab, and look for “The Debate”), and I’m playing Darwin!  In preparation, I’ve been letting the beard grow since my son David’s wedding in mid-September.  The play closes in early March, so that’ll be 6 months growth in all.  By that time, I’ll be a Rip Van Winkle lookalike.

In the meantime, though, my beard is as long as it’s ever been, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things that it’s good for (in addition to the obvious one of keeping my face warm in a Colorado winter).  First, I’m a big fan of spare-ribs.  Now, by licking my moustache hairs, I get to continue tasting the barbecue sauce for hours after the meal is finished.  Yumm!  Second, after I wash my face or take a shower, my chin hairs become a water reservoir of considerable volume.  That will be very refreshing on warm days and could be a life saver the next time I trek through the desert.

Perhaps most important though, the beard is enabling me to go undercover while doing the research for my latest play, “Postville.”  The play has a number of characters who are Hasidic Jews.  You know, the ultra-orthodox guys with the black coats and hats and the long beards!  In doing my research, I’ve been spending time with the Lubavitch community in Boulder, and they’ve been very welcoming and helpful.  But it has been pretty clear to everyone that I am an outsider.  Now, with each passing week, I come closer and closer to disappearing into the crowd.

Over the next 3 months, I’m sure I’ll come up with lots of other fun things I can do with my beard.  I’ll keep you informed.