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Mustache also mous-tache (m s-tash, m -stash) noun

1. The hair growing on the human upper lip, especially when cultivated and groomed.

2. Something similar to the cultivated, groomed hair on the human upper lip, as (a) A group of bristles or hairs about the mouth of an animal. (b) Distinctive coloring or feathers near the beak of a bird. (c) Food or drink sticking conspicuously to the upper lip, as after a deep draft: a milk mustache.

The first time my lips brushed against a mustache, I was 15 years old. I was babysitting. The missus was out of town. When the mister came home, we sat and chatted. The kids were nestled in their beds, upstairs. We were friendly. I had babysat there several times before. The family owned a fancy hot dog stand at the local mall's food court; I was thinking of working for them. The kiss was brief, the mustache wiry and foreign. I said I had to go, got cab fare, and left.

Two years passed before my second mustache encounter. This time, I was working in a corporate restaurant in downtown Kansas City; I made soups and sandwiches. Most of the other kitchen workers were men; besides me, the only women were two matronly black women. The thick, black mustache came up to me in the walk-in cooler; I was standing next to trays of stuffed potato skins that were awaiting the deep fryer. The mustache belonged to the head chef and reminded me of the badger-bristle shaving brush my father used to lather up his shaving soap: mostly soft and pliable, with a stiff prickly bit at the end. Soon after, I moved to the front of the restaurant and started waiting tables. I noticed that both head bartenders and the restaurant's general manager wore mustaches.

The encounters didn't traumatize me. I didn't start regarding mustachioed men as sinister figures of ill intent, à la Snidely Whiplash. I slid out of both situations without incident and carried on. However, most of the men I dated after that had smooth, even boyish faces. The man I married couldn't grow a mustache if he tried; the hairs come in sparse and patchy. Still, there's enough there that if he goes a day or two without shaving, I'm hesitant to kiss him. I compare the irritation on my lips to the effect of uncomfortable shoes on my feet -- I can take it, but only for so long.

Now, I notice mustaches, especially extravagant ones that must demand maintenance of the sort I give my hair. And I notice them on guys not noted for extensive, metrosexual grooming. Tough guys: cops, firemen...bikers. So, passing by the row of muscular Harleys at La Mesa's Thursday Night Car Show last summer, I start chatting with the men behind the mustaches.

I marvel at the mustache on Raphael. The mustache owns his face below the nose, grudgingly sharing its claim with a patch of hair beneath his lower lip. His mustache looks almost two inches wide and sprawls a good two inches past each side of his mouth. "It is hereditary," he tells me. "It comes from my grandfather, to my father, to me. I wear it this long because my father and grandfather did. I never asked them why they let them grow, but since they did, I did too. Also, it was easier to let it grow than shave; shaving is a bitch. For me, there is no care and maintenance. Once you trim it, then you have maintenance. But if you just let it do what it wants, then that's that. I think at a certain point, you start eating it, and then it just trims itself."

Something that big begs for a reaction, no? "Some look at my mustache as dirty. Others, it doesn't bother them. If I apply for a job and they want me, they have to take me the way I am. I once worked for FedEx, and I got promoted to driver after doing everything else that you do. Their rules for mustaches were that you could only have an eighth of an inch above the lip. I would have gotten full benefits, the whole package, if I took the position. But I turned it down because my mustache meant more to me. It is part of me now. I've had it since I was 15, and I'm 40 now. I've had women ask me to shave it, but I never will. I'm Chicano, and in the Chicano culture, the mustache is a masculine symbol, probably because of history. They were worn by the Mexican cowboys, the vaqueros and the charros."

Raphael thinks that a mustache expresses strength. "I think it says a man is confident in himself. He wears it and doesn't mind what anybody thinks of him. He is okay with himself. It's everybody else that has the problem." But whether he cares or not, he is aware that "people make assumptions about me all the time. 'Vato is no good, vato is no good. He can't be trusted.' Yet I am probably one of the most trustworthy guys you will ever meet. A man of his word."

He also knows that a mustache is not without its implications. His favorite mustache from history is the one belonging to "Zapata, one of the revolutionaries from Mexico." And he admits that, in his culture, a bushy mustache can indicate prison time. "Unless it is natural, the only way to grow something like that is to constantly trim and shave. And only in prison can you constantly shave. That's what a lot of guys do in there to kill time. Nobody really notices it until the day you hit the streets. Then everybody says, 'Hey, where did you get that? You didn't have that the last time I saw you.' 'Yeah, well, that was three years ago.' "

A few pairs of wheels down from Raphael, I meet Tom, who hails from another group of frequently mustachioed men. "I'm in the fire service. A lot of the firefighters do have mustaches," he granted. "I think it's just tradition; if you look back at the old-time firefighters, a lot of them had mustaches." Tom's inch-wide reddish-brown mustache is neatly trimmed, but it is not constrained by his upper lip; it wanders down the sides of his mouth all the way to his chin. "The fire department won't let us grow a full beard, so this is the next best thing." He professes an admiration for the big handlebars sported by Wild Bill Hickok.

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