The result was as individual as they come. "It went above my lip and then across my cheek in a big swoop and grew off the end of my jaw -- about seven inches on each side. It was really long, but not like a handlebar. A handlebar has long hairs that are waxed; mine was just short hairs that grew across my face. To maintain it, I would just pluck the top quite carefully -- I'd take 10 to 15 minutes for that -- and then I would shave up to the pluck line. I used a disposable razor with a very narrow head, and I shaved in three different directions -- up, down, and sideways. Then, once a week, I'd pluck around the whole thing. The mustache was complicated -- it had a curve that came up and then went down. My barber always wanted to trim it; I said, 'No! One hair off and the whole thing will look lopsided.' "
"I was just trying to cry out, 'I am an individual,' " says Bob. The cry was heard. "I never got forgotten. If I was on an airplane full of people who wanted coffee, I always got mine." But with individuality came inconvenience. "The joke was that if I got food in my mustache, I'd have to chase it around the back of my neck and it would just fall off. But because the mustache covered my mouth, I couldn't eat corn on the cob or chicken on the bone. I couldn't even eat a hamburger without cutting it up into very small pieces. I thought it was disgusting to have 'secret sauce' in my mustache; no one wants to look at that. And for some reason, hair retains odor. If I ate a hamburger or some other messy food, for hours afterward I would be inundated with this horrible smell -- like a wet-dog smell." And it got him unwanted social attention. "If I was standing in Disneyland and the characters were dancing nearby, they would always grab me and want to dance. That was uncomfortable sometimes."
Eventually, individuality exploded into notoriety. People would assume things. "They would say, 'I knew that he was gay; the mustache was just too flamboyant.' It was so recognizable that it sometimes caused problems. When you live in a town long enough, ultimately, in some circumstances, you seek anonymity. I couldn't have that with the mustache. I would walk into a bar and the guy at the piano would say, 'Let's hear it for the mustache!' I would go to Mexico, and the guys at the door would say, 'Mr. Mustache! Come in!' If I wanted to meet a friend somewhere, every head would turn when I walked in. The negatives started to outweigh the positives."
Bob kept the mustache for ten years before giving it up as "youthful folly." His current ursine look is less eye-catching, but he says it still brands him. "It's not flamboyant, but people know I'm gay even when I'm not talking, walking, or gesturing."
Bob mentioned the ponderous fullness of the mustache on the Titanic's Captain Smith, so that's who I think of when I meet Fletcher, a 60-year-old computer technician. He doesn't have a beard, but his white mustache is so substantial that it reminds me of walrus tusks. "I get a lot of feedback about my mustache, because it's big and prominent," says Fletcher. "I have white hair and fair eyes, and when I wear black, the mustache really stands out. When I was younger, my hair was brown, and my mustache looked like Tom Selleck's." Now, besides being white, "It's fuller, and I wear it in a semi-handlebar style. Now it looks like Sam Elliott's. I started growing it in my early 20s, and it's gone from small to large as I've gotten more comfortable with it."
When he first allowed his face to sprout, he wore a full beard. "Then a goatee, and then a Fu Manchu. I didn't like the Fu Manchu; it made me look so damn sinister. I would actually frighten little kids. So I transitioned away from it. I went to a small mustache." The years passed, the mustache mushroomed. "It became like a part of me; a signature. I couldn't be myself without it.
"I think my mustache is an indication of strength," he says. "That's the feedback I get from people. And it's an excellent conversation piece. If I meet a guy in the store who has an interesting mustache, we compliment each other. 'You go before me; yours is bigger than mine...' "
However wonderful for starting conversations, it does pose some trouble for ending them, at least with the fair sex. "It's initially annoying for the opposite sex to kiss a person with a big, long 'stache," grants Fletcher. "They say, 'It tickles,' or 'Eww.' In my case, since my lip is not full on top, you have to part the mustache to find the lips. So it's kind of an adventure, particularly for women who aren't used to kissing someone with facial hair. Frankly, I have heard that some females just won't have it."
Mealtime inconveniences: "It gets in your beer. And it's very difficult to keep clean. I have to wipe it constantly. Sometimes, I have to splash water on it. The most expedient thing to do at the table is to take a drink of water. You can get some water on the longer hairs and then simply wipe it away with a napkin. But it does have a downside with respect to ice cream or pizza."
A semi-handlebar needs waxing to keep its shape. "I find mustache wax at the bigger stores, Target or Rite Aid. It's sort of hit-or-miss; there are different kinds of applicators. There's a stick, like ChapStick: you smear it in, spread it around, and form the mustache with your fingers. Or you can get it in a tube, apply it to your mustache comb, and comb it in. I twirl the ends a little bit. It's best to apply the wax after you've showered, when the hairs are a little damp. Sometimes, I find black hairs that are kinky and won't respond to coaxing. I cut them out. I've made the mistake a couple of times of letting the barber trim it. They butchered it. They don't do what you want, they do what they want. It's such a personal thing that it can set you back for months."