You may not think this to look at it but my beard is a big hit with the ladies. At first things are about what you'd expect: I'll be talking to a girl and things will be going well but in her mind she's going, "This is a nice guy but I don't know about this beard."
It isn’t until a second meeting somewhere down the line when the girl will think to herself, "Hey, I want to get to know this beard a little better." Next they'll usually want to touch it. "Can I touch it?" they'll ask.
Then they all usually say the same thing. "It's so soft! Feels nice."
Of course it feels nice. Why would I want something that didn’t feel soft and warm on my face? I touch it all the time. It helps me think. I run my fingers through it – it's goddamn fantastic so you can imagine how I feel when a young lady dives in with both hands. Has me purring like a kitten.
My father does not like my beard. He thinks that it's going to get me into trouble. He worries about airport security. Two years ago I was on my way to school in England. I had a scholarship and I was going to become a famous writer. I was going to have a famous beard.
"... but you look like a terrorist," my dad says as I'm getting the last of my things ready the night before.
“Don't worry,” I tell him. “I'll become a famous writer and soon my beard will be famous as well.”
"Maybe if you just trim it a little ..." but I had already stopped listening.
When I arrived at Customs and Immigration I flashed the officer a great big dumb Canadian smile but she wasn't having any of it.
“Can I see your paperwork?” she said. I handed her a big stack of what I thought were the appropriate documents. Other than my passport – I apparently had nothing else that I required to gain entry into the UK. I had my acceptance letter from University, some bank statements, even a doctor’s note.
The officer gave me back my pile of useless information, took my passport and said, "Have a seat – you're not going anywhere."
Airport jail is about exactly how you would imagine it: Sad beige walls, moping characters with their own depressing tales of airport incarceration, fluorescent lights that blind your eyes and some hard benches for the hours and hours that you will be required to wait. Everyone (including myself) kept saying the same thing- that there must have been some kind of mistake. The immigration officials were wrong and they’d soon realize it.
I was fingerprinted and questioned and then the guards gave me a calling card and pointed me towards a phone. "Make some calls," they said. Do I call a lawyer? The embassy? I, of course, called my father.
Airport jail had a TV in it, but like the prisoners it was also stuck behind a box and some Plexiglas and it could only do what the guards said it was allowed to do.
A few hours later the guards gave me one of those emergency tin foil blanket things in case I wanted to sleep. Then they put on the soccer game.
The coach of the home team was a handsome Portuguese fellow with one of those three or four day growths that just showed how nonchalant and cool he could be. When this coach first arrived in England he took his prized Yorkie terrier out of its quarantine a week early and the British press acted like he had let it shit on the Queen's best Sunday hat. I thought about what would happen to me, who had tried to barge into this country with no documentation and a beard. A beard that looked like a thatched roof in Papua New Guinea or an abandoned bird’s nest. I worried about decapitation.
When the game was over the guards approached the Muslim woman in the corner and her two children who had been crying for hours. The mother because she didn’t understand why they had been detained and her children because they were hungry and tired. Deep in the bowels of Terminal 2 they informed the woman that the sun had set. It was Ramadan and she was now free to pray and break her fast. One guard handed her children cheese sandwiches. The other guard took her to one of those interrogation rooms and showed her which way was east. While she laid her forehead to the ground and whispered her prayer I kept her children company. They threw bits of cheese into my beard. It made them smile and it almost made me smile but I was too exhausted for that.
I arrived back home in Canada exactly 30 hours after I left. One full day in airport jail. As we came out to the baggage claim the woman in front of me rushed to the group that was waiting for her with flowers. Everyone was crying happy, snotty tears into the shoulders of each other’s jackets.
I searched for my dad in the crowd. My dad who I called at 3 in the morning to tell that I was not allowed in England anymore. My paperwork was all wrong. I was not going to be a famous writer with a famous beard. My father who had been up all night calling lawyers, calling Ottawa, calling everyone.
I saw my father finally and in one hand he held a razor and in the other a can of shaving cream.
“We've got to try again,” he said. “You've got to shave”.
published 4 June 2011