At the tender age of 18 I grew my first beard. There was no hidden agenda or sinister motive behind it — I just thought having a beard was cool. Plus, I thought it made me look like a dapper and worldly sophisticate, blissfully unaware it only made me look like a little kid with a beard. But while I was delighted with my beard, there were others who hated beards, and I first experienced that hatred in the uniformed service.
Lest you jump to a false conclusion, the uniformed service I’m talking about was not any branch of the military. Instead, it was the New York City Department of Parks.
That summer my uncle, who worked for the Department of Parks, got me a job at Orchard Beach, the Bronx’s only beach. I was, in the parlance of the trade, a crap picker — a term more realistic than metaphoric. Crap pickers were armed with a bag and a stabber — the bag, a 50 gallon canvas monstrosity; the stabber, a 4 foot dowel with a nail sticking out its end. We combed the beach and picnic areas, stabbing and bagging all manner of detritus, from empty soda cans to full diapers.
In case you haven’t gathered, it was hardly a glamor job. But because it was in the NYC civil service budget, the pay was lordly. Aside from that, I liked it well enough, since we had a fair lot of freedom, I was outside all day, and I made some friends on the crew.
When I said it was a uniformed service, I wasn’t kidding. We all had to wear official Department of Parks work shirts. They had the DoP emblem on the sleeve and in the Bronx could be bought in only one small store on Fordham Road. The store sold NYC uniforms of various departments — Parks, Sanitation and Transit — and I’ve no doubt the store’s owner got his gig through nepotism, as all the civil servants did.
Our uniforms were forest green, which readily identified us as the hierarchy’s bottom feeders. Permanent maintenance peeps had grey uniforms, and the officer workers, the department’s “officer corps” wore tan.
I use the term “office workers” loosely, since I never saw any of them actually work. Instead, they mucked about in the office, gabbed, swilled coffee, read the scratch sheets and the Daily News or the Post (never the Times or the Trib), and in the course of an eight-hour day may have signed an official form or two. Given their elevated status, our only contact with them came on Friday, when we picked up our paychecks. And it was on one of those Fridays that my beard came to the attention of the office Major Domo, a power-tripping putz named Monahan.
He was a master of self-delusion. While in reality a minor level functionary, he saw himself as The Command Sergeant Major or some-such. He rocked Douglas MacArthur drag — starched uniforms with razor sharp creases, a boot camp hair cut, spit shined shoes, all of it topped off with aviator frame mirror shades, which he wore even indoors.
Since I never wanted to catch the attention of any of the higher-ups, I did my best to be invisible. For one thing, since the order of the day was mediocrity, I made sure never to be either an atrocious or excellent worker … for another, I tried to appear blandly moronic. But I couldn’t carry it off: While I could act like a dumb-ass, I couldn’t be one. Unfortunately for me, no one else there had to act. Beyond that, I always read a book during our lunch break, so I stuck out like combat boots on a ballerina. And so did my beard.
Actually, everything went well for the first seven weeks, till suddenly Monahan decided to assert the power of his office. In reality, he had no power, and was just a PFC in an army of flunkies. He was also a petty tyrant and bully, like so many others who thrive in that environment. Nonetheless, he saw himself as Sergeant Major Dagineau — imperious, impervious, and splendidly cruel.
Anyhow, when I picked up my paycheck at the end of my eighth week, Monahan cornered me.
“That beard,” he said. “It’s gotta come off.”
“Oh?” I said. “Why?”
“Cuz I said so,” he said. “That’s why.”
“Will do,” I said. “If you say so.”
Of course, I didn’t mean a word of it, and hoped that distracted by all the vital goings-on at work, he’d forget me and my flourishing follicles. Beyond that, I knew he didn’t have either the power or the right to tell anyone to shave: I’d already read about a bus driver who sued the city to keep his beard, and won. But I also knew, being low Dope on the totem pole, I had no rights at all.
When I picked up my paycheck the next week, he gave me the same ultimatum and said it was the last time he’d warn me. Again, I blew him off, but realized I’d have to do something, because either I or my beard was not going to last the remaining three weeks of the season.
That night I went to the neighborhood deli, sat down at a table, my Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic in hand, and took stock.
As I said, the money was great — especially for a low pressure job that required no skill and didn’t strain either brain or bod. On the other hand, I’d already banked enough moolah to finance my next adventure — hitch-hiking my way around the country. If I stayed, I’d have more money … and more tsouris as well. Then again, if Monahan could get me canned, my mulling over the issue was moot. And, ultimately, everything was moot, since I had no intention of shaving anyway.
I figured out my game plan before my last sip of Dr. Brown’s.
The next Friday, when I went in to pick up my paycheck, there was Monahan, as expected.
“So,” he said, “you ain’t shaved.”
“Sure looks it,” I said, running my hand down the side of my face.
“OK, Maynard G. Krebs,” he said, “guess what?”
“What?” I said.
“You can forget about coming in on Monday,”
“Oh,” I said, breezily, “I already did.”
“What?” he said, clearly taken aback.
“I’m not coming in Monday, or any other day,” I said, “cuz I’m quitting.”
“Quitting?” he said. “You can’t quit.”
“I can’t?” I said. “Since when did the Parks Department bring back indentured servitude?”
“Don’t give me that denture crap,” he said. “The season ain’t done till after Labor Day, so you still got two weeks to go.”
“The season may not be done till after Labor Day, but I’m done with the season.” I said. “Starting right now.”
He said nothing. Clearly, he’d never had anyone quit on him and had no idea how to process it.
“So if you’ll give me the ‘See ya later’ form,” I said, “both me and my beard will be on our way.”
He got the form from a file cabinet and handed it to me.
“Listen up,” he said. “You quit now and you’ll never work for Parks Department again. I’ll see to that personally.”
“Since you put it that way,” I said, “Give me a minute to think about it.”
“And not a second more,” he said, making a show of looking at his watch.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw my twin reflections in his mirror shades, frown on my face, hand stroking my chin, as if in deep contemplation. I looked like caricature of a Talmudic scholar lost in thought. Which then made me think of Rabbi Hillel, the greatest Talmudic scholar. And when I thought of him, I wondered, What would Hillel do?
“Time’s up,” said Monahan, snapping me out of my posing and musing. “Whattaya gotta say for yourself?”
“Just this,” I said, signing the paper and then looking skyward. “Thank you, Jesus!”
Then, check in hand, I walked out the office, and Orchard Beach … never to return.
And yeah, I know that Hillel, a rabbi, never would’ve said, “Thank you, Jesus.”
But I also know that Hillel, a scholar, never would’ve worked for those schmucks in the first place.