Celebrate the Bear

On a quest for the hairiest one

I love Santa Claus. I wish it was because I'm fascinated by the way his modern-day story evokes folkloric traditions, possible real people, and pre-Christian mythology. Or because he's got a toy shop, magic reindeer, a flying sled, and it's cool to lie to little kids about his existence. But no: I love Santa because of his big, white, soft, glorious beard. It's the kind of beard you could lose an elf in. If any time of year is appropriate for the celebration of hairy faces, it's definitely Christmas. (Who needs Jesus when you have a big ol' beard?)

Upon hearing that Bill's Filling Station's halls were decked to the nines, nestled deep in the heart of the ever-merry Wilton Manors, I went there on the lookout for beautiful beards, particularly those of Santa Claus-proportion, and ended up settling in for some long winter's drinking.

Ambiance: Bill's consists of a piano-lounge bar and a pool/media room. My companion and I decided to take up a spot in the larger pool room area. It was low-lit, with deep-red carpets and stripped-down steel walls. But aside from that, I had to immediately repress the urge to bust out in a cacophonous falsetto rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High." Nearly a half-dozen Christmas trees, all decorated with red and yellow lights (and dainty matching ornaments), sat positioned in random spots across the room. Elaborate garlands, decorated with Rudolph-red lights and tiny, glimmering beads, had been stretched over both bar areas.

After a few minutes of marinating in holiday merriment, I glanced around. Under the blanket of yuletide décor, I could make out the bar's year-round auto theme. Street signs and pictures of cars decorate the walls, and the low, warehouse-like ceiling makes you feel like you've just wandered into a garage (aside from the surreptitious disco ball, which seems ready to descend at any moment). Tires sit methodically stacked around a stairs-shaped mirror that faces the stage and projector screen at the head of the room.

Since there were no empty spots at the bar, we stopped at a small, high table near three dart boards and a "tow away zone" sign. Suddenly, I found myself unable to concentrate on anything except the sexy flashing video mix tape playing from the TVs. It was Justin Timberlake doing "My Love" followed closely by an old clip of "In Living Color," featuring a cross-dressed Jamie Foxx.

Drinks:  Even with the very businesslike intent of discussing in an intelligent way the holidays, facial hair, and booze, I knew no one would take me seriously unless I had a drink in my hand. My companion, who has recently let his beard grow into a tawny, jaw-encompassing thicket, cashed in two of his free-drink coins to procure some booze. The big, handle-bar mustachioed bartender slid him the drinks, and all aglow with Christmas spirit, he marched back with two Sierra Nevada 2008 Celebration Ales, their packaging depicting a snowy, wholesome holiday landscape.

Customers: After a few sips of Sierra Nevada — which tasted like someone had roasted an entire wholesome holiday family, sprinkled in a few seasonal spices, and mixed in about five percent alcohol — I decided to talk to the clientele (which, at the moment, was exclusively male).

I marched over to a guy at the bar, whose voice seemed to carry to all corners of the room. Sam wore a visor and a T-shirt with a picture of an impressive boat on the back.

"What brings you here tonight?" I asked.

"Well, usually Mondays we play Wii bowling, but tonight there's a staff Christmas party, so they're closing early," Sam said.

This was news to me, although the extensive holiday décor should have been a tip-off.

"I come up here when I can, but I'm a captain and I'm out on the sea a good part of the time," he said. "I'm from a boating family. This" — he turned around and pointed at the sleek, long boat on the back of his shirt — "is my family's boat."

I was impressed. "So, besides boating and drinking at Bill's, what do you do?"

"I'm involved with a company that's trying to find the AIDS vaccine," he offered after a moment of hesitation. "It's called GeoVax."

Whoa. I'd come to talk about Santa Claus, and this guy was getting all topic-intensive, weighing me down with real-life issues and what-not. I'd been trying to float around on the froth of my holiday buzz, but Sam wasn't having any of it.

"How far is the company in the process?"

"It's coming along — our vaccine is in Phase II now," he said. "We've run some experiments, some with monkeys, some with humans, and had positive results."

"Wow," I said. "You're serious about this."

He handed me a business card with the name of the company on it.

"Yeah, I'm not the kind of the guy who likes to sit around in an office."

"I'm technically doing my job right now," I said. "I don't know how much farther from an office job you can get. But let's talk about something lighter than, say, AIDS. How do you feel about beards?"

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