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?"
He slid his drink over to me and looked expectant.
"Not beer," I said. "Beards."
He laughed and offered me a cigarette. "Well, I just shaved mine," he said. He ran his hand over his face.
I pointed over to my companion, who was sitting a few feet away and making a facial expression that implied he was contemplating his level of ruggedness. "My buddy has recently taken up beard-growing."
"Wow, yeah, no, mine wasn't that thick. I only had Ashton Kutcher-style stubble. But I like beards. My lover has one."
He looked around, as if trying to get a glimpse of his boyfriend, who was presumably somewhere in the bar. I told him to summon me when he found his bearded beau, and approached a pair of thin, respectably-shaven gentleman at the far left of the bar.
Beards and bears: Keith and Michael were both slight, well-dressed, and had nary a trace of whisker. Keith had large, dark eyes and ears that stuck out adorably. Michael was light-complexioned and had a smoother jaw line than most babies I've seen.
"In honor of Christmas, and more specifically, Santa Claus, I have a question to ask you," I said. Then, after an ample pause: "Are beards hot?"
"Aesthetically, beards are appealing on certain people," Michael said. "But I'd never be with someone with a beard. Too scratchy."
"What about you?" I turned to Keith.
He considered briefly. "I like them. Beard-burns the next morning can be hot."
"I can't lie, I'm kind of jealous I can't grow one," I said.
"Oh, with the right pills you could," Michael said.
"Yeah, but I don't think I'd ever achieve the Santa Claus beard — the ultimate beard," I said. "How long do you think it would take to grow one like that?"
Keith and Michael looked at each other.
"Maybe five years," Michael shrugged.
"But you know, in the gay community, the guys who have beards are called 'bears,'" he gestured to his left, at a crowd of older, slightly larger, certainly fuzzier-faced men. "Like those guys."
And speaking of bears, I looked up and noticed that Sam's lover had rejoined his boyish companion, so I made a quick dash over to them.
"Don't grow a beard!" Michael called after me.
Sam's boyfriend had a light brown beard, a slightly receding hairline, and a bigger frame than, say, Keith or Michael. But as I got closer, I realized he had the most manicured facial hair I had ever seen — very different from my friend's beard, which grows like rampant wild fire across his face.
"You have a nice beard," I said politely. "Why do you grow it?"
"I have scars on my face," Sam's boyfriend, also named Michael, said simply.
"I guess if women can hide behind makeup, it's fair for men to hide behind hair," I said.
"I love his beard," Sam said, staring at it. And that's it: The world is divided into two groups of people: those who love facial hair and those who don't. I know which group Sam, I, and Mrs. Claus are in.
That night, I felt full of quiet Christmas spirit — and holiday-themed beer — but I realized that I had made a bigger breakthrough than when I discovered it was actually my parents filling up my stocking on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus is a bear!