For half of the year, customers at the post office in Horse Shoe, west of Hendersonville, know their postmaster as a genial, clean-shaven person with short, salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile. But for the other six months, a change comes over Les Friedman. His cheerful nature and efficiency remain, but his jaw and cheeks become stubbly, then disappear altogether under the beard he grows each year in preparation for a series of late fall and winter competitions. “I came in second in the last competition I entered, up from fifth the previous year,” Friedman says. “I’m going for the win this year.”
Friedman has several chances to reach that goal. He started with the annual Midlands Whisker Society’s Beardos & Weirdos competition in Columbia, South Carolina, held February 27. Also on his competition calendar is the Southeastern championships in Charleston over Memorial Day weekend, sponsored by the Holy City Beard and Mustache Society — although scheduling problems will mean he’ll miss this month’s Carolina Beard & Mustache competition in Charlotte, organized by North Carolina’s official Beard & Mustache Club (“celebrating North Carolina’s facial follicles!”, its website proclaims). Along with the appreciation of male facial artistry, all such events have charitable ends — the one in Columbia, for example, raises money for a summer camp for hearing-impaired children.
“My grandfather had a beard for most of his later life, and I grew my first beard in college,” Friedman says of his whiskered history. “It was the ’70s, so I fit right in. I looked like a young Jerry Garcia back in the day.” Although some competitors grow and tend extravagantly long and groomed beards all year round, Friedman confines his beard-growing to the cold months. “The longest beard I’ve ever had is about six inches in length, because I don’t grow for more than six to seven months out of the year. I always enter a Full Beard Natural 1”-6” category,” he explains. “My beard this year should be just short of six inches by the time of the competition in Columbia.”
The Everest of beard competitions is the biannual World Mustache & Beard event held every other autumn (the next one will be in 2017). It attracts so many competitors that it’s held simultaneously in the United States and in Europe. This past year’s twin events took place in Brooklyn and in Austria, with entrants in beard categories ranging from Imperial Partial Beard, which is actually a huge mustache so wide and full that it could present difficulties negotiating a doorway, to the more self-explanatory and modest Verdi and Garibaldi beards. Some are elaborately groomed and trimmed into ringlets, or swoop up the cheeks and around the ears from a clean shaven chin, or explode outward in several directions.
Friedman’s beard, by comparison, is considerably more unassuming. “I don’t style my beard. It requires very little maintenance,” he says. “I just shampoo it and brush it out. I sometimes use a conditioner to soften it a bit, but only occasionally. It takes on a life of its own, so I just let it grow. I’ll trim around the edges just to get rid of those pesky stray hairs.” Those who sport longer, more complicated, or heavily styled beards face challenges that Friedman doesn’t have to address. “I’ve seen some people clothespin their beards to keep it out of their food,” he notes, “but I just have to watch out for the stray hair or two. When I sleep, I sometimes feel it, so I guess I have an extra pillow on my chin.”
Fortunately, the United States Postal Service looks benignly upon facial hair for its employees. Friedman has been working for the post office since 1987, starting as a mail carrier in New Jersey and in Charleston before moving up to management in 1994 and arriving as postmaster in Horse Shoe in 2005. “USPS has no regulations on facial hair, although I have to look professional, which I think I do even with a thick beard,” he says.
The majority of customers regard their postmaster’s hirsute appearance with approval, he claims — although some prefer his other, smoother look during the summer, when he shaves it all off.
“I feel it’s a pretty unique beard, now that it’s very salt-and-peppery,” he remarks. “But I don’t think I’m making any kind of a statement — except that I can grow a pretty awesome beard when I want to.”
Les Friedman vied for honors in the Midlands Whisker Society’s Beardos & Weirdos competition on February 27, as the March issue of Bold Life was going to print. For an update about how he fared, please check our Facebook page at Facebook.com/BoldMag.