WHILE WALKING down the street, I no longer make eye contact with strangers. I'm afraid to speak in public, and I repress my anger rather than yelling at people. Why? Because I have a mustache. If I yell at someone, they'll just think, "Why are you yelling at me? You are a ridiculous person with a mustache." While speaking at length, I begin to feel the hairy protrusion on my upper lip, and wonder what the people I am speaking to are thinking--do I look like a cop? Like Freddie Mercury? This inability to judge the effect of my presence makes me hold my tongue.

This is all more or less what I expected when I began, on January 1, to grow my mustache. I'd entered a contest, cooked up by a few friends and me, wherein a dozen or so men would let the hair on their upper lips grow free. The contest would run for about five weeks, culminating in a mustache pageant held on February 10 at the Little Theatre on Capitol Hill, when the assembled mustache-growers would present their facial hair for inspection by a select group of judges. Prizes would be awarded in categories such as "most pubescent," "fullest," "best groomed," "most misshapen," and "most pornographic." The bearer of the mustache deemed most beautiful in its overall mustache gestalt would be given the title "Grand Champion Mustache of the World."

* * *

Mustaches don't grow on most people's lips. To be more accurate, mustaches don't grow on the lips of most straight white men in their 20s, which is what I am. Gay men in their 40s have been known to grow mustaches, as have police officers and black men of both major sexual orientations. And there was a time when many straight white men working outside the public safety professions grew mustaches. Attractive straight white men, even: William Powell! Clark Gable! Charlie Chaplin!

But I wasn't thinking of William Powell, fine though he is, when I began to exclude my upper lip from the attentions of my razor. I was thinking about doing something wrong, and doing it for the simple pleasure of doing something wrong. This is a symptom of youth, perhaps unattractive in someone approaching 30, but its pleasures are undeniable. I was doing something designed to evoke disdain from those around me, doing it even as it made me look foolish for the month it took for the patchy stubble on my lip to assemble itself into a recognizable mustache form, at which point I would most likely still look ridiculous. This is identical to the impulse behind teenage hair-dying, smoking, drinking, drug use, tattooing, and facial piercing, as well as the teenage attachment to rap and heavy metal music. The only difference is that my action was designed to repel not my parents, but my peer group, among whom the act of mustache-growing, at least when not undertaken as a component of goatee-growing, has fallen beyond disrepute into near-non-existence.

Growing a mustache has a pair of added advantages over other forms of rebellious wrongness: It has no rationale, and is admittedly indefensible--unlike, say, the tortured political arguments used by anti-war or anti-racism student protesters in the '60s, who vandalized their professors' offices and destroyed their work in the course of student occupations everywhere, from Berkeley to Montreal. It is also utterly benign, unlike Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's putting Nazi swastikas on their clothing at the beginning of 1977, when wrongness was central to punk's ethos.

At this point perhaps I should discuss the social value of wrongness, but have you waded through any of those arguments? Read a history of situationism, or Jon Savage's England's Dreaming (a history of English punk that attempts to link it to situationism) if you want a big dose of them. For me, in my defiant, mustachioed stance, explaining the importance of wrong symbolic actions defeats the purpose of the actions: This is what's right about being wrong, right? Wrong. Wrongness should be its own defense.

* * *

I glossed over the first signs that something was going wrong with my mustache (a co-worker telling me, in the middle of a longish conversation, that she couldn't stop thinking of me as a cop while I was talking; a woman in my building who claimed to be creeped out by the masculinity of the mustache-growing act). I expected people to have odd, somewhat negative reactions to my mustache, and nobody was seriously disturbed by it, so the comments ("You look like a porn star") were no more than I'd expected. Besides, I knew who I looked like. With my small, tortoise-shell glasses, and high mop of hair that I kept forgetting to get cut, I was fairly convinced I looked like a modernist, middle-European intellectual: Walter Benjamin, Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, Groucho Marx.

But then I figured out exactly who I was: American Beauty's Lester Burnham, in masculine revolt against a perceived feminized society. I'm a version of the new masculine movie icons critiqued in Steve Wiecking's recent Stranger feature ["It's a Man's Man's Man's World," January 20]. Maybe not Fight Club's Brad Pitt, but maybe Ed Norton. I never thought of myself as a men's movement type, but when I added up my mustache thoughts, masculinity was unavoidable. Who has mustaches today? As I've already pointed out, older gay men, black men, and cops. All groups for whom expressions of masculinity are uncontroversial. Not to mention '70s porn stars. Hi, Susan Faludi, I'm your man.

Making it worse, Jonathan Eig, a feature writer for The Wall Street Journal, wrote--on the basis of very thin evidence--that mustaches were in again. And The Seattle Times, always hurting for interesting Lifestyle features, reprinted the WSJ article a few days later. Mustaches were now a trend. Not only had my attempt at wrongness failed, not only was I becoming a caricature of the troubled man attempting to assert himself in a world he sees as hostile to his masculinity, but I was part of a trend. How unwrong, and thus how wrong, is that?

And yet I still can't shave. I've become attached to my mustache, to the way it makes me unrecognizable to acquaintances, to the standout oddity of it. Also, I'm afraid of hacking up my lip when I try to shave it off. So it stays, mocking my attempts to do something interesting and meaningless.

Oh, about that mustache contest? I won for best groomed, thanks to some mustache wax and a miniature comb. Not very butch of me.

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