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Adam Steel scratches his furlough beard and ponders the implications of the government shutdown.

Adam Steel knew the obvious thing to do when the government shut down: stop shaving.

The 24-year-old National Institute of Health fellow lives in a Bethesda house with five other nonessential NIH employees, and two weeks into the shutdown, the house has become unhinged, with everyone switching to a nocturnal schedule. One person has become physically ill, presumably from the furlough (though not, of course, from the day-drinking).

“It’s become this purposeless spiral,” he says. “Some of my [roommates] have become totally wayward souls.”

But Steel has found purpose through his furlough beard—which he’s dubbed Furry for the Furlough—a physical manifestation of his frustration and boredom during the government shutdown. (Steel, it’s worth noting, is still getting paid: His project is funded through a grant, which is still running, but he’s not allowed to go work on it.) On day 14 of the shutdown, he took some time out of his busy schedule to help City Desk dissect the meaning of a furlough beard. (This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

City Desk: Why did you decide to grow a beard?

Adam Steel: When I got to the NIH, I was kind of intermittently shaving on and off, and one day my boss was trying to describe what a bum looked like to one of our post-docs who was foreign and he said, “A bum is a person who has a beard like Adam.”My boss is a military type, and we work with a lot of military guys, so it is important to look nice. And immediately my beard came off and it never came back on. So this is sort of my silent protest. And a little bit of laziness.

CD: Some people would argue that since you are out of work, you should have more time than ever to shave. What would you say to these critics?

Steel: I like to think of it as I have more time than ever to let it grow. And no reason not to.

CD: Will you shave your beard before or after your first day of work back?

Steel: I will probably do one day of beard or one day of mustache and then shave it off. I’m still debating beard or mustache… They’re very different approaches.

CD: Have you done any trimming yet?

Steel: No. Well, I like to think no one likes the neck beard, that’s a bad look, so I’ve been keeping the neck shaved. But the face—it’s all natural.

CD: If your furlough beard could talk, what would it say?

Steel: That’s a tough question. Well, I’m thinking of shaving it all off and sending it to my senator after the shutdown, as if to say, “Thank you for ending this.” So it will have something to say.

CD: You said you once participated in No Shave November one year. Has your activism gone beyond facial hair yet?

Steel: This is my first real go at a silent protest. I like to keep it non-violent.

CD: It’s probably easier than a hunger strike.

Steel: I don’t know if I could do a hunger strike, but beard growth—it doesn’t hurt me, it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s just there.

CD: I see you’re scratching it a lot? Is it itchy?

Steel: I was hoping the government shutdown would end after one week when it started itching, but I’m getting through that phase now and I feel like I could go on almost indefinitely.

CD: What do you think week three will look like?

Steel: If we get to a month, it will be nice and full, something I can take home to Thanksgiving. [Note: Steel says does not hope the shutdown continues.]

CD: How do you think the beard has helped you during the shutdown?

Steel: Feeling it and scratching it has become very much therapeutic. It’s kind of like the same way you would pet a dog to assuage it’s feelings; saying, “Everything’s going to be okay, buddy.”

CD: Have people been telling you it looks good?

Steel: Some people have been telling me it’s been growing in nicely, and I’ve grown a good amount of hair. But my roommate this morning asked me how long I was planning on keeping it, maybe subtly suggesting that it didn’t look so good. But she tends to date baby-faced men.

Photo by Perry Stein