"That's OK," replies Ra$pa. "With all this testosterone and facial hair, it's important to get in touch with my feminine side."
"Nice legs," shouts a man in a John Deere baseball cap.
"Thank you," calls Ra$pa.
And so it goes, all the way back to the Carson City capitol building, where Ra$pa takes third place for "longest beard" in the Nevada State Beard competition. He ties the ribbon to his fishnets, poses for photographs, exchanges business cards, and hustles me off to the community center where the international competition is to be held.
"I just want to see it before I have to leave," explains Ra$pa in a sinking voice as a fellow U.S. competitor approaches to say how glad he is Ra$pa is on their team. By the time we reach the community center, the word has spread that Ra$pa will not be participating in the international competition. No fewer than four people stop me between our table and the bathroom, to beg me to beg him to stay.
"But I have to go, don't I," says Ra$pa in a voice lacking all conviction. "First prize was just being here." We run to his shuttle, a car kindly driven by my childhood friend who now lives in Reno, so he doesn't change his mind.
"I could've been a contender," he says, pulling his silver-white cape into the car seat. As they pull out of the parking lot, he offers a wan smile and an elegant wave.
In the community center, the oompah band kicks up, the drunken beards embrace, and Ra$pa's dear friends from Beard-O lead the crowd in the universally beloved "chicken dance."
At the airport, in sequins, fishnets, and a majorette hat, Ra$pa tells the security guards, the ticket takers, the stewardesses, and his fellow passengers that he could have been a contender. They all agree. Someone asks him to do a magic trick for the children, and he happily complies, making up routines during the short flight home. Karl-Heinz Hille, 83-year-old Alf Jarrald of Manchester, England, and Dave Traver, take best of show and prepare to fly to Los Angeles to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ra$pa arrives at the Mystery Ball as Zee Baron von Daisy. And everybody wins. Most of all me.