THE BOY GASPED. He fell against the wall in the narrow hallway and gasped. He had seen the man all these years with the beard, but the man had gone into the bathroom one fine summer day and shaved the thing off. The boy was six and the beard was at least eight and so, when the man emerged from the bathroom all pink and splotchy in places, the boy gave look, thought it was a stranger and gasped. I had not meant to scare him.

It had been a long time, a real long time. The first beard had been grown years before, but it had come off after a short time. It was grown overseas when no one was looking and it was worn for almost a year and then it was shaved off. I came into the office feeling like a man wearing a sandwich board. I expected everyone to notice. No one did.

Now this is hard to explain, but it is fact that no matter how important the beard is to the person who has it, almost no one will notice when it is shaved off. It is a certifiable fact, for instance, that my wife did not notice when I shave off my first beard and in the office for months afterward people were approaching me, asking if I had lost weight or just had my hair cut. When told that it was none of the above, they would screw up their face into something approaching perplexion and say, "something's different."

This is part and parcel of the see-what-you-want-to syndrome of which I am as guilty as the next person. I am the crack journalist, after all, who described a man as having the mustache he had shaved off years before and who once, year before, went looking for my wife in a clothing store, thought she might be in the dressing room and described her to the sales clerk as blonde. She is not. She is merely not Jewish, which is nearly, but not quite, the same thing. (Don't write. I know I have a problem.)

Back to beards. They become , after a while, props like cigarettes are to some people, or pipes or cigars or, for that matter, the way you dress. They are what you have to say to the world about the sort of person you are. They are like your home or your hairdo, I suppose, if you are a woman. But they are something more than that, because they say something else to people. They say, more or less, that you are the enemy.

Don't ask me why. People think that if you are bearded you are a rebel of sorts, that you are a nut artist or a crazy writer or maybe a Bohemian of no particular talent. In the old days you were something called a peacenik and whatever you are and wherever you were people thought you were trying to make some sort of statement. A man once walked up to me in a restaurant and demanded to know why I was wearing a beard. The reason, in fact, is that I used to look young and I might just be the oldest person pulled over by a traffic cop on the suspicion of driving under age.

No matter. I was told by a potential employer that I could not be hired with a beard (I didn't want the job anyway) and years later I hushed up a small-town cafe merely by walking into the place. I got gassed during peace marches and was given the V sign by kids and presumed to be a lot of things I was not. I was learning something about stereotypes.

Customs agents and security guards loved me. Often, at airports, I would be asked to step aside for an extra special search, sometimes conducted in a little room with an unmarked door. Often a black person was undergoing the same routine, he and I looking at each other, both knowing why we were in the room. Always I complained and always the agents said nothing and once, I have to tell you, they broke their routine of stopping every other car at the Mexico-California border just so they could rummage through mine.I think they foud a nickel under the back seat. Only once did they admit it was the beard that marked me for special treatment. It happened at Dulles. The agent stuck his finger at my beard and said, "If I had something derogatory on my face, I would shave it off."

Over the years, though, things changed, U.S. senators started wearing beards and engineers and even, I think, one or two Republicans. I felt like wearing something in my beard saying, "Had it before it was easy," feeling, I suppose, like these Carter volunteers who were with him before he was a sure winner. And then last year, customs paid me little attention. I felt cheated somehow.

So I decided to shave off my beard. It had been a long time and I wondered what my face looked like and I was no longer, I knew, young-looking. I walked into the bathroom one summer's day and shaved, watching the thing hit the sink in large, wet globs. When I was finished there was a guy in the mirror I didn't know. He was about my age and he looked like someone I used to know, but he was not me. He looked younger but he didn't feel younger and so I decided to grow my beard back. It's hard to explain, but there was something about that guy I didn't like. He looked like he'd breeze through customs.