Blade Run

"It's easier to get your genitals pierced than to get a good shave in St. Louis"

In the Coen Brothers' noir thriller The Man Who Wasn't There, Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a barber who gets mixed up in blackmail and ultimately punctures his boss' jugular vein. In a quiet scene at the barbershop, a morose, furrow-browed Crane is speaking to his partner while standing above a young patron.

"This hair, you ever wonder about it?" asks Crane.

"What do you mean?"

Craig LaRotonda
Leonard Hall estimates he's taught 500 students the secrets of the straight-razor shave.
Jennifer Silverberg
Leonard Hall estimates he's taught 500 students the secrets of the straight-razor shave.

"I don't know. How it keeps on coming. It just keeps growing."

"Yeah -- lucky for us, huh, pal?"

"No, I mean, it keeps growing," urges Crane. "It's part of us, and we cut it off and throw it away."

"Come on, Eddie. You're going to scare the kid."

"There are three parts to a shave: the prep, the shave and the finish," explains Leonard Hall, working a steam towel in his hands as he lords over a reclined barber's chair. Four apprentices watch him work. "First you lather the face. Then you cover it with a towel. Then get organized with the instruments."

The preparation makes all the difference in the world, Hall says. Without it, the face is ill-equipped to handle the impending aggression. He squirts some shaving foam into his hand, glazes my three-day beard with it and gets to work.

"You want to rub deep, and rub in [a] circular motion around the face," he says while massaging his fingertips deep into my chin, cheeks and, more vigorously, neck. "The more you rub, the better. Really work in the lather, because that softens the beard."

He grabs the towel and folds it in half. "You don't want it too hot, just hot enough to steam the whiskers."

The towel falls gently over the bottom half of my face as he wraps the top two corners over the temples and across the forehead in a perfect doughnut circle. He explains to his students that the heat and steam open the pores, and the cream lubricates.

When he removes the towel,

my whiskers feel like they're damp with morning dew. "You've got a tough beard there," he says. He's right. It's a thick, 60-grit orange-and-brownish-gray cornfield.

Leonard's Barber College, which Hall opened in 1991 after an eighteen-year stint as a barber, has trained nearly 500 students. Located near the corner of Natural Bridge and Kingshighway, its red-and-white-striped awning screams barbershop. You halfway expect to be greeted by a mustachioed quartet. Thursday is senior citizen day (haircuts: five bucks), and all eight chairs are occupied. Students orbit, trimming and buzzing.

Like the six other barber colleges in Missouri, Leonard's is required by law to teach the craft of shaving with a straight razor, even if decades' worth of innovation have nearly transformed the skill into an anachronism in all but the most seasoned hands. It's a dying art, the barbershop shave. Technology and viruses have nearly rendered the professional shave an endangered species, one that has mirrored a steady decline in the overall barber population.

In Missouri, one of the main distinctions between a "barber" and a "cosmetologist" is the shave. But with the shave becoming passé, can the entire profession be far behind? Legislation sitting on Governor Matt Blunt's desk threatens to further bruise the barber's ego by merging the profession's governing board with the state's cosmetologists.

All of which raises the question: Is the barbershop shave dead?

As Tom "Papa" Ray, barbershop-shave advocate and co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, puts it: "It's easier to get your genitals pierced than to get a good shave in St. Louis. Why should women be the only ones pampered in their salons?"

Returning home from some sailors' frolic on the night, or rather in the morning of the murder, he found the beast occupying his own bed-room. Razor in hand, and fully lathered, it was sitting before a looking-glass, attempting the operation of shaving.... Terrified at the sight of so dangerous a weapon in the possession of an animal so ferocious, and so well able to use it, the man, for some moments, was at a loss what to do. -- from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe

Clam shells, flint, copper, steel, lasers: Man has been working to deny his primitivism for as long as he's had a mirror. The desire to shave, it could be argued, was one of the first (and last) traits of male self-awareness.

"I think about my beard, therefore I am."

Cave paintings from 100,000 years ago depict men tweezing whiskers from their faces. Alas, time has buried the name of the primordial metrosexual, the man who first pondered a hairy ape, then himself, and determined the beast to be grotesque. He was no goddamn ape, so he commenced to pluck.

Alexander the Great was an obsessive shaver. He conquered the world, all the while preaching the glories of a smooth face. Julius Caesar is said to have had his whiskers yanked daily. Indian men of 300 B.C. kept perfectly coifed beards, but shaved their chests and pubes. Romans of that period celebrated manhood by throwing homoerotic shaving parties on their 21st birthdays.

Until Abe Lincoln made the beard acceptable for future presidents, his predecessors were sublimely clean-shaven (though Martin Van Buren did sport impressive sideburns). Lincoln won both elections with a clean face, but a month before his second inauguration, the Great Emancipator received a letter from an eleven-year-old girl written during the 1864 campaign. She wrote: "You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you, and then you would be president."

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