Blade Run

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

In the past century, technology has driven innovation. The straight steel razor of the 1800s required honing and stropping to keep its edge. Many barbers continue to use a slight variation on this 200-year-old tool.

In 1895 a Baltimore man named King Camp Gillette invented the first disposable safety razor, the first blow to the professional shave. In 1921 Jacob Schick created the first insert razor. (Schick also introduced the first electric shaver in 1929, but for matters of focus and taste, this story is avoiding the subject of electric razors altogether.)

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

The first disposable twin-blade arrived in 1971. Then, in 1998, Gillette revolutionized the business by investing $750 million to launch the triple-bladed Mach 3. Despite Schick's introduction of the quadruple-bladed Quattro last year, the Mach 3 remains the state of the art. The future brings lasers -- eternal removal. A man with a Fu Manchu might one day laser all but his 'stache, and never handle a razor again.

The arrival of the AIDS virus in the 1980s sent shock waves through the barbering profession. Prior to the disease, a nick was a minor happenstance brushed away with a styptic pencil. But after AIDS, blades became biohazards, and barbers began wearing rubber gloves.

"We were scared to death of AIDS," says Charles Kirkpatrick, executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards of America, the governing body of the profession. "We didn't know how to deal with it, so a lot of people just stopped. My theory was, put the damn rubber gloves on and get down to it with a hot shave."

The number of barbershops still offering a classic shave is dwindling. Today you're as likely to find the barber steam, lather and Mach 3 as the classic straight-razor treatment. The tony Missouri Athletic Club's barbershop, the downtown bellwether of men's grooming, abandoned the straight razor altogether a few years ago. The Mach 3 gives a better shave.

And rather than leave it to the pros, 21st century man hacks away at raw faces like a monkey with a steak knife. We wake up, grunt, shit, shower and shave. One hundred thousand years later, the latter task remains a royal pain in the ass.

And thou, son of man, take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber's razor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thy beard: then take thee balances to weigh, and divide the hair.

Thou shalt burn with fire a third part in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are fulfilled: and thou shalt take a third part, and smite about it with a knife: and a third part thou shalt scatter in the wind; and I will draw out a sword after them.

Thou shalt also take thereof a few in number, and bind them in thy skirts." -- Ezekiel 5:1-3.

Ray Marti used the same Henckel-brand straight razor throughout his 49-year career as a barber. "It was beautiful," he says. "It had a ruby in it and everything. It finally broke last year." So he bought a new blade, which he's getting ready to drag across my face.

Marti is the proprietor of the Alley Way Barbershop in Clayton. On this recent weekday morning, the place is in a state of disarray. Two unused chairs serve as support for a pool table-size plank of plywood. Lengths of model train track, a few sketches and some Styrofoam are scattered across the board. He's building a train for his grandkids. The basement room has seen better days. The wall-mounted hairdryer looks about twenty years old; mini-vise grips serve as its makeshift power switch.

When first asked his method of shaving, Marti is polite but terse: "Of course I use a straight razor. I'm a barber."

With his studied, measured air and well-groomed beard, the barber talks and looks a lot like James Lipton, host of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio. Marti used to cut hair at the Ritz-Carlton, but in 1996 the new Ritz owners decided to outsource, so he moved into his own shop a block away.

After priming my beard with hot towels, Marti fills a mug with hot water, which he sloshes around and dumps out. Marti's of the old school: He uses a brush and shaving soap. He soaks his brush under the faucet, pokes it into the mug and starts swishing it like a mortar and pestle. Soon a latte-like froth appears and rolls over the brim.

He firmly moves the lathered brush across my face, pressing it deep within my whiskers in a circular motion. He works the brush like Claude Monet painting water lilies. In the mustache area, he paints with a more pointillist precision, careful to avoid getting the cream on my lip. The shave will take him 45 minutes to complete.

Myriam Zaoui and Eric Malka's definitive book The Art of Shaving proclaims that the secret to a perfect shave is the brush. "It generates a rich and warm lather," the authors write. "It softens and lifts the beard off the face; it brings the right amount of warm water to the skin during the shaving process to open the pores and to lubricate the skin; and it gently exfoliates the surface of the skin to rid it of dead cells."

« Previous Page
Next Page »