Blade Run

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

"That's an old wives' tale," offers Susan Mallory, professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the Washington University School of Medicine. "Nothing really opens the pores; they stay in a fixed position. But the steam and water [do] hydrate the hair and the skin on the face, which makes for a smoother shave."

The best brushes are made from badger hair. "It's a good, smooth hair," notes Marti. "It doesn't break. Other kinds of hair are coarse, but badger hair is soft. Badgers are in the water all the time anyway, so the hair can take and hold a lot of water."

When he was at the Ritz, Marti shaved TWA pilots. "They're all gone now," he says. "When TWA blew out of here, we lost a lot of them. Hardly any pilots come here anymore."

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

Jack Buck also used to frequent the place. "He'd get a haircut and a shave all the time." These days Marti figures he'll maybe do a shave a day, almost always for older men, and an average of three or four on a Saturday.

Marti moves like he's putting icing on a cake. When finished with one go-round, he repeats: cream, then towel, then shave. He finishes, like most barbers, with the chin and lower lip. He then moves his fingers across my face like a blind man reading Braille, and does a little detail work.

"See, that's the first time I've shaved you," he says, "so I don't know your growth patterns. I used to work with wood, and your hair grows in circles in some spots, like little tornadoes, and it looks like wood grain. So you have to work with the whiskers, and cut with the growth. To give the best shave, I have to get to know the face."

Who got shot?

Who got jumped?

Who got ganked?

Who got robbed?

Who went to jail?

Who got saved?

Who's gettin' money and who's broke as a joke?

Hear about your lady called me and started smokin' that dope

You get it all at this little dusty place

Let me be still, she gettin' out the razor for my face

-- D12, "Barbershop"

In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone assassinates the heads of the other Mafia families, one don is seen reclining in a shaving chair. The Untouchables opens with a bird's-eye view of Robert De Niro's Al Capone getting nicked by his barber; he dabs his finger on the cut and wipes the blood on the frightened man's smock. In the old Westerns, barbers draw their blades across the gullets of mysterious strangers.

"I get mad every time I see it in a movie, because it's not a barber, and you can tell right away," complains Ed Jeffers, who owns and operates the Barber Museum in Canal Winchester, Ohio. "If you're a barber, you can tell that individual is not shaving." Open by appointment only, the museum contains dozens of poles and chairs, early bloodletting equipment, shaving mugs and eighteenth-century razors. It also replicates a classic small-town barbershop.

See a barber in a movie these days, in fact, and he's usually some sort of variation on Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show: a kindly, humble man doing an honest day's work.

A barber is defined first as the shaver, then as the haircutter. "Barber" is Latin for "beard." The Missouri state statute governing the profession of barbering describes the trade thusly: "Any person who is engaged in the capacity so as to shave the beard or cut and dress the hair for the general public, shall be construed as practicing the occupation of 'barber.'" Call the hundreds of barbershops in the region to look for a shave, however, and you're likely to come up blank.

Last year the state licensed 93,000 cosmetologists and only 3,000 barbers. Thirty years ago, says Darla Fox, executive director of both the Missouri State Board of Barber Examiners and the Missouri State Board of Cosmetology, that number was more evenly balanced. The difference between a barber and a cosmetologist, she says, is pretty simple: In order to pass the barber exam, the applicant must master the shave; a cosmetologist isn't required to shave but must know how to manicure and color.

Missouri Senate Bill 280, passed nearly unanimously by both the branches of the legislature, awaits Governor Matt Blunt's signature. It proposes merging the two three-member boards into one eleven-member state board of cosmetology and barber examiners. It's a cost-cutting measure, explains Fox, who helped guide the bill through congress, and would not much interfere with the barbers. They'd still oversee the profession; they'd be well represented on the board.

Fox says the state is treading lightly "so that the barbers would not feel that they were being consumed by the cosmetologists and they were just taking over the profession. We tried to assure them that it's not going to happen. It's an old, old profession, one of the oldest -- other than embalmers -- in existence. It's a matter of respect."

Barbers are a proud lot, says the museum's Jeffers. "There are so darn many cosmetologists compared to barbers, and the first thing you know, you're going to lose the identity of the barbers. We're the oldest legal profession in the world -- I said legal."

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