Blade Run

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

Such a merger has happened in several states, adds Charles Kirkpatrick of the National Association of Barber Boards. He seems resigned to the barbers' fate, but that doesn't mean that he's willing to lie down.

"Our creator determined the difference between barbers and cosmetologists. They've come a long way with sexual functioning and embryos and all that, but it's still true that any four-year-old can tell you the difference between Santa and Mrs. Santa. Santa Claus has the beard."

Kirkpatrick believes the shave is ripe for a comeback. "Ten years ago pedicures [were] nothing, and now look at it. We've got to hold on to the shave. It could help us regain ground we've lost. It's a real industry that slipped out because of modern technology. The shave distinguishes us from other trades." The solution, he suggests, may be an improved procedure. Perhaps a triple-bladed straight razor?

Ray Marti of the Alley Way Barbershop with his badger-hair brush: "Badgers are in the water all the time, so their hair can hold a lot of water."
Jennifer Silverberg
Ray Marti of the Alley Way Barbershop with his badger-hair brush: "Badgers are in the water all the time, so their hair can hold a lot of water."
Craig LaRotonda

The barber turned me in the chair to face the mirror. He put a hand to either side of my head. He positioned me a last time, then he brought his head down next to mine.

We looked into the mirror together, his hands still framing my head.

I was looking at myself, and he was looking at me too. But if the barber saw something, he didn't offer comment. -- from "The Calm" by Raymond Carver

A straight razor is a scythe to the Mach 3's lawn mower. One uses aim and patience; the other requires nothing but good eyesight. But regardless of the tool, the procedure is an exercise in futility. Time will render moot the best shave in the world. The hair keeps growing. And then we cut it off and throw it away.

Plus, it's a leap of faith to walk into a new barbershop and request a shave. That blade's damned sharp, and a spasm, a slip or a Sweeney Todd is all that separates a close shave from bloody, gushing drama.

Because of this, Leonard Hall tells his students: "Don't talk to a barber while he's shaving someone. Don't hand him anything. Don't sweep around him. Give him space. You don't want him to lose his footing, because he's holding a blade."

If the customer starts to fall asleep, Leonard suggests draping a cold towel over his face to wake him. "When they nod off, they'll jerk awake and get cut."

The tin ceiling at Wyoming Barber Shop on South Grand Boulevard is painted white, which I know because I'm staring up at it, reclined once again. Dale Crawford looks to be in his late 30s and says that he still does a lot of shaving here. This bodes well.

A veteran barber, Crawford uses shaving foam along with the standard hot towel and massage prep. Breaking from tradition, he first goes over the face with a Bic to clear the way for the straight razor. This is worrisome. In the wrong hands, a Bic is a recipe for razor burn. He moves quickly and without concern.

After another dose of steam and foam, he lets loose with the straight razor, and it's a white-knuckle ride. Crawford seems to be trying to set a world speed record, moving in quick strokes without any regard for whisker angle or razor burn. He's like a maintenance man with a weed-whacker.

When he's done, my face burns. Then it's on to the finish, the third leg of the shaving stool: a slap of aftershave on fresh skin. Crawford pours a dollop of Iceland Breeze in his hand and announces, "This is going to sting a little."

He may as well have poured gasoline on raw flesh. It hits like flaming wasabi as the alcohol-based fluid eats into my pores.

"There you go," he says.

Curiously, he hasn't spun me around to face the mirror.

There are a couple little nicks, he says, but it'll be OK. "There's a little blood in every shave," claims Crawford. I nod. The next customer looks startled as he glances at my blood-streaked neck. Eleven bucks for this!

At the Missouri Athletic Club the next week, the wounds have healed and the hair is back. The barber preps with the towel, the cream and the massage before pulling out a Mach 3, which glides across the terrain like a figure skater. And when she's finished, the face is as soft as it's ever been.

But eight hours later, the hair has re-sprouted, and the sheen has been replaced with the grit of stubborn whiskers, which, to harness the words of Walt Whitman, urge "slowly, surely forward, forming endless, and waiting ever more, forever more behind." (He was talking about flower buds.)

"Your hair keeps growing, for a while anyway, after you die," says Ed Crane in voiceover in The Man Who Wasn't There, as he and the car he's driving rumble over a cliff. "Then it stops. I thought, 'What keeps it growing? Is it like a plant in soil? What goes out of the soil? The soul? And when does the hair realize that it's gone?'"

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