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?"

"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."

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.)

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."

"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."

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."

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?

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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