Of all the trappings of Old World Society that I regret have vanished, such as the Friendly Helpful Gas Station attendant and the Drugstore Soda Fountain, the one that I find myself yearning for most often is the Barber's straight razor shave. I was fortunate enough to grow up in upper Manhattan, New York City; for there on Broadway was an establishment named the Broadway Barber Shop. It was owned and operated by a Mr. Kay Demetriou, who had been a barber there for, (adopts Obi-wan voice) oh, a long time...a long time. He was an always-cheerful man, who had ten-year-old ragged Playboys mixed with Archie comics on the table near the waiting chairs. Although there were six barber chairs in the shop (remnants of glory days past) he only used one, or occasionally two.

Although Mr. Kay gave fairly utilitarian haircuts, he was the master of the straight razor shave. Now, this is a phenomenon that many flatly do not understand. Why let another human scrape your throat with a wickedly sharp piece of metal? It flies against all survival instincts. Humans will instinctively protect their most vulnerable parts when endangered; the instinct to hunch one's head down against the torso is specifically evolved to protect the throat. However, as civilized men, we have learned to submit, for the results are wonderful.

Probably the best part is that you don't even need to be cleanshaven - a neck shave is just as wonderful and effective! I presently have a beard, but would love to find someone in Boston who can give a good straight razor shave. In any case, I digress. The wonders begin when Mr. Kay briskly dusts off the chair and ushers you into it with effusive Greek welcome. As you sit, he lowers the back of the seat so that you are almost entirely supine. When you are comfortable (he'll check!) he goes to the autoclave and removes a moist towel. This towel he unfolds, waves three times precisely to cool it, and then lays it over your face and neck.

Ahhhhhhh. He'll always ask if it's too hot. The answer is always "Oh, no." It's a wonderful sensation, really, as your pores open up and your face fur starts to soften; good for the sinuses, too! Although it's always just on the edge of hurting, it always swiftly fades to simply steaming hot, just at the edge of your face's tolerance.

The Machine is one I wish I had at home. It's made of that wonderful retro chrome like every other implement in the shop. It has a small spigot and a button; when the button is pressed, freshly-whipped hot shaving cream is dispensed. Aaah. Mr. Kay will carefully lather your neck (and if necessary, chin), massaging the shaving cream into your skin with expert strong fingers. After he's done, he will wipe his hands and ask if you're ready. When he gets an affirmative reply, he will take out the razor and sharpen it (usually unnecessarily!) on the stone. When he's satisfied, he'll strop it with leather ten or twelve times just to be sure. Then he'll seat himself just behind you, and place one finger on your chin to ensure your head is tilted back.

Then the shave. It's a fascinating sensation; the razor is usually body temperature, so there's no cold shock; he keeps it slightly cool to avoid razorburn. As the razor slides over your skin, you can feel a sharpness, like you'd just run your fingers across the edge of a sharp pocketknife; but that's it. Sometimes you can hear, more than feel, the hair being cut in a crackle as the razor slides across your skin.

Mr. Kay will take his time. He'll work carefully, yet quickly enough that the shaving cream doesn't have time to cool uncomfortably. If that means relathering, so be it. Eventually, he will have completed his task, and your skin - new to the outside air, usually - will quiver slightly, almost in anticipation. When he has finished, he'll moisten his towel and wipe your face clean quickly, with the finicky care and feather touch that never failed to send a shiver down my spine. Then he'll get up, and come back to your chair; standing behind you again, he'll clasp your cheeks in his hands, and the Bay Rum that he's gone back to get will sink quickly into your pores. There will be a brief, five-second wash of stinging as your new flesh absorbs the antiseptic cologne. Then he'll massage the scent into your skin, working all the places he shaved, in order to ensure no irritation or infection occur (not like it would, with his tools and shop spotless). Finally, he'll slowly raise the chair, and you'll run your hands over your neck and/or chin - and even if, like me, you have an ingrown beard with bumps and irritations, it will be as smooth as a sleeping baby's ass, and you'll have to stop yourself from stroking it as you grin widely, and pay Mr. Kay before striding out the door into the suddenly-brighter world.


Note: Mr. Kay is a real person. He passed away in 1998, after closing his shop (which was on 103rd and Broadway) for good in 1996, at the age of 75. His shop, however, is still here; it's installed in the New York Historical Society as a landmark, just as he left it. In his time, Mr. Kay shaved the Marx brothers (they grew up in the neighborhood), Humphrey Bogart (ditto) and Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was president of Columbia University up the street from 1948 to 1953. I miss Mr. Kay; I know, however, he passed away peacefully content, after serving New Yorkers as his friends for more than fifty years. Such a life I can only hope to come close to equaling. God Bless, Mr. Kay.

A discussion in the chatterbox reminded me that yes, indeed, I do have a few straight razors in a box along with countless jars of tried-and-discarded brilliantines and pomades. I also have my grandfather's razors, totally unfit for use, along with a sharpening stone with a concave curve in the middle, meaning it's useless too. But I keep them for sentimental reasons alongside the ones I use. I still use one that had some staining on it which an ex-girlfriend decided to surprise me with by "cleaning" in immersion in cola, because it works to remove rust so it works to remove staining on carbon steel, right? Sadly, wrong. But the blade with a darkened patch where she held it under the surface of the Coca-Cola remains, all part of my personal history.

There's also something to be said for being shaved with one or shaving with one, and if you want to do it at home, here's how you go about it.

Why would anyone want to straight razor shave, in a world with five-blade disposables you can use dry in a car on the way to work? Because men have so few rituals, for starters. Slowing down a few moments first thing in the morning can be quite Zen. The other thing to keep in mind is that the three-blade variety, which "lifts" the hair and then cuts it so it falls below the skin - was developed to prevent the infamous "five o'clock shadow". It also did an excellent job of ensuring that men with wavy or curly hair, especially men of color, would get razor bumps, ingrown hairs, and all manner of nightmares. 

First off, a discussion about shaving: it's something done the world over. Different barbers have different variants on a theme all over the world, but there are some hard and fast rules you undertake no matter what you do. It involves taking a sharpened piece of metal to your face which has been lubricated, prepared, and had its hairs moved out of position so that they can be scythed off. The blade geometry is very specific on a razor, and it has to be honed to a mirror finish. For this reason although it looks cool to see someone shaving with a Bowie knife on TV, that doesn't really work in the real world.

Because of this most barbers use a shavette instead of a straight razor. It looks similar to a straight razor, but is actually a handle holding a single sided disposable razor blade. With a disposable blade per customer, not only are any concerns about infection and cross contamination eliminated, but the blade in use is guaranteed to be completely fit for use with every customer. If you want to be a true traditionalist and use your own razor, you'll need at least three, and rotate through them, because you're going to need some time (48h) to get the blade rested before you can strop it again.

Here's what else you will need. A strop, one side leather, one side linen. Strop dressing. A shaving mug, shaving soap, an aftershave, an aftershave moisturizer, a good badger's hair shaving brush, a styptic pencil, a couple of washcloths, a small towel, and what is known as pre-shave oil.

When you get your razor in the mail, and here's hoping you spent a sufficient amount to get carbon steel or at least Solingen steel - it should be roughly shave ready. It's a good idea to give it a stropping in order to get it totally ready to go, and then you can use it. You can also get a non-folding blade called a kamisori which looks like a toothbrush with a large scalpel blade on the end. It's the Japanese version of a straight razor, but I'm not qualified to talk about how to hold or handle one.

Wet your face to start off with, using a spray bottle or preferably by stepping out of a hot shower and NOT drying your lower face and neck. Apply shave oil, a little goes a long way. Wash the oil off your hands.

Take a washcloth that you have been soaking in very hot water, and apply it to your upper lip, chin, cheeks, and neck. Allow the heat to penetrate your skin. 

While this is going on, take your shave soap. They come in different forms, some are, like Hawleywood's, a pearly barely-liquid soap you put into your shave mug. Suavecito's offering is a tub full of a fluffy creamlike substance you apply to your brush. Many other brands come as a cake of soap you simply drop into the bottom of your shave mug, but regardless the idea is you want to create a soap lather. Aerosol shaving creams and lather machines - or even worse, shaving gels, slick the hair down towards the face, which defeats the purpose of the razor blade. There's an array of awesome scents available here, though - from sandalwood to bay rum to vanilla, clove and other spices, tobacco or even the ultra-manly barbershop aroma of Clubman lemon/lime. Regardless of what you have at the bottom of your shaving mug, apply a small amount of hot water and start furiously whipping your brush in it, whisking up a thick lather.

Take the washcloth off your face, leaving behind a warm, shiny, oily skin. Start brushing the lather into your cheeks, chin, and neck. It's not "painted" on like brushing a coat of latex semi-gloss on a wall - though lubricating, the primary purpose of the shaving soap is to bunch up around the hair and stand it up. So you "scrub" it into your face once it's there, gently exfoliating and really working the soap into the hair, which because warmed, should be open and standing on end. To get at the moustache area, pinch the end of the brush giving it a much smaller and tighter footprint - this will also squeeze all the soap into the end and let you get in to the tighter spot under the nose.

Leave the lather there for a while to soften the beard hair. This is why you have to practice a bit - too much water and the lather is "runny" and breaks down quickly. You want it in place, doing its job.

Grab your razor, open the scales back, and expose the cutting surface. If it's a shavette, install the razor blade. If you look at a straight razor, you'll see that there's a small tang of metal on the back side sticking out of the scales on that back side. It's curved just so so that when you open the razor enough to make an upside down "V" you can grip the blade shaft with thumb and first two fingers, with the ring or pinky finger on/in the tang. Since a picture is worth more than a thousand words or some facial cuts, please look here.

Jokes about bloodbaths, attacks by Wolverine or Jack the Ripper aside, so long as you remember three principles, you will not cut yourself. DO NOT SHAVE WITH AN UNSHARPENED OR POORLY SHARPENED RAZOR TO ELIMINATE THIS RISK. A poorly sharpened blade will irritate your skin no end and "yank" the hairs rather than cutting them. It's a nuisance and not worth it. 

Principle one is that the skin area to be shaved must be stretched taut. This can be achieved mainly by the thumb and forefinger of the non-shaving hand, pressing into the skin and stretching outwards. Given that one small area is shaved at a time, this is pretty reasonable. When shaving over the jaw, the skin can be pulled taut simply by pressing the fingers into skin above the jaw and pulling the skin up and over the jaw until it is taut. When shaving under the lip, pressing gently with the tongue into the indentation of the chin where the lip ends and the chin proper begins will stretch that skin sufficiently. 

Principle two is with a sharp, clean blade there will be little drag and therefore no problem. Given the skin is lubricated with oil and soap, the razor should glide effortlessly, with the mirror polish shine of the razor's edge doing all the work. Small, quick gliding movements.

Principle three is that you can only cut with any kind of blade by slicing with it. If you're old enough to be shaving, you're certainly old enough to understand how to actively slice into steak with a knife. Move your hand ALWAYS at right angles to the blade surface. NEVER in ANY WAY move it parallel to the blade, even downwards and diagonally but with a slight parallel motion. Don't mush the blade into the face, either. Bring it into the face at a 45 degree angle or so and "scrape" at the hair with it. The singing tones of the hairs exploding apart under the blade's pressure tell you it's working. Unless you press the blade INTO the skin at a 90 degree angle, or slide the blade back and forth, you will NOT cut the skin.

Cutting the skin, for the record, is completely painless. The way you'll know you've done it is a sudden flowering of red where your blade used to be, and a red line where your blade was when you screwed up. It's unsightly, but it will heal without scarring, and not hurt. Should this happen, when you're done apply styptic. Which WILL hurt.

Start at the cheek, and shave the cheek, then the neck and jaw. Before you start shaving look to see which direction the hair grows in - you will be following the direction of hair growth, or "grain". In most men the hair grows downwards on the cheeks, and sometimes upwards or sideways in the neck. Pay careful attention before covering it up with soap. Some say shaving "against the grain" gives a closer shave, but what they're asking for is severe irritation and razor bumps. If you really do wish to shave closer, shave again, preparing the skin again from square one, and shave "across the grain" - at a ninety degree angle to the direction of hair growth.

If you're shaving someone else, do the moustache area at this time on the side of the face you have turned upwards.

Now repeat on the other side. Gentle strokes, rinsing off the blade in cold water occasionally. 

Once you have the cheeks and jawline done, it's time for the moustache area and especially the area under the nose. Work carefully here, and learn the specialized technique where you hold the blade at 90 degrees to the skin (but only barely touching it) and "scoop" outwards, cutting the hair without slicing. With some practice you'll find it as easier as any other stroke.

Wipe off the face and have a look for any stray hairs you may have missed. Reapply soap and touch up where necessary.

Once you''re done, get another washcloth and wash the face off with COLD water, which causes the pores to close.

Then you take your post-shave shaving ritual. Pour some after-shave into your hands. Commercial ones are full of alcohols and menthol, so avoid them. A good Bay Rum isn't an everyday thing, but it'll do well for the occasional treat. Work it all over your hands, and then apply everywhere you've shaved. It should be bracing, and any small stinging will tell you where your blade sliced. If need be, apply a bit of styptic pencil.

What you've done with shaving of any type is technically not only removed your hair, but also the very topmost layer of skin. It's why there's "razor burn", redness, and if left unchecked, irritation. This is when you take your post-shave balm or moisturizer and apply it to your face, working it in and giving your face and neck a massage. One of the best I've found is a Wal-Mart brand called Queen Helene Cocoa Butter lotion, in the "cheap moisturizer so you don't get ashy" aisle - it's like $3 for a gallon squirt bottle and lasts forever.

Before you leave, rinse out your brush, rinse out your bowl, and carefully dry your razor. If it's a shavette, dispose of the blade safely and clean off the handle and holder. Don't keep any straight razor in the bathroom, where steam from showers and such can corrode or stain the metal over time. Take it and put it somewhere safe where cats can't walk it or bat it around, leaving it open to air dry. Remember to strop it in a day or so before using it again.

But do take a moment to look at your freshly shaved, freshly moisturized, aromatic lower face and chin. Because what you did and how you did it is the best thing you can do for your lower face, appreciate it how the ladies will.

Then grab your pomade or brilliantine, and make your hair look awesome and well groomed before taking on the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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