Close Shave



Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens, Uncategorized

Close Shave
Photo by Natalia Grigorovskaya

On a steamy afternoon last July, I paid a barber to shave my face. I had no real reason to indulge in this service. I had no company party to attend, no weekend away with the missus scheduled. I didn’t even have firm dinner plans for the night. Like eating and ironing, shaving is one of the few things I can accomplish proficiently all by myself. Paying for the service is a little like hiring someone to replace the toilet paper in my bathroom or squeeze out the last of the toothpaste. Call it an indulgence, a little luxury to break the heat.

Doling out coin for a shave belongs on a continuum of male grooming practices, a bit closer to showering than sugar body scrubs. Several other rituals exist on this continuum, though none that evoke the nostalgia of a shave. Take the following as examples.

The airport shoeshine: flashy and entitled.

A manicure: preening, privileged, a bit effete.

Tanning: self-absorbed, déclassé.

The body wax: unconfident, self-loathing, and painful.

Getting a shave, conversely, holds the possibility of something alluring. In the barber’s chair, reclining, his face foamed with cream, the bewhiskered man looks important. His is a simpler time, a slower and more familiar decade. The man who pays for a shave tips his hat at passing ladies, wears a shirt and tie for air-travel, and says, “you’re welcome,” after thank-you’s.

Unfortunately, the image of the barber-shop shave didn’t square with what I experienced last summer. Angel’s Barber Shop, close enough to my apartment to hear Angel strum his guitar when the windows are open and business is slow, is nestled in the armpit of where Court Street hits Hamilton Ave. The place was empty when I went, the Dominican and Puerto Rican Red Hook locals who frequent the place absent that afternoon. Angel sat in one of the swivel chairs when I entered. He began laughing as I approached his chair. In three years of walking by, I had never seen a white man inside of Angel’s shop. Scissors in hand, Angel looked like Geronimo laying eyes on Paleface for the first time. No stranger to nervousness, I thought to find my horse and flee for the hills.

Instead, I told Angel what I wanted: a shave. His laughing continued as he gestured to the chair and I sat. It was only then that I noticed a telenovela played from the tiny screen in the room’s corner. Dressed in what looked like nurses’ uniforms, two women played tennis while a bemused pool boy looked on. My broken Spanish picked up only a few words from the show: “pelota,” “muchacho,” and “biblioteca,” not enough to follow the show’s narrative.

Whatever it was, Angel kept laughing. He laughed as he spun the chair, kicked the foot pedals, and knocked back the seat. He laughed as he laid on my face steaming towels, hotter than clothes just out of hell’s dryer, and lathered me with foam. And he laughed as he ran a razor blade along a whetstone, which, in hindsight, was less to sharpen its edge than to intimidate.

With the straightedge clenched in his right hand, Angel tugged on my face with his left, pulling the skin taut to draw out the tiny hairs. Lying back, I stared at the high ceiling of his shop. It was constructed out of square tiles, fluorescent in color, each bearing a whimsical pattern of screw-size holes that reminded me of a Lite-Brite. The holes were fanciful and exact, delicately spaced to resemble cartoon-like insects—a fuzzy caterpillar, a butterfly, a spider, a long-legged centipede—and no two were alike. The ceiling looked like it belonged in a preschool—a preschool, that is, designed by a ‘60’s hippie under the influence of some really good shit. Why would a shop owner choose this ceiling, I wondered? Did all hair-cutting proprietors decorate their ceilings? Did they cater to the prone, the lying-down? Had I never before noticed the ceiling in a barbershop, never bothered to look up?

Marveling at the menagerie on the ceiling, I felt a little like a tourist of the Sistine Chapel, except instead of visiting the pope, I had a date with Angel. Unfortunately, my barber’s touch with the blade was far from cherubic. Despite the rub on the whetstone, the razor felt dull; it didn’t shave so much as scrape, and my cheeks seemed to tear with his efforts to get at the stubble. My face isn’t what the moisturizers refer to as “sensitive skin” either. As a college freshman, I used the bathroom’s hand soap to wash my face. What Angel was doing now was a different story. He hadn’t yet touched my neck and I still thought one of my human rights had been violated.

Easy conversation with Angel wasn’t available as a distraction. Talking, at least to me, wasn’t one of his gifts. He had no interest in chit-chat as he worked, what with the nurses playing tennis and all. Finally, when Angel had finished razing my face and propped up my seat, he spoke for the first time.

“Aftershave?” Angel asked.

I studied my raw mug in the mirror, little razor nicks like pockmarks near the sideburns and my chin. “Sure,” I replied, hoping a good smell might compensate for a scraped grill.

“Ehsting a little, OK?” Angel said.

“What’s that?”

“Ehsting,” Angel repeated, pouring out a clear liquid into a washcloth he had rinsed in hot water. I wasn’t too sure what he meant, so I chuckled and ignored him.

I could smell the musky man scent of the aftershave, and Angel pressed the washcloth to my face. For a second, my whole being was absorbed in the pleasure of a warm cloth and a good smell—a bit like the full-body sensation of lying poolside on sun-baked concrete, nose full of coconut sunscreen and chlorine. Angel pressed the cloth into my skin, and its heat grew in intensity. As the aftershave found the razor wounds, tiny volcanoes of pain erupted on my face. All the insects from Angel’s ceiling, one thousand fiery pincers, bit my flesh in unison. I did my best not to faint. The aftershave’s ehsting stung.

Whiskers have come and gone since Angel sanded last July’s away and I’m still not certain how to explain what it is I paid him ($5, plus tip) to do. I can’t seem to find the right words. In an email to Dad, I tried writing in the passive voice, “I was shaved,” but it made me sound like the victim of a crime—the hit of a connected bookie, maybe. The passive voice also didn’t specify what part of me was shaved. Was it my face or my whole hide? When I write, “a barber shaved my face,” the result’s only slightly better. I still sound vaguely victimized. “Thank God he only got my face,” I feel like saying. “It could have been terrible.”

And maybe it was. But now as I walk by Angel’s shop, tipping my hat to female passersby, I know to slow my pace, to eh-stoop down a little so I can see his ceiling through the window. I know to look up.

Nicholas Soodik is a high school English teacher in Brooklyn.

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§ One Response to “Close Shave”

  • Jessica Faller says:

    Brilliant and whatever adjective is synonymous with hilarious, yet not so overused. I enjoyed this immensely and am still ehsmiling over it as I type this comment.

§ Leave a Reply

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