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The Secret to the Perfect Shave

I’ve been shaving for a long time now.

Like everyone else, I started in my late teens (possibly a little later than most). Initially, my skill level, and the quality of the resulting shave, increased dramatically with each effort. After about a year, I reached a plateau, a quality of shave that I was satisfied with, (and which, I might add, no longer elicited disparaging remarks from the fairer sex) – and maintained at this level for… oh, I don’t know, about thirty years.

About five, maybe six years ago, whilst traveling in Southeast Asia, I was receiving a haircut in an open-air barber shop in a beachfront village in southern Thailand, and I decided, “Why not – let’s go for a shave, too.” That was my first experience with the blade…and I was amazed. For the next two days, I found myself unconsciously reaching up and gently caressing my cheek and chin – marveling at the heretofore unimaginable satiny-smoothness of my own flesh – reveling in the faint fragrance of just the right combination of cheap aftershave and barber’s talc.

And so began my search – no, my quest for the Holy Grail – the Perfect Shave. I started on my own, with no guidance except what was provided by Hollywood on the silver screen. I had a brief flirtation with an inherited straight razor, in what can only be described as a blood-rite (oh, THAT’S why they call them cut-throats!). I purchased a red and white plastic shaving brush, topped with (what now feels like) straw broom bristles - I invested in a round cake of Williams Shaving Soap ($0.99), and sunk my life savings in the best and latest that American Big-Business (oh, those black-hearted pirates!) could provide. And I was rewarded with a marginally better shave. I was quite proud of myself, and, in my ignorance, thought I was doing quite well.

After pondering the issue for some time, I decided that my quest should actually be on two fronts – first, to improve my personal skills, knowledge and equipment, and secondly, I needed to do the necessary field research in order to have a benchmark, so to speak, with which to judge my own progress.

As a part of the second front of my quest, every time I've traveled, I've made it a point to search out the most luxurious shave wherever I was. I have made the pilgramage to the hallowed halls of Hungerford, to be shaved with razors forged by the celebrated Mastersmiths of Sheffield. In rosewood panelled parlors, I have been seated in chairs of rich Corinthian leather while being attended to by gentlemen of lineage and breeding far exceeding my own. In the south of France, I have been groomed with a delicate blade of Damascus steel, wrought from the fiery forges of Thiers and Issard. When travelling in Asia, I have been treated to the secrets of the Orient, receiving manicures and pedicures while simultaneously being serviced by what can only be described as a Ginsu Blademaster wielding a blade of feather steel forged in the Shinto Fires of Kyoto, all the while surrounded by the cacophony sounds and exotic smells of the Far East. I have retraced the steps of countless neophytes and masters before me, trekking the cobblestoned byways of the south London neighborhoods of Curzon and St. James, gazing in awe upon walls, racks and counters lined with unguents, potions, salves and balms, all utilized in the gentlemanly pursuit of shaving perfection. I now find it impossible to pass a 5-star hotel, knowing that there is likely a small shop off the Reception, with a master barber who might, after all my searching, be able to deliver my Key to the Holy Grail…..the Secret to the Perfect Shave.

So, you can imagine my mental state when, on a business trip to a city that shall remain unnamed, I happened to speak to a local business associate, and the subject of my quest came up. He mentioned in passing, that he had received an exceptional shave from a gentleman in a small shop, and (this is what really piqued my interest) that I should ask not for a shave, but for a ‘really close shave’ – the latter being some form of code, so to speak, because the barber did not give just anybody a ‘really close shave’. He provided me with some general directions on how to find the shop, and the conversation moved on.

That evening, I drove my rented car down as close as the directions could get me, and found myself in what can only be described as the ‘seedy’ part of town. I soon spotted a tiny little hovel with a grimy, broken down red, white and blue barber pole (do you realize that the original red and white barber pole stems from the fact that barbers used to also be surgeons, and one of their most common procedures in those earlier times was the letting of blood, and every barber had a pole in front of his shop on which he would dry both his clean and his blood soaked bandages, and when the wind blew, the bandages would wrap around the poles in a spiral pattern, and you could always find the barber because of his pole with both the clean and the bloody, spiral wrapped bandages? – but I digress).

I retreated in shock, certain that this could not possibly be the abode of the Keeper of the Grail Key. But, over the next couple of days, I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind, and, sure enough, the afternoon before my scheduled departure, I found myself inexorably drawn towards the dirty little shop in the seedy part of town.

I parked my rented car behind a ’63 Plymouth with one wheel missing, stepped over a drunken wretch lying on the sidewalk, and proceeded inside. The dimly lit shop consisted of a small space with two barber chairs (one obviously broken, judging by the awkward angle of the footrest), the requisite implement-covered backbar and mirror, and, along the opposite wall, a row of 4 red and green vinyl covered chrome chairs for waiting customers, all empty.

There was a customer in the one good barber chair, being attended to by what can only be described as this little hobbit of a man, with big ears and an atrocious comb-over. I hesitantly took a seat, and immediately felt uncomfortable in these less-than-elegant surroundings. After a minute or two, just as I had decided to get up and take my leave, the little hobbit-man suddenly removed the sheet from his customer, gave it a well-practiced snap and turned to me and said ‘Next’.

I was trapped. I had to go through with it. As I slowly settled myself into the still warm seat, the previous customer paid his bill, opened the door with a jingle, and left.

We were alone, now, and the barber-hobbit turned to me and said “What’ll it be?”

I froze. I tried to speak, but nothing would come out. My hands clenched the duct-tape covered armrests. This little creature just stood there, staring at me with his beady little hobbit-eyes, and finally said “You want a haircut, or what?”

“N-n-no,”, I stammered, “I’d like a shave.”

“OK, a shave it is, then” he replied, and turned to the back bar to get his razor and brush.

“I’d like a shave”, I repeated to his back “ …a really close shave”.

He stopped.

He stood there motionless for a minute. I sat there, staring at his back, when slowly, he turned his head and looked at me. One eyebrow creeped up to where his hairline used to be, and he said “You want a really close shave?”

“Y-y-y-es” , I replied, “ …a really close shave.”

He nodded, and walked to the front door, and spun the ‘OPEN’ sign around on it’s chain. He gave the lock a twist, and snapped closed the blinds on the door. He leaned over and repeated the process to the blinds on the front window. In the now darkened shop, illuminated only by the pattern on the floor of the setting sun through closed louvers, he approached me.

The sound of the ceiling fan created a gentle 'thrum-thrum' as he reached up and lightly ran his fingers along my cheek. The electricity of the moment was palpable. In that one, brief touch, I knew that I was in the hands of a master. I suddenly was certain, I had found him – my guide to the Grail - the Yoda of all Master Barbers. He steamed a towel, reclined the chair, and wrapped my face in moist heat. I could hear the soft ‘slap-slap-slap’ as he stropped his steel, and the gentle clatter as he organized his equipment on the back bar. After a few minutes, he removed the towel and began to build his lather in a chipped, porcelain cup. Every movement was practiced, fluid, with no wasted motion. He loaded up his ancient brush and proceeded to envelope my face with a dense, steamy cloud of fragrant foam. The warm lather relaxed me into a semi-stupor.

And then he turned to the back bar, and even as I was drifting at the hazy edge of consciousness, I realized that this was it – this was my moment of enlightenment – my Grail Key. He slid open a drawer, and removed something, and gently closed the drawer. He slowly turned, extended his arm, and opened his fist…..and as soon as I glimpsed it through half-closed eyes, I knew – I suddenly knew the secret to the perfect shave – the Holy Grail – my years of searching were not in vain, for here, in the pudgy hand of a misshapen creature in the grimy backwater of this metropolitan city, Yoda had revealed the secret – for in his hand, extended to me, was a small, faded-red, foam-rubber ball.

“Put this in your mouth” the Master said, as if I needed any instruction as to it’s purpose! Fully awake after my mentor’s startling revelation, I eagerly picked up the rubber ball and popped it in my mouth, and without being instructed, pushed it over to the left side between my cheek and teeth, thereby stretching and maintaining the cheek skin to the perfect tension, and Yoda grunted and went to work. Each whisker fairly exploded off my face, and under his masterful ministrations, it was but seconds before he said “Okay, now move it over to the other side.”, and I received the same treatment on the opposite cheek. The rest of the procedure was a blur as I contemplated and processed the secret that had just been revealed to me, and I was taken a little by surprise when the BladeMaster stepped back and said “Well, whattaya think?”

I reached up with my hand, and felt what can only be described as epidermal nirvana - my trembling fingers gently caressed a cheek so smooth as to make the proverbial baby's bottom feel like a field of weeds - my fingers danced across a chin as smooth as a cue ball - and the other two chins were even better. Even the eternal bramble patch under each jowl had been dispatched and replaced with satin.

I complimented him on his performance, and, as he was quietly returning his implements to their drawers, I hastened to add "You know, the whole time you were shaving me, I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had I accidentally swallowed that rubber ball"

'No problem", replied Yoda, without even turning around, "just bring it back tomorrow....that's what everyone else does."
...all the while K-BILLY’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s weekend was heard on the radio in the background. Right?

Hola! Great 1st post!
Great story! But, I had vision of this taking a much seedier turn. Where I live the barber pole indicates there are extra services to be had beyond a shave and a haircut.
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