A Close Shave – Russ Peters | Photos: Bryce Meyer | Feb.29.2012
The old-school barbershop presents a manly risk-reward scenario. On the one hand, you’re being pampered with soothing balms, hot towels and a vigorous facial massage. On the other, a man is holding a blade to your throat. “How about a nice close shave? Teach your whiskers to behave. Lots of lather, lots of soap. Please hold still. Don’t be a dope. Now we’re ready for the scraping, there’s no use to try escaping. Yell and scream and rant and rave; it’s no use, you need a shave.”– Bugs Bunny, Rabbit of Seville.
I’m leaning back in the chair, chin pointed at the sky.If I were at the dentist there’d be something for me to look at, maybe a TV bolted to the ceiling or at least a faded picture of a tropical fish or a 1950s illustration extolling the virtues of flossing. But here there’s nothing. Ceiling tiles, rafters, electrical conduit and lights.Of course, if I were at the dentist I’d probably be gripping the armrests and listening to the whine of a drill coming from the next chair over, waiting for the freezing to kick in. But right now I’m totally relaxed, just waiting.
I close my eyes. There’s a boxing match playing on the TV in the background, the buzz of clippers and the snick of scissors from all around me and, of course, lots of barbershop talk, half English, half Arabic.Every time the door opens a voice or two calls out, “Hello! Come in! Haircut? Just you? It’ll be a few minutes.” It’s always just a few minutes to get a haircut at this barbershop in the Avenida Mall, nestled between Macleod Trail and the community of Lake Bonavista in southeast Calgary.There is movement behind me and then the abrupt, businesslike swipe—cheek, cheek, chin—of cooling, mentholated salve. Tarek Kaddoura, my barber, firmly massages the oil into my face, from throat right up to temples. Even your mother, with a spit-dabbed Kleenex, never rubbed your face as vigorously as this. A moment of quiet and then Kaddoura piles on a steaming hot towel that smells of clean laundry. Waiting in the dark, under the weight of the towel, I consider why I’m here. ………………………
The seeds were planted early. Decades ago. Smooth chin propped in my hands, stretched out on the floor in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons. Bugs Bunny, hands down the best damn cartoon character in the history of the medium, picks up the scissors and the straight razor and goes to town on Elmer Fudd in an absurd comic-opera mash-up of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.
At the time my dad used a safety razor, the old kind with the classic double-edged razor blade that you fitted into an armature and then screwed onto a handle. This was long before the double, triple, quadruple and five-bladed absurdities of today, back when a man risked stitches and assembled his razor before he used it. Sure, you might use shaving cream from a can—even in the early ’70s mixing up your own suds in a mug with a bristle brush was probably a little on the pretentious side—but the name on that can was Mennen, emphasis on “men.”
But even that paled in comparison with the idea of the straight razor that Bugs Bunny was swinging with such wild abandon. I wanted to shave. More to the point, I wanted a shave, from a barber, with a straight razor.
I think we can all agree that there are weirder things to get focused on. Right?
Sadly, in the ’80s and ’90s, by which time I had finally grown a beard worthy of shaving, an old-school straight-razor shave was a thing of the past. The barbers I went to just didn’t do them anymore. Sure, one old-timey barber used a razor to trim up the fuzz on the back of my neck, but he just scoffed when I asked if he did shaves. “Hell no, sonny,” he said, as if I’d asked if whether he performed bloodletting, leeching or low-cost dental extractions.
Alas, it appeared that the service I was seeking had become a lost art. And while I wanted a shave, I sure wasn’t going to be that weird guy who had his own straight razor. That would be way too Freddy Krueger.
Besides, I had a tough enough time shaving with a regular razor. The risks of the straight razor were manifest and frightening, particularly to a lefty with notably poor fine motor skills.
Anton Chekov famously said you cannot introduce a gun into a story without it eventually being fired. That notion can also be applied to straight razors, perhaps even more so. A potent cultural icon of imminent throat-cutting and face-slashing, the straight razor practically vibrates with murderous intent. Just look at the movies. The second a razor comes into the scene, you start thinking, “Uh-oh. Somebody’s gonna get it.”
Think Miss Celie fixin’ to “shave” Mister in The Color Purple; the frightened barber nicking Al Capone in The Untouchables; Mr. Blonde producing a razor, turning on the radio and doing a menacing soft-shoe before attacking a hostage police officer in Reservoir Dogs. And don’t even get me started on Sweeney Todd.
Of course, Sweeney Todd was a madman. Tarek Kaddoura is just a regular 24-year-old barber who happens to be a master of the razor. I know what you’re thinking: Only 24? What does a 24-year-old know about shaving? Let him get another few years of experience under his belt. Let him learn from some octogenarian shaving guru. Let him practise on balloons covered with shaving cream. Well, here’s the thing. Kaddoura has been shaving real live customers for nearly 10 years.
I’ll just wait while you do the math…
That’s right, he’s been doing hot-towel shaves since he was 15. If you’re wondering how that’s even possible, here’s the deal: When Kaddoura was 14 his parents sent him from Calgary, where he was born and raised, for a two-year stay with his grandparents in the town of Jib Janine in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon so he could learn Arabic.
“I didn’t speak the language, so they put me in Grade 5 and I should have been in Grade 8. Then they failed me and put me in Grade 5 again,” he says with a laugh. “I can honestly say that in my life I have done Grade 5 three times.”
Kaddoura adds that there were no special programs to help an English-speaking teen learn the language, so his grandmother suggested an unusual extracurricular activity. “The quickest way to learn Arabic was to sit in the local barber shop,” Kaddoura says.
When he wasn’t in school he was at the shop, listening, sweeping up, going to get water. As it happened, it was also the quickest way to learn the fine art of barbering. “In those two years I learned how to shave, to do haircuts and to do threading.”1 Of course, it’s one thing to learn the theory of pressing a sharp blade to another man’s face, and quite another to put that theory into action. “After a year I was ready to shave, but no one would let me shave them,” he says of his time in Lebanon. His first client was a willing uncle, who, perhaps predictably, got a shave that was slightly too close. “The first time, my knees were shaking. I was very nervous,” Kaddoura says. “My first shave was bloody. I cut my uncle and there was a lot of blood. Since then I
haven’t cut anyone. A little nick here and there.”
And that’s saying something, given how many shaves Kaddoura administers nowadays. “I do at least five to 10 shaves a day,” he says. “With shows like Madmen and Entourage, people are looking for a shave. It’s getting more and more popular.” ………………………
Kaddoura sweeps the towel off my face with a practised flourish. My cheeks feel cool and soft, as though I’ve just stepped out of a steam room. He applies soap to my face and then uses a badger-hair shaving brush to work up the lather. Frankly, the shaving brush is the biggest surprise of the whole process. You might expect that it’s used like a paintbrush, to daub the lather on. Not at all. It’s more like a shammy in a supercharged car wash, swirling and squelching around your face and neck. It feels a bit like a bristly suction cup, and it goes on and on and on. “The most important part of the shave is the lather,” Kaddoura explains. “If I just slap on the lather it’s going to be painful.”
Not that any part of the process is trivial. Kaddoura follows a prescribed series of steps that starts long before he picks up the blade. “First you start with shaving oil, which you rub onto the face to open up the cuticles and follicles and get the beard to stand up. Then you follow with the hot towel and finally the shaving cream, applied to the face and then lathered up with the shaving brush for at least five minutes,” he says. “You make the face soft for the razor.” Needless to say, the time and effort involved in a hot-towel shave is not the sort of luxury service you will get for a bargain price. While the old ditty might say “Shave and a haircut, two bits,” the reality is that a shave from Kaddoura will run you $25. (Which, for me, seems like excellent value. Personally I don’t think I want a cheap shave more than I want a good shave.)
At long last he picks up the handle for his straight razor and fishes out a disposable blade, which he unwraps and carefully taps into place. While the mythos of the old, solid-bladed straight razor remains, the realities of modern health and safety dictate a fresh blade for each customer. Kaddoura steps around behind me and scoops his hand under my upturned chin. He presses the naked blade against my throat and the serious work begins.
Here’s the thing. If you’re going to get a shave, you’re going to get touched. Specifically, you’re going to have someone literally manhandling your face, so if you’ve got childhood issues left over from when your Aunt Gladys used to pinch your cheek or your grandmother used to crow about your beautiful little punim and smother your face with damp, lavender-scented smooches, maybe getting a shave isn’t the right thing for you.
“It is intimate. It’s mostly feeling,” says Kaddoura. “I have to touch your face to know whether your whiskers go this way or that way. I take the straight razor and I could literally close my eyes,” he adds. “It’s all by feel.” And work by feel he does, stretching and pulling with his left hand and then swinging into action with the razor in his right, sweeping the whiskers and lather away and wiping the blade on a towel draped over my shoulder. The blade makes exactly the metallic “skritch skritch” sound heard in every barbershop scene in the movies. But unlike in the movies, there’s no sense of impending doom, only a feeling of idyllic relaxation.
At least there is for me.
Kaddoura admits that a few customers—one would assume they are first-timers with no real sense of adventure and no appreciation for the finer things in life—get thrown by the fact that they have to give up a little control and let the barber inside their personal bubble in order for him to work his tonsorial magic. Presumably, these are also the sort of men who don’t like their peas to touch their potatoes. “If the customer is nervous then the barber will get nervous,” he warns. Obviously not a good thing when the barber in question has a blade by your gullet.
For my part, I’m happy to have a pro like Kaddoura giving me the closest shave I’ll ever get. I tell my wife the straight-razor shave is my “man spa.” I have a theory that the feeling of pure relaxation I experience goes back to a time when we were living in caves and engaging in communal grooming to cement the social bonds of our small hunter-gatherer tribes. In fact—and I regard this as 100-per-cent proof of my theory—the wallpaper in the barbershop appears to be just a subtle earth-tone pattern until you look closely and see that it is actually cave paintings. I’m not kidding.
A slightly more modern but equally evocative touch: on the wall to the left of Kaddoura’s barber chair is a black-and-white poster of Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack looking impossibly cool and well-groomed, and it’s clear to me that these fellows with their smooth good looks have just stepped away from a hot-towel shave themselves.
Now that the razor is in play we’re in the home stretch. But not so fast, oh ye of the hurried grooming! You might think that one close shave would be enough, but you should know better than that by this point. The process is much more complex than the quick series of bleary-eyed swipes that most men undertake with the safety razor in the morning. First, Kaddoura does a complete shave with the grain of the beard, then he goes back and shaves against the grain, once again using his sense of touch to seek out any errant whisker that has the nerve to rear its bristly head. Finally, the end of the shave is in sight, but there are still a couple key steps to complete.
The bookend to the hot towel at the beginning of the shave is the cool towel that comes at the end, intended to close the follicles. Then comes the coup de grace, an ample and bracing splash of the retro bay rum aftershave. “That’s when you jump up from the seat,” says Kaddoura. “It’s the most intense part of the shave.”
It’s quintessentially sophisticated and yet prosaic at the same time, like getting a good shoeshine, tying a perfectly dimpled double Windsor knot, or getting fitted for a suit. I’d go so far as to call it a rite of passage, which is why I took my eldest son for a shave on his 18th birthday.
Kaddoura tips my chair forward and swivels it so I can admire the closeness of the shave in the mirror. I lean forward and touch my face, which hasn’t been this soft and smooth since those early Saturday mornings, watching cartoons.1 Threading is a decidedly old-school method of cleaning up gnarly eyebrows. Practitioners use a twisted length of thread, which they roll over the brow to gently pluck away unwanted hairs.