When winter was packing a punch, the man would be outside Thielman’s Barber Shop sitting in a car, motor idling. On summer mornings, he’d likely be in a suit standing by the door, probably smoking a heater.
Dad arrived, either in cold darkness or dewy early dawn, unlocked the door, flicked on the lights and knew what to do on those days. He reached through a bewilderment of scissors, electric hair clippers, talc and lotions and picked up the straight-edged razor.
Sometimes the man outside was a banker, up early, breaking a routine. Or it might be a farmer, braking a mammoth truck outside the shop’s picture window, stopping on his way to unloading grain. Maybe it was a retired guy who was treating himself to another day without a boss.
This was a rural town set in the rich farmland of the Red River Valley. It was the 1960s, when a man had the option of squinting into the bathroom mirror and dragging a safety razor over his phiz. He didn’t need to be too steady. Progress had removed the trauma of shaving yourself.
But often enough someone would appear, eager to be tilted back in a barber chair, soon to find only his nose popping out from the cocoon of a steaming, white towel.
After that shave — warm lather, massage — he’d stroll away clean featured with a feeling measured in troy ounces. Maybe he’d think about the days of speakeasies, gangsters, shoesshine stands and Al Capone, who plays a role in every barber’s favorite shave story.
Capone was getting a shave in a small town, Dad said. Capone warned the barber not to nick him with the razor. The barber was unaffected. He shaved Capone, flawlessly, massaged a little witch hazel into Al’s face and popped the barber chair upright.
“What would you have done had you nicked me?” Capone asked.
The barber said, “I would have finished the job.”
Dad finally lost the fight to keep the grin off his face, which would have telegraphed his doubt of the yarn.
Dad, whose birth anniversary is this Saturday, tolerated my shenanigans the way that Boo-Boo Bear put up with Yogi. He didn’t protest when I decided we should make a film called “Razor.” Super 8. It was the ’70s.
We had a golf film in the can: “You’re Away.” It was ad-libs with one scripted line. Turned out, Dad had a rare talent for ad-libs. Not so much for scripted lines. We did about three takes on that one line before we decided it was never going to get much better.
In “Razor,” it was just Dad, explaining the dying art of sharpening the delicate blade of a barber’s classic straight edge razor. These were expensive, ivory-handled beauties. If you can find a barber shave today, I imagine those instruments are disposable. Everything reusable today gives you leprosy.
Dad showed how he sharpened the blade on the razor straps that now hang in our downstairs bathroom. He used a honing stone and displayed the complicated “back honing” task under his commentary. He tested the blade on a hair when he finished.
Then he looked at the camera with an ad-lib that seemed to defeat the point of the film but instead underscored it. “I don’t even know why I’m doing this because I don’t shave anymore. Nobody gets shaves anymore. Everybody has electric razors and safety razors. And so, that’s it.”
Someone has said the best thing about the good old days is they’re not here anymore. I largely agree but dissented the other morning.
I swiped a blue plastic disposable razor over my face in the shower while listening to the world crumble on MPR and decided the planet might be a better place if — with an artful shave in a barber chair — every guy slowed the merry-go-round once in a while.