BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
“Just lather, that’s all. You are an executioner and I am only a barber. Each person has his own place in the scheme of things. That’s right. His own place.” — from the short story “Just Lather, That’s All” by Hernando Téllez (1908 – 1966)
Possibly the most famous work by Hernando Téllez was his short story Espuma y nada más (“Just Lather, That’s All”), a story widely read amongst American high school Spanish students. It depicts the inner conflict of a barber who is shaving the captain of a military unit who has tracked, imprisoned, and killed some of the barber’s comrades. The barber vacillates between thoughts of slitting the captain’s throat with his razor or giving him the expert shave for which he is known. In the end, the barber decides he does not want to be stained in blood, but only in soap lather or “espuma y nada más.” As the captain leaves, he reveals that he heard the barber would kill him; his visit was to see if this was true. [Summary by Wikipedia]
I first heard about this story when I was teaching 10th grade English in Florida. I knew nothing of it except it was a film available through the A-V Department. “Anything I could use to keep them entertained,” I said to myself one day while I was shaving. The 10th graders and I were having some difficulties with literature “appreciation.” So I ordered the film. They and I were mesmerized. What a great film–and I had to find and read the story. I did–again and again.
Yet aside from the literary effects of the story or the history of my classroom use of the film, the memories that audio-visual production (real film with projector!) conjured up took me back to my beginning experiences with face hair and shaving, images of laughter and love affairs with razors and shaving; remembrances of questionable pedagogical actions. Gillette, single edge, blue blades, double edge, Mach 3 Turbo; Merkur, Wilkinson. Words, words, words. And Remington, not shotgun, but a 1959 Electric Roll-a Matic electric razor.
As men get older, they don’t shave as often. If they do, it’s out of habit, not of necessity. “Don’t hafta go ta work.” Or when they look shaggy, or out of self-esteem–or, perhaps, guilt. Or, possibly, old military-like discipline. I’m one of those who don’t shave much anymore, certainly not every day, as before. “In the day,” I used to look forward to Saturdays, for a day off–especially from shaving. Yet how excited and eager we were “once upon a time” to be able to shave like our dads, brothers, or uncles. Then.
Today, shaving and all it entails is such big-money business, in stores and in advertising. Reggie Perrin was the consummate Razor Man, from BBC-UK: from the company always trying to out-blade the multi-blade blade. Reggie was British comedy. More important, who would ever have thought of a sit-com about a razor blade engineer-salesman, and his company’s Quest for the Perfect Razor Blade. The elusive “Perfect Razor Blade”–or even The Perfect Shave, like the search for The Holy Grail or the secret of alchemy. We men (mostly) continue our Quest, as the mythics tell us “from the beginning” (ab initio) until…
Which brings me up to my story. (My “beginning” early memories of collecting “stuff” includes digging through garbage in the neighborhood alleys of Chicago to find used razor blades. Whatever possessed me to do such a thing? [I had quite a collection of Gillette Blue Blades. I related some of this story of collection/addiction previously: https://memoriesofatime.com/2013/10/25/confessions-of-an-addict-reflections-on-collecting/].)
During my puberty and adolescence, peach fuzz came, sprouted in the pores on my face where zits did not thrive. As I aged, I found razor blades not kind to my bumpy face. My Uncle Bill gave me the Remington electric in 1959 that I used through my senior year of high school, then took to college.
JIMMY O’NEIL’S FIRST RAZOR
(Any memory images of college shaving are non-existent, more than a blur.) My Electric Days have included Norelco products and mini-portables–and Braun Mobile units, battery-powered, for quick touch up works, at home or office. These have been delightful. Thomas Edison notwithstanding, I always have come back to the lather and the razor. I have been on the receiving end of the lather and the blade: in college, a classmate who did haircutting offered to give me a shave. My first and last with a straight edge, though older barbers still do neck trims with straight razors, and around the ears.
For our first Christmas after our wedding, my new bride learned–perhaps from hints I had made, or from her reading–that The Perfect Shave Tool was a Merkur (German) razor wedded to a Wilkinson Sword Blade blade (made in England). These, with a genuine badger bristle brush and a bar of Williams Shaving Soap were my gifts under the tree in 1963.
MERKUR RAZOR (by photobucket)
Brushes later, shaving mugs later, then Burma Shave canned lather, or Barbasol Thick and Rich (with aloe, of course)–to say nothing of a cup of Old Spice in a mug–have been used, tried, sampled (gels never were a success), and discarded. I am a fickle shaver with lather, even trying shaving using messy (non-foaming) greasy-like cream or Noxzema. Messy application, messy shaving, messy clean up. (But, incidentally, a clean shave. In spite of that, not worth the mess.)
In the past years, I have tried different razors and a combination of blades. No Reggie Perrin blades (six or seven?), but single, twin, triple, with Atra razors, various Gillette models, the Merkur, and the Mach3 Turbo (current). Harry’s in New York sent me a trial sample kit. Harry’s is becoming popular, with good products and mailing. But I just could not maneuver the blade under my nose…and around my nostril… So No to their beautiful razor and handle and shaving cream and Blade-of-the-Month Club. And I also do not need any Gillette Fusion!
So this story ends. Not quite. That film for the 10th graders. Whatever possessed me (another possession) to bring brush and soap and razor to class and ask for a volunteer. Was I sure of what I was doing? (Did I care?) I was certain that many of the peach-fuzzed boys had not yet shaved; many of the girls (I assumed then) had never seen any boy shave, or watched anyone shave, for real or in the movies (and certainly not as done in the Lather film). Up stands Jerry Cohee, and comes to the front of the room. “Gather round, kids,” I might have said, putting a towel around him. I had the water and the soap ready. In the cup, I “began to stir with the brush…and whipped up the soap” and just lathered. I took my razor, and off they came, the hairs on his chinny, chin, chin. Voila! Done! “Next?” No Next. Time for the bell.
That was the end. The last time I showed that film. The last time I demonstrated expert shaving in the classroom. The last time I taught 10th grade, and high school classes (moving on into a community college setting). After all, though, it was one of those memoriesofatime never to be dismissed as trivial or insignificant. So much surrounds it making it a great story. And that’s it.
Telling stories about shaving isn’t as glamorous as writing about food in the movies, diets, exercise plans, building muscles in a gym, or travels to Paris, or babies’ first walkings–perhaps. But I enjoy telling my stories about shaving. At the same time, I have been thankful, at times, that I did not have to worry about cutting or nicking an ankle or taking a chunk out of my knee or calf, or messing with a razor in a bathtub. I just need some hot water, a sink, a good razor and blade, and Just Lather, that’s all.
© James F. O’Neil 2016
SHAVING BOWL AND BRUSH