Register Tuesday | December 11 | 2018

Decline of the Western Barber

Dapper Dan, flat-tops, buzz-cuts and, of course, the porn

Tony tips me back in the barber's seat. He walks over to the sink and soaks a towel under hot water. He wrings it out and wraps it, steaming, around my face. I sit in this face-mummified form for about a minute. Next, he removes the towel and massages hot froth into my stubble. He then begins shaving me. I can tell by

the way he holds his hands, by the way he plants his elbows on the air and by the angles from which he approaches my face that his are practiced methods. My philtrum he comes at with two hands: one pushes up on my nose with a
finger to stretch out the skin of the upper lip, and the other turns the razor so that the curved end of the blade can more
delicately reach the narrow line to be shaved. He then scrapes with a backward conductor-type motion of the
hand, away from the nose. He attacks the curve of my chin
in a similar manner.

I've come to Tony's on St. Viateur for a hot-lather shave with an open razor. Tony has been highly recommended. One of the best of a disappearing breed in Montreal, his shop is as authentic-and old-as they come: two leather chairs facing a long mirror, a white sink and shelves crammed with palely luminescent hair tonics, powders, clippers and pair after pair of scissors.

As Tony begins to touch the razor to my jaw, it occurs to me that barbers are mad creatures. They are, after all, the same men who used to slice your arm open and medicinally sluice you unconscious (some believe George Washington bled
to death in this way). Barbers would wrench out your teeth with a pair of pliers. And if they had to hacksaw free a limb, they would give you a swig of tonic and place a stick in your mouth for when the pain hit. After that, they'd hang the
blood-soaked bandages on a pole in front of their shops to dry.

Well, maybe "mad" is too sensational. One needs to be sensitive to the historical roots of barbers' one-time professional association with surgeons. In Britain, for instance, these two groups merged in 1540, an official union commemoratively committed to canvas by the painter Hans Holbein. Henry VIII and the Barber-Surgeons depicts a group of very serious folk in important-looking black and scarlet gowns and a rather fat, bearded, biker-type fellow in the middle holding a sword in his right hand and a document in his left. As the Sergeant Surgeon in the painting accepted the document, I wonder if he was not just a tad afraid to suggest that His Royal Highness was acting perhaps too arbitrarily in bringing together men of such disparate dispositions, who shared only one commonality: the use of blades.

The surgeons, you see, never wanted the fellowship of barbers. They capitulated to the idea of a union around 1493, because they were too few to effectively form their own company. And they hoped that by keeping the enemy close, they could better exercise some form of damage control. At first, the benefits outweighed the compromise, but after a few hundred years, as the barbers continued to hack people up, the surgeons earned a bad reputation through association. In 1745, despite the protests of the barbers, an important clarifying distinction was made-by a parliamentary committee, no less-between barbers and surgeons.

While one is unlikely to look for a surgeon at the barber's nowadays, the most distinguishing feature of today's barbershop, the red and white pole, was originally a surgical symbol. In fact, surgeons were legally required to post such a pole in front of their shop, and barbers were prohibited from displaying it. So while the surgeons came away with their prestige intact, the barbers were left with the heritage and the symbols. To this day, the Worshipful Company of Barbers in England maintains the historical holdings and valuable antiquities of the former Barber-Surgeons Company. And its members still don the black and scarlet fur robes of yesteryear for ceremonial events.

Tony adjusts the angle of my other cheek and scrapes. Hirsuteness is the principal embarrassment here, and that's why I'm getting a shave. The word "barber" comes from the Latin barba, meaning "beard." In other words, a barber was the beard guy. Alexander the Great instituted requisite shaving for his soldiers so that the enemy couldn't grab their beards during battle. The shaved face soon became the shaved head of its day: a sign you were tough, no-nonsense, quick to action.

Romans started shaving in 296 bc, when Ticinius Maenas brought the art over from Sicily. Julius Caesar set a smooth-faced trend as well, but later on Hadrian wore a beard to cover his pizza face, and Roman citizens followed suit. Regardless of trends, however, beards have always divided the young from the aged. Theseus, Heracles (as a youth), Mars and Apollo-heroes and hero-type gods-are often represented as smooth-faced, while patriarchal figures such as Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Odysseus and Agamemnon are all bearded. The same distinction holds true in the Semitic world as well: in Hebrew, the word for "old" and the word for "beard" are practically the same.

Another hot-towel wrap. Another application of hot shaving cream. A second scraping, now against the grain. He doesn't quite get the direction of the grain on every part of my face, but I realize that with time he would probably get to know my features very well.

It's unlikely that we'll ever get to that stage. Tony charges $15, which is steep when you consider that using my Mach3 ultra-smooth disposable safety blades and some Edge gel costs pennies, takes about a quarter of the time, leads to smoother results and hardly ever produces the ghastly razor burn I will feel when Tony is done with his double scrape-over. A shave at the barber's has become redundant.

Part of the blame, as with almost everything in this world, must fall on the French. In the eighteenth century, a man named Jean-Jacques Perret invented the first safety razor-a device that allows only the very edge of the blade to make contact with the face. He described his breakthrough in his 1769 manual, La Pogonotomie, ou L'art d'apprendre à se raser soi-même (Pogonotomy, Or the art of learning how to shave oneself). The American innovator King Camp Gillette refined the safety blade into the first disposable blade at the beginning of the twentieth century, and by the end of World War I, Gillette's disposables were standard issue in US army field kits. The straight-razor shave, administered by an expert, took a long walk down a short plank.

Barbers have been around for a very long time, though-they even appear in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs-so it may be overly hasty to assume they are now dying out, if only because they have always adamantly stood for the eloquent simplicity of their craft. I remember, when younger, asking my barber for a specific, new cut. He nodded and proceeded to do the same job he'd done countless times before: an evenly graded short crop, meant to help combat hat hair, with a dab of hair wax. Over the last century, the closest barbers ever came to entering the fashion scene was in the 1950s, when the flat-top and the buzz cut were made possible by what had become a common item in the barber's arsenal of blades-the electric clipper (a device patented in 1921 by Leo Wahl).

The poet Ovid would have liked electric clippers. Men, he suggests in his Art of Love, should keep their grooming to a respectable minimum: their hair and their beards should be well trimmed, and they should remove visible nose-hairs. Waved hair and skin powder Ovid finds vulgar; a basic sense of tidiness, well-tailored clothes and sweet breath are where it's at. All other vanities, he says, should be left to women, priests and perverts.

For me, the quintessential image of an old-time barbershop patron is Paul Newman in The Sting. First, Robert Redford uses a cold shower to sober him up, then later they visit the tailor and the barber, where Newman gets a shave, cut and manicure. He emerges, of course, the epitome of manliness and mojo swagger, his hat tilted just so, a toothpick in his mouth.

You can find Newman predecessors here in Canada. In fact, according to the eighteenth-century traveller Pehr Kalm, all the "French of Canada, men of quality as well as others," were clean-shaven. Portraits from the period confirm this observation. Due to the rarity of razors among the general population in the New World, however, those desiring a shave had no choice but to visit the local barber. Well, almost no choice: they could also rent razors. Men would rent seven razors at a time and place them in individual slots inside a special case marked with the days of the week. Jean-Pierre Hardy of the Canadian Museum of Civilization writes at Civilization.ca, "The coureurs des bois, the voyageurs, and others who lived on the frontier didn't need to shave as often, and could quite easily use any well-sharpened blade."

Yup, these were men when men were men, and the difference between one knife and another was a matter of semantics. As I lie here-turning the other cheek for Tony-I believe I've accessed some of the feelings that figure into the old-time barbershop experience: trust, doubt and the sense that the worst that can happen is a cut across the face.

Waiting in a barbershop is a uniquely exquisite pleasure, unlike the doctor's office or the dentist. You thumb through a magazine, maybe glance at your fellow longhairs, stare at the 1970s headshots taped a little crookedly to the wall and just soak up the eternal male character of the place. Some barbers are talkers, some are silent as the dead (more common in North America, where the language barrier often plays a determining role), but regardless the barbershop is usually a moment of quiet and reflection.

Of course, the porn helped. These days you can no longer find a barbershop with the stuff, but when I was a kid and went to my regular, Salon Gilbert in NDG, there were always Playboys or Penthouses you could pick up while waiting. I recall my father thumbing through these with his usual flare for spectacle, exaggerating his reactions, making a scene just to watch me cringe in my seat. I remember too that the shop was frequented by a randy retarded man, who would spend hours literally drooling over the girlie magazines until the barber felt it was time to kick the poor guy out.

With my mind turning over notions of fraternity, masculine fellowship and tribal security, it occurs to me-near-horizontal and helpless, and therefore full of courage, or stupidity, or at least something akin to faith-that this is a rite of passage. I am comforted by the knowledge that I am participating in a practice that can perhaps be traced back to when the first clamshell or flint razor cut a beard. Yet I may be among the last to undergo this de-whiskering practice.

I look up at Tony's face. He must be over seventy. As the demand for their services declines, barbers are being phased out of our daily culture, their numbers rapidly diminishing. Even some of the old-timers look at you funny when you ask if they do shaves. Some, like the barber on Parc Avenue just south of St. Joseph, claim that they've never given any. Other places calling themselves barbershops are unisex and seem to display a barber's pole only to indicate that their prices are not outrageous. There are no figures regarding the number of barbers (as opposed to hairstylists) practicing in Montreal, in part because there is no Barbers' and Hairstylists' Association in Quebec. Unlike barbers in Nova Scotia, say, Quebec barbers are not monitored by a regulating body. This isn't to say that there are no qualifications: licensed schools do grant certificates. One can also work as an apprentice, but again there is no officially recognized and regulated program. Instead, years of understudy simply qualify as years of experience, leading up through the grades of licensing (issued by the schools). A barber, like a mechanic, may have one of three classes of licence: A, B or C. It strikes me that I never asked to see Tony's certificate of qualification.

As the shave comes to a close, Tony slaps my face with a tonic. And man, does it burn! I've never quite gotten over the facial flambé sensation. Next he dabs on the waxy blood stauncher. I breathe. What's in those coloured tonics, anyway?

Many barbers doubled as bootleggers during Prohibition, because they could legally obtain large quantities of ethyl or grain alcohol. So they had all kinds of good-smelling tonics, some 180 proof. I am reminded of the Mafia connection-like in The Untouchables, when De Niro as Al Capone gets nicked by his barber.

Tony pulls the apron off my body, straightens the back of the barber's seat and smiles at me. "You look like you thought something was going to happen," he chuckles. I smile back at him. "No. Of course not." But a part of me is still waiting for a man in a pinstripe suit to walk in with a Gatling gun and shoot my guts all over the mirrors.