Carl McManus loves that mug. I could tell from his voice, which hushed when he told me, “This one’s very precious.” The mug is the color of an ivory piano key, with a groove for a barber’s thumb where the handle meets the lip. Marked with a golden number five, its surface has cracked into spider webs like old china. It lies among tools: paper neck strips, a folded-up “hair cloth,” scissors, comb, spray bottle, several electric clippers, a pink-bristled brush for dusting off the hair, an antique shaker filled with Pinaud Clubman Talc, a straight razor with disposable blade, a bottle of witch hazel, and a lather machine that dispenses hot foam into the palm of Carl’s hand. The mug is a gift from a customer. It sits next to a couple dozen postcards, which are wedged near the clippers in the crack between the counter and the wall.
When Phil Catania opened Phil’s Hairstyles in 1929, the regulars all had shaving mugs. They hung from hooks above the counter, and number five belonged to the father of a current Yale professor. Most of the mugs are long gone, but the original barber chairs still face the cluttered counter and the mirrors on the wall. The chairs are maroon, 1920s Kokens—gleaming beauties with metal footrests, porcelain grillework leg supports, and reclining seatbacks that bring to mind a souped-up T-Bird. On Saturdays you can sometimes hear football on WELI, but mostly the radio near the door plays jazz ballads that accompany the snipping of the scissors, the purr of the clippers, and the crinkle of the folded-back New York Post. The room smells of talc, fallen hair, and the witch hazel that Carl rubs on a man’s neck after he shaves it clean.
Carl is sixty-four, with a ruddy, goateed face and gray curls that stream from his half-bald head like the hair of a warlock. He cuts them himself. An oversized polo shirt covers his elbows and the pockets of his fraying khakis, his shoes are scuffed Mephistos, and he wears a gold hoop earring. Carl has a straight mouth with turned-down corners that could be spitting in a baseball dugout, or chewing up coffee and an egg salad sandwich in a New England diner. “Yeah,” he said, “I started in sixty-four. Yep.” He lived in a room upstairs and smoked three cigars a day. Carl showed me a photo: he was clean-shaven, with a two-inch stub jutting from the corner of his lips.
Carl’s passion is sports: the horses and the Boston Red Sox. The Post is folded back to “Aqueduct, Analysis with John DaSilva,” and entries are circled in loopy scrawl. Scanlon’s Song, Jockey: J Lezcano, Last 3: 8-6-6, Trainer: Klanfer, Odds 15-1. Every day, late morning, Carl makes his bets. One dollar. Two dollars. It’s just about the enjoyment. “What a long shot that day!” he once exclaimed. “Oooh! My God!” Carl said he had seen the last two Triple Crown winners, and that he remembered the last Triple Crown in baseball too, when Carl Yastrzemski led the majors in home runs, average, and RBI. “Carl Yastrzemski! The last Triple Crown winner. Played for the Boston Red Sox. Sixty-seven, that went back some.”
The pictures on the barbershop walls—if they aren’t of hairstyles, barbers, or famous customers like George H. W. Bush—are of athletes: graying team portraits of stoic young men; cards from Cooperstown with grinning hall-of-famers; a printout of Don Zimmer and Pedro Martinez brawling on the mound during the 2004 AL Championship Series. It’s as if customers can’t help noticing, because the talk is always sports. “He still around, that closer they had two years ago?” “You must be happy with your Mets—they tied it up last night.” “No shit? Larry bet Minnesota?”
Carl said you don’t hear that in a salon. You hear about who’s cheating on whom, he told me. The soaps. That kind of crap. “You don’t hear about that in a barbershop,” said Carl. “We could care less.”
“We” means men and refers to almost everyone at Phil’s. The other barber is Rocky D’Eugenio, a small man with gentle hands who’s been working at Phil’s since 1938. He used to be the owner, and now he works part-time. When I first met Rocky, he was perched in a Koken doing a word search with raised eyebrows and scrunched forehead. Pointing to a desk at the end of the counter, he introduced Pasquale, the “new owner.” I asked how long Pasquale had owned the place. “About eight years now,” Rocky said. Pasquale De Sisto is a former Phil’s barber with a large belly, a bushy mustache, and an accent from a small village outside of Naples. He still cuts hair once in a while. (“We get jammed up,” said Carl, “he pitches in.”) The only woman is Stacey Shanks. She’s a hairdresser, not a barber, and she cuts the hair of the few women who come in, mostly on Saturdays. She does highlights, uses a blow dryer, talks nails and boyfriends and babies. Carl just rolls his eyes.
The eyes have been rolling—I imagine—since the women arrived with coeducation in 1969, but the shop still glistens with the relics of the old days. Phil himself is frozen on the wall in a black and white photograph, surrounded by unsmiling men in white barber uniforms. A foot-tall bowling trophy near the radio is smaller than I’m used to, with a matte finish. Turns out it’s made of wood; Rocky won it in 1945. The trashcan near the register is the shop’s old spittoon. And of course there is mug number five, a reminder that Phil’s is a place where men used to come to be shaved by a barber. I read recently that in some countries, barbers not only still do shaves. They also do circumcisions.
The straight razor’s use as a foreskin lopper recalls a time when barbers were called barber-surgeons. They formed a guild in France in 1094, and their clients’ bandages are memorialized on today’s barber pole (white for clean, red for bloody). But the shaving goes back even further than that; barba, after all, is Latin for “beard.” The earliest razors date to the Bronze Age (circa 3500 BC), and it is written in Ezekiel, “And thou, son of man, take thee a barber’s razor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thine beard.” Son of man. The words almost mask the customer’s vulnerability—a traditional razor is sharpened on a stone and stropped on a piece of leather to hone the blade, and if it slips your throat is cut and you’re left to bleed out like a lamb. But a good barber lets you forget all that. When you sit for a shave, he covers your face with hot towels. If it’s really old-fashioned, he whips lather in a mug and applies it with a brush. The brush, however, was before Carl’s time. “I never used a brush,” he said. “I used my hand.”
When I told my dad I was writing about a barber, he asked if the barber still did shaves. “With the hot towels,” he said. I decided to ask.
“We don’t do shaves,” said Carl. They still shave necks, and they trim around beards once in a while, but they don’t do facial shaves. At least that’s the official stance. Carl said there’s one particular gentleman who’s been coming for shaves for forty years. They give him a pass. Carl shaved his grandfather, his father. Once a week, this guy carries on the tradition. But still: “we don’t do shaves.” Carl says it’s time-consuming. You can do two haircuts in the time it takes to do a shave.
This surprised me, because the shaves didn’t always take that long. When Rocky started at Phil’s in the Thirties, they did four or five every morning. That was the high life of the shop. The Yalies came for haircuts, trims, once a week, and they also came for shaves. The students were well-dressed too; there were even more tailors than barbers in those days. One time, Phil had a contest: he wanted to break the world record for fastest shave. The event was held outside to accommodate the crowd, and it was broadcast on Yale radio. Phil didn’t break the record, but he came close. It took him a minute and a half.
By the Sixties, Phil’s did only four or five shaves per week. And now they don’t do shaves, save that one particular gentleman. Carl doesn’t like doing it—he says the man has pockmarks all over his face and bleeds like a pig. “I told him to get one of those electric jobs,” said Carl. “You know?”
On November 15, 1904, US patent number 775134 was issued to a man named King C. Gillette. The patent was for the safety razor, the precursor to the electric jobs. Gillette was a former bottle-cap salesman whose invention was an entrepreneurial buoy in a sea of utopian musings, as though Marx had paused while writing Das Kapital in order to invent the toothbrush. Gillette was a socialist too, albeit an industrial one with an ideal of a giant corporation owning the world’s collective property. All humanity would be shareholders.
Gillette’s safety razor had several advantages over the classic straight razor: it was inexpensive, was easy to use without cutting yourself, and did not need to be sharpened. To encourage sales, Gillette made the blade throwaway. In 1918, the US army purchased thirty-five million Gillette razor blades—but only 3.5 million razors—for soldiers in World War I, cementing a culture of disposability. For Gillette, barber shaves were bad business. An advertisement featuring pro baseball players proclaimed, “Your baseball star…starts the day with a clean shave – and, like all self-reliant men, he shaves himself.” Today, thanks to King C. Gillette and the forces of the industrial revolution, a man’s face isn’t shaved by the hands of a barber, but by a Gillette M3POWER razor with optional battery that sends micro-pulses to the PowerGlide blades. And it wasn’t just shaves that faded—the tailors, too, mostly disappeared. Thankfully, however, if you know where to look, you can still find a tailor, or a barber, or even a barber supply man.
Carl buys his tools from an eighty-eight-year-old barber supplier named Ralph Amendola, who comes to Phil’s once a week on Saturday mornings. Carl said that Ralph, and Ralph’s father before him, have been in the barber supply business forever, even longer than Phil’s has been around. Ralph is a little more expensive than other suppliers, but Carl’s got a deal with him. If he buys a clipper for a hundred and fifty bucks, he can pay it off at twenty dollars a week.
One Saturday, I came to Phil’s to wait for Ralph. Not everyone likes doing business with him—Stacey says he overcharges. Ralph charged her four dollars for a comb she saw in a barber catalogue for a dollar twenty.
Pasquale agreed with Stacey. Turning to Carl, Pasquale said Ralph’s already making money, and he makes a lot of money on delivery.
“I’m always a firm believer you got to throw him a bone,” said Carl. “I don’t make him rich, but you got to throw him a bone.”
Ralph didn’t show up. It was probably a fluke, but, after all, he’s eighty-eight. Pretty soon, I imagine, Carl’s combs will cost a dollar twenty.
That same day, a customer entered wearing a Minnesota Twins jacket and a baseball cap. “Here’s my man,” said Carl. Carl’s man asked when they were gonna go to Shea to see a game. Carl suggested they go on Wednesday. Wednesday it was—they hadn’t seen a game together since the playoffs last year.
The customer was Jack Fleming. He’s been coming to Phil’s since about when Carl arrived. Jack said he really likes Carl. He knows Carl’s wife, he knows his sister. He remembers when Carl lived in the room upstairs and ate sardines. Turning to Carl, Jack asked if I’d met Rick yet. Carl said that Rick hadn’t been in recently. What about Vinny? Jack said Carl should have brought Vinny so I could have met him. Carl agreed. I should have met Vinny.
When Jack left, Carl showed me a postcard he’d received that morning. It was from a customer, and he placed it on the counter near the others. Spain, Israel, Paris, Prague, Nepal, Istanbul. Carl receives so many that he used to tape them to the wall, surrounding the huge circular mirror that men look into when they get haircuts.
When a customer walks in the door at Phil’s, he usually knows exactly who he wants to cut his hair. The simplicity of the fact masks the tension that emerges should the relationship be threatened. I remember the first time I saw it. Carl was giving a haircut, and a student wearing khakis and a fleece came in and sat down in a waiting chair. Stacey was free, and she asked if he wanted a haircut.
He said, “No, I, I’d like to have him.” He stammered, as if forced to tell a girl about his crush on her since freshman year, and he glanced at Carl with open eyes and then quickly stared at the ground. He had come for Carl, he had chosen Carl, and Carl was his barber.
Carl was my barber, too.
It was a quiet Tuesday morning when I finally asked Carl to shave me. I knew what he would say.
“We don’t do shaves,” he said.
“Eh, all right,” said Carl. “No one’s here anyway.”
I sat down in the antique Koken, which reclined as Carl pulled the handle. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and placed my arms on the armrests, which were flattened and smoothed from use. I heard the hiss of a faucet, and a few seconds later Carl placed a hot towel on my face.
The world disappeared. Breathing through my nose, I opened my eyes and stared at the translucent green of the towel. It was as if I was looking at sunlight filtering through my eyelids. Then I felt hands—hands smoothing the towel into the hollows of my face, where it sat until it was tepid. Carl replaced it with a fresh one, but I felt only a lull, as though I had woken from a nap and rolled over for two more minutes. When the towel came off, my eyes were closed, and Tuesday morning felt like Sunday afternoon.
I heard the whir of the hot lather machine, and then I felt Carl applying lather with his hands: first on my chin, then my cheeks, my throat, my upper lip, the spots below my ears and along my jawbone. A moment later, the razor was on my throat, moving with short strokes. I just sank deeper into the chair. Carl placed the gentle weight of his hand on the side of my face and whispered for me to tilt my head up so he could shave under my chin. I was glad to listen to his voice and to the whir of the lather machine. Carl applied a cream that tingled and smelled like barbershop. I opened my eyes and saw him standing over me, and I closed them without saying anything. Sometime later I heard the hiss of the sink, and I knew what was about to happen. Carl covered me with a hot towel. He removed it, and I sat up.
I looked in the mirror and saw a clean face. Then I looked back at Carl. He was squirting witch hazel into the cup of his palm. The liquid cooled my cheeks as he rubbed it on, and he blotted my face with a paper towel. He stepped back from the chair, and I turned my head so I could see my barber. He was standing beside me with the towel in his hand.