A few close shaves,at home and abroad

In those wonderful days of yore, Billy Coffin was our town barber, a shave cost 15 cents, and Saturday was shave day. Nobody dared come in for a haircut on a Saturday because Billy had a full day's work grooming the gentlemen of Freeport, Maine, for Sunday. If a man got a shave on any other day, he did it himself at home before a mirror with a straightedge razor, for King Gillette had not yet offered his three-piece safety model.

When I first sprouted a whisker on my chinny-chin-chin, I could buy a safety razor and five extra blades for $1, and I did. Although I've used an electric shaver now for some time, my antique Gillette stands ready if I need it.

In Billy's barbershop, a rack of shelves held the shaving mugs of the community, each a top-quality piece of china with the name or initial of its owner. Each mug had a cake of Williams shaving soap (trademark registered) and a lather brush of Chinese bristles.

Billy never lathered Homer Weston with Charley Dillingham's mug, and when he lathered anybody, it was with the strokes of a medieval master painting a chapel mural.

On weekdays, Billy cut hair for 25 cents, and for a trim and shave together he asked 35 cents. If you were having your baby hair clipped for the first time, Billy would ask if you also wanted a shave, and he gave you a lollipop, a treat he continued every time you came in until you were too heavy for him to lift into the chair.

Billy Coffin was also our town's supreme authority on the game of baseball. Without looking it up, he could tell you anything you wanted to know. And while he snipped and shaved he'd tell about some odd play that was in the record books and had been long forgotten by everybody else:

"The only triple play ever started in the National League by a left-handed pitcher came in St. Louis on Sept. 20 in 19-ought-three, and it cost the Brooklyn Bums the league pennant. Top of the ninth, with runners at the corners, Luke McGlook steps in and Lefty Whumps serves him a close-in shot, and he lobs it back to the mound. Easy play. Buster Wilkes was the losing pitcher. Game took only an hour and 50 minutes, as there came up a thundershower. Next!"

Billy did cut my hair, but he never gave me a shave. The only time I was ever shaved in a barber's chair was in Paris, and I speak about it often whether I'm invited to or not.

It was AD 1953, and I was on my way to Bonn, West Germany, on a patriotic mission so classified that I forget what it was. I had disembarked at Le Havre and come by train to Paris. There I was to entrain for Bonn. But I was told that the railroad could not accommodate me until the next Thursday, when I would have space on the Orient Express.

Horrified at the thought of being alone in Paris with nothing to do for four days, I stiffened my upper lip and resolutely decided to make do.

I checked one of my two valises at the baggage counter at the Gare de I'Est, and with my other valise arrived after a short walk at la Residence, a charming, hospitable, and somewhat pretentious pension. I also found I had checked the wrong valise: I had no toiletries, no razor.

Two streets over, however, was a barbershop. So without trepidation I had a delicious supper and then strolled to the Arch of Triumph to pay my respects to the Inconnu and gaze down upon the Elysian Fields. I strolled back to the pension and composed myself so that I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

I awoke to feel that I was bristly. After an oeuf-jambon, I walked two streets over and arrived just as the barber struck 8 o'clock. We extended the formalities, I said rasoir and pas de coupe, and he asked me where I learned my French. I get that all the time.

I learned my French at Freeport High School from Miss Margaret Ashworth, who also taught English, and then from various friends of French-Canadian background. Let me say two words in France, and somebody goes "tch-tch-tch" and asks where I learned my French. Realizing nobody in France would know about Freeport, I spare myself a complicated explanation by saying, "Mo-real!"

Then, because he had nobody waiting at that hour, the barber took his time with me. We made the occasion a lingering social event. This led to his favoring me with a generous splash of some aftershave that was distilled from the balm of a thousand flowers.

I smelled like the Spring Flower Show at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. In fact, when I boarded the train, having retrieved my other valise, a family of Arabs in the compartment opposite mine arose and moved to another car. I arrived at Bonn without incident, and an American friend of many years met me. To show off his new command of German he quoted, "Du bist wie eine Blume." Memories of my only barbershop shave were to linger.

It interested me that in spite of Hitler's effort to return the language to full and basic German, Germans still use the French word Friseur for barber. The true Germanic word is a "hair-cutter," but every barbershop has the word friseur (beard curler) and, instead of a striped barber pole, a basin such as barbers used in the days of the Caesars and which the customer held under his chin. Travel broadens one.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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