Monday, April 6, 2009


When I was a young boy, barbers cut men's hair. A trip to the barbershop was a journey into the world of men. The shop in the basement of Zion's bank in Salt Lake City was huge: granite columns holding up the building, marble and tile floors, and a row of elegant barber chairs with woven chrome designs and foot pads. On the sides were levers; the barber pumped them to raise the chair up to the correct height for hair cutting.

Besides the fact that I have had the same haircut for the past 65 years, it was always a wonderful experience to get my hair cut. It started with the ambiance, possibly because the reading material included men's magazines; it was the only place where a young boy could glance through the likes of 'Stag', 'Argosy', and later 'Playboy'. The barber wore a wrap-around white shirt, and after seating me in the chair, wrapped a tissue around my neck, then draped a white silk cape around. He would ask how I'd like my hair cut: "Just a trim", I'd say, and he'd reply that I shouldn't get it too short in the back. Being a man's world, the barber shop was where men discussed politics and religion. The leaders of the Mormon church would get their hair cut here, so I would hear the latest theological discussions. It was also a place where horse racing was a topic of conversation, and perhaps a few bets were placed. This was a world unlike any I could find in my middle-class Salt Lake neighborhood.

I was an easy customer, a simple cut with my blond hair parted on the left, tapered above the ear and sideburns. The barber would slip a large comb attachment onto the clippers and take off the back a bit. Then he would pick up the long barber shears, hook the ring finger into the notch behind the finger hole, and take a couple of fast snips in the air to make sure they were oiled up and in working order. With a comb in one hand and the shears in the other, he would go to work lifting my hair and snipping it to the correct height.

When he was finished, he'd swing the chair facing the large wall mirror, bring out a large mirror and hold it behind my head so that I could approve his work. "Looks great!" I'd say, meaning it was now time to move on to the sacred shaving ritual that I loved best. First, he would push a button on the automatic foam machine, and hot lather would extrude from the nozzle into his hand. With a finger he would apply it to my neck and sideburns. By the time I was a teen-ager, he would ask if I'd like my chin shaved, too. How mature! A long leather strop hung from the side of the chair; the barber would take out a straight razor, flip it open, and strop it up and down on the treated canvass side, then on the slick leather to straighten out any curl on the edge, making it 'razor sharp'. With the little finger on the hook of the blade, holding the pearl handle with the fingers, the barber delicately pulled the mirror-polished blade across my neck, giving me the smoothest shave imaginable. Then, he reached into a little oven and brought out a steaming towel, laid it across my neck and wiped off all the excess. It's a lost art.

In the 60's and 70's I worked in the Tetons. Every few weeks I'd go to Van's Barber Shop in Jackson, Wyoming. I went there all the years I lived in the Tetons. First Van, then his partner, Don Bent, cut my hair. The joke was told that once a guy stuck his head in the shop and asked, "Bob Peters here?" "Nope, just cut hair!" replied Van. I got great haircuts, but no shave. The electric razor took the place of the straight edge, and I could always feel a bit of fuzz on my neck. The whole procedure was quicker and easier, but without the many amenities. It also began to cost more.

During the married years my wife cut my hair. We mostly lived far from town in bush Alaska, and she did a great job of keeping it neat, without the male rituals. But, one day in 1987, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, doing some business and was in desperate need of a haircut. I saw a barber pole next to a hole-in-the-wall shop and walked in, the only customer. I sat in the chair, and to my amazement, Don Bent was the barber. I sat there for a while, flummoxed, and made small talk, but finally said, "You probably don't remember me, but you were the last barber to cut my hair in Jackson, Wyoming, 12 years ago." "Oh, I remember you and have followed your dog racing career every year on the Yukon Quest!" he replied. Don Bent closed his barbershop in the old Sampson Hardware building near the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, January 9, 2009. I couldn't track him down, but I wish him luck.

We moved to Anchorage, and for many years I went to hair stylists, women...who are not trained in the secret and manly art of the haircut and a shave. Even an expensive cut at the stylist looked like shit, so I placed myself at the mercy of young women at the hair-styling school. The women at the academy did a tolerable job and were also required to wash the hair before cutting, so that became the new ritual. It was fun, but there was no shave, and I often looked like I'd been attacked by a sheep shearer. I could go home and trim it up myself be presentable at work.

Then a couple of weeks ago hair was growing over my ears, and I looked like a shaggy dog. As I walked out of Safeway, I saw a little styling salon, Master Cuts, next door and thought I might just save some time and get it over with. I walked in, and to my amazement, a senior citizen my age named Dennis called me back and said he'd cut my hair. I'm a chatty patron, so after telling him explicitly how I would like my hair cut, but not expecting it to actually occur, I asked him where he learned to cut hair. That opened the floodgates; he told me about the fellow he apprenticed with and who taught him the trade; how he had cut hair since the 60's, even in the military; how he came to Alaska to work in other military jobs; and that he had kept up his barber skills. He even had his own little barber tools wrapped in a beautiful leather case. As he cut my hair, I noticed that he was using the barber scissors and thinning scissors, just as I had remembered from my youth. I bemoaned the fact that one of my great memories was of the straight razor, the hot foam, and the hot towels.

Dennis calmly informed me that he rarely did that any more, but he looked furtively around for the owner, then withdrew a straight razor from his case, apologized that he didn't have hot lather, but did have a wonderful palm cream which he pasted on my neck, and began to shave. I felt the clean blade taking the hair down just like 50 years ago. After I was shaved he produced a hot towel and draped it over my neck, wiping the excess cream and hair away, leaving no little feathery cuttings to stick in the collar and tickle for the rest of the day. The memories flooded back of the great haircuts of the past. I'm his customer now!


Erica said...

I can't claim to know anything about barbers or shaving. However, my brother-in-law has had a few straight edge shaves at The Art of Shaving. He says it's a fantastic experience. There are 2 stores here in Vegas. SOOOOO, when you come here to climb this year perhaps you can try it out and see if they know what they are doing.
Hope you are doing well.

sbt said...

Neat Ralph - I've heard the straight edge shave is the best. Too bad they're so hard to find now!

Stacey said...

I must be getting old because I can really relate to all that you write about. I don't remember Zions, but I do remember Wayne's. In fact, just last night as I watched Wayne's son deliver the news of more snow on Channel 5, I remembered his father who patiently gave John his first haircut and cut Bill's and your dad's and all the Tingey men for years and years. I always liked Wayne. He didn't have much to say, but he gave a great haircut. In fact, when Stacey went to Beauty School, I told her to talk to Wayne, which she did, and Wayne informed her that Beauty School was a lot of hooey because they knew nothing about being a barber. Apparently, you agree!

David said...

Ralph, I love this. Lindsay sent me the link and told me we must be related since I'm always talking about the new barber I found who is a throwback to the past. Next time you're in town be ready for a haircut because Ray's Barber Shop will impress you. Even down to the little machine that dispenses the shaving cream and the straightedge on your neck!

Perfect Shave said...

Ralph, I must agree with you that straight razors are the best. It brings back the feeling of being pampered. The man, who gave you the wonderful shave, knows how to please his patrons. But I am sure that you could save money, especially at times like this, if you do it on your own. Check out some straight razors here