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Through the Looking-Glass With a Safety Razor

4 minute read
Lance Morrow

In the back of old medicine cabinets, you may still see the little mail slot — blackened with rust at the edges — through which a man of another time would push a used razor blade, dropping it into a mysterious, never-seen depository, the graveyard of unkeen but still raggedly dangerous blades: a black hole.

When I was a child the blade slot fascinated me. Children have a highly developed sense of metaphysics. The slot seemed a tear in time, as if the blade that had just shaved my father, nicking his jawline, had for punishment been exiled to another dimension. That bourne from which no traveler returns. The wafer-thin blue blade was condemned to slide out of this world and to turn slowly in the black space that began on the far side of the inside of the mirror.

I saw such a slot yesterday, unused for years, I suppose. I am not nostalgic for the deadly old blades, which you screwed down into what was called a “safety razor” — an instrument that might leave the face dappled with bloodied toilet paper wads. The blades now rusting in the depository drew more blood in their time than the guillotine. For years, since the perfection of miraculous little whisker-reapers that come in cartridges, I have shaved blind, with impunity, without a mirror. I haven’t cut myself since the Carter administration.

But the sight of the blade slot made me think — if you will excuse these featherweight reflections — about the old rituals. Long ago, when men wore hats, shaving was a far more serious and ceremonial business than it is now. I keep to some of the old forms. I use a shaving brush, for example.

But shaving once had the gravitas and danger of a masculine order now vanished. You went about it with the focus of a surgeon. If you hacked away at your face when you had a hangover, you emerged from the bathroom looking as if you’d been in a knife fight. A perversely infallible rule of adolescence held that when shaving just before a date, you would open two or three unstoppable bleeding wounds.

In the presence of acne, shaving devolved to massacre. At the tough Jesuit high school I attended, a prefect of discipline, Father Donahue, confronted a Polish kid who, for three days running, refused the prefect’s order to shave the dirty shadow of down from his cheeks. Finally, Father Donahue led the kid into his office by the ear and dry-shaved him himself with a “safety razor. ” Maybe Father Donahue learned about the operation from reading about the Mohawks and Iroquois, who sent Jesuit martyrs to heaven centuries ago.

My father shaved with focused nonchalance, pausing now and then to study his work and take a drag from the unfiltered Camel parked on the edge of the sink. Now and then he brought his left hand into play, to hold his nose aside (face abruptly grotesque) while he worked the bristles on the high upper lip.

A ceremony of the patriarchy, if you like. Gillette Blue Blades sponsored other ceremonies: prizefights on black-and-white television, the boxing-ring bell orchestrated into the jingle… “To LOOK sharp DING/ ev’ry time you shave!” I cherish a hazy recollection, the haze being snow on the television set, perhaps, and the bluish cigarette smoke layered above the ring — of Sugar Ray Robinson throwing the most beautiful punch ever thrown, a straight jab, pure lightning that sent his man into another dimension, as if used boxers and used blades alike would spin in black space forever.

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