Seven years ago, on a Saturday morning in early October, Meredith wanted to go to a corn maze, Knut wanted to go to breakfast, and I wanted to go to Lehman’s, which I’d heard was the largest non-mechanized hardware store in the world.
So we started driving. We went to breakfast first, at a greasy spoon diner on a corner of a nameless intersection, sitting at a long table with a view of a field with an old wooden barn. We went to a corn maze, which was surprisingly creepy and strange, the dying corn plants slicing at our skin. Then we kept going, pushing further into Amish country.
At Lehman’s, we walked through the cast iron pots and pans, the heritage seed selection, the lawn mowers, and the hand-crank washing machines. I had wanted to just see how many “simple” solutions there were to the problems we face every day; I didn’t plan on spending any money. But then we rounded a corner and I was suddenly faced with the most beautiful display I’d seen the whole day.
It was the shaving section, and a few minutes later, I had delicately placed a straight razor, a brush, a strop, a cake of soap, and a whetstone in my basket. A few minutes past that, I was $143 poorer, and very excited.
I’d read about straight-razor/”wet” shaving before – inspired both by old movies and the desire to stop throwing piles of disposable plastic razors in trash heaps. It was difficult to imagine actually placing a blade against my face, though, and scraping off the hair; it just seemed like such a strange, foreign concept. But it was 2010; I watched a few videos on YouTube and then, Sunday morning, I lathered up for the first time.
That first attempt was bloody. The first few attempts were bloody. The first few months were bloody. I’d often drive to work with four or five pieces of toilet paper stuck to my face, then styptic pencil marks pink-white on my skin, and I’d go into meetings hoping that the scabs wouldn’t split apart when I was talking and start dripping blood on my shirt. If they did, I reasoned that since I was a lawyer, such a display could have been useful – Fight Club style – in certain negotiations. “Oh, that? That’s blood. I bleed. I did this to myself. Do you really think this negotiation means anything to me?” But, over time, I got better. Eventually, I only cut myself every other shave. Then, one morning, I realized that I hadn’t cut myself in a week. Then, two weeks, a month.
Despite the upfront cost, shaving with a straight-razor eventually became cheap. Before, I could conceivably spend $20 a year on disposable razors; I imagine some people might spend that much on the fancy four-blade or five-blade razors every month, with shaving cream and aftershave thrown in on top of that. I might get a cake or two of soap every year, but I had – have – no expenses beyond that. Time-wise, I take about five minutes in the morning to get my face baby’s butt smooth; it doesn’t really take that much extra time.
And the craft. There’s something satisfying to doing things the difficult way – a way that takes more attention, more time, more patience, and involves more risk. I understand the appeal of safety razors or disposable razors, but I also feel like they’re the shaving equivalent of crayon drawings done by a child; anyone can do them, really, with very little skill. To have decided to put effort into learning something, though, that takes skill and time to accomplish well, and then to practice that every single morning, leaves me with an incredible feeling of accomplishment before I even leave the house. In maintaining these tools – in cleaning the brush, in sharpening and stropping the razor, in using alcohol and lotion on my face – I feel like a craftsman, and because so few people use straight razors anymore, I feel like I’m part of a secret fraternity the world over, all of whose members must, on some level, be committed to the same things I am, and experience the same joys and frustrations that I feel every day. In fact, every morning, after I’ve splashed cold water on my face, I have a decision to make: should I clean off the brush first, or splash on aftershave? For as long as I can remember, I’ve always seen it as the same choice a painter must face when done with a painting: should they clean off the brushes, or should they take care of the canvas? And I usually make the same choice I assume they would make: I take care of the canvas, the actual work of art, and then move on to maintain the tools. The tools can be replaced; it’s the canvas that needs to be protected, needs to be preserved. That’s what I spent time actually working on.
Since that first morning, I’ve bought other razors – two from the 1890s made in Solingen and Sheffield, with bone and ivory handles, and a handful of others that I sharpened and sold to others. I’ve stood in bathrooms showing people how to lather brushes, and even gave a guy a free correspondence course in how to use stones for his own razor. I’ve bought $300 worth of sharpening stones, and ran a small company that sharpened razors for people who had razors but weren’t sure of their ability to maintain them. I bought a custom strop from an Amish leatherworker for $5; he’d made it for a customer who had paid but never collected, so my $5 was gravy to him. And every morning, I get up and use my Thiers Issard, and wonder if I’ll still be using it when I’m seventy, and whether I will be able to pass it on to one of my kids or grandkids so they can learn to bleed with the same blade, too.