Close shaves?

Updated: Mar 29

My barber is a crazy Puerto Rican crackhead named Nicholas who was almost a Pelham Parkway abortion.

Dramatic and true, but irrelevant, unfortunately, to this story. He chain smokes three packs of Marlboro Reds a day–I asked him once if he was married and he said he had six children with eight different women, and then laughed from the back of his bottomless jeans like an anorexic hyena. Or maybe is was from the bottom of his backless dungarees like an underfed weasel.

Similes aside, I was in there the other day, and did I mention it takes an hour and forty-five minutes for a haircut, because he wants to do the best he can–so I leave there happy. He did the whole mop-top job with gleaming stainless steel German electric hair clippers. Except, he finished up with a straight razor, another glinty-chromed teutonic cutter–hot shave cream around my ears and the back of my neck. But then he lathered up my widow’s peak and shaved that. He did my eyebrows without me even asking. He then hot-toweled my face and started shaving my three-day stubble.

With the razor in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stropping the blade on an old leather belt, ashing all over my apron, he told me a story about getting chased by the fuzz in the Lechmere parking lot in Dedham and hiding under an OBS Ford pickup truck with his buddy Fizzer, a red-headed kid originally from Laconia Avenue and 233rd Street, with a stolen cassette recorder and tapes. He actually got down on the floor of the shop, and smoked his cigarette flat on his stomach while we both waited for the cops to not find him so he and Fizzer could go back to Dorchester and listen to Digital Underground.

As he was shaving my neck it dawned on me that in some stuffed and rusted file cabinet in his pickled head was the hard-wired instructions on how to give a haircut and shave and he had muscle-memorized it word for word–and like Warren Zevon’s werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s, my hair was perfect. He was incapable of anything else, no matter how strung out or high he was–the barber DNA always won the war. Or was he a local Sweeney Todd, undisguised? And come to think of it, there is a bakery next door named, of all things, The Mad Hatter. No joke.

I thought about this a lot over the next couple of days, and came up with a new law, and since I’m writing a series about them now, focusing on a handful of “razor” specials, I thought I’d share my latest stab with you. I think I’ll call it Nick’s Razor–eponymous, and clever–bringing to mind sharp wordplay and lizard-brains. So here it is:

Nick’s Razor: Muscle-memory never forgets.

It all started for me years ago when I stumbled upon Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony, or the law of parsimony (lex parsimoniae)–a problem-solving principle that states “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” or more simply, and a bit erroneously as “the simplest explanation is usually the best one.” It’s attributed to William of Ockham (1287-1347), a Franciscan friar, philosopher and polymath, although he never actually said it.

In science, Occam’s Razor is used to develop theoretical models even though it’s not considered an irrefutable principle, because simplicity is preferable to complexity and is more testable since it’s based on the falsibility criterion. And, because observable data can easily contradict theorems. For example: all swans are white is refuted by the presence of a black swan. It’s also used in biology and in religion to argue for the existence of God, which if the simplest answer is the best, cannot exist since he would complicate everything. We’ve all heard Occam’s Razor slightly rephrased as KISS–keep it simple, stupid.

The neon sign outside the slightly-slopey establishment said: Rhythm Beauty Saloon, but I think it was a typo, an unintentional Japanification of “Salon”, comically trafficing in the unironic. The owner, head head-cutter as it were, was named Deloris, which she pronounced Deworis, invited us in. She parted the noren and asked us to take our shoes off, which we did. Little did I know that it was the first of eventually all of my clothing I would remove that afternoon, but we are too soon old, and too late smart, aren’t we grasshopper?

Anyhow, I wanted the “Caucasian”–I’m not kidding, and my buddy William asked for the same. He was the financial reporter and editorial page ombudsman for The Japan Times, and I was the sports editor. We got to know each other because we were two of only a handful of white guys at the paper, and I immediately liked him when we bumped into each other in the hallway close to midnight (we put our a midnight edition every night) and he said, dryly: “I’ve missed my train.” Meaning his train home that night, and implying in life too. So, so clever. He would write these editorials that referenced William Golding, or his night out drinking with Ray Manzarek, who would tell endless Doors and Jim Morrison stories, which William would somehow weave into a witty, musical musings and monographs.

The expat community in Japan was until not too long ago non-existent, and has since 1854 always been tiny, but William introduced me to an even smaller, fey slice: the gay gaijin mafia underworld. I won’t mention any names, but you’d be surprised. Lotta purple power down there–with long and intimate ties to the yakuza. I was fascinated by the surface frisson I always felt when William and I went out, at least the shallow end that I saw, but didn’t really believe most if not all of it until one night we went to a disco bar called the Lexington Queen. I remember dancing to Bananarama’s Venus that night, and even having a drink with the 16-year old singer-songwriter Charlie Sexton, who had a hit single at the time called Beat’s so lonely.

Anyway, I was talking to one of William’s Japanese friends named Ton chan, who told me he was a yakuza. I didn’t believe it–he had movie-star good looks, and was going to university in some small town outside of Tokyo. He told me he had also been to Fuchu. I said no way. He said way, and he told me that every Japanese gangster who went to prison puts a small piece of their toothbrush inside their… pointing down, since he didn’t know the English word for it. I told him that sounded like something the melodramatic writer Yukio Mishima would make up, and then write about dramatically and then swear as gospel truth in every interview afterward.

He said follow me. We went to the bathroom. I never thought I’d see the day where I was standing in the graffitied stall of a basement disco in Tokyo feeling for a lump of probably Colgate or Crest plastic (or maybe bamboo?) in a Japanese man’s penis, but life takes you on some strange whirls, dunn it? Well, I can tell you it was there alright. He didn’t even grin. How the hell did you get that in there? He said he chewed off the end and then smoothed it into a roundish blob on the concrete floor of his cell. He intentionally grew his pointer fingernail long and then made an incision with it. He slipped the nib in, and then let the skin heal over it.

So how did we digress from hairbrushes to toothbrushes? We didn’t digress–the digressions are the story, the whole point of the story, man. William and I then both get the white guy’s haircut, sharp, short, expert. And then the two hairdressers bring in stainless basins of very hot water and place two oshiboris on our faces. The traditional Japanese straight razor, the kamisori, has a blade similar to the straight razor we’re used to in the West, but the handle doesn’t fold, and is usually wrapped in rattan for a better grip. They both were both deft and quick. I actually briefly fell asleep. When they were finished, they each brought in another basin of hot water, and started massaging our feet. They didn’t stop there.

William’s painful realization was acute, but he handled the situation like a champ, unpleasant as it must have been for him. He demurred vigorously in his impeccable Japanese, but the die was already cast, and so Caesar crossed the rubicon, so-to-speak.

And thus I came up with William’s Straight Razor (get it?): Always rise to the occasion, no matter how low you have to bow down.

That’s it for now–next week (or whenever) we’ll discuss Hanlon’s Razor, Hitchen’s Razor, and Alder’s Razor–aka Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword–an impressive, original diatribe from a computer nerd who actually has a charmingly self-deprecating sense of humor. Fabulous! Then on to, eventually, Hume’s Razor–causes must be able to produce the effect assigned to them, Grice’s Razor–address what the speaker meant, not what he actually said, with its sad-but-true corollary The Kinzey Gaff–when a politician accidentally blurts out the truth.

I’ve already defined my very own Cataldo’s Sword in a recent blog post–never attribute to stupidity or ignorance that which can more likely be explained by malice–and we’ll continue down this road we’re already on, full of nicks and Kings, to other philosophical hedgerows and bustle, styptics and excellence and Schick.

Photo © John Hill

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