Halfway between the sidewalk and the subway on 86th and Lex is an underground barbershop. I'd been before, but I'd never gotten a shave from the infamous Mel.
Today the shop is empty and Mel is the only barber. I take a seat.
Mel talks quickly, but with a thick accent I can't place, and in a soft voice. I see a picture of Al Gore at his station, along with a sign about the Irish meaning of the name Mel. Mel is not Irish.
Mel asks me how old I am. 42, I say. He laughs and tells me he is 75. And that he's been shaving professionally since he was 14. He also sings and talks to himself. The dialogue is constant, but so soft that I find it soothing.
Mel's tools are simple. Straight-edge razor, towel warmed in a microwave, basic shaving cream from a can. He also has a jar of mystery cream with a tiger on it.
The head shave is fast. It always is. Scalp skin is taut and the hair grows pretty conventionally. It's easy to get seduced by the ease of shaving a head. Mel now expands the audience of his dialogue to include my scalp. And whatever my scalp says to him, he finds humorous. Inbetween songs and chortles, he tells me that it's important to shave the parts where no hair grows. "It's in there, sleeping. After years and years...it may come back."
First pass of the scalp, more tiger balm, second pass against the grain. Rub your hand any direction on my head and you won't feel a single offending folacle. "Ah, Hue, so glad you came in today." He sings and talks as though me walking in was the best thing that's happened to him in recent memory.
Then the face. Tiger balm, shaving cream, then the hot towel on top. "Last customer who came in, he says No No Mel, it's too hot! I say be a man!" The towel's hot but I don't say anything.
Right away, the face is more challenging. Hair grows every which way. My beard hair is curly, and while I didn't inherit my father's razor bumps, the anarchy of my facial hair contrasts with the gentility of my scalp. I feel the blade start to catch on my skin. This happens when the straight-edge gets dull. Most barbers alocate one blade per shave, and leave you to deal with the burn. But Mel senses the pull from my skin and changes razors. Thanks Mel, I say silently. Not outloud because I don't want to interrupt Mel. He's the one with the blade.
One side of the face done. "Oh, deep section" he says to the crevice in my upper lip. As soon as he starts the other side, he changes razors again. Three razors in one shave!
He finishes the face and goes for the second round against the grain. For most barbers, the second shave is ceremonial. It makes you feel like you're getting something special, since you don't shave twice at home. I expect a gentle skimming, and then off I go. But Mel grabs my face like it's putty, turns the blade perpendicular to my skin, and starts a-scrapin'. Now that the road has been paved by the first shave, Mel is driving fast. This way, that way, my skin is mushed and massaged, lest any little hair hide itself under skin or cream. It burns, and I can't tell if it's a good thing or not.
He reaches for a bottle of green aftershave. I know by the smell that it's going to hit my face hard. It does. We are not in the world of high-end skin products or designer fragrances. Not here in the underground barbershop, where I can hear both the trains and their even noiser New York passangers. I take my medicine, followed by one last rub-down of tiger balm, then he wraps my face in a light paper cloth and massages, massages. "Underneath my fingers, ah, your pores are closing, good...good." He removes the paper and says "ahh...better than the plastic surgeon."
I pay my bill, tip in cash, walk out on the street and gasp a little. That aftershave has a second life when the wind hits it. As I cross the street and hustle to catch the cross-town bus, I feel my face.
Nice shave, Mel.