As Ira Schuman pulls on his beard with one hand and twirls his payess with the other he looks at men going in and out of the shop with the red and white awning. Some have wide-brimmed black hats resting atop their bushy hair and wear tallit fringes hanging below the hems of their heavy black coats. Their beards and coiled payess long and straggly.
Ira’s eyes focus on those with short hair and smooth shaven faces. He’s been in Chicago one week. Today he’ll go inside.
He meanders around tables of goods for sale on Maxwell Street and enters.
“Hello, Mister,” a barber says in Yiddish. “Take a seat. First come, first served.”
Ira slouches down and digs his fingers through his frizzy black beard. He hasn’t seen his face since his beard started growing soon after he turned thirteen. Now it reaches half way down his chest.
Ira gazes at the row of four barber chairs lined up facing a rectangle of mirrors. A couple men lie flat while being shaved; a couple sit upright as the barbers clip their hair with long pointed steel shears. He’s anxious to see his hair hitting the floor’s white tiles.
His bench companion gets up and walks to the first vacant chair. Ira drums his fingers on the bench.
Within five minutes, a barber in a short white jacket beckons him to the last seat in the row. He hangs Ira’s coat and hat on the wooden rack while Ira sits and puts his feet on the metal footrest. The barber turns the chair, and Ira peers at his face in the mirror. He also sees a mass of hair growing down to his shoulder blades in the mirror on the back wall. Will he recognize himself when the barber is through?
“Sir, I’m Jake. What can I do for you today?” the barber asks.
Ira laughs. “A!, doesn’t it look like I need a shave and haircut?”
“You’ve come to the right place, Mister?”
Jake grabs a paper collar from the wall-mounted dispenser.
“Sure, Mr. Schuman?” he asks before wrapping it around Ira’s neck.
Jake affixes the collar, drapes him with a white sheet down to his ankles, and hesitates again. Ira nods.
“Okay. Let’s get started.” Jake takes his scissors from his breast pocket.
Within seconds clumps of hair cover the tiles around the pedestal foot of the hydraulic chair. Ira reaches for his payess. They are gone.
Jake lowers the chair, parts Ira’s hair, and cuts it shorter while moving his comb up the back on Ira’s neck and head to clip the hairs that stand out from the comb’s teeth.
“Ready for your shave?” Jake slicks down Ira’s curls with pomade and turns the chair so Ira can see his shorn locks.
Ira raises himself in his seat and leans forward. He smiles.
Jake pushes a lever down to lower the headrest and raise the foot pedestal so that Ira lies flat. He then reaches into his towel sterilizer for a hot towel with a pair of tongs. He juggles the towel on his fingertips and envelops it around and over Ira’s face, leaving his nose exposed. Ira’s body jerks as the heat hits him.
Jake holds his shaving mug under the hot water spigot at the bottom of the sterilizer and mixes the soap and water into lather with his boar’s hair brush. He removes the towel and swirls a thick layer of soap onto Ira’s cheeks, neck, and under his nose. Before he starts, he holds out his leather strop at a forty-five degree angle from its hook under the mirror and slides the hard steel razor blade up and back to sharpen it.
He scrapes away Ira’s facial hair by moving the blade down from the side, around his chin, down his neck, and back down the other side while holding the skin taut with the fingers of his free hand.
He shaves off Ira’s mustache last.
Jake moves around Ira’s face several times, feeling the skin for any last remnants of beard. When all the hairs are gone, he trims Ira’s nose and ear hairs with his shears, pours a little Lilac Vegetal in his hands and rubs it onto Ira’s cheeks and chin, and covers Ira’s face with a cold towel. He also rubs a thin layer of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly all over Ira’s cheeks, neck, chin, and upper lip area.
“This jelly will protect your baby smooth skin from its first shock of light and sun,” he says as he raises the chair back to a sitting position so Ira can see in the mirror again.
“You like it, Mister?”
Bringing his shaking hands to his face, Ira probes his cold slick skin, pulls on his chin, and taps his upper lip where his mustache used to be. It’s as if all that hair never existed. His hair hid his face, his neck, his shoulders, his chest. Now he’s all exposed, making him look smaller and more compact and much younger than his twenty-three years. It doesn’t look bad, but his unblemished pale face will take some getting used to.
He slides out of the chair and walks over to the mirror to look close up. His dark brown eyes open wide. He turns his face from side to side. It’s rounder than he thought. His chin looks strong and has a dimple that he doesn’t remember seeing before.
The barber hands him a mirror and he turns to see practically no hair at the back of his head and neck. He smiles wider, puffs out his chest, and struts over to his coat and hat.
“Ye, Jake, I like it, indeed. Now I really am an amerikaner. How much?”
“Two bits, Mister Schuman.”
Ira gives Jake a few silver coins and marches out the door to find some new clothes to complete his new look.