Thursday, March 08, 2007

Mortality, Aesthetics and a Smooth Shave

In 1954, the year I was born, the D.R. Harris Company of London, one of the oldest pharmacies in England, was located on the street where they were founded. They had originally opened for business in 1790 at 11 James Street. In 1836 they moved about a block up the street to number 55. At the dawning of the twentieth century they moved again, this time to 30 King Street, staying for forty-one years when they returned to James Street, this time to number 27. While I was emitting my first infantile howls in Illinois, seven time zones away, D.R. Harris, Chemists and Perfumers, were going about their business, until nine years later they moved one door down to their present location at 29 James Street.

My story and the D.R. Harris story intersected this past June when friends in London sent me a birthday gift of the company’s shaving bowl. It’s a mahogany bowl, with lid, containing shaving soap in their Arlington scent, indicated on the elegantly designed and sized label as “A Classic English Fragrance For Gentlemen.” This Harris establishment can lay claim to matters Barbasol never dreams of: They hold the Royal Warrant as chemists to Queen Elizabeth and in 2002 were granted an additional Royal Warrant for the Prince of Wales.

Bringing the shaving bowl, lid in place, out to my desk provided a couple small revelations. I discovered that the company is not that of Dr. Harris, but the aforementioned D.R. Harris. Also, it’s not their Arlington Shaving Bowl, rather, it’s their Arlington scent, one of four they offer. I have my glasses on all day, except when I shower and shave.

Some thirty years ago when my various explorations included brief stabs at vegetarianism, making granola and wearing overalls, I tried using shaving soap and a brush. When the ceramic mug of soap was emptied I never refilled it, the brush hung around for a while and then disappeared while I went on sporting a beard or shaving with whatever brand of shaving cream was on sale.

My morning routines constitute a fairly rigid program. Though not all components occur on an overtly conscious level, one leads to the next in comforting ways: opening the medicine cabinet with my dominant left hand, removing the can of shaving cream with my right, squirting it into the palm of my left, then dipping into the mound with the fingers of my right and applying foam to my face, leaving the left then free to pick up the razor and commence shaving.

But with the accumulated wisdom and deepened aesthetic sensibilities of middle age, the return to brush and soap shaving revealed the new sequence for what it is: better. My new shaving bowl is too deep to fit in the cabinet. This earns it a place out in the open, on the glass shelf over the sink. Not only was this addition welcomed by my wife, with whom I share the limited surface space, she also procured a small saucer for the shaving brush to stand upon sentry-like when not in use. (If shaving takes me approximately two minutes, then that brush is in use for .0014% of my day.)

Over the course of the first month the shaving soap so completely filled the container that its top surface was even with surrounding rim, allowing dollops of watery bubbles to nearly spill over the edge. As time has gone on it’s being imperceptibly depleted. The process reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the witch turns the large hourglass over and tells Dorothy, “That’s how long you have to live!” My experience with cans of shaving cream yielded no such overtones of mortality. While they did become lighter as the contents were expended, the end would come quickly, as the mixture of air pressure and shaving cream lost its special balance, giving out like the final sputtering exhalation of a hundred year old man. It was just an empty can I’d toss out and start with a new one on the following day. Such is the power of the D.R. Harris & Co. Arlington Shaving Bowl that I’m reconsidering all shaving experiences that transpired before its arrival.

In case this gives the impression that I’m thinking about shaving matters at all hours of the day, I hasten to point out that, other than the time spent writing this, the thoughts about issues of mortality as sparked by a shaving bowl arise only while I’m shaving. Based on its rate of depletion I’m quite certain I’ll be getting a full year out my initial bar. Henceforth I will be measuring the passing of time by the slow repeated rhythms of opening, and then exhausting, a succession of shaving soaps.

- David Greenberger