by Lawrence G. Downing, August 28, 2017:    Each person’s life is a collage created by one’s life experiences, education, work, travels and relationships. Some events leave a more profound and lasting mark than others. For me, one segment of the pixels that are part of my collage is the time I spent in San Francisco with (to use the terminology of the time) the Skid Road bums. This experience opened my eyes to a world I’d never before known and have seldom seen since. One of the more unique of those who inhabited the San Francisco streets would have taken strong exception had anyone applied the term “bum” to him. He would have informed any who dared reference him as a bum that he was a panhandler. Not a common, ordinary panhandler. Scotty was a self-defined professional panhandler and proud of it.

I met Scotty the summer between my high school sophomore and junior years when I was a student barber at Mohler’s Barber College. The school, located at 5th and Howard Streets, was in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, home to the City’s down-and-out. This experience introduced a young kid to a side of life few ever see. I soon learned that the down-and-outs, and those who crowd life’s margins to the limit, talk to the two “Bs”: bartenders and barbers. That summer I met the shills, the “fences,” the pimps who ply their trades in the inner cities. As their barber, I listened as they shared their latest run-in with the cops; their methods for making booze, when money was short. A Pink Lady was made by straining canned heat through a loaf of bread. The drink would do, I was assured, if there was no money to buy a bottle of Thunderbird.

Each morning I and the friend younger than me with whom I lived during the week hopped a bus and made our way downtown to begin work. My friend’s dad, who had graduated from Mohler’s years before, had initiated the barber college experience. He had custody of his son for the summer and needed something for his kid to do while he and his second wife were at work. When he invited me to join his son at the barber school, I accepted. The school’s director and the senior instructor were at the school when my friend’s dad was a student. This relationship eased the enrollment process. After acceptance, we were told to buy a three-quarter length white smock, get our barber tools, which my dad already owned, and bring an ID.

Lawrence at work as a barber.

As student barbers we gave twenty-five cent shaves and fifty-cent haircuts to those who were lowest on the skid road social scale. If the customer had no money, we sent him to Smitty, our instructor, who would sign off on the charge.

A unique bond develops between a barber and his clients. It was that way even for those of us who were kids. Grown men swore, told dirty jokes, complained about wives and girlfriends, discussed sports and talked about their latest schemes to get rich. We cut their hair and shaved their faces, all the while acting as though we were deeply interested in what they said. Sometimes we were. Some of our clients stood out from the others. Scotty was one such person.

Scotty was a small man, chunky and short-limbed. He had a round face topped by light-colored hair. His was not a fat face, just red and round. There was not even a hint of a wrinkle to be found anywhere on it. His straw-colored hair showed a few streaks of white. He came into the shop the second week after I arrived. He entered the shop, looked round, especially at me, saw I was cutting someone’s hair, and sat down on the couch, picked up the morning Examiner and began to read. After I had completed the chop-job—and remember this was my second day holding scissors and comb, I asked the newcomer if I might help him.

“Sure, laddie,” he said in a pleasant Scottish brogue. “Give me a shave and a haircut. Make them both close. I’ll tell you something, lad,” he continued, “the closer the shave the better for me. I always ask for a ‘sub-dermis.’ That way it lasts longer and I don’t need to come back again for two or three days. Always hurts my skin, but I’d rather have it close than have to come back the next day. So take it against the grain. Besides, my beard doesn’t grow much in the summer. Funny, isn’t it?”

As the small man climbed into the chair there was something that I immediately liked about him. It was not only the fact that he had no offensive odors, like so many of the men whose hair I cut, or that he lacked the usual grime and sweat around his neck. He did not reek of alcohol. What set him apart was not that when I put the comb to his hair I did not see the sudden flourish, as the lice ducked for cover. I appreciated that these aspects of my summer educational event were not part of the new customer’s baggage, but there was something else. It was that he made me feel like we could be friends. Right from his first sentence he treated me as an equal and addressed me, a high school kid, with respect.

“You just came here, didn’t you, lad?” he asked as he settled into the chair. “What’s your name?”

“Larry,” I said.”

As I began to pump the handle to bring my customer up to comfortable cutting height, he said, in his thick brogue, “Call me Scotty.”

In barber tradition, the haircut precedes the shave, although in my case, as a novice barber, cutting pretty much defined both the haircut and the shave. I came to appreciate the powdered styptic and the fact most of my subjects were three sheets to the wind.

“Yes,” I replied to his initial question. “I’ve been here about two weeks.”

“Thought so. When I was in here last time I didn’t think I saw you. Course, that’s been a couple three weeks or so.”

“You come in here often?”

“Whenever I’m not on vacation I do. Just back from one now, as a matter of fact. You know, it’s real nice out in the country this time of year. This weather we’ve been having really makes me feel great. Too bad that the fog has to stay around in the mornings so long. Just about ruins them. Yes sir, the country is the only place in the summer. Ever been out there, lad? By the beach, I mean.”

“No, I don’t live in San Francisco.”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” and a slight smile broke over his face. I could see it in the mirror opposite my chair. “Out there in the country I’ve got a little summer home. Oh, I don’t exactly own it; Mayor Christopher does, I guess. But I live there once in a while. I’ve been out there about nine times for ninety days each, I guess. This last time was only for fifteen, though. Nice place, that county jail, in the summer, that is. Miserable in the winter. Cold and fog get me.” He paused. As he did, I looked at his face reflected in the mirror. His brow was furrowed and he looked as if he were trying to recall something long past. I continued to cut his hair, making steady progress and, despite my inexperience, bringing some order to what had been a disheveled mop.

“You see, ” he continued, “I’ve been in and out of jail for quite a few years now. Mind you, though, it hasn’t been for being a drunk. I’m not a tramp.”

It was not hard for me to believe him because he looked like anything but a tramp, now that his hair was cut.

“You see, I’m a panhandler–a professional panhandler. It is really quite interesting work, you know. Have my regular place where I work. Go there every day. That way I get to know the people; they get to have sort of an attachment for me. Every so often, though, a stranger comes along and sees me hit somebody for a buck or two. They never understand what I’m doing, and off they run and tell the cops, and I go up for another ninety days. It’s funny how some people can’t stand to see a guy get money by asking for it. Even if I leave them alone, they still turn me in. But, like I mentioned, I enjoy the country. The only thing that’s bad is that I get so run down. Get to looking like a hobo.”

By this time I was ready to start on his shave and he stopped talking while I prepared for surgery. It wasn’t supposed to be a bloodletting, but put the primitive skills of a student barber in proximity to the skin of a man whose system had been ravished by years of alcohol abuse, and the end result is sometimes not a pretty sight. A straight razor is a dangerous instrument! As luck has it, alcohol serves as an effective anesthetic so seldom did the victims wince when they were cut. But Scotty was not a drunk, and I did not want to cut him. I took extra care to make sure to strop the razor to its sharpest edge and took special care that I kept a sure, steady hand.

Administering a shave with a straight razor is now almost a lost art. There is an established routine that is not varied, even for drunks on skid road. First priority is to make the customer comfortable. A lever at the side of the chair enables the chair to extend, like a reclining rocker. The head lies back on a small square removable headrest covered with tissue paper that is dispensed from a small roll connected to, and under, the headrest frame. After each shave a new piece is pulled cross the headrest to await the next customer. The legs stretch out and rest on the leather footrest. Ideal for sleeping, which many did. Next is the hot towel. Steaming hot! Fresh from the hot cabinet. The towel is wrapped about the face like the cover on a teapot, and the customer is left to simmer for a few minutes. Softens the beard and sets it. This is what our instructor told us. While the customer relaxes under the towels, the barber slaps the razor on the strop, bringing its edge to maximum cutting powers. This is done regularly as the shave progresses. “Keep it sharp, son. Keep it sharp.” That’s what the instructor drilled into us.

Finishing a straight razor is a fine art. It begins with regularly honing the razor on a fine whetstone. The whetstone is a rectangular fine stone about five inches by two-and-a-half inches. It is held in the hand, placed lengthways on the open palm. A thin application of barber’s soap is slathered on the stone. The razor is put at an angle with the razor’s edge almost flat against the stone. The razor is then drawn down and toward the edge. A razor is always honed toward the edge, not away from it. Once the blade is honed, a weekly task, it is ready for the strop.

A razor strop has two sides. One is a tightly woven cloth material, like a web; the other is made of hard shell leather. Russian shell is the top grade. As a student barber, I spent hours practicing how to flash the razor and make it pop against the strop. Grasp the shank between thumb and forefinger. Turn it with lightning speed; the edge goes with the stroke. If you fail in this, the razor’s edge will cut the strop. Beginners practice with scotch tape over the razor. Even after mastering the skill, once in a while the razor’s edge will slice into the strop and a fine piece of crafted leather is ruined.

There are two ways to test whether the razor has a good edge. One is to slap a bit of shaving soap on the thumbnail and gently draw the razor cross it. When there is a smooth, steady draw, the blade is sharp. A jumpy, ragged feel? Strop it more. Another method is to pull a hair crossways over the blade. If the razor cuts the hair sharp and crisp, it will shave well. I used both methods.

The final ritual before starting the shave is to apply the shaving soap. Each of us barbers had our own shaving mug. No electric dispensers would do. Real barbers had real mugs. Mine was a cheap plastic mug with a round circle indentation on the bottom to hold the circle of soap. The mug was cream-colored with streaks of red. The brush was badger hair with bristles about two inches long. Turn on the hot water. Let it run into the cup. Stir round the brush for a few seconds. Dump out the water. Swish the brush over the soap and apply the hot soap to the face, now clean and hot from the application of hot towels.

Scotty seemed to appreciate this part of the shave-and-a haircut ritual the best. It may have been that the steaming towel wrapped about his face helped him forget he was a panhandler. In his mind he could be a lord of the land or an entrepreneur on Market Street.

A customer getting a shave is in a vulnerable situation. Covered with a cloth. Soap over his face and some stranger standing over him with a lethal instrument.

I worked over Scotty in silence for a few minutes. I don’t recall what led up to our talking about education. He asked me where I was going to school. I told him I would be a student at Monterey Bay Academy. “It’s a private school near Watsonville, owned by the Seventh-day Adventists,” I said.

“Adventists, you say?”

“That’s right.”

“I know about you people. Stayed in your sanitarium at St. Helena one time. I also know Elder Tucker. Fine man, that Elder Tucker. Treated me like a brother when I met him.”(Elder J. L. Tucker, an Adventist pastor, founded the Quiet Hour radio program.)

I replied with a weak, “Oh.”

By this time I had finished the haircut. I lay his chair back and started the shaving rituals. He stopped talking and went to sleep, but not before reminding me, “Don’t forget, lad, sub-dermis.” When I finished, I woke him up and walked over to have Smitty sign his slip to receive the No Charge shave and haircut. Just before he left the shop Scotty motioned me over to where he stood. “Don’t tell Smitty that I gave you this,” he said. “You’re a good lad and I like you.” He pressed a nickel into my hand and said, “Spend it wisely, son, and good luck.” He turned and walked out onto Howard Street. I never saw him again.


Lawrence Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. 

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