It’s Monday morning and I’m in the bathroom performing my daily ablutions. After taking a hot shower with lots of soap, shampoo and conditioner, I towel off and go to the sink to shave. Not my favorite thing.
Today, however, I’m trying something different. After lathering up my face, I open my medicine cabinet and take out my new beard removal device – an old-fashioned double-edged safety razor. Annie and I went to Central Park yesterday and, after stopping inside the Time Warner Center to use what I consider the finest public toilet in New York, I popped into the Art of Shaving store and bought this little do-hickey for fifty bucks. Heavy, chrome plated and made of stainless steel; this razor is a throwback to a time when shaving took some skill. If I was real macho, I’d have bought a straight razor – but I’m not crazy.
Holding it by the very end, I take the razor, move the handle parallel to the floor, and then lower the blade to a thirty-degree angle to my face. Not applying pressure, I start moving down, following the grain of my beard and letting the weight of the razor do all the work.
After five minutes I manage not to Sweeny Todd myself and re-lather so I can work on the parts of my face that need a second pass. I like mastering a new skill and I’m enjoying the challenge. After I rinse off the razor in hot water I look into the mirror – only to find a face that’s not mine staring back at me.
“Do you speak English?” it asks.
Startled, I nick myself and blood starts turning the lather on my face pink. The man in the mirror vanishes, replaced by the reflection I’ve seen grow and change for forty-four years. Of course, there was never a strange man in the mirror; just the projection of a troubled mind.
After Ann I finished our sojourn in the park we ate Thai food and then started back to the Port Authority and our bus home. To complement the walk I light up a ten-dollar cigar I bought at Davidoff. Then around Fifty-Third Street, a thin guy wearing nursing scrubs comes up to us and asks me if I speak English.
“Yes,” I say, suddenly feeling uneasy.
“Listen,” the man says. “I’m not begging, I’m not a drug addict. My wife left her purse in a cab and I have no money. I need to get some infant formula for our baby.”
“Where’s the baby?” Ann asks.
“With my wife,” the man says quickly. “Listen, I know it sounds like a scam, but you can buy the formula for me. I don’t want any money. There’s a store right over there.”
I’ve given money to all sorts of beggars over the years, usually with the full knowledge they’d use it to buy drugs or booze. But this not wanting cash up front thing throws me.
“Please, sir,” the man says. “It’s only a couple of dollars.”
Part of me wants to run in the store and buy the baby formula. But another part of me, an almost unconscious part, is running my bullshit scanner full blast. The guy is wearing scrubs, but only the shirt. The lower half of his body is clad in jeans and ratty sneakers. When street people are admitted to psych wards and ERs their clothes are often ruined or they don’t have any at all. So the staff give these unfortunates whatever cast off clothes are laying around. And very often the shirt they get is the top half of a pair of cheap, disposable operating room scrubs. There’s also an odor coming off the man that I’ve smelled many times over the years – the scent of a ruined soul.
“Sorry, man,” I say. “I don’t have any money.”
A look of rage sweeps across the man’s face and I feel my feet and hips automatically shift my body into a balanced stand. Years of dealing with psych patients have given me decent radar for violent behavior. But the man just turns on his heel and storms off.
As Ann and I walk away I feel cheap and guilty. When you add up the razor, dinner and the stogie, I had treated myself handsomely to the tune of a hundred bucks.
“I feel bad now,” I say to Ann.
“Why?” she asks.
“It’s possible his story was true.”
“I doubt it.”
“He didn’t want money. What harm can there be in getting him some baby formula?”
“He’ll probably sell it for drugs.” I don’t reply
Ann knows me very well. She slips a five out of her purse and presses it into my palm. “Here’s your bum money,” she says.
We turn around and head back towards where we encountered the man, but he’s not there. So we walk a few more blocks, scanning the crowds enjoying the summer night. No dice. The beggar is lost in a sea of faces.
“He’s long gone,” I say, shaking my head.
“You tried,” Ann says.
“Son of a bitch,” I say angrily, realizing I had almost been scammed. “People like that just ruin it for the rest of us. What if you or I needed a stranger’s help?”
“We would never be in that position.”
Wrong. One day long ago I was walking the streets of Manhattan – drunk, my money gone and no way to get home. I thought about asking strangers if they could buy me a bus ticket, but I didn’t. After a begrudgingly accepted collect call, a friend of mine came to get me – five hours later.
When we get to the Port Authority I suddenly have to take a wicked piss, so I head to the restroom and Ann gets the tickets.
“Guess what?” Ann says when I rejoin her near the Cinnabon stand.
“When I was buying the tickets a kid in a white hoodie asked me for a dollar and twenty cents. He didn’t have enough money to get home.”
“You give it to him?”
“Yep,” she says. “But here’s the best part. He’s on the same bus as us.”
Sure enough, when we get on the bus, the kid in the white hoodie boards and marches to the back. Not so much as a thank you.
“There,” Ann says, squeezing my hand. “I fixed your Mitzvah.”
Back in my bathroom I realize I’ve been staring at my reflection for five minutes, catatonic as I played back the night’s events in my head. As I recommence shaving, I remember why I didn’t beg for money twenty years ago, I didn’t want to feel the cold shoulder of an unforgiving world. I didn’t want the story of the Good Samaritan to become just another piece of bullshit.
Clean-shaven and baby faced, I rub on some after-shave lotion. Last night I knew when to withhold and Ann knew when to give. Moral judgments like that are difficult for the best of us – and we often get it wrong.
Still troubled, I hold my new razor; admiring its heft as the morning sun slides along the chrome plated steel. As I place it in my medicine cabinet I remember a quote from the Upshanids Somerset Maugham used in one of his books. “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
My razor nick starts bleeding again so I put a piece of toilet paper on it. Ouch. Maugham wasn’t kidding.