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.

36 thoughts on “Razor”

  1. Karen says:

    I’ve been in the position to have to ask help from strangers (albeit when I was still young and naive and in real need of help) and luckily was given help with no strings attached. I’ve been lucky to feel the warmth of humanity. But on the other end I have also been scammed out of a few bucks. I look at it that the lost dollars went into my karma bank and I don’t look back. Most likely I never helped anyone but at least I know that I gave with an open heart and maybe I did help someone in true need. Life will play out as it will – all I can do is play it by my own rules.

  2. Waiterrant Fan says:

    Nice Steve
    I too have been on the receiving end of the kindness of strangers – but I didn’t have to ask. A woman just saw a crying child and stopped to help.
    It used to be that way – but then the scammers ruined it for everyone.
    I have given money ‘for busfare’, only to see the same kids in the same stop peddling the same line the next day. Didn’t like it, but I refuse to feel bad for being kind – they should feel bad for being lying scum.

  3. Christina says:

    I’ve never begged for a single penny from strangers, however I’ve been scammed countless times and robbed twice.

    I once heard a guest on a radio show say that he was approached with a “I’m a regular person, I just need this money for (baby formula/to call a locksmith for my car/etc), I’ll pay you back.” The guest, skeptical, told the person, “Ok, I’ll give you the money. But if you don’t pay me back, you will ruin my faith in humanity. I will never, ever help somebody this way again. And that’s on you.”

    Unsurprisingly, the guest never saw the beggar again, and he humorously used it as an excuse for why he never gives away money.

    Comedy bit or no, I thought it was a brilliant idea, and I tried it myself at work when a guy said he was short the $10 he needed to get a locksmith to open his car. I lost the $10. The man I gave it to obviously knew where I worked, so it wasn’t like he couldn’t have gotten it back to me, eventually.

    Now, my charitable giving to individuals is on *my* terms, and only when I offer. I’ve bought sandwiches for homeless people, paid for the last bit of groceries for an old lady front of me who wasn’t able to afford their whole basket, purchased bus fare for somebody who got on and realized they didn’t have their wallet, etc.

    But I don’t ever, *ever* give to somebody who approaches me for something. If they’re shameless enough to approach me, they don’t deserve it.

  4. Laurie says:

    As a daily commuter to and from NYC where I have worked for 25+ years, I have seen my share of people begging for money. On the street, in the subway (that includes on the trains as well), in Port Authority, Penn Station and Grand Central. Only a very small percentage of them seem as if they are in legitimate need of help – where they are stranded and need to get home or need to make a phone call. I have seen the same people begging, but in different locations. Once I said to someone that I saw them elsewhere giving the same story about needing fare to get home and they ran off quickly. You don’t want to be cold-hearted, but in this City you have to be skeptical or you would be broke helping out people who ask daily. I recently found a wallet in a taxi cab and googled the owner. Found her and since she worked close by arranged to meet her to give it back. Now, THAT is helping out. You know when it is called for and when it just is the right thing to do.

  5. puns says:

    Hahah…Good one!
    keep writing such incidents..

  6. patrick says:

    I use the same razor. You need a styptic pencil. You’re still cutting yourself while shaving?

  7. only_moin says:

    wow, love your posts. it got me thinking ….they say its better to let a hundred murderers go free rather than hang one innocent man…dont know how practical that is ..but might we apply the same principle here too…that it might be better to be scamed by a hundred bum rather than let one guy needing real help go disappointed? but that then that sort of charity is only possible by people who have enough money to burn i guess. as for me i turn down people politely with a smile when i think its a scam..but it always leaves me feeling bad, exactly as you felt..

  8. LJ says:

    Upshanids? Or Upanishads?

  9. Alli says:

    My dad has at least 4 straight razors. He made me take pictures of him using one once…

  10. Bob Dobbs says:

    I have had the same scan played on me, 3000 miles away. The exact same. Young man, wanting baby formula from the drug store — that was two blocks away. He couldn’t be there “because they ran me off.” I theorize that baby formula is something that can be resold easily, so that if you actually buy it for them, instead of giving them money, they can still realize some cash.

    I turned him down. And yes, I felt like crap. But afterwards, as I considered it, his story didn’t add up. And I have a good woman, like yours, to help me work things out.

    However they got there, remember that panhandlers are in sales; and like any salesman, it’s all about making the sale, whatever it takes. I think there are standard pitches that pass back and forth among them nationwide. One panhandler downtown made a sign that read “Vision of a Hamburger”, and apparently had great luck. Because the next week there were several other panhandlers on the street with the same sign.

    And what’s most important: another fine account of the everyday challenges and puzzles that civilized life presents to the well-meaning individual.

  11. bil says:

    Nice story. I give what I feel I can afford to, and support the local homeless shelter–that takes the pressure off, since I’m supporting a local spot with 2 hots and a cot for free, and access to counseling services, so long as they are sober when they show up and don’t make a ruckus.

    About the shaving, get a decent straight razor and learn to work that. Once you get the hang of it, the ritual is soothing when you have time to do it, and the safety razor will be what you grab when you’re in a hurry.

  12. Simon says:

    Great post Steve, I know what you mean. I got scammed out of $20 years ago on the street, he promised to pay me back after giving me a sob story. I gave him my card, expecting him to contact me at some point, how naive was I??!! That incident totally ruined it for me, I’ve never given out cash like that again.

  13. Head Ant says:

    I used to work in a grocery store. Back when food stamps were paper, people would buy baby formula and return it for cash. They then would buy liquor or cartons of cigarettes.

    I would say you had good instincts.

  14. BillyName99 says:

    I use the same type of razor. A Merkur23C long-handle safety razor.

    It works beautifully. I’ve been shaving this way since 2005 and I thing I’ve nicked myself about 10 times since.

    I don’t give money to beggars.


    I’ve been scammed one too many times, and I work too damned hard for my money to give it to a beggar so they can get high or drunk or whatever.

    Maybe there is some guy out there who really is a regular guy in a screwed up situation. But 9 times out of 10, he’s scam artist or an addict.

    I’ve been homeless, I’ve lived in a van and had to decide if I put my last three dollars into the tank or buy food.

    I’ve never begged. I’ve sold stuff to pawnshops, and offered to wash dishes at a diner in exchange for a burger, but I’ve never begged for money from strangers.

    As far the baby formula guy goes, all I can say is that when your bullshit detector goes off, it’s probably right.

  15. Waiterrant Fan says:

    I should have added – I always shave in the shower using regular disposables and gel. I find it the easiest shave.

  16. Kim says:

    There is a young woman I run into every couple of years near the train station who says she’s 6 weeks pregnant and hasn’t been able to get into a domestic abuse shelter yet. She will in three days but needs a place to stay and food. The first time, I gave her $10. My friend said I got scammed and I said probably. I ran into her again when I was picking up family at the train station. I gave her $3 after she ran her line. I figure when she comes up to me next year, I’ll ask her how her two other kids are, ages 4 and 2.

  17. Jimmy Rogers says:

    I enjoyed this one…kind of comes full circle after a non-linear narrative 🙂

  18. Greta says:

    Dear Sir,

    Thank you for your consistently thoughtful appraisal of human experience, uncommon and profound humility, and the awesome articulation of your world. Bravo and best wishes!

    Waiter replies: Thank you. But I’m not too sure about the humility part. 😉

  19. Greta says:

    I think that wanting revenge on someone is the same as just wishing they’d realize their impact from your perspective. The wise know that hurting someone, without their understanding (as-to-)why, is as ineffectual and selfish as the individual who did ‘it’, to them. Cheers!

  20. Everett De Morier says:

    I am halfway through this book — actually, the book on tape — and I am hooked. The author — whoever he is — has an incredible ability to not only tell a story, but draw you in with him. He finds art in the simplest acts and in the smallest areas.

    A very gifted storyteller.

    Everett De Morier

  21. Crystal says:

    I know what you mean. I’m nineteen but look about fourteen (or younger, depends on whom you ask) and have always been space and airheaded. I’m always stopped on the streets by elderly folks who claim to have run out of money. In China transportation is not expensive so I get asked for a little more than 3 dollars and I thought, what if they’re legit? And coming from a wealthy background it’s no hair off my back. There is a huge homeless population and the government has strict anti-loitering laws so I was sympathetic towards those who need a little money (once I was waiting for someone and watched a security guard harass a homeless guy and his kid for an hour before he left the subway tunnel). But over time I can’t help but notice that whenever somebody needs help, in a huge room of people they always come for me! That’s when I realized my youthful appearance and mild manners must be easy to take advantage of. I became irate and mused that my fellow Shanghai’ers are much more cynical than I am about these people, perhaps with good reason, and the frauds (who are numerous!) inevitably hurt people in real need. But I ended up thinking if they’re not asking for an outrageous sum I should err on the side of being too trusting.

  22. Loki-Lou says:

    When I going through a bad patch and had to move home I ended up sat outside a train station crying while waiting for a lift, a homeless guy came over and sat next to me…he asked what was wrong, he listened, gave some great advice (if a bit peculiar) and importantly he made me laugh a few times. When I offered him money for a drink (be it tea, coffee or alcohol) he turned it down and said that he just wanted to make sure I was ok and that despite his situation, money wasn’t everything.

  23. Susan says:

    Scams have made people suspicious even of well-meaning gestures. Last time I was in New York, I had a few bucks left on my metro card when it was time for me to leave. I knew I probably wouldn’t be back for a year or more. Rather than have it go to waste, I tried to give it away to someone else coming in to the Port Authority. Not one person in the crowds of tourists would take it! All I got were suspicious looks. I still can’t figure out what kind of scam I might have pulled by giving away a metro card.

  24. SM says:

    Upanishads. Please…

  25. Lorinda says:

    When I was first in Nursing school I was taught to shave with a straight raizor on a balloon with shaving cream on it. If you nicked the balloon everyone near you got blasted with shaving cream. You only did that once or twice. lol

  26. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to be a troll but I saw on a “keep the change” review saying how they don’t tip their masseuse bc he is the owner…FYI unless it is a corporate business the owner deserves tips as well yes you may be a regular customer but ever think about how much money it cost to keep a “mom and pop shop” if you will open? $rent, $upkeep, food trucks$$ linen care$$ dishes$$ payroll$$ and I’m sure many other expenseces and regardless of the person if you are getting a service and gatuitey is not included you should ALWAY tip at the lowest 20% I’m a waitress at a mom and pop pizza place and deal with Ungreatful jerks daily so I always tip 40% good tip karma 😉

  27. Bob Dobbs says:

    Anonymous waiter mom, the owner should be getting enough from his business that he doesn’t need to take tips, too. Some owners skim the tips of other waiters. Is that right?

    That said, I do generally tip the owner if he gives me table service, because I assume he will split the tip with the busboys, kitchen, etc. as regular waiters often do. If he does not, of course, he should spend eternity in the Scullery of Hell.

    You tip 40 percent? You must not eat out much!

  28. JustOverBroke says:

    LOL i Love this, I was doing errands with my four children (Saturday morning single waitress Mom stuff) we were just leaving the grocery store and had been to the bicycle shop prior to buy a tube for one of the kids bikes. As we were leaving the parking lot a rather helpless looking man with a dirty pack and clothes asked for money, being with the children I wanted to teach them a thing or two about how charity is good and we should help the less fortunate. He explained he needed money to buy a new tube for his bike, he said he was a missionary from Alaska, we live in CT and was also hungry. I went into the tailgate and handed him the tube and foraged through the groceries and sorted out a bag of food for him. I was feeling good and also had taught my children a lesson in being a good citizen, right? Turns out he was campimg out there for several weeks, the children were amazed he hadn’t peddled his way back to Alaska yet and they had to wait another week for to ride the bike. They told me not to give him another one, duh! I guess you never know and mostlikely the ones who need it most, never ask. The best bet is to help out someone who is trying to help themselves with a “hand up” not a “hand out”!

  29. bill says:

    I feel like a street beggar dealing with German or Swiss tourists trying to get a tip out of them. Why dont they just stay in Germany or buy Spain to take your cheapass vacations. Stay out of Canada. Americans are very welcome here.. why go to Germany! We have nothing in common with Germany. I hope they get screwed economically by all those European basket case countries. They take cheap to a whole new level. Im never visiting Germany or buying a German car! Yay lufthansa attendants keep on striking..shut that cheap ass country down and keep em away from here!!!

  30. DaveW says:

    I usually give money, a pop/soda/Coke, a gift certificate for a coffee, or something to whomever asks (admittedly, I don’t run a gauntlet like I’ve seen in NYC).

    I often get the comment from my companions about how money will just go to drugs/booze/bad stuff. Yes, that is, in many cases, true. I also know from my experience volunteering in homeless shelters that the money goes to tiny luxuries like a jar of peanut butter or a chocolate bar – something they don’t get in shelters but makes their lives just that little bit more livable.

  31. J.R. Locke says:

    I left Manhattan 10 years ago, but at that time you couldn’t walk 10 feet without being accosted for money, or set upon by some stranger wanting to hustle something from you. Back home it was a survival mechanism, an almost Darwinian adaptation, the hard shell, the auto-skeptisism of the stranger. Now that I live away from home I find it to be a dis-advantage.

    J.R. Locke

  32. Andrea says:

    The baby formula thing is a scam. It’s pretty pricey stuff and they sell it for cash.

  33. Amy says:

    I do normally love your blog, but I can’t help but dislike Anne in this post. “We would never be in that position.” reeks of nasty privilege. Like you say, anyone can end up short a bus fare or forget their wallet and need some cash. There was a case here where a girl didn’t have enough for the bus and she was raped as she walked home. Everyone started slating the other passengers for not giving her the change, but having been in that situation before I know that very few people will actually stump up the change even when they have no reason to think it’s a scam. And a lot of it comes from thinking like Anne’s- “I would never be in that scenario” with the implied addition: I’m better than that”.

    I’m sure Anne is a good person in general, but it sounds like she needs to remember how lucky she is.

  34. Jahnavi R. says:

    Hi Steve,
    I really like the way you laid the story out. It had levels, like Inception! (A story within a story.) I think that going back to look at the past within the past is a good way to explore moral dilemmas. It’s also great that you at least partially looked at both sides of the story and gave multiple points of view without hammering the idea that we shouldn’t give money to people (or should, for that matter). Personally, I feel very lucky that I’m in a position to be able to actually debate whether I should give money to people because it means I can.

  35. Nikita Arjun says:

    I really liked this. The one thing that I found really interesting was the way you took us back to the incident the day before. At, one point you were telling us about your morning, then suddenly you start relating to us the incident, and then you were back to telling us about your morning. It was like, you were giving us a running commentary of the incident while it was happening. Honestly, it felt like I was reading a book, which had suspense, and you just can’t wait to see what happens next.

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