In the shaving room

by Brian Clarey

“Have you had a shave yet today?” asks my friend Aidan Gill, the Irish barber.

I run my hand across one stubbly cheek and the matter is settled.

Within seconds I am leaned back in a vintage barber chair in the shaving room, my ankles propped on a cushiony rail.

“It’s transcendent,” Gill says to me as his man preps my face. “You’re not gonna talk. He’s not gonna talk. And I’d be surprised if you don’t fall asleep.”

Then comes the first of the hot towels, straight from the steam, gingerly wrapped about my face

and chin, my nose poking out like the stamen on some weird, masculine flower. I take deep, measured breaths and sink into the chair, trying to get my head around the last couple days.

We’re back in New Orleans, my wife and I, with our friend Tim Betts, who’s along for the ride and to lend his guitar to my untrained voice. We drove 800 miles in a single day, across the tail of the Appalachians and into the Alabama flats, down to the Bottom South before cocktail hour ended — though, to be fair, cocktail hour is only vaguely defined in New Orleans.

We came to sell books. That’s our story, anyway, and we’ve filled our days with appointments at bookshops, promotional events and readings. But also this is a homecoming of sorts, a return to the place where I formed as a writer, a reunion with the people who encouraged me along the way.

The Irish barber is one of those folks. We go back more than 20 years, after he followed his heart from Dublin to New Orleans with a load of antique barbershop memorabilia — straight razors, chairs, display cases and the like. His dream was to open a high-end, old-fashioned gentlemen’s barbershop, a vision revealed to me in detail over a few years’ worth of visits to his tiny, two-chair shop when he wasn’t regaling me with tales about the bloody history of his craft, exercising vigorous disrespect for authority or trying to talk me out of wearing my hair in a ponytail.

Now he has this luxe shop on Magazine Street attended by bowtied gents and another just like it downtown, a line of product bear ing his name, a sort of infamy. He purveys a lifestyle — a type of masculine elegance symbolized by the surgical steel, the hot towels, the whiskey and cigars. Aidan Gill For Men is a real thing now, noted on tourism websites and celebrated on the pages of Playboy and GQ.

“You did exactly what you said you were gonna do,” I told him just before the shave.

And so, he reminded me, did I. Now, on the chair, there are oils and lotions, seasoning the skin and beard, preparing it for the cut. Another hot towel makes another strange bloom on my 40-year-old face. The breathing goes slow and deep. I drift.

We took a night to have dinner with Chicago Rob and hit the bars, collecting the nearly forgotten faces of our past like bottlecaps, filling our purses, filling our cups, filling the hours on the roads we once walked, filling our minds with those old, familiar songs.

Oh yes, the city has changed in the decade since we left, just as we have changed in the ensuing years. But the river still cuts a beautiful turn here on its way to the Gulf; the oysters, shucked by hand, still taste like stolen morsels of the sea; the streetcar still lumbers along its line, past the bunting and grandstands of Mardi Gras, just now starting to rise.

And this much remains true: New Orleans calls you back when you need her most, nestles you to her bosom and reminds you why you still love her, why you always will.

In the barber chair. More oil. More hot towels. A soft lather whispers across my cheeks. Then there is the metallic scrape of the razor on skin, first with the grain and then against, reducing the beard to a ghost of a presence on my face.

Braced with a cold towel followed by a warm farewell, I’m back on the streets of New Orleans for another day. Then it will be the long haul back to Greensboro, the back leg of the journey — which we all know is more important than the destination itself. On the drive we’ll rehash those sweet moments we had down here in the cradle, then and now, and after we hit the driveway we’ll disperse the gifts, show the cell-phone photo album and tuck the kids into bed. By the time I wake up in the morning, the bristly whiskers on my cheeks will be back, though the shave will not be forgotten.