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Slices of life

January 9, 2009
By Bob Seidenstein,

It's amazing the things we consider necessities that not long ago were thought of as divine luxuries.

A good example is shaving. It's been around for thousands of years, certainly. But only within the last 100 years or so could it be done daily, painlessly and cheaply.

Shaving was done by the ancients - in fact, Alexander the Great mandated it for his troops so they had no beards to be grabbed by enterprising enemies. However, how they shaved makes my skin crawl, if not erupt in hives: B.C. bronze razors? Thanks, but no thanks. I think I'd take my bearded chances with the barbarians.

Shaving stayed a brutal endeavor till steelmaking improved to the point that fine straight razors could be made. Of course, having a straight razor (affectionately dubbed "throat cutters" by our British cousins) and actually shaving with it were two different things.

First, it required fine technique - both with shaving and sharpening. Second, it was prohibitively expensive for the average man. And third, it required hot water - something that until recently didn't just come left of the left tap but that you had to make.

Thus, most men had to go to a barber shop to get shaved, something they did infrequently, like bathing (though from what I've read, they bathed far less than they shaved, and the less said about that, the better).


Memories of a little shaver

Though you might not realize it, straight razors were an integral part of my barbershop experience from earliest childhood until all the old-time barbers shuffled off to The Great Tonsorial Parlor in the Sky.

Of course, I didn't get shaved with a straight razor. Instead, it was used for trims around the ears and down the back of the neck. I remember it as a glorious feeling. First, hot lather was smoothed on, then the trim was made with precise cuts and strokes that made a slight freakish chill run down my spine. I think the chill was due to the ever-present fear that maybe this time the barber would sneeze, cough or have a sudden seizure and decapitate me in the process. Believe me, there was no shortage of mad barber slasher stories, of which I heard more than my fair share.

Not that I really worried about my barber, who was the epitome of rock-solid. His name was Frank Savoca and he made up half the staff of the Main Street barber shop, which was right next to the Post Office Pharmacy.

His partner was John Deredita and they were both excellent barbers. They also were polar opposites. Mr. Deredita was old, thin, sweet and apparently frail (even though he cut hair six days a week, into his 80s). In comparison, Frank was younger, darker, stockier and was surrounded by a faintly menacing air.

Perhaps his menace was more imagined than real, based on what I'd heard about his secondary occupation: It was an open secret that Frank was a gambler - that is, a real gambler, as in a man who made and took bets.

I said gambling was his secondary occupation, but I think it was such in name only - I'm sure he earned far more by gambling than he did by cutting hair. Certainly, whenever anyone mentioned him as a gambler, they did it with a note of respect bordering on awe. Among the gambling cognoscenti of My Home Town, his rep as a gambler was like Dr. Carl Merkel's as a surgeon, Fred Goodrich's as a mechanic, or Louise Wilson's as a teacher. In short, there may have been others as good ... but probably none that were better.

Since I never gambled, I never talked to Frank about it, and anything I ever heard about his gambling was second-hand. But what I did talk to him about was sports. In fact, he was the only person I've ever enjoyed talking sports with.

Why is that? Simple: Sports fans are an emotional lot and they're personally invested in all the rigamarole. They love this team, that pitcher, this event, that series. Or they hate that coach, this goalie, that linebacker, this stadium. And the more they love or hate whatever it is they love or hate, the more animated, enthusiastic and adamant they become. They also become louder and sillier, if not downright juvenile, so listening to sports fans appeals to me as much as listening to a bunch of my students discussing all the details of Friday night's great dorm party.

But it was totally different with Frank. When he talked about sports, he did it with cool detachment and surgical precision. If he talked about a player or a team, he talked in specific, objective terms, giving facts, figures and odds, not just his opinions or feelings. If a team won in a huge upset, he explained why they won and what the chances were for their continued success, not how great or rotten a deal it was, and certainly not how he felt about it.

In other words, when it came to sports, he truly knew what he was talking about. Then again, since that's how he made his money (or didn't), he needed to know what he was talking about. He had to be as exact with his sports observations as he did with his straight razor, a mistake with either one possibly leading to serious bloodshed.

You know, memory is a funny thing. These were my recollections of Frank and I was sure they were correct. But that's exactly how reality evolves into myth: You tell the same stories over and over and after a while he wasn't a six-footer, he was six foot five; we won by 38 points, not eight; he didn't just lose money in that hand, but he lost his car, his house and his wife. And so on.

Clearly, Frank was a great teacher and I learned a lot from him, not just about how to analyze sports, but how to analyze everything. And if he had two commandments of analysis, the first was to gather facts, not opinions, and the second was to make your decisions with your head, not your heart. Not that I do it all the time, but at least I know it's what I should do.

So, ultimately, the big question arose: Was Frank really as sharp as I thought he was? While at this point that's impossible to prove or disprove, an interaction I had a few weeks ago makes me think I'm right.

I was talking to one of my favorite old guys, who'd been a regular in the Elks Clubs card games and various other shenanigans, and in the course of our conversation, he mentioned Frank Savoca.

"So, tell me," I said, "how good a gambler was Frank?"

"Well," he said, "I won hundreds of dollars from Frank."

"You did?" I asked, surprised.

He nodded but said nothing. Then, when he did speak, he added what I think is the last word on the subject.

"And Frank," he said, sighing, "won thousands from me."



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