©2004, 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
NOTE TO READERS: The article below was written back in 2004. At that time, I submitted it to one of our local weeklies. The publisher/editor never printed it. I did not ask him why, but I supposed, with substantial grounds, that his reason was that it was “soft news”; i.e. material that had no immediate relevance for the populace but was a rather small matter that yet could in fact disturb them— they might avoid their local barbers and dentists. Also, while he puts out the best chronicle in the three-county area in the sense that his reporters cover ”hard news” (governmental, political and social events) more fully and accurately, he doesn’t have much appreciation for feature articles or what used to be called “familiar essays” (a common element in the “Talk of the Town” section of New Yorker magazine), which are my forte. So, this article has been stuck in my files all those years, yet I believe it still makes engrossing matter for the intellectually curious reader.
I have altered the names somewhat, reducing them to initials, because I did not have permission from the subjects to include their full names, although they knew I would publish the article sometime, somewhere. Also, the barber retired half a dozen years ago.
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There’s new news and there’s old news—but they are not always so simply distinguishable.
Take for example a recent trip to the barbershop for my monthly trim. I went to K. N.’s barbershop. Usually, one of the other barbers cuts my hair, but on this day I had the honor of K. N. himself shearing my mane. After he had done the basic work, he pressed out a palmful of lather and smeared it on my neck. It had been I don’t know how many years since anyone had done that.
“Since when did you start shaving the neck?” I asked. “I thought shaving was out ever since the AIDS scare happened.”
“Oh, we’ve got these stainless steel razors now,” he said. “I used to use Solingen steel blades from Germany. Other barbers used Sheffield steel from England. But they both had pores in them that retained blood. Now I use stainless steel. And I use it only one time.” The stainless steel blades, we discovered after looking at a box, are made in the U.S.
The State of Texas Barber Board, K.N. told me, sent out new regulations about ten years ago ordering barbers to quit using the porous razor blades. They also had to get rid of their strops and hones.
K.N. said he doesn’t offer shaves, even though they would be allowable with the stainless steel blade. He quit shaving years ago, he said, “because people have skin blemishes—like moles. And when you lather a customer up you can’t see the moles.”
About ten years ago was also when the Center for Disease Control, or CDC, sent out regulations telling dentists to modify their practices in the interest of reducing the potential for transmission of HIV, according to local dentist J.F.
The regulations were a response to the case of a dentist in Florida who a decade ago allegedly infected five patients with the AIDS virus, J.F. told me. However, he said, all five cases involved different strains of the virus.
My conversation with the doctor about AIDS developed when I went to see him about tender gums. As I sat in the chair I noticed that the ordinary chairside spittoon was missing.
“Where’s the spittoon?” I asked the dentist’s hygienist as she was sticking a tube in my mouth.
“Oh, we can’t use those anymore,” she said, “because of AIDS.”
What she had stuck in my mouth, J.F. later told me, is called a high-speed suction tube. It removes all that saliva and blood we used to spit into the spittoon. Also, J.F. said he has a line separator in his alley so that there is no possibility of backflow.
The doctor told me the amount of regulations controlling dental practice these days is voluminous. And some of them are ridiculous, he added. “The virus lives only minutes—some people say less than a minute—out of its moist environment,” he said. “But the regulations are so stringent; we can’t even give a kid his tooth to leave for the Tooth Fairy*. That tooth has to be treated as ‘medical waste’.”
While I was still there, J.F. called up the CDC to get a more definite fix on how long the HIV can live outside its fluid environment. However, they refused to give him a specific time period and said only that when the virus dries out it dies. They added that the hepatitis A virus could live several weeks in the open air before dying. (They obviously didn’t want to give the Tooth Fairy any wiggle room.)
So you see how a news story that began back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, continues to ripple into the 21st century. And how our daily lives are continually and probably forever changed in the minutest of ways by the event that created the story.
*Fairy: I don’t know how widely the folklore of the “Tooth Fairy” extends, so perhaps I should relate it briefly here. Children’s “baby teeth” begin to drop out at about age six. Generous, loving parents sometimes tell their child to put a dropped tooth under their pillow so that the Tooth Fairy can remove it and replace it with a small coin, such as a dime.