Nature has its little ways of informing us that we’re over the hill. There is hair and/or memory loss, of course, and the unrequested arrival in the mail of one’s AARP membership card-an honor recently bestowed upon me in the midst of my 50th-birthday celebrations. But I’ve recently discovered another reminder of my mortality: Companies have started discontinuing some of my favorite products, because me and maybe five other guys on the planet are the only people who use them any more. It happened to my mother before me: She could no longer find the Lady Ester pancake makeup (originally sold at Woolworth’s) she’d been using since she was 18.
After much detective work, she finally located the last remaining stash of the stuff somewhere in Pennsylvania. “I ordered something like three or four dozen cases,” she told me. “I figure it will last me till the end of my life.”
Now it was my turn to make the same rude discovery that fashion, taste and perhaps pulsating life itself have left me behind-not once, but twice. The first case of product extinction I was to experience involved Palmolive soap. For those unfamiliar with the product, it’s a wholly inoffensive green bar of soap that I first developed an attachment to at my grandparents’ apartment. Childhood memories of its mild scent are inextricably mingled with Saturday-morning walks in Central Park with my grandfather and the maddening way he used to dole out Lifesavers to his ravenous grandchildren, one to a person.
I rediscovered Palmolive about a decade ago. In addition to all the Proustian memories it stirred up, you couldn’t beat the price-about two bucks for three bars. In short order, it became my family’s default soap, the brand we could always rely on when the hotel soap we’d stolen on our last vacation ran out, or when I was too cheap to buy what I consider to be the world’s most sublime bar of soap: Annick Goutal’s Eau d’Hadrien, which retails for about $18 at Bloomingdale’s, and may actually be worth it.
However, at some time in the course of the last year, Palmolive has vanished from the shelves of my local Grand Union. Wal-Mart seems to have stopped carrying it, too. Rite Aid-which always had it when no one else did-no longer does.
In desperation, I called Colgate-Palmolive a couple of weeks ago. A customer-service representative admitted that it’s increasingly hard to find because store managers prefer to stock merchandise with higher profit margins-items like liquid soap.
Colgate referred me to an independent distributor whose sales rep assured me I wasn’t alone in the product wilderness. “We do get a lot of calls for Palmolive green soap,” she told me. “It’s one of our most popular items.”
This was encouraging news, until curiosity compelled me to ask who my fellow consumers were. “Nursing homes,” she said. “It’s our second most popular soap after Cashmere Bouquet.” Nonetheless, I bought a 48-bar case from her for an eminently reasonable $31.55, including shipping. So my soap deprivation worries are gone, at least for the moment. Unfortunately, just as that problem was solved, another one popped up.
On my semi-annual visit to Dunhill on Fifth Avenue to stock up on my beloved Classic aftershave, I was informed with little fanfare and no apology that the aftershave I’ve been using my entire adult life (and that my father used before me) had ceased to exist.
“It wasn’t selling,” a salesman told me. However, he immediately contradicted himself by confiding that lots of people have been asking for it. Not only that, but preferred customers-of which I apparently was not one-had been forewarned. “People were buying cases of it,” the salesman told me.
Dunhill stores that I called in Chicago, San Francisco, London and even Dubai were also sold out. A salesman at the Chicago store (who, by the way, bought as many bottles as he could for himself) suggested I switch to the Classic cologne. I did, but it’s not the same thing: It’s stronger, way more expensive and, worst of all, comes with one of those sissy spray-mist tops that prevents me from applying it to my skin in manly, splashing doses.
Switching aftershaves is not an option. A man’s scent is his signature, a reflection of his personality; it doesn’t change over time. If anything, it hardens, it calcifies. Asking him to find a new aftershave is like asking him to become a Republican if he’s voted Democratic his whole life.
You might wonder if my tumble into product purgatory made me feel ancient. Quite the contrary: It made me feel more steadfast, more resolute, more permanent. I ain’t going nowhere; it’s the world that’s flying apart.
Though I am forced to confess that I did call Kiehl’s-less because I was looking for a replacement cologne than because Kiehl’s seems to be on the cutting edge of metrosexual chic, and I needed reassurance that I wasn’t becoming an anachronism. Yes, one of their lab-coated technicians told me, aftershave remains popular. But when I asked what Kiehl’s product she’d recommend, it was obvious we inhabited different ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“The men’s alcohol-free toner has lavender, great burdock and ivy,” she told me. “It’s very calming and soothing.”
But I don’t want calming and soothing. I want bracing and stinging, I want something that’s going to jump-start my skin in the morning, something that kills germs and will double as a disinfectant if one of my kids gets a splinter or steps on glass.
A follow-up conversation with Abbie Schiller, Kiehl’s vice president of P.R., culminated in a recommendation that I try their Multi-Purpose Facial Formula for Men. “It’s brand-new,” she boasted. “It’s sold out twice. It has eucalyptus extract as well as caffeine.”
But I’m not looking for a beverage, either. “The trend is to stay away from heavily fragranced products,” she went on. “The trend is towards good treatment products, products with a purpose.”
But my aftershave did have a purpose, a higher purpose: It somehow grounded me, making me feel part of the circle of life that started with my father, continued with me and would invariably have led to my own sons, if I’d had sons. Instead, I had daughters, who-perhaps because they’re part of this new hypo-allergenic generation-beg me to shower as soon as I splash on my scent.
My story has a happy ending, though-at least in the short term. On a recent visit to Paris, I located four bottles of my beloved aftershave, perhaps the last four bottles in the public domain, at a Dunhill shop near the Champs Élysée. Not only that, but the price couldn’t be beat-29 euros, as opposed to $37 in New York.
So, with my new stockpile of aftershave, I’m set for about the next five years. But what am I supposed to do then? Come to think of it, what’s the shelf life of aftershave, anyway?
“About five years,” a Dunhill salesman told me.
“What happens after that?” I asked.
“Then it turns into Paul Newman salad dressing,” he said.