Friday, October 9, 2009

Dearth in the Afternoon

Conrad (Barnaby, not Joseph) is most likely your closest friend, a connection bridged across many improbabilities not the least of them being the fact that you read him intensely and carefully before you met him and certainly before your days in San Francisco, when you'd wander over to his saloon with a group of chums from The Old Spaghetti Factory Cafe on Green Street.  There was a time in your twenties when your interest in bullfighting reached a peak and, after reading the encyclopedic and self-important Death in the Afternoon by EMH, you first checked in on Conrad, only to be put off by what your own ignorance of the Spanish language caused you to think Conrad was just like EMH, going to the extreme of dedicating a book to himself.  (Va por ti, Barnabito is taken literally, It goes for you, little Barnaby, as in his first-born son, whom you would meet years later.)

Somehow, you were called in to serve on the faculty of Conrad's Santa Barbara Writers' Conference in 1980, and when the Conference ended while June morphed into July, you were invited to lunch again and again, from which point your friendship grew.

Yesterday, at yet another lunch (Mondays and Thursdays have become your lunch days with BC), he extended a book toward you and asked you to read a marked passage.  The book was Sammy, an autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr, with help from a collaborator.  Two weeks earlier, (at the same restaurant) Conrad had shown you yet another book, Golden Dreams, which was a history of California in the 1950s, written by Kevin Starr, professor emeritus at USC, and also librarian emeritus of California.  There was not only a photo of Conrad but several mentions of him throughout the text.  "It is amazing that he remembered these specific events,"  Conrad said, speaking to their accuracy.

The Sammy Davis, Jr. book had a three- or four-paragraph description of how Conrad, solicitous of Davis' interest in bullfighting, met with him frequently to show him how to manipulate the cape and muleta, then took him on several occasions to Tijuana, during the off-season, working out with him in the bull ring, showing him how to work with young calves and cows.

"None of this is true," Conrad said.  "We had some long discussions about bulls, but we were both quite drunk, and the closest his narrative came to accuracy was the time he visited my saloon and I used a table cloth to demonstrate the Veronica and media-Veronica.  The rest is entirely invented."

"But to him, it was all real,"  I countered.

"Spoken like a fiction writer,"  Conrad observed.  "Fiction writers love to see magic in the ordinary." 

You nodded.  This observation is one of Conrad's bedrock beliefs.  He expressed it to you in his dedication of his last novel, which at the time caused you to argue that there was nothing ordinary about the novel.  "True enough," he said at the time, "but it might have been."

"What is the more real?"  I asked.  "Sammy Davis's vision or Kevin Starr's?"

"I should have ordered your fish taco,"  he reflected, "and you should have ordered my enchilada.  Perhaps next time."

Which is about as much of an explanation as can be made:  We are in constant effort to take in as much as we can of an incident before filing it away for later use, at which time it emerges with a life of its own, whereupon we bring it forth as elements in an illustrated illusion.  Thus we are all magicians, rearranging reality for effect.

"I will tell you," Conrad said, "that one year not too long ago at the Bohemian Groves Summer Camp Gathering, "I shared a tent with Starr and a few others and I can tell you that he is a melodious snorer."

When I was at the luncheon where Starr spoke about his book, and I had the opportunity to introduce myself to him as a friend of Conrad, I saw his frankly stodgy face crinkle into a much more agreeable smile of recognition.  "How IS Barney?" Starr asked.  Of course, knowing Starr was a melodious snorer had already worked its magic on me.



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