Monday, April 19, 2010

Unkefer, the Bird Refuge, and an Art Gallery in Carpinteria

The large pond just below East Beach on Cabrillo Blvd. is known as The Bird Refuge. It is ar least two acres of a murky, algae-filled water that attracts birds, particularly ducks. Across the road from The Bird Refuge are two entirely different restaurants, the northernmost being Stella Mare, The Star of the Sea, a refurbished old mansion with a whimsical complement of rooms in which meals are presented as elegant and are close to being so. Next to it is the more laid back Casa del Sol, switching from an Italian name to the Spanish House of the Sun.

You have dined comfortably at each. If you were interested in a more ambitious meal, you would chose the Stella Mare, but today, having just come from a rather lackluster clam chowder at The Montecito Coffee Shop, your regular Monday venue for lunch with Barnaby Conrad, you were pleased that Duane Unkefer had suggested Casa del Sol for coffee and the business of settling your choices as judges for a short story contest sponsored by The Santa Barbara Arts Fund.

Here we are, you observed, two middle-aged men, seated at a patio built around the concept of watching ducks which neither of us intend to hunt and for which we are probably being charged at least an extra two dollars for the privilege.

This observation is nothing you consider funny. Borderline ironic, perhaps. Nevertheless it caused Unkefer, who had already been served his coffee, to spew a mouthful of it onto his jacket, then rush for repairs to the men's room, reminding you as he took his leave of the last time you met for coffee at the Carpinteria Coffee Bean, where his spew of coffee at something you'd said landed on no particular target. Rather, it seemed to just vaporize. This is not meant to suggest that Unkefer is a frequent spewer of coffee. It is another matter altogether. One of the prime ingredients of your long-term friendship is the chemistry it provides for each of you finding the other disturbingly funny.

You could, if you saw fit, observe that there is something inherently funny whenever two middle-age writers sit to catch up on events in the other's life, books read, projects being worked upon, and the still seemingly incomprehensible fact of Unkefer, who draws and paints as well as write, being a major partner in an art gallery. This in itself is not funny until you reckon with the fact of the gallery being in Carpinteria, next door to a restaurant called The Busy Bee, which is a trove of ceramic replicas of beehives, bees, and honey pots. It gets funnier when you reckon with the fact that a number of things in the window of Unkefer's gallery look as though they belong next door, or that when Unkefer observes his hours in the gallery, strange individuals and tourists seem to descend upon him to confide in him their troubles

You both approach the subject of the judging with practiced caution because one of the entrants in the contest is a former student of Unkefer's who happens also to be quite a dear friend of yours. You begin when a refreshed Unkefer returns from the rest room, speaking of individuals neither of you is fond of, at which point, even though there is a matter of a health problem attached to one person, Unkefer says something you find funny. Fortunately, you had not taken on a sip of coffee.

For the better part of an hour, the transaction between the two of you is not to discuss the individual findings you have achieved as judges but instead to cause each other to laugh.

There are worse reasons for acquaintances and friendships. Indeed, yours and Unk's began when, before you'd met in person, he called to thank you for a review you'd written of his novel, Gray Eagles. Things did not begin to get funny between you until he called, eager to show off his bargain of a used car, purchased for a mere $60 from the mechanic you'd given the car in frustration because it seemed completely uninterested in running for more than a mile or two before stopping.

Things have been funny ever since, in one way or another, including your prediction that Unkefer's decision to move to Portland would not last six months. How could you know, he wondered when he returned five months later, almost to the day. Because of snow, you said. In places where there is snow, women do not wear the kinds of clothing, particularly shoes, you are accustomed to seeing women wear on a year-round basis. Come to think about it, he did spew coffee when you told him Alaska was another place he wanted to avoid.

The contest, you say? Ah, the contest.

What are the odds that you had the identical first place and the two runners-up?

Funny you should ask.

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