Thursday, January 24, 2013

Schoolboys Snapping Towels in the Locker Room

You'd not heard the expression Renaissance Man until you were well into your final undergraduate year.  When you delved into the implications of what it meant, you wished to become one and were willing to devote considerable time and effort to the enterprise.  As you began to realize how high that bar was set, you thought instead to pursue difficult but at least attainable goals of becoming a writer and an autodidact.

You did not hear the term Renaissance Man used again until it was used in context with Barnaby Conrad.  As you came to know him (and hear the term again and again), you began to have a sense of what being a Renaissance Man involved, and you realized accordingly that you'd been smarter as an undergraduate that you originally supposed to keep your focus on things closer to hand.

Sometimes, without seeming to engage deliberate thought, you reach past the shaving cream bomb for a well-aged shaving brush with a silver handle, its badger bristles fluffy and alert to the task at hand.  The process requires thirty seconds or so of facial steaming with a wash rag, then a choice to be made from one of the tubs of shaving soap given you for some birthday or some Christmas by Barnaby Conrad at some time in a past that has enough individualized memories to make it a happy, wondrous blur.

The ritual of shaving with a brush takes longer than the more slap-dash daily approach using an aerosol container of soap and emulsifier and heaven only knows what other long chemical names with -enes and -ous inserted into their names.  You believe Conrad gave you the brush and tubs of soap after you once confessed you'd for a period of time shaved with a straight razor.  The confession came about when he'd questioned a particular scar on the middle finger of your right hand and you'd had to confess to the day when, shaving with a straight razor, your mind had wandered just a tad, you'd let go of the razor, then reached reflexively to retrieve it.

"Seems to me,"  he said, "a man should have a shaving brush."

You were half way through the lathering process this morning before you realized you'd reached past the striped can of Barbisol and the distinctive blue-and-white Noxema bomb to the shaving brush.  After you finished shaving and the brimming bowl of cafe latte before you, your target through the early morning rain was the Rincon Point enclave where Conrad waited, an imposing figure yet in the hospital bed in the living room which, of all the many maze-like rooms in the house, is an overflow of various trompes l'oeil, including a pair of what appear to be needlework pillows of famous portraits from major galleries, each with the head of a dog.

A Hospice nurse was just finishing her shaving of Conrad's Google Map of a face, its features in full relief, revealing merriment and curiosity.  "I always wondered how I'd look, being shaved.  Tell me, how do I look?"

You were thinking of the shaving brush and your choice of the almond-scented cream.

"You look,"  you said, "born to being shaved."  You were thinking he looked born to most everything he'd attempted, including the afternoon with you riding shotgun in one of a succession of Dodge vans he favored, when he located a mini-mart of a Chevron station in nearby Goleta, he located what the manager swore to be authentic low-fat Gummi bears.  "Now,"  he said, popping a slithery one into his cheek, " I can eat twice as many."

Because of his enormous range of interests, he seemed in perpetual and animated conversations with a broad variety of friends.  One late June night, when the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference was being held at the beachfront Miramar Hotel, you stopped by the cocktail lounge to pick up a Campari and soda to take with you to the basement auditorium where your late night fiction workshop was held.  Seated at a corner table were Conrad and Patrick Cunningham, a longtime friend, also a man who'd been in the bullring and who had written books.  They were arguing as you approached about a particular corrida they'd seen in Spain, disputing a succession of moves the way two chess buffs would deconstruct a fabled game.

"That wasn't the way of it at all,"  Cunningham said, bolting to his feet.  "Hold my hat,"  he said, thrusting a seasoned straw at you while he swept the tablecloth off the table he and Conrad had been sharing,then draped it in the manner of a cape. Although both had obviously been toasting their friendship a number of times,  Cunningham seemed to lose thirty or so years, his stance and demeanor in place as a torrero.  "Here,"  he said to Conrad.  "He did this, bringing the bull to a skidding halt."

Not to be outdone, Conrad rose.  "Nice pass, but that would not have impacted a bull of such size.  Here,"  reached for a chair, hefted it by its back, then thrust the legs toward Cunningham.  Two tipsy friends were nevertheless convincing torrero and practice bull.  "Try that pass on me.  You'll see."

Cunningham advanced, extended the tablecloth cape.  As though Conrad were a bull, Cunningham challenged him, dared him to attack the cape.

You have seen a number of corridas--no where near the aggregate of these two--but enough for you to see the seriousness beyond the apparent mischief.  For the next ten minutes, the cocktail lounge became a bull ring before ending as many such things do, with each participant believing he had demonstrated his point.

Cunningham strode to the doorway, then called back.  "If I had enough money with me, I'd buy a substitute bull."

"If it were me,"  Conrad smiled, "I'd hook to the left."

Schoolboys, snapping towels in a locker room.

At the Wednesday writer's lunch held at the Cafe del Sol, facing the Bird Refuge, Conrad and writer Laird Koenig were pursuing another confrontation.  "I tell you,"  Koenig said, "it was Maria Ouspenskaya who portrayed the mother in the film version of Dodsworth."

"Was not."

"Then whom?"

In some ways, the one-up contests between Conrad and Koenig give you the most pleasure of all.  Neither is a show-off, yet each is proud of his store of fact.

"So, you want to marry my son?"

"Yes, that's the line.  But not Ouspenskaya."

"It was she, who, by the way, was a student of Stanislavski at the Academy."

School boys, snapping towels.

A year or so after the bullfighting incident, but still at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, Conrad approached you.  "I owe you lunch for what you did last night,"  he said.

Such offers were more often celebrations when he'd sold a particularly high-priced painting or had landed a book contract.  You naturally wanted to know what it was you'd done.

"The way you one-upped Artie Shaw."

You were not aware you'd even been in an exchange with Shaw.  That would not come for at least another five years.  What Conrad referred to was Shaw, being the speaker of the day at the eight o'clock program in the main auditorium.  Before an audience of about three hundred, Shaw related how tired he'd come to be with playing one of his big hits, Frenisi, when the band was on tour.  "Every damned night,"  Shaw said.  "Play Frenisi.  It was driving me wild and I'd come to hate the damn song."  But not, apparently, did Shaw hate the song as much as his lead piano, a gifted-but-moody young man whose name Shaw could not remember.  In fact, Shaw went on, nobody in this room could possibly know.

Suddenly, you knew.

The pianist warned Shaw somewhere near Waterloo, Iowa, that if one more fan requested Frenisi, he was going to walk off the bandstand and never come back.

You were seated well toward the back of the auditorium.  "Dodo Marmarosa,"  you said.  "He was your pianist before Johnny Guarnieri."

Standing at the lectern, microphone on, Shaw said, "Son of a bitch."  Then he said it again, and then,  "Dodo fucking Marmarosa.  That crazy kid."

"Be sure to order the lobster Newberg,"  Conrad said.  "You brought Shaw down in front of three hundred people."

Schoolboys, snapping towels in the locker room.

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