IN my youth I, like everyone else, planned to become a great man. At times, however,—for all that I had skipped the seventh grade and won a silver badge from St. Nicholas, I began to have misgivings in the matter. As the years passed, and skipped no more grades and won no more badges, the misgivings mounted. That I had genius I never doubted; but, reading how Francis Thompson lived and Chatterton died, I was forced to wonder whether a coarse, cold-hearted world would ever discern it. There was perhaps something a little too fine about me for success. I rather lacked push; not better men, but brasher ones, would probably carry off the prizes.
About that time, with the pride that apes humility, I began to take a perverse pleasure in blocking out a different sort of future. I would not even court greatness; instead, I would go masked in the garments of mediocrity—and in those deceptive togs, electrify whoever came my way. I would be the cigar clerk who suddenly quoted Plato, the Western Union boy who unraveled Einstein. It was not so bold a dream, this plan of traveling intellectually incognito; but it had its own kind of lure. Surely it is the fellow who does not seem impressive that can most signally impress; it is only someone not featured in the billing who can really steal the show.
I mulled over my possible roles — postman, panhandler, baggage-smasher, cop; but they involved too hurried entrances or too agitated scenes. I needed an audience with time on its hands and no possible avenue of escape. The right role, I saw in a flash, was that of a barber. A barber, besides keeping you chained and sedentary, is of all men the least esteemed for his conversation. But I would be a barber whose conversation made Boswells of his customers.
The customers themselves would be — they somehow had to be — as remarkable as I was. Toscanini should climb into my chair, dreading my chatter and all set to demolish it. But T would quietly hum an air from Orfeo or Die Zauberflöte, and then for an hour and a half for in his excitement, the maestro would submit to every item in the barber’s repertory —I would flourish a mental razor along with a manual one; he should hear plainsong deftly dissected, and nod gratefully about the tempo of a Schubert first movement. Or Bernard Shaw (for this would be a barbershop that sneered at geography) would step up for a beard trim, and stand down with his eyes alight. Scholars would find me at home in Arabic; to bankers I would expound the currency, to geologists the terrain; and the town wits would scamper off to repeat — or pilfer — my mots.
You can foresee what would happen. “Had the damnedest experience today,”great men would tell their friends. “Got shaved by a barber named Looie — most amazing guy you ever saw in your life. Brilliant! Magnetic! A lesson to us all!” In a week, people would be coming to me by appointment; in a month, the barbershop would be a landmark; in two months, a shrine. The tips would be stupendous. But no, it would seem a sacrilege to tip me — my customers would send me rare wines, exquisite water colors, hand-tooled books, seats for the opera (though never, from a sense of delicacy, one particular opera of Rossini’s). They would build dinner parties around me.
Universities would ask me to lecture, as they did Gene Tunncy; Information Please would feature me as an infinitely more dazzling Moe Berg. Fame, which I felt had barred me from the front door, would by now have pushed me, with all its might, through the back. I would even suffer that final manifestation of it: ennui. And then, fed up, I would cast all this glitter from me: one day Toscanini would suddenly snarl at a barber who dithered on about the weather, and Shaw would stomp out of his chair, his ears clogged with how the Dodgers were doing. I should, you can see, have triumphed right to the end.
If, after some thought, I declined the role, it was not because I feared I could not bring it off. It was because I had doubts of a different sort. After all, Toscanini might rave about my music criticism — until he saw what I had done to his mustache. Ambassadors might wish to whisk me off to palaces, but hardly when their faces were crisscrossed with sticking plaster. A great painter might relish a discussion of Van Gogh; but not when he found that, like Van Gogh, he had only one ear.