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Al Martinez

A nowhere man crowned with status in a town that worships rank. : Notes on the Mayor of Malibu

February 20, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

I stop by every once in awhile to talk to the mayor of Malibu, a bum named Joe who lives in a strip of oleander bushes behind a Texaco station off Pacific Coast Highway.

I don't know why I stop, actually, because it's so hard to understand what the hell he's saying, being that Joe has hardly any teeth and at 94 is maybe a little senile.

It was kind of a bum-to-bum conversation, I guess, because I was drifting along the ocean myself in a pre-spring haze, looking for a little of this and and a little of that among the people, the way Joe digs for survival from the garbage cans of the affluent.

He was sitting under an oleander bush drinking a cup of cold coffee from an old cottage cheese container when I pulled up. Water dripped from the leaves and the air glistened after the previous night's rain. The whole world seemed to shimmer.

"How you doing, Mayor?" I asked, and he mumbled in response. Something like "Mbugfome igrabet, eh?"

Joe is almost impossible to understand when you begin a conversation. Later on it gets a little clearer, but never much.

I think he said he was doing OK but his bones hurt. That's the way it is sometimes with old men after the rain, especially those who live in the open. The dampness seeps in.

I'm not sure who began calling Joe the mayor of Malibu, but I like the irony. A nowhere man crowned with status in a town that worships rank. Locals just refer to him as Malibu Joe.

His home for as long as anyone can remember has been that three-foot-wide strip behind the gas station. Joe sometimes tells people he's been in the area 40 years and tells others that he's been around for 23 years, so who knows?

He lives amid everything he owns in the world--an old bike he sometimes pumps at a snail's pace up Pacific Coast Highway, a mattress, some blankets, a bottle of apple juice, a bag of Fritos, a couple of cans of beer, some oranges.

He never takes gifts or money from anyone, it is said, but if you leave a sweater or a good pair of shoes or maybe a cooked T-bone on top of a nearby trash can, he'll grab it.

"You ought to get a little burner and heat the water for your coffee," I said, watching him sip the filmy liquid in the waxed cottage cheese carton.

Joe was wearing a plaid shirt and trousers as filthy as a dog's blanket, and an old fedora with enough holes to ventilate a room.

"Why?" he said, looking up at me from under the brim.

"It'll taste better."

He thought about that then said, "It's instant."

Somehow that made sense to me, which is probably the reason I talk with Joe occasionally. We share a common logic.

"You like living here, Joe?" I asked.

He sort of shrugged in response like it really didn't matter, and then he said, "Suntaloose rickteenyurs."

We worked on that one for a bit and it came out "St. Louis for 16 years." It was better in Malibu than in St. Louis. Especially in the winter.

What Joe dislikes most about any place is cold wind. He loves the warm sun that burns the summers of the southern coast and doesn't mind the rain all that much, but a chill wind sets his old bones rattling and his leathered skin stinging.

"Wind hurts me," he tells interviewers.

He wants to always be someplace where the sun is warm and the wind doesn't blow, like Ratso in "Midnight Cowboy."

"Tell me, Joe," I said, "where do you go when it rains?" He had a piece of old plastic drying on a nearby oleander but it wasn't big enough to cover anything.

"Someplace else," Joe mumbled.


He looked at me as if it were the dumbest damned question he'd ever heard and said irritably and with surprising clarity, "Where it isn't raining."

A maroon Jaguar slipped into a parking spot near Joe's campsite. A woman got out and avoided the mayor as though he smelled like rotting garbage, which he really doesn't. A little gamy, maybe, but not rotten. Joe seemed to notice her distaste but said nothing.

He just looked at the ground, the way he does quite often, and stirred his filmy cold coffee with a stick.

Later he told me he once had a wife named Sarah and a son named Joseph. I think he said they lived in Modesto, but I can't be sure. When I tried to pin him down he just shook his head. There was sadness to his voice when he said their names.

"Do you miss them, Joe?"

He didn't answer. No mumble, no gesture, nothing. Of course he missed them, maybe in a way he doesn't quite understand himself, down deep where hurt never stops.

I left Joe sipping from the cottage cheese carton and staring into space. Sometimes he grinned and sometimes his lips moved. A man who'd seen me talking to him walked by and said, "Our local dirt bag."

As I drove away, I kept watching Joe in my rear-view mirror until I couldn't see him anymore. The sun was bright and warm and there was no wind blowing. It was a perfect day for bums.

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