Sometimes you don’t get quite what you ordered for breakfast. Sometimes you get a helluva lot more. I ordered pancakes and coffee and got Smiling Jack.
After our night in the littlest barn in the desert, part of the California Ponderosa in Slab City CA, we were ready for breakfast. We’d eaten in Niland the evening before in Vicky’s Buckshot Deli and Diner. We were hungry after our mad rush to get to the East Jesus Sculpture Park before it closed (laugh’s still on me for that one!). The food was great – the burger didn’t look like it would win any prizes but man, oh man was it good. I’d promised myself to swing by for a coffee and cheesecake in the morning on our way out of town but hey – who’s to say a gal can’t have two breakfasts.
I was intrigued by a sign I’d seen as we’d driven through Slab City. And I was curious enough to want to check it out for myself. Bubba, apparently, summers as a chef on a dude ranch somewhere in Wyoming, I think it was. He winters in the Slabs and every other day, he dishes up breakfast to anyone interested. He even takes phoned-in pick-up orders. My $1.50 got me two pancakes and a cup of coffee. Another $1.50 got me some hashbrowns. Had I taken the time to read the menu properly, I might have gone for the breakfast sandwich. But it was busy, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I hate to keep a man waiting.
When we made our way into the little square surrounded on three sides by trailers to see half a dozen tables pretty well full and an open hutch in the trailer furthest from us, we weren’t quite sure how it all worked. While I doubted that we’d get table service, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do something stoopid that would mark me as a visitor (as it if wasn’t obvious already – damn accent!) But in Slab City, the locals are friendly. Not having bills to pay or rent to worry about can do that to a person. A lovely girl told us to order at the hatch, leave our name, take a seat, and Bubba would call us when the order was ready. So we went. We ordered. And we went to sit. There were two empty chairs at one table. I went over and asked the two boys sitting there if we could join them.
‘Hey, of course you can’, said the better looking of the two. ‘Pull up a chair. We don’t bite….ain’t got no teeth!’
‘Folks call me Smiling Jack.’
Smiling Jack has been smoking since he was five years old. His mama tried to cure him of the habit by making him smoke a big ole fat stogie. It didn’t work. He loved that cigar and he’s been smoking since. At 76, he’s a tad concerned that he might live as long as his grandad did.
My grandad was 105 when he died. And it wasn’t of natural causes either. Y’see, my grandma, she was 95, an’ she’d been married to his sorry ass since she was 13. So she poisoned him. Put strychnine in his food. Rat poison. They put her in a mad home somewhere….’
He’s had his fair share of hardships. Some years back, in a truck accident, he broke ribs, bones, and all ten toes. Another time, he was ambulanced out of the Slabs to find he had 90% blocked arteries. And he’s running on only one kidney. He winters in the Slabs because he can live cheaply and save some of his social security. This gets him through the summers in the Little Belt Mountains of Montana – his happy place.
He beat the draft by enlisting in the Navy, even though he’d never seen the sea. And when he did, he was terrified of the water. His first time out, they were south of the Equator somewhere in swelling seas and 45-degree rolls. He had to be tied to his bunk. It was shore duty for him after that.
He told us stories about growing pot in Colorado back in the day, huge plants that yielded 5lbs each. They could have grown in the telling, but I don’t think so. In California now, pot is legal. Billboards in LA advertise places that’ll deliver it to your door. Somewhere between the first and second coffee, someone passed some around. I declined, explaining that it makes me hungry and I’d eaten enough already. I got some sympathy there.
No one seems to have a lot of anything in the Slabs but they’re very generous with what they do. Smiling Jack explained it:
It’s easy to give when you’ve nothing much to give and everyone’s the same. But when you’ve lots of it, you want to mind it all, keep it for yourself.’
It wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation recently.
Like Spyder, he didn’t have much time for the tweakers either. They steal stuff. Tires. Engines. Generators. Anything. They need their fix. Smiling Jack? He needs a warm place to spend the winter with some good people who like to jaw.
He’ll start packing up the end of April and hit the road he travels twice a year. After nearly six months in the desert, he’ll be ready for his mountains. And when he does die, it’s on those mountains that his ashes will be spread. He’s it all arranged. All taken care of.
As we took our leave, I thought of how lucky Smiling Jack is – he’s richer than almost everyone I know. Not in terms of money or property or investments, but in terms of time. He has all the time he needs to do what he wants when he wants. And his needs are few. His biggest problem when the heat kicks in is melting ice-cream.
Maybe someday I’ll see him again, at Bubba’s, having his usual. Just thinking about that makes me smile. The man’s a living legacy. I feel honoured to have met him.