Streets: Joe Lopez

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

This short fiction piece is another chapter in the ongoing saga of life in the streets of Lechugaville, California. It is a capsule depicting the life and times of Joe Lopez, lettuce picker, USMC combat veteran, career sanitation engineer, car washer, and wino, and his adventures in the cantinas and bordellos of Mexicali, Mexico, and Lechugaville, California.


By most standards, Joe Lopez had never had an easy life, but he hadn’t had a particularly difficult one, either, and he seldom complained.  The son of a prodigal lettuce picker and humble home making tamale vender, he grew up happy in the Eastside of the small desert town called Lechugaville to be a well fed and not overly ambitious young man, who plodded through life, one foot in front of the other with no particular direction or pressing deadline.  He was neatly groomed from childhood and always wore clean and neatly pressed clothes and his hair was always neatly trimmed and combed.  As an adult, he was always clean shaven and his nails were clean.

In his teens, he had picked lettuce, cotton and carrots, when that work was available and didn’t interfere with school, then, in 1949 he joined the Marines with a bunch of his high school buddies because there wasn’t much else to do and everybody was doing it.  After he joined the Marine Corps, he never again saw or thought of his father. 

Life as a Marine was comfortable, until December, 1950, when the UN forces, which included his Marine unit, were surrounded at Chosin Reservoir, Korea.  For the most part, he trudged through that experience the way he had trudged through life, one foot in front of the other, following those before him, not really knowing where he was going or thinking about what he would do if he got there.  He lost a few toes and parts of his nose and ears to frostbite, had some nerve damage in his legs and some lung damage, too, but he survived.  Years afterward, he still had occasional dreams about dead Chinese soldiers, sent into combat with no guns, who had frozen to death in their fighting positions at Funchilin Pass.  Other times he would dream about moving through areas where napalm had been dropped on enemy positions and seeing blackened and burning soldiers, their sizzling bodies, snapping, crackling and popping in pools of snow melt.  At other times, he would dream about American soldiers and Marines being burned alive by misdirected napalm strikes or stacked frozen like cordwood in the snow or in the back of trucks.

Sometimes, when he was lucky, he didn’t dream at all.

After the war, because of his injuries, he was discharged with a veteran’s pension.  He returned home, moved back in with his mother, and pretty much fell into the old routine.  He picked crops in season and would eat, drink and sleep in between harvests.  His mother would sit contentedly in front of their television and watch him drink Red Mountain wine or Brew 102 beer, get drunk and pass out, with a deep love that only a mother could feel.  Every New Years, he would visit the cantinas on the 900 block of Main Street and stagger through The El Monte to the Polo Norte and everything in between until he passed out.  These cantinas and the Asia Café had been around since before WWI and were well used. 

As time went on, he visited the Cantinas more and more often.

Property on the Eastside wasn’t expensive.  Eventually, he was able to buy an old wood frame house that had been built by immigrant Okies in the ‘30’s.  It was cooled by a Lechuga Valley swamp cooler and, while it had no insulation, it did have walls made of asphalt shingles that stopped the wind and rain, and was thus comfortable in winter or summer. 

His mother liked it and was proud of him because it was theirs.  It had a larger kitchen than she was used to and there was more room to make the tamales that she sold to the field workers every morning.

The opportunities for romance were scarce in the desert valley, but when he was feeling amorous the bordellos and cantinas of Mexicali were a short drive away.  He picked up a few DUIs and after a while started using the services of some of the local entrepreneurs in the 900 Block of Main Street. 

The most popular cantinas were the Polo Norte and the Monte Carlo.  The Polo Norte had bare bones rooms that they rented to the local girls by the hour, but they didn’t provide linen service.  The Monte Carlo had an unlicensed poker room where several local notables held forth on Saturday nights.  This included one or two Judges, the Deputy District Attorney, an Episcopal preacher, and a few of the nearby City Councilmen not to mention an occasional Deputy Sheriff or police officers from other jurisdictions.  It didn’t rent rooms in the back, but the girls who worked there could also use the rooms at the Polo Norte.  The Monte Carlo also served the best menudo in the valley seven days a week, 24 hours a day.  

Even that didn’t keep him out of jail though because after closing hours he had a tendency to nap his drunk away in any of the entrances to any of the several bars on the block.  Especially so after his mother died when he was living alone.  The police would scoop him up, deposit him in a cell, and release him when he woke up the next day.  But, if he made it into the Asia Café and sat at a table in the back, the old Filipino man who owned it would let him sleep it off unmolested.

He had grown up with most of the patrol officers and was on a first name basis with them. A couple of them had joined the Marines with him.

It seemed to him that his only friends were police officers.

After a few years, he reconnected with, Rachel Serrato, an old high school interest.  She had gained a few pounds, well, several pounds, and lost a few teeth, well, she still had a few teeth, and had birthed several children by several men.  Unbeknownst to Joe, most of those children had been conceived as the by-product of commercial transactions in the cabs or empty cargo holds of the refrigerated produce trucks awaiting loads of the crop of the day or long hall trucks parked at the local truck stop.  One or two may have been conceived in a backroom at the Polo Norte.

When his mother died, he lived alone for a few months, then Rachel and her brood moved in.

He had never heard of “genetics” and while he marveled that one woman could spawn such diverse population of progeny, he was more interested in the increase in his water and electric bills.  On the other hand, he seemed to be saving money by avoiding the drives to Mexicali and associated DUI fines, so things seemed to even out.

It didn’t take Rachel long to divine the timing of Joe’s nightly ritual and she soon began meeting customers in the garage.

This went on for a few years and then, on a very hot afternoon in May, while the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon like a surging tide and waves of refugees and Americans fled Saigon in overloaded helicopters and leaky boats, Joe, who had never used the garage for anything, wandered inside and found a pile of used condoms in a corner next to what appeared to be a well used bed and a bed stand with a well used douche bag, a pile of wipes and several tubes of sexual lubricants—some flavored, some not--and a large bottle of antiseptic mouthwash.

While Joe was never known as bright, he was also not known as dumb and the writing might as well have been on the wall next to the old towel that Rachel used to wipe with.

He wandered, one foot in front of the other, down to the Monte Carlo for a few beers and time to think about things. Sex with Rachel was more convenient than that with the Mexicali whores and it cost less cash than sex with the girls in the Monte Carlo or Polo Norte.  She had not yet given him a venereal disease like a couple of the girls in the Polo Norte.  But, while the direct cash costs were bearable, his neighbors were constantly complaining about her thieving kids, and then too there were those occasions when the local cops caught one or more of them crawling out the window of someone else’s home and chased them in hot foot pursuit into Joe’s home. 

The city claims office was normally gracious enough to send a city carpenter over to put the door back on the wall, but, while he appreciated the city’s largess, that too was just more avoidable annoyance. 

After a few beers, he staggered, one foot almost in front of the other, across the street to Cherry Mary’s General Store and bought a gas can that he filled with gas at the Phillips 66 on the corner.  Next he poured gas around the outside of his house and garage and lit a match to it. 

The resulting explosion singed his hair, eyebrows and mustache, and blew him into the street, but he was otherwise uninjured.  Rachel was inside the garage with a paying customer and some of the kids—those not out and about burglarizing the neighbors or stealing cars—were inside the house, but they all escaped with no injuries.

He lurched to his car, drove to the police station, parked it on the stoop of the jail sally port and turned himself in.  Dispatch called a Day Watch Patrol Unit to the station and a rookie cop eight months out of the academy was assigned the call.

He handcuffed Joe right there inside the jail.  The Detective Sergeant was called and he informed the rookie and his field training officer that there was no law against burning your own property.

The rookie decided to process him for attempted murder because Rachel and her kids were in the house.  The detectives who were talking to Joe and had known him for years decided that he didn’t intend to harm anyone, he simply didn’t want the house anymore.  No one was physically injured, but Joe was drunk, and several officers had witnessed Joe drive into the police parking lot and park his car, so the rookie got a stat for a DUI. 

This was Joe’s third or fourth DUI in less than two years, so the judge gave him six months in jail.  The county jail was not air conditioned and summer temperatures in the valley seldom dipped below 100 degrees F, so Joe asked if he could do the time in the Lechuga City Jail.  It was air conditioned.

The judge, a died in the wool teetotaling born again Baptist and the child of immigrant Okies who came to the valley in the 1930’s, who himself had grown up without air conditioning, wasn’t inclined to be considerate of Joe’s comfort, but the Admin Sergeant, who had transported him to court that day, and was waiting patiently to transport him to county, had an unexpected epiphany, realized that it would cost less to use Joe to wash the police cars and keep the place clean, spoke up and explained all that to the judge. 

The judge thought about it for a moment and, while he clearly wasn’t overly fond of the idea, he sentenced Joe to time in the City Jail.  This was to become the model for Joe’s many periods of incarceration for public drunkenness for the rest of his life.

For the next four months, with two months’ time off for good behavior, Joe washed, lubed and changed the oil in police cars, unplugged toilet bowls, mopped up vomitus, feces and sometimes blood from the jail floor and ate some of the best Filipino, Chinese and Mexican food that the Asia Café had to offer.  And, when he wasn’t doing that, he could sit inside the jail in air conditioned comfort or outside the jail, on a bench next to the car wash and lube stand, in the fresh air.  Nobody ever bothered to lock his cell.

In the end, he walked out of the jail with a discharge certificate and a release form for his car.  One of the Day Watch cops gave him a lift to the impound lot, where the car had been accruing daily storage fees and was politely handed a bill by the smiling police storage operator.  It was for considerably more than the car, and Joe thanked the man and left. 

Without his car.

He wandered, one foot in front of the other, back to Main Street and stopped in the Asia Café for breakfast and coffee and a few confused and scattered thoughts of what he might do for a place to live.

In his own eloquence, he needed a place to “shit, shower and shave,” and that was all he really wanted.  That and an occasional taco, burrito or bowl of beans or menudo and one or two bottles of wine each day.

Because he had been such a good customer for most of his life, and never caused any troubles, and because the sexual revolution had reduced demand for the  back rooms, the old woman who owned the Polo Norte offered to let him use one of the rooms in exchange for general janitorial services.  Besides that, the local gang bangers and junkies were constantly burglarizing the place and if someone were living there they might stop.  In spite of Joe’s occasional incarceration driven absences, this working relationship was the pattern for the remainder of the old girl’s life.

While the room at the Polo Norte satisfied Joe’s residential needs, everybody in town knew that, as long as you weren’t a stickler for sanitation, the best place for burritos and menudo was the lunch counter in the back of the Monte Carlo.

Joe did janitorial work for them in exchange for meals and that is where he was the night the poker game made the front page.

The poker room was filled with the normal cigar smoking, beer drinking high society crowd and a few others with enough cash to buy into the pots.  A few dune buggy tourists from L.A. took some time away from the sand dunes had come into town to go slumming in the cantinas.  One of them saw the poker game and anted up.  Six or seven “seven and sevens” later he had enriched the other gamblers by a few thousand dollars and decided that the judge, deputy district attorney, superintendent of schools, and two others were cheating.  He sloshed out to his pickup and came back with the surplus US government semi-automatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated .45 caliber pistol that he had bought on sale at a Big 5 Sporting Goods store.

When he returned, the poker players were taking a break at the lunch counter, drinking beer, and waiting on their chorizo con huevos and frijoles or menudo.  He pointed his gun at them, informed them that they had cheated him and threatened to kill every one of them if they didn’t return his money.  The diners all promptly agreed to the reasonableness of his demands, but the cook, had a different idea.

He came out of the kitchen with a 12 gauge shotgun pointed at the disappointed gambler. 

At this point, the few customers who hadn’t already evacuated the saloon left expeditiously.  Except for Joe, who was at the corner table drunkenly oblivious to everything but his menudo.  He looked up just as the gunman pointed his pistol at the cook and the cook dispatched him with a single load of buckshot to the chest.

The police came and closed the cantina while they measured and photographed and otherwise collected evidence and statements, and ate a few burritos that the cook prepared after he gave his statement.  Joe finished his meal, gave a simple statement, and then wandered back to the Polo Norte to sleep it off.

That afternoon, he walked one foot in front of the other back to the Monte Carlo and began the cleanup.  First he swept up scrap flesh, organ tissue and bone matter that the police had left behind, and then mopped up.  The smell of drying blood other body fluids and flesh, was strong when he squeezed the fluids from the mop so he poured bleach on the floor, mopped it up, and again squeezed the mop out with his hands.  He repeated this procedure several times.

Somewhere in this process he began seeing and smelling frozen Chinese soldiers in fox holes or scattered in pieces about the battlefield, with others sizzling in napalm, making snap, crackle, pop noises in snow melt, and the frozen bodies of American Marines and Soldiers stacked like cordwood in the snow and in the back of  trucks-utility-cargo.  His non-existent toes and missing fingers as well as the missing tip of his nose and ear lobes hurt and his whole body was painfully cold.

When the boss arrived, she found him sitting on the floor, his elbows on his knees and his forehead on his hands, staring at the well-worn wooden plank floors, not moving, not saying anything, tears dripping from parts of his face and falling to the floor.  He didn’t respond when she tried to talk to him so she called the police.  Several police officers, including the Chief, responded. 

Joe was not normally a problem but he could be a handful when he wanted to be.

After 30 or 40 minutes, they called an ambulance and had him transported to the county mental clinic.

A few months later, on a typically hot but pleasant Lechuga Valley morning when the air was heavy with the aroma of crops ready for harvest, Joe climbed out of the back of the Sheriffs unit that he had hitched a ride in from the mental health facility, and walked one foot in front of the other across the dusty sidewalk into the Asia Café.  He had clean, pressed clothes, a haircut and a shave and his nails were clean.  He sat at the lunch counter next to the Chief of Police, a man he had known since childhood.  The Chief turned, looked at him, extended his hand and asked, “Hola, Jose, ¿cómo está?”

Joe took the Chief’s hand, “Bien, Jefe,” and picked up a menu.

Then, as he had on countless other occasions in the fast, the Chief asked, “¿Puedo comprar desayuno?”

“Si, Jefe, gracious.”


Submitted: May 24, 2015

© Copyright 2021 Eddie C Morton. All rights reserved.

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