NOB HILL--My very good friend Joe “The Gumball King” Lawson died last Thursday night at the age of 58. He had cancer...multiple myeloma...a cancer of the blood. His nickname came from his once having owned about 1500 gumball machines throughout the state of New Mexico. The Gumball King was a central character in my first blog, Albloggerque. He was just so colorful. Everything seemed to happen when he was around. Friends like Joe set the tone for everything I have written since.
The Coffee Club
Joe and I met at the old Hippo coffee house on Cornell SE about 27 years ago. We continued to drink coffee together almost every morning until he died, eventually moving our caffeine-fueled chatter to the Flying Star after that opened on Central Ave. as the Double Rainbow.
It had only one room back then. When they opened the back room we moved up there. Later, the FS expanded into the former home of Laru Ni Hati and turned that space into their front room. We followed...basically because we were all going a little blind trying to read in that very dark back room. The Book Stop was squeezed out next and that became the roasting room and the seating area next to the alley.
We just stayed where we were. The coffee group grew to include a dozen or so people who showed up daily or weekly. Joe was at the center of the action.
A Wicked Sense of Humor
Not that Joe was overly agreeable. He was something of a curmudgeon about everything from politics to cold toast. And he had a wicked sense of humor. At his wake last weekend (pictured below), a grandson recounted a short conversation with Grandpa Joe.
Joe: “I need a new butt.”
Joe: “Yeah...mine’s got a crack in it.”
Oh, he never grew up! He owned the complete Three Stooges collection on DVD. He would pass around emails he got from his 7 brothers and sisters, and after staring at a picture for a few seconds you would realize you were actually looking at cleverly disguised genitalia.
He spent his childhood as a member of the locally infamous Lawson Brothers gang that terrorized Sterling, Illinois and the Catholic schools there for over a decade. This is something not mentioned in an otherwise very complete obituary in the Journal.
Joe loved to cook. Dinners and potlucks hosted by Joe and his wife Marcia were a regular part of the Flying Star coffee group. Here is a sample of what happened at one of these affairs republished from Albloggerque. The date was February 19, 2005.
Around the Table at Joe and Marcia’s
NOB HILL--As so often happens when the host relaxes a little too much after the meal is eaten, the conversation turns to animal fluids.
Oh the seafood stew was excellently prepared by host Joe The Gumball King. And MaryAnn had made a chocolate log from a Vincent Price recipe book that was rich and satisfying. Two bottles of wine were drunk. The Artist Ken Saville was finishing off the last of a six-pack of Molson. Marcia was bringing out the coffee. Everyone was leaning back deep in thought...thinking perhaps of the clams in the stew. Whatever the inspiration, this is what was said.
"I was standing in Pisa, Italy once," said Joe, "and I felt something on my shoulder. I thought Marcia had slapped me. But then I saw it was bird poop."
"That's nothing," offered Mary Donato, folding her napkin. "I was walking across the UNM campus when I felt something wet on my head. I reached up and came away with a big blob of pigeon droppings!"
"I can top that," said Ken. His eyes shifted a little and he glanced downward. "Have you ever been sneezed on by a Belgian draft horse?"
The Long Good-Bye
I posted a couple of videos I took at his birthday party last May on YouTube. One shows Joe smashing a coconut on the advice of Barbara Pepper who had seen people doing it in India as an act signifying renewal. The other shows everybody singing Happy Birthday to him.
Joe’s cancer had been diagnosed maybe six years ago. He underwent a bone marrow transplant. The doctors said it would last about 5 years, and it did.
So we had been saying “Good-bye” to Joe for a long time. And Joe had been doing the same to us. He bore his illness with a grace and honesty that made us all a little more comfortable as we faced an inevitable outcome.
Riding With Me
A few weeks ago he told me, “I wish I could ride with you.” I’m not sure whether he meant one of those short rides on the bike trail, or the coast to coast ride that starts next week. I’d like to think he meant the long one.
In any case, you can’t leave a man like that at home. I’ll take him with me in one form or another. 27 years is time enough to make thousands of memories...and leave us with a thousand smiles.