How Often Does the Joker Have the Last Laugh?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because laughter wouldn’t be nearly as fun or funny if it never stopped.
By Kevin Grant
Joe and I were both about 19 years old, but you never would have guessed Joe’s age from looking at him. Gone were the long stoner mop and the tie-dye T-shirt. The new Joe Hayes looked like a guy who could throw a serious punch. He wore a trench coat, fingerless black leather gloves and a leather cap pulled down low over his eyes. He made eye contact with me and nodded before turning to the bar manager.
“Excuse me, bartender? I’m hoping you can help me out. I left my ID here last Friday. I called and was told they had it behind the bar.”
“I didn’t see anything when I came in,” the bartender said. “They usually leave stuff like that under the cash drawer. You said you called?”
“Yeah, a couple days ago. I talked to … John, I think. Maybe Mike?”
The bartender’s brow furrowed. “Man, I’m sorry. I have no way of getting in touch with John, he’s on his boat for the weekend. Let me get your name and leave a note. Is there anything I can get you in the meantime?”
Joe sighed and looked dejected. “Name’s Henry, Henry Winkler. I’ll take a pitcher of Bud Heavy.”
Mission accomplished, Joe lifted the pitcher to his mouth, disregarding the glass he had been provided, and drank deep. He leaned over to me, whispering, “These Jedi mind tricks only work on weak-minded fools.”
The first time I realized I had underestimated Joe’s “abilities” had been a few years earlier. We were at an all-ages show at the Y and the cops had pulled the plug, but as is prone to happen, neither the band nor the crowd were acknowledging the shutdown. I watched a cop run, arms outstretched, into the middle of the pit, vainly attempting to stop the cyclone of human bodies. Entering stage left was a young Joe Hayes, sprinting and leaning into a turn like a fighter plane, then lowering his shoulder and diving straight into the back of the officer’s knees. By the time Newton’s laws had had their way with the cop, Joe had darted back into the crowd and escaped undetected.
Joseph Michael Francis Hayes III was born to game the system and to hustle. His father and namesake, “Cowboy” Hayes, had been the biggest bookie in town. The Cowboy’s associates made people disappear; he was wanted for questioning at the time of his death, from natural causes, for a case involving an attempted hit on a police detective.
“Joey, you’re a lazy bum, but so was I, and I did OK,” his father told him. Joe’s path had been laid out for him, and he had the charisma and negotiating skills to navigate it.
One day I opened the local newspaper to see this headline on Page 2: “Local Man Arrested for Using Can of Soup as Deadly Weapon.” It was Joe.
A few weeks later, I ran into Joe at the local Denny’s and joined him in his booth, where he gave me his version of the story.
“I was hanging out with this girl and I was hungry, Kev, so I went to the kitchen to heat me up a can of Campbell’s finest. Next thing you know I see this guy looking at me through the sliding door. He comes in the house, so I smash him in the mug with the can of soup. He goes right to sleep. The girl hears the racket and comes into the kitchen, sees him sawing wood on the floor and starts yelling, ‘Oh, Tony! Oh, Tony, are you OK?’ I said, ‘You know this bum? Get your stuff and get out of my house!’ The next thing you know the boys in blue are taking me downtown. Now, hold on, Kev, I’ve got to see a man about a horse.” Joe walked across the crowded restaurant, knocked some guy out with a single punch and ran out the door — and out on his bill.
Joe decided to paint the house red, white and blue, much to the horror of our neighbors.
I paid, of course.
When his dad died, Joe moved into his house. The Cowboy had turned the place into a fortress: All the doors opened out, requiring you to step back to enter, which made forced entry nearly impossible. The doors themselves were 200 pounds of industrial steel. From the street, the windows looked normal, but they offered almost no view of the house’s interior — most faced faux doors or walls. Joe took up residence, but instead of running illegal gambling rackets out of the bunker, he began to dabble in heroin, and then it became more than dabbling: selling, using and getting consumed by the lifestyle and the addiction.
Joe’s ability to charm the unsuspecting continued unabated. As his former roommate Mr. Bruce related: “Joe decided to paint the house red, white and blue, much to the horror of our neighbors. One day I came home and saw a few young fellas in white dress shirts, black ties and slacks — on scaffolding — painting the house. I went into Joe’s apartment and asked who they were. He said they were Jehovah’s Witnesses who had come knocking. I said, ‘So why are they painting?’ He said, ‘They have to do good deeds, all you got to do is ask them. They can’t say no!”
Joe was in and out of prison, mostly for possession with intent to distribute. I stopped seeing him around.
One day he was listed as a “suggested friend” on social media. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked by how much he had physically changed from the number the drugs were doing on him. He was still “Joe” in his posts, which mostly revolved around wild nostalgia trips — long stream-of-consciousness stories about his past. Happy times, mostly. I think he may have been trying to record as much of his life as he could with the tools he had available. He would message me and invite me to shows, but I couldn’t bring myself to go. He was in a bad way, and I was pretty sure the cops were following, waiting to grab him at any moment (and they were, and they did).
One of the last times I saw him was in the shop of his old roommate, Mr. Bruce. We had been telling Joe stories and laughing, when he appeared in the doorway like a phantom. He looked pretty bad. He told us how he had just gotten out of a notorious local jail. While Joe was there, a guy had hanged himself and his shoes were stolen before the guards found his body.
I told Joe the story that opened this piece: underage drinking through Jedi mind tricks. Joe listened intently, a grin spreading across his face.
“Kev, I don’t remember a single part of that story. But I can’t thank you enough for telling it to me.”
Joe overdosed and died in the summer of 2017. So, you’re welcome, Joe. Rest easy.
- Kevin Grant, OZY Author Contact Kevin Grant