I first met Joe Smith in the Captain’s Table seven or eight years ago. The people who hung out there at that time were different than you see today. Big Al was the bartender. Don sat at one end of the bar and Joe sat at the other. Joe drank his beer from a bottle.
He was taller then and while age showed somewhat, he moved about freely. He liked music and he loved to dance. He wanted to introduce me to a waitress in a smaller bar where the Sunset Room now sits. He thought she was beautiful and had a lot of spunk, someone I would enjoy. We went the back way climbing all the steps. She was off duty. We had some beer anyway. That’s kind of the way Joe’s life went, a little out of step, a little off time.
Joe came here ten or so years ago from Rochester, or Chicago, or Miami or someplace. He and his wife retired to Cedar Key. Shortly thereafter, she became ill and died. He had her cremated. He kept her ashes in a box in the house.
Maybe a year after that, he walked into the Sea Breeze, slid one of the sliding glass doors aside, opened the box and announced to all at the bar, “There she goes,” and he dumped her ashes over the edge. Quite a spontaneous, yet sobering, funeral for those of us at the bar.
Joe disappeared for about a year. On one of my frequent trips to Cedar Key, I asked about Joe. He had become quite ill and was in a tuberculosis ward in the hospital. By some counts, over 900 locals and visitors had to be tested. Joe could have an impact on people.
When he came back from the hospital he was barely a shadow of his former self. He had aged 15 or 20 years. His back was all bent over. He stood maybe five foot two, several inches shorter than before. He was skinny as a rail, and he coughed a lot. He carried oxygen in his golf cart.
He limited his hangout to the SeaBreeze and most days he was there all day smoking cigarettes, pretending to watch television and drinking warm Honey Brown from the bottle. Sometimes Joanie or Patty or someone would talk him into a bowl of soup. He was wasting away.
Aside from Owen, the Pelican Man, Joe was probably the most photographed person in Cedar Key. He had white hair and a white beard and always wore a white captain’s cap. He looked like an old salt although he had never spent time on the water. The barstools tired him so he sat at a table in his own chair directly in front of the television.
He knew he needed to do something to slow his deterioration. He bought a Honda scooter. That didn’t work. He was too weak to hold it up or to control it. He bought some crab traps to use off his back dock but never put them in the water.
One day he talked Jim into going fishing with him on the dock to the old house behind the SeaBreeze. It took Jim two hours to get everything situated. Joe left his chair, went outside and sat next to Jim with his line in the water. Fifteen minutes later, he was back inside sitting in his chair, “Too hot.” I asked him about his fishing gear. “I sold it on the sidewalk.” Joe’s fishing days were over.
He talked of going to Arizona and points west. I bought him a money belt for his cash. He checked into prices and schedules for Amtrak and for the bus and finally bought a used convertible. He gave or sold all he could, and one day Joe and Howie got in the convertible and drove off. Later someone found most of his oxygen equipment still in the house.
About a month later we heard that he had died in his sleep a couple of days out of Cedar Key. Since then Joanie has replaced Joe’s chair and reupholstered the couch in the lounge where Joe often napped. No one knows what was done about a funeral.
A couple of people have since heard from Howie who seems to be doing okay. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some day, Joe’s nephew, who lives away from here, walks in the SeaBreeze with a box, slides aside one of the glass doors and announces to the crowd, “There he goes,” as he throws Joe’s ashes over the side.
Well, it’s time for me to get back out there, and, you guessed it, look for Trouble in Cedar Key.