My wife and I were having a margarita at the Belle Vue in Santa Monica when she said, “Well, what’re you up to tomorrow?”
“I’ll be with bums all day,” I said.
“Your friends at the paper?”
“No, no. Real bums.”
“You’re not bringing any of them home, are you?” she asked.
I promised I wouldn’t.
“I’m not sure I could take a real bum in the house. A down-on-his-luck police reporter is bad enough. Who was the one who showered with his clothes on?”
“Jimmy Bell, the king of Oakland. He was basically a very clean person, but he drank.”
“All your friends drank in those days.”
“True. But they just drank, while Jimmy Bell drank . He was a pro in an age of amateurs.”
“What will you do with the bum when you find him?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly. I want to write a column on how to recognize a bum in Santa Monica. The town is in an uproar over bums.”
“How will you recognize a bum?”
“I’m a journalist. I have instincts.”
“The same instincts you brought to the column on hookers?” she asked, beginning to smile.
The old instincts failed me that time. I stopped a woman on the street and asked her if she was a hooker. She wasn’t. She was a lawyer. Close but no cigar.
“Anyhow,” I said, “I called the mayor of Santa Monica, Christine Reed, to help me recognize a bum.”
“What did she say?”
“She said there are three categories of bums: mentally ill bums, homeless bums and rotten, shiftless, no-good bums. It is the latter category I am interested in.”
“Did she call them all bums?”
“Well, no. But I don’t think she’s happy with the existence of any of them in Santa Monica. I asked her if she would like to ship them to Miami the way the police chief did once.”
“What did she say?”
“She said they couldn’t do that anymore.”
“You can’t just send a bum wherever you please,” my wife said. “It’s not like wiring flowers.”
“I also asked if there weren’t at least a drop of civic pride in the fact that more and more bums were choosing Santa Monica as a place to reside.”
“And she said?”
“She said no. Possibly even hell no. I can’t remember.”
“You have to expect that, I guess. Was the question your own idea?”
“Right,” I said proudly. “Why?”
“I just wondered. Did the mayor offer help on how to recognize a bum?”
“Not exactly, but she did say they are aggressive, physically able to work and usually drunk.”
“That sounds exactly like Jimmy Bell,” my wife said.
“As a matter of fact it does. I think, though, that a real bum would smell a lot. Jimmy never smelled. He showered as often as he could.”
“With his clothes on.”
“Right. Mayor Reed blames City Atty. Bob Myers for the bums.”
“He imports them?”
“He won’t prosecute them when they’re arrested. Reed thinks he’s too moralistic.”
“What does she want to do?”
“She says if the city’s bleeding hearts care that much about bums, they should adopt them. She offered us a bum too. Several, in fact.”
“And you said. . . . “
“I said I’d check with you first.”
We ordered a second margarita. The waitress said, “Coming right up, honey.”
“Back to the bum question,” my wife said. “I don’t want you getting yourself in trouble again by walking up to someone and asking if he’s a bum. He might just be a writer from Topanga.”
“I’m going to smell him first.”
“You’re going to walk up and sniff him?” She began to giggle.
“Not exactly. I’ll stand downwind. I have a keen sense of smell.”
“What a does a bum smell like?”
That was a tough question. I thought about it for a while.
“A bum,” I finally said, “smells very much like a mixture of dead dog and stale whiskey. Especially on warm days.”
“I wouldn’t think a bum smelled like that.”
“Well, I’ve smelled more bums over the years than you have. Mayor Reed says there are about 200 of the shiftless, rotten bums in the city. I ought to be able to find one.”
“A bum of your own.”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“I know how you can recognize a bum. Remember the photographer with the bounce theory?”
“Mike Harper. He used to say that if you threw three people into the air, the ones that bounced were not bums. I never did really understand what he meant by that.”
“Well,” she said lightly, “if there is any validity to the theory, then maybe you ought to go out and bounce a few bums.”
She laughed and then noticed I wasn’t laughing.
“That’s a joke,” she said.
“Oh, yeah, sure. A joke.”
“You’d never be able to lift three bums.”
“I could drop them off of the roof of the civic auditorium.”
“Let’s have dinner,” she said.
I agreed. As we walked into the dining area she turned and said, “Dead dogs and stale whiskey?”
Only on hot days.