Curiosity Whetted by a Water-Bed King


Up there on the second level of the mall, just past the Sears, people will sometimes stop and watch Jonny D. bounce.

He works in the water-bed store and they’ll see him, tie flying, coattails flapping, jumping up and down on the beds to demonstrate their reliability.

And Jonny D. does not cut corners. Jonny D. does not cheat.

Jonny D. leaves his shoes on.

“Total . . . confidence,” Jonny D. will say in between bounces, “total . . . reliability.”


Jonny D., also known as Jonathan Davis, 25, of Baltimore, likes to sell water beds. Which is like saying Orel Hershiser likes to throws baseballs. Jonny D. loves water beds. He loves the people who own water beds. But most of all he loves the people who walk into his store with some hesitation about water beds. That means he gets to talk to them.

“This place,” he said with the sweep of his hand, “is wonderful for meeting new and interesting people.”

I looked around and saw a bunch of beds. But Jonny D. looks around and sees families. Friends. Neighbors. Each gently sloshing in his sleep.

To be honest, I don’t really care about water beds. But I care about people who care about things. And Jonny D. cares with a passion.

Some weeks ago, I had a line in one of my “Simon Says” columns that said: “I can’t believe there are still water-bed stores.”

And so Jonny D. called me. About 26 times. “Come on out to the store,” he said each time. “Come on out and see them. Touch them. Experience them.”

I put him off and put him off. But then I had to get a haircut and was near his mall and so I dropped in.

“Please,” Jonny D. said when he saw me, “lie down.”

I climbed aboard an “ultrafirm” water bed as Jonny D. explained how the water beds of today are not like the water beds of yesteryear. They all don’t make you bounce like a dinghy in a windstorm. Now they come in “ultrafirm” and “firm” as well as “fullwave.”

“In 1968, John Hall invented the modern water bed as we know it,” Jonny D. said. “Though Persians used to sleep on water-filled goatskins in the desert.”

Then he went to the far side of the bed I was lying on and pushed down on it hard. I barely bounced at all. “You could sleep with a partner and roll around and the partner would not be bothered at all,” he said.

I thought of about 11 snappy comebacks but didn’t use any of them. It didn’t seem appropriate. Jonny D. does not use sex to sell water beds. That was the old days.

“Yes, some people ask about sex,” Jonny D. said. “They will ask if a water bed is good for their sex life or bad for their sex life. I tell them no matter what bed they get, they’ll enjoy themselves.”

Instead of sex, Jonny D. stresses health and comfort. Which is why he urges people--begs them!--to climb right on the beds with their shoes on and everything. “You won’t get seasick,” he tells them. “You’ll feel good.”

There were dozens of models in the store, from basic water beds to ones that look just like regular mattresses to “The Accolade,” which is a canopied, four-poster water bed with mirrors above the mattress. (Sex still seems to be on some minds.)

While we were talking, a woman came in wearing an Oakland Raiders jacket. She was looking for water-bed pillows and told me her name was Sarah Moore, she was 24 and pregnant with her first child. “My husband surprised me with a water bed three years ago,” she said with a laugh. “And I don’t think I could ever go back to a regular bed.”

“Bless you,” Jonny D. told her.

I climbed on another bed, this one with a massage system. As I lay back, Jonny D. turned the dial from “tone” to “massage” to “pulse.” The water moved. I closed my eyes and for some reason thought of Woodstock, Joan Baez and lost youth.

Jonny D. gave me facts and figures. He filled my arms with pamphlets. Later, I checked the newspaper clippings and learned that in 1977, Newsweek reported that water beds were a $50-million-a-year industry. Today, the figure is about $2 billion a year and growing.

One reason is that water beds have moved into the mainstream. “Everything novel I bought has been made ordinary by yuppies,” Christopher S. Conquest, a teacher in Spring Lake, N.J., complained to the New York Times in 1986. “First it was sushi, then my Saab and now my water bed.”

The blackest day in water-bed history came in 1987 when Pope John Paul II came to Miami and stayed in the home of Archbishop Edward McCarthy. McCarthy offered the Pope his own bed, which happened to be a water bed. To avoid any jokes (can you imagine what Letterman could have done with it), papal authorities had the bed removed and replaced with a standard bed.

And in 1985 in Clinton, Iowa, history was made. David Soibel opened up a combination delicatessen and water-bed store. “I felt it would tie together,” he said. “Eating and sleeping.”

I asked Jonny D. what he liked best about his job.

He thought for a moment. And then told me something that convinced me that, yes, he was a salesman pushing a product. But he was also something else.

“I like it when newlyweds come in,” he said. “Or people thinking about getting married. Because it’s nice to see people in love. Shopping for their first bed.”

Jonny D., the last romantic in America.