I need to hand it to the guy for being so clear-sighted. The Berkeley homeless are notorious for their colourful personalities and curious wares. Teenage kids create street art out of the coins they've gathered. Older staples, like the hat lady with the painted face, are known for the strange stories they tell. I've actually seen Park Avenue couples put shopping bags down and sit on the curb, listening to the hat lady with rapt attention. Homelessness in Berkeley isn't so much a condition as a religion, a movement as politically charged as a commitment to buy all-organic. They're reflections of a tear in time or a glitch in social sentiment that was never quite fixed.
Jokemon, a nearby cohort and another of those Berkeley staples, appears to have mastered media manipulation and marketing well. Jokemon, who gives away free jokes (generally rehashing the same one throughout the day), is known for his three-card monty personality, corny punchlines and friendly banter with passers-by. He never begs for money, preferring instead to provide a product or service in exchange for alms rendered. I've seen him at the same street corner on Telegraph throughout my time in college. If he hasn't got something to say, he's got something to put into your hand. And whatever it is, it tends to be self-promoting.
"I got one for you I got one for you. What does a gay horse say?" he asks me for perhaps the umpteenth time. I'm sucked in on each occasion.
"You told me this one already," I say with a smile, and he waves my protests off with a sly grin, repeating, "What does a gay horse say?"
He juts out his hip, flips out a hand and replies, "Ha-aaay."
But jokes are hardly Jokemon's sole product. One afternoon he takes my arm and says, "I'm in the paper! Here. Take a copy." Beside him lie a stack of newspapers, neatly folded, with a photo of him sitting at his usual perch, a wooden crate. I can see "Jokemon" written in print somewhere in the headline. I take a copy. Most people do, regardless of whether they actually read them.
In another instance, he hands me one of a series of photocopies, also neatly folded beside him, awaiting distribution in a stack. The photocopies came in two iterations. One is a close shot of his face, eyes drifting off to the side. Behind him is a filthy wall with graffiti across it. But it's the other photo that sticks out in my mind: Jokemon lying across the pavement, his hands across his chest like an ancient mummy, making a face at the camera as though he's having a seizure. Meanwhile two cops examine the vivid scrawl across the brick wall behind him: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED. One cop looks down at Jokemon in a reproachful way.
I still have the photocopies. Recently I walked by Jokemon and he had shirts, upon which were printed that same image. THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED, they whispered from starchy white cotton.
"Come on," Jokemon coaxes. He grins at me as always with a familiar intimacy, but that could just be his hustle. "$10 for a shirt. They're fresh made."
"I haven't got $10," I say.
He makes a face like I'm twisting his arm and says, "All right. For you, $7. What's your size?"
"Small," I reply.
"I'll put one on layaway for you." He winks at me and walks off, toting his shirt before the next prospective customer.
If he hasn't already (and I wouldn't put it past him), Jokemon's one of those eclectic cats who's going to land an HBO special one day. He can't not. Who knows how many of us have received the pages of self-promoting propaganda and bad jokes he unfailingly disseminated through the years? Who knows how many of us stood and laughed with him on that street corner, knowing full well that he'd be one of the defining memories of Berkeley we'd hold near and pass on?
Jokemon is both medium and message, product and purveyor. Cheers to a media master in his own right.