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The Legend of Barbecue Joe
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, October 4, 2002.
Gather ’round and I’ll tell you of Barbecue Joe, a friend to the hungry, a man without foe. When Barbecue Joe was a young man with a big van, he left his small home in the middle of the country for an even smaller one at the edge of it. Neither manic nor depressed, Barbecue Joe drove west across the moist asphalt prairies and Great Plains, three days and two nights through the misty mountains and pine forests until at last he reached the shore of the sea.
There, not far from Santa Cruz, Joe found a place called Watsonville, where just the right amount of people lived. Joe decided he’d join them. He sold his van, rented a bungalow and got a job in a local cannery.
Joe was surprised to find no cans in the cannery. It was in fact a frozen-vegetable packery, where dismembered plants were converted to rectangular blocks of vegetable-flavored ice. But everyone in town called it a cannery just the same, so Joe called it a cannery, too.
He made new friends easily and, when the sun shined on a Saturday, invited them over for barbecues, just as he’d done for hundreds of consecutive weeks with his old friends in the Heartland. Joe didn’t always feel like having company, but he couldn’t help it: He was Barbecue Joe. He’d buy a special part of a cow carcass, marinate it, season it, sear it and grill it. It was Joe’s pungent, garlicky tri-tip marinade — an intuitively measured and precisely monitored meatbath of toasted sesame oil, ginger, scallions and maple syrup — that had earned Joe his nickname, back when he was 16 years old.
Everyone agreed that Barbecue Joe’s tri-tip was the best ever, and there was always plenty to go around. When the sun went down, everyone helped clean up, hosed the cow blood off the cement and threw the bones in the trash. “Tri-tip is a very special cut of cow,” Joe’d tell everyone. “There’s only two per carcass.”
After the guests left, Barbecue Joe would brew up a big, thick pot of coffee, open up his notebook and invent things. This was part of the same barbecue-compulsion he’d had for as long as he could remember. In fact, Barbecue Joe was pretty confident that his true calling was as Invention Joe, but that the barbecues were necessary as transitional rituals, something to put him in the right frame of mind to invent.
It didn’t much matter. Barbecue Joe liked being Barbecue Joe just fine, as long as after each barbecue he could sit down with his notebook and invent things.
One Saturday evening, not yet halfway through the coffee, Joe invented something good: a new technology that would simultaneously repair the ozone layer, end war forever and render religion- and petroleum-based civilizations obsolete. Joe liked his latest invention, but he didn’t dare tell anyone about it without first getting it patented. It took two years for Joe to save up enough money to pay for a patent attorney to file the paperwork, and it was another three years before the patent office sent out his letter of approval.
Now Joe was a real inventor. He told everyone about his invention, and everyone was impressed. More and more people began coming over for Joe’s Saturday-afternoon barbecued tri-tip. Friends of friends of friends — people Joe didn’t know — began spending time on his patio and in his living room. One such afternoon, one friend’s friend’s
friend told Joe that he was pretty sure that people at the big company where he worked would manufacture Joe’s invention, and gave Joe a phone number.
Monday morning, Joe took a break from rectangularizing vegetables and called the number. He set up an appointment to meet someone important at the big company in Los Angeles on Friday. The big company even sent a private jet to pick Joe up, a limousine to drive him to the company’s corporate headquarters and a beautiful young woman to bring him cup after cup of very good, strong coffee as he sat in an enormous office with one of the company’s vice presidents.
But the meeting didn’t go as well as Joe had hoped. “It’s a good idea,” said the executive, “but it’s not the right time to market it,” and “maybe in a few years” and “thanks so much for coming” and “let’s talk again.”
Disappointed, Joe sat in silence in the jet on the way home. But the next day was bright and sunny, and by midafternoon he was surrounded by friends, serving up exquisite slices of tri-tip. By the time the blood was hosed off the patio, Joe had shrugged off the meeting and settled down with his coffee and notebook to invent something else.
Nine months later, on a Friday afternoon, Barbecue Joe was at work, reading the local paper’s Technology section in the break room when he noticed a picture of the man he’d met with in Los Angeles. The article surrounding the picture was about how the big company had patented a petroleum-based invention that would make the company shareholders a lot of money. As Joe read on, he realized that this new product would also render Joe’s invention worthless.
That made Barbecue Joe mad. He called and left a message for the attorney who’d helped him out with the patent and invited him to help sue the big corporation. Early the following morning, while Joe was crushing fresh ginger and garlic, the attorney returned his call, said he might be interested in representing Joe and gave Joe a quote ballpark figure unquote of how much it would cost to set such a lawsuit in motion. Joe wrote down the estimate, thanked the attorney, hung up, quickly finished his marinade, immersed his tri-tip in it and placed it on a shelf in the refrigerator. He made a special pot of coffee and sat down at the table with his notebook and calculator. After just 10 minutes, he’d figured out a plan of action: If he could convince his boss at the factory to double his work load to 100 hours a week, he could save up enough money to sue the big company in just under 6,019 years.
The doorbell rang. The first batch of guests. Some new people.
“Tri-tip is a very special cut of cow,” said Barbecue Joe, welcoming them inside. “There’s only two per carcass.”