J.P. Patches invented Skype. Well, kind of.
Back in the 1950s and '60s when video phones were being imagined and touted at events like Century 21, when comics-page detective Dick Tracy wore a two-way wrist radio, J.P. had his eyes on you through the TV.
Every morning before school, you were up early to watch J.P. And he — mayor of the City Dump — had his ICU-2 TV set. He would sit and look back, turn some dials, and talk to individuals in the audience. Jimmy, look in the washing machine and you'll find a birthday gift. Sally, go brush your teeth. Timmy, mind your manners at the table and be a member of the Clean Plate Club. He was a generation's favorite TV clown, he was part mother, part Big Brother. J.P saw you, he saw through you, he saw into your soul.
I hate clowns, but I loved J.P., who died Sunday at the age of 84. In fact, I never saw him as a clown, but rather as a favorite uncle, the kind who never quite grew up and let you crawl all over him. I yearned for him to see me on the tube, to name me, to point the way to a hidden birthday present in the closet. No such luck.
But I wouldn't ever miss his show if I could help it. He was the grown-up kid who made you laugh; he was the kind, wise man who told you how to be better. He lived the life of cluttered kid chaos that mimicked your own. His friends were oddballs and misfits: his "girlfriend" Gertrude perhaps Seattle's first transvestite celebrity for kids; the brainy Sturdly the Bookworm who lived in his bookshelf; Ketchikan the Animal Man who brought in friends from the zoo; Esmerelda the doll; and J.P.'s evil alter ego, P.J. Scratches. Even as kids, we knew that J.P. had a dark side.
J.P.'s show was predictably there when you turned on the idiot box, but it was never orderly or predictable itself: characters came and went, cartoons and strange skits zapped in and out, cameramen laughed so hard the picture sometimes jiggled, J.P. told jokes that went over your head. It was TV, but not unlike a child's real life. It was make-believe interrupted by occasional parenting, and invisible people calling the shots behind the scenes.
It was all so believable. When my family drove to the great dump at Union Bay and plunged into the scarred, smokey landscape that resembled the trenched battlefield of Verdun with clouds of swirling gulls overhead and the background grumble of bulldozers and the sweet smell of garbage, I remember looking for J.P.'s shack. Looking back, I love that the beloved J.P. was a Hooverville squatter.
I was never on J.P.'s show and I envied the kids who were. He would line them up and then walk behind them asking each their name. He might ruffle their hair or play with a hat. He could make anyone giggle. It seemed to me those kids were somehow blessed, chosen, luckier than me.
My first real-world encounter with J.P. did not go so well. I must have been 10 or so. It was children's day at the old Sick's Stadium in the Rainier Valley. The place was packed with kids who'd come to see J.P. and maybe watch some Rainiers baseball. J.P. and Gertrude were mobbed by kids in the entryway to the grandstands, screaming, squealing, pushing and shoving as if he were a Beatle. His shabby coat was covered with buttons and pins, his battered top hat was perched on his head. Instead of joining the scrum, my friends and I got above him in the stands.
I reached down thinking to touch him, maybe, and yes also to grab his hat. He clearly had a sixth sense. Before my fingers reached his head he whirled and looked up at me and glared, and snarled. I withdrew my hand as if a lion had snapped at it, full of shame. J.P., my hero, was mad at me. I was a very bad Patches Pal.
I knew that a man named Chris Wedes played J.P., and when I was grown up I had the pleasure of meeting that man and talking to him, and thanking him. But I never really wanted to get behind the grease paint. I wanted J.P. himself to live on in heart and memory.
For the first generation of Seattle kids who grew up with television, J.P. was our Babe Ruth, our social-media-interactive star. He was no clown, he was our hero.
You had to be there, and I am grateful I was.
Oh, and J.P., I never tried to snatch another hat.