The Duke of Mission Hills said to come over right away. The World Harmonica King was taking a bus up from Horton Plaza "and should be here any minute." The Duke's house, north of Washington Street, in the center of Mission Hills, wasn't a very typical home inside: the entire living room was crammed with bookcases loaded with books that looked like they had been bought at garage sales. On a makeshift coffee table lay a copy of Daedalus and a copy of the Amherst alumni magazine.
The Duke, or Jay Gardini, or Roberto — he goes only by aliases and says he's getting his name changed to a number" — said he met the Harmonica King on the bus from San Ysidro. "He was playing like crazy, keeping the whole bus entertained. He was great. I asked him if he knew Lou Adler, and he said sure but he was far better than Adler. So I invited him to come over so I could tape him." The Duke would do something like that. He has been advertising his Universal Life Church weddings every week in the Reader and said he was uniting a couple at Wind 'n Sea beach on April 1 "They planned it for March 31, but I talked them into April Fool's Day."
Both the Duke and the King looked grandfatherly, but they were dressed a little differently. The Duke with a green, v-neck sweater and slacks and snowy white hair, the King in a mismatched plaid coat, striped shirt and striped pants, and long grey hair ("I grew it long when I was in jail — now long-hared kids are really friendly to me.") On the King's lapel shone a golden Marine Corps emblem.
The King started talking excitedly about his troubles with the law. He'd been in jail for using bad language up at the Butcher Shop on Hotel Circle and said he'd caused KSDO some kind of trouble. But "now I can't get arrested. No one would arrest me now." He explained how he had been a master sergeant in the Army and the Marine Corps, but recently had called Copley Press' ex-Marine general Victor Krulak some names because Copley Press had mistreated him. He became less acerbic when he began playing his harmonica.
Before he started playing, he boasted that he "didn't read no music" but still he was "the best." First he did "The Skaters' Waltz," then what he said was his theme song, "The Waltz You Saved for Me."
"That was the Wayne King, wasn't it?" the Duke asked. "The Aragon ballroom in Chicago, wasn't it?"
Not responding, the King dared us to make requests for songs. "Oh, here's one I matched to 41 years ago in the Marine Corps. Don't know the name of it." After that, he played the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy hymns and "American the Beautiful." "I wanna play the national anthem on TV some day. The only one who has done it good so far is Eddie Fisher, and he's only done a halfway good job. I'm the best in the world, I'm the best. You know Chet Atkins? I put him to shame on buses."'
Buses seemed to be the King's most important stages. he showed me his San Diego Transit $10-a-month pass. "Yeah, I play Spanish songs on the buses to San Ysidro. I play "La Paloma" and "Maria Helena" and the people on those buses give me standing ovations. You know the woman bus driver Maggie? She drives the G Express up to Miramar. I ride her bus all the time and play for her passengers. I played for a bunch of preschoolers on ti the other day. You know what their favorite song was? — "Happy Birthday." Yep, that's right. Good old Maggie — I'm trying to marry her. I'm 59 and she's 53. But she keeps sayin' she wants to marry some guy with bagpipes. What would she want with a guy like that for? You can only play bagpipes in a war."
The King handed me a bunch of notes to prove to me that the law was wrong to lock him up for 60 days. But among the papers were some statements from the D.A. saying the King has "suicidal, possibly homocidal" tendencies.
The King was showing us his variety. He went from Spanish songs to Italian songs to "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra. An Irish Lullaby" to some country and western songs to something Doris Day.
"Yeah, kids Iove to play for kids. I can't resist when a kid's around. A Filipino sailor in the hotel where I live recorded some of my songs to get his kids to sleep. Another lady — a lady bartender from the Lark Bar on 4th and F — Rena's her name, or is it Mena? She's half-Filipino. She had me over for Christmas dinner at two am., after she'd closed the bar. Her house was full of people, sleepin' everywhere. I played Silent Night" for them.
The King went on and on, telling stories about how he played for restaurants and car rooms and groups of kids that happened to meet him walking around Broadway. But asked about his life as a dealer in the Las Vegas casinos or about when or why he had come to San Diego, he was very close-mouthed. "Someday I'll write a book about it. Someday I'll be real famous. Everyone'll know the Harmonica King."