John Bean never lost his desire to pull practical jokes, even as he faced the end of his life. He died in 1984 at age 33 due to pulmonary fibrosis after years of declining health. But his cunning mind remained undiminished as he worked out elaborate gags to play on the unsuspecting people he came across, whether complete strangers or family members. Here, his sister Betty Bean recounts some of his final larks.
John had some friends who owned a restaurant on Gay Street, it was called The Salad Bar. This was not long before John died. He didn’t have a lot to do then, so he would go to the restaurant and hang out with his friends, two brothers who owned it.
John developed this whole routine with this parking lot attendant, who was kind of an obnoxious guy—everybody else avoided him, but John of course made friends with him. John made him think he worked in the restaurant, and John was real skinny, he was losing weight. But he worked that into his routine; the guy would say, “John, you’re not looking good.” And John would say, “It’s those chemicals in there.” And he told the guy that he worked there as a cabbage counter, and it was those chemicals that was making him sick.
He sort of used his life, and even his impending death, as—I don’t know if I want to call it art, but it became part of his routine. He even had his friend Sam give him some fake paychecks, and John would come out of there with a paycheck for a week’s worth of work for $7, and he would show it to the guy in the parking lot. The guy was just ready to kill Sam—he thought he was the most heartless bastard there ever was. John told him Sam was a big-game hunter and he spent thousands of dollars flying to Alaska to shoot polar bears. He really had this guy going, it was a long-running shtick; it lasted for months—and in fact did not end until John died.
He made up this whole imaginary life that he would talk to this guy about. He recorded some of it. I’m not sure why this guy believed John was a cabbage counter, but he did that—he was able to turn almost anything into a tall tale or a joke or a funny story.
Scratch 'n' Dent
John never lost his sense of humor, even when things were as grim as they could get.
Our grandmother died in 1982, during John's illness, and at her funeral, John, who was skinny and frail-looking, approached one of the morticians with a coupon—it was a “buy one, get one free” offer on cemetery plots. He asked if it was still good, and inquired about scratch 'n' dent caskets. He asked if they had "the new slim-line" casket, which would fit him better than the regular ones. His mother was not amused.
And some of John's best fast'uns were pulled in the hospital—like the time my mother called, had a conversation with him, and hung up the phone and started dialing the number of one of her friends, a fellow Spanish teacher in the Knox County schools. But the hospital switchboard didn't disconnect her, and unbeknownst to her, John was still on the other end of the line, listening to her trying to call her friend.
So naturally, he started imitating the sound of a telephone buzzing (Brrrrrrrr. Brrrrrrr. Brrrrrr)
Then he answered in a disguised voice.
Mamma asked to speak to Mr. Collins (the Spanish teacher at Gibbs High—John was a Gibbs alum), and John told her he was outside skinning squirrels and it would take a minute to call him into the house. Armed with the knowledge of who Mamma was calling, John then imitated Mr. Collins' voice and started a wacky line of questioning that got more and more outrageous, and just bumfuzzled our poor Mamma. Finally, he dropped the disguise and asked her how John was doing.
She said "Ohhhhhh, Johnny!" and started laughing, helplessly.
What else could she do?
John's last illness stretched out over about three years' time, and he lost his medical insurance before it was over. He was uninsurable, and ended up "on the county," as it called in those days. This required him to share UT Medical Center hospital rooms with street people and inmates from the county jail, and it provided lots of new material for him.
One guy—a prisoner—was going to have some kind of serious surgery, and kept telling John how he wished he could have a drink of something called "Wild Irish Rose." John, being an obliging guy, had one of his buds sneak in a bottle, which they slipped into the top drawer of the man's bedside table. The guy found it during the night and chugged the entire bottle. He considered it a miracle. His doctors weren't all that amused.
I believe it was this guy who gave John a piece of advice: "Don't drink on the Mall!"—meaning that there were too many moochers on Market Square who'd want a sip of whatever you were drinking.
And there was the time when John told some old guy in the next bed that my sister and her friend, who were coming up to visit him, were hookers. The guy was thrilled to pieces. It was wintertime, and my sister's friend was wearing tall boots, which she decided to remove when she got to John's room. She sat down on the chair, started unzipping the boots, and the old man in the next bed started hollering "Here we go!!!!!"
I'm not sure if he was the same guy, but one of John's roomies had some kind of congestive lung disease, and a therapist would come in and pound on his back. John, who was an accomplished keyboard player, had a little Casio with him and started playing "Wipeout" when the guy got his respiratory therapy. It became a routine, and pretty soon, nurses, attendants, doctors and patients started showing up for the show.
Finally, the night before John was set to have a very serious surgical procedure, which involved cracking open his ribs, stripping lesions from his lungs and removing his pericardium and which stood a fair-to-middling chance of killing him, he had to get an attendant to help him go to the bathroom. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and then the attendant (whom John had dubbed "Slim"—John nicknamed everybody) arrived, John told him he wasn't going to have the surgery and was going to escape from the hospital.
"I'm going as far as this tank'll take me," John said.
Slim panicked and took off running to the nurses' station.
"Bean's fixing to break outta here!" he hollered.
Later, I heard that the hospital chapel was full of employees praying for John during his multi-hour surgery.