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They Called Him “Bum” …. Bum Farto – Part 2

They Called Him "Bum" …. Bum Farto

A Historical Vignette
by Tom Parquette

Part Two of Three
(This story begins with Part One HERE.)

Joseph Farto was born in a run down wooden house behind then-Key West fire house #1 on July 3, 1919. As a child, one of Joe's favorite obsessions was firemen and the firehouse. So much so, that the firefighters at station 1 lovingly nicknamed him 'Bum'. The name stuck as Joe grew up and he simply became Bum Farto. Bum's first job was with a local funeral director but by the time he hit 22 there was no stopping his fire career and he was a full time nozzleman for Key West working from that very station #1.

Old Fire Station 1, closed in 1964.  City Hall on 2nd floor.
(Monroe County Public Library via Mike Legeros)

Make no mistake about it. Joe Farto, was, by all accounts, a fine fireman. A damn fine fireman. He was a full timer and working his way through the ranks. Joe was appointed chief in 1964. Joe Farto was an aggressive fire fighter. He was fearless and handled the fire scene efficiently and effectively. No one could complain about his skills or his fire fighting ability. As chief, Joe helped modernize the already aging department and it's equipment and systems. He was an honored member of Key West's 'bubba' bunch. Back in the early 70's, the defacto headquarters of all that was 'power' in Key West took place in the Chart Room, one of the favored gin mill-cum-diner cum-nightclubs that Key West was peppered with.

The Chart Room bar today.

In the Chart Room, at any given time during the day you could find the police chief, the judge, the district attorney, the fire chief, well, darn near all of the movers and shakers in town. It's said that you could start a fire or a fight and get arrested, tried and convicted within the time it took to crack open a tequila bottle. Bum Farto was one of those movers and shakers. Bum took on an increasingly colorful posture as the years progressed following his appointment as chief. He favored the color red and wore bright reg sport coats with white linen trousers and his trademark blue sunglasses. Always a Cuban cigar and jewelry man, Bum was someone everyone liked and who seemed to like everyone. Make no mistake …. Bum was a great family man too!

Bum and his blue shades in 1964

Two years after Bum was appointed chief, he was called down by the city commission for irregularities within the department allegedly surrounding the use or misuse of department funds. They found him guilty of 8 counts and recommended that the Civil Service board fire him. But the 'bubba system' kicked in and the Civil Service Board dropped all but one charge dealing with threatening to fire a fireman who had testified against him. That rendered a very slight slap on the wrist for Bum. Not bad, that bubba system in Key West. Especially when your nephew is the head of the Civil Service Board.

As time went on in the early 70's, Bum became even more flamboyant. The town was adopting a very strong culture of booze, drugs, free-love and all the other lifestyles of the sixties hangover period. Square Grouper (bales of pot) became the prized catch as it often washed up from drug runners on the beaches. The old dope smokers were slowly giving way to the greaseball Columbian cocaine connections. Money was tight. A cop who made $800.00 a month might look the other way or somehow assist the goings on and make a grand a night. If you weren't using drugs or selling drugs then you knew who was and you turned your head and ignored it. It's just the way it was.

Bum's on top of the world…

By 1975 Bum Farto was cruising the town in either his bright lime green Chevy Corvette or Chevy convertible with the swept-wing hood ornament. He was deeply religious in the Santeria religion which is an Afro-Cuban cultlike version of witchcraft. Bum would drive his car out on the local football field and light candles on the hood during the games to ward off spirits against the Key West team. Things were good and going his way. He WAS the man. So much the MAN that he started selling pot. Not in the dark shadows. Not on some street corner. Nope! Not Bum! He sat on the bench in front of firehouse 1 and dealt. And that was so easy, he soon turned to selling coke too. Many had said Bum had acquired some sleazy friends with the crooked nose thing from Tampa. The Tampa Mafia to be exact. No one knows for sure, though.

Tomorrow, Part Three:  "Bum, Call Home"

(CLICK HERE for Part Three)

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