By Gayne C. Young
His name was Bum Farto.
And it’s a name that will live in infamy.
Born Joseph Farto—yep, that’s his real last name—in Key West on July 3, 1919, Bum earned his nickname from the employees at the fire station across the street from his house where he would try to ‘bum” things from the firefighters. “He used to hang around the old No. 1 Fire Department on Greene Street all the time and the firemen started calling him ‘the little bum,’” an unidentified friend told The Miami Herald in 1976. “He was always bumming things—asking for favors, like little kids do.”
Despite this childish annoyance, Bum was allowed to hang around the station, was given the occasional odd job, and tolerated by the men that worked there. Away from the fire station, Bum eventually took work as a driver for a funeral home and even got married to a woman named Esther in 1955. But Bum’s true love was the fire station. He loved it there and hung around there long enough that he eventually got a job operating fire hoses. Bum did well and rose up the ranks to become fire chief in 1964.
He relished his job as fire chief and presented himself as a man of importance (or as a pimp, depending on your take). He wore flaming red leisure suits and rose-tinted glasses, and draped himself in gold chains, bracelets, watches, and rings. His chief’s badge was custom-made of gold and encrusted with gems galore. He drove a lime green Ford Galaxy with a large golden eagle hood ornament and the words El Jefe, or “The Chief” in Spanish, on the license plates. How did he pay for these extravagances on a city employee’s salary? No one knows. Even though he was taken to court over the matter.
In 1966, a city commission recommended he be removed from duty as fire chief due to alleged misappropriation of city funds. A civil service board—upon which his nephew served—overturned the action, ensuring that he would remain the fire chief following a 30-day suspension.
Bum was also a firm believer in and practitioner of Santería. Also known as Regla de Ocha, Santería is best explained as a cross between the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa and Catholicism that occasionally requires the sacrifice of live birds or animals. Bum used to perform Santería rituals and offerings on the hood of his car while in the parking lot at local high school baseball games. Although he said these were to procure good luck, many in town were not impressed and often cited him as a witch or voodoo priest.
Despite this attempt to bring good fortune, the town suffered greatly when Naval forces withdrew from a nearby base in the 1960s. This hit everyone in town hard economically and sent many, even Bum, looking for other ways to make money.
Bum’s choice of alternative income?
Bum began selling marijuana and cocaine and even did so at the fire station. This wasn’t that unusual in Key West as the community was very lax about drug laws in the late 1960s and 1970s. Florida Governor Reubin Askew, however, wasn’t lax on drugs and when Key West’s laissez-faire attitude toward illicit substances came to his attention, he acted. Askew launched Operation Conch, a sting operation designed to cripple the drug trade in the Keys run in cooperation by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Miami-Dade County Organized Crime Bureau. Long story short, Bum was caught on camera trading cocaine for gaudy gold jewelry to an undercover agent. He was arrested for drug distribution on September 9, 1975. A jury found him guilty in less than 30 minutes of deliberation. As Bum was looking at anywhere from 15 to 31 years in prison, he decided to skip town.
He told his wife he had out of town business, rented a Pontiac LeMans, and disappeared. The car was found abandoned in Miami weeks later. Bum was never heard from again. Some thought he ran, others that he was killed by drug connections, and others believed he fled to Spain or Central America. In the months that followed, shops in the Keys began selling “Where Is Bum Farto?” t-shirts. One such shop sold over 800 of them. Jimmy Buffett worked a reference to Bum into his song “Landfall” and often wore one of the aforementioned shirts while performing the tune live on stage. Bum sightings occasionally popped up but nothing substantial ever came of them. Despite all this fanfare and interest, Bum’s wife Esther didn’t report him missing until two years after he left home. She successfully had him declared dead in 1986.
Given that as of this printing Bum would be over 100 years old it’s most likely that he’s dead. But his legend lives on. Many in the Keys still ask where Bum went and what happened to him. And while society will most likely never know the answer to that question, visitors can view his desk and some of his uniforms on display at the Key West Firehouse Museum.
FUN FACT: Bum’s parents owned a restaurant in Key West called Victoria. Despite doing well after opening, the place floundered during the Great Depression and the Fartos sold it to Ernest Hemingway’s fishing buddy, Josie Russell, who turned it into the now world-famous Sloppy Joe’s.