The sun had risen in the east, but who could tell. The sky was grim, the sea the color of lead. We stood onshore, blew a whistle, and watched him approach in his small, leaky, aqua blue outboard. He wore a knit hat pulled low on his forehead and motioned us in. He had a smack of the sea about him, so we sang, “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!” Inside the boat was a half-foot of water, a Russell Stover candy box, and a wet corduroy pillow. He moved us out, following a waterway that we were sure would lead to the uttermost end of the earth, but we just went 30 feet or so and got off at the island where he lives—some 2000 square feet of old docks roped together about 60 feet behind Macy’s in the Kings Plaza Shopping Center. His island is in the backwater of Jamaica Bay, in Mill Basin, tied to two sunken boats on one side and a big pole on the other. He calls himself Super Mario, and he lives alone on the island with his dog, Rags—”If he doesn’t bite, I do”—and his neighbors, two wheezing swans and 16 or so ducks. He describes his existence as “kind of Robinson Crusoe,” sleeping in a 200-square-foot wooden hut with two storm windows, some copper cookware hanging over a woodstove, a bed, a jar of peanuts, and a 1970s beige microwave that belonged to his friend Ray’s Uncle Joey, though it is just for show as he has no electricity—”Don’t want it, I’m self-sufficient.” He has an outhouse. He gathers his firewood from the shoreline. “If it’s free, it’s for me,” he says.
He has lived in the basin 25 years. In the beginning, he cooked “at a restaurant on Flatbush” and stayed on a friend’s house barge. Ray, 45, a retired fireman from Marine Park, who has a boat in the marina and is one of the many who look out for Mario, says, “After the barge, he was living on an old houseboat by himself. Then he had a hut tied up to a bulkhead across the way. One day some guy comes, a millionaire, cuts his lines, and Mario floats away.”
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Mario says.
“He floated behind the bus company. Last summer, he floated here. God blew him over.”
“This is my promised land.”
Mario, who leans toward one-liners, is kind of the Bob Hope of the backwater.
How come he gets to live in the middle of the water? No one else in town does. Ray explains, “No one else tries. Kings Plaza tried to throw him out at first. They couldn’t do it. Everybody came, police, harbor patrol, coast guard. Everybody likes Mario.”
“We’re trying to get him a mooring permit,” says Jimmy Lobster, 37. That is his nickname, because he used to be a lobster fisherman. Mario worked for him but just for a few years because lobster fishing is “too rough and not enough—no way to make a living.”
Winter is coming. Water will turn to ice. Will Mario be stranded? “The big oil barge, Mary H, comes through once a day,” says Jimmy the Painter, 38, the other Jimmy, who lives across the basin on a houseboat with a pit bull. “At least that will break up the ice so Mario can get to shore.” Jimmy Lobster says, “If it don’t come through, Mario’ll walk across like God.” Mario goes to shore to shower at a friend’s house. “Kelly’s or Elvira’s, either one,” he says. “It’s wind I really worry about. It kicks ass.”
What is the worst that ever happened?
“I got divorced.”
Mario says his parents were Cuban. He was born in Tampa, raised in Key West. In 1993, Ray took him on his sailboat back down to Florida. Mario saw his mother for the first time since he left at 14. “That’s when I took off and landed in the Bronx. It’s a long story, sweetheart—’56, I was in the service, then I opened an incense shop at Melrose and 157th in ’69. I lost the place. I kind of derailed.” These days he fishes some. Using little black crabs that he finds under rocks on the shore for bait, he goes out an hour before high tide, drops a line in the basin “near the wooden poles, where the black fish feed on the barnacles.” Ray drives him over to the Chinese fish store. “He sells a few, maybe eight.”
On a tour of the property, Mario pointed out his tomato and pepper gardens growing in buckets, a tanning area for when girls visit, the tiki bar with the fishnet, conch shells, a jar full of lollipops, a Barbie doll with her skirt pulled up, a news clip from Australia—”Man’s Head in Giant Cod”—and a treasure chest with two rusty watches and some plastic pearls. “I’m an antique collector,” he says. “I like antiques, for the conversation.”
Ray says, “You should see this place in the summer.”
“It booms,” Mario says.
“Guys bring their boats, blast their radios,” says Ray. “They fall asleep in chairs, wake up with the morning dew on them.” Seamen lead a sedentary life. Many never leave the basin. “It’s so relaxing being on the water,” says Ray. “It’s like looking at a fish tank.” A lot of Ray’s fireman friends have boats. Are they drawn to the water because it is a life-saving element? “I don’t know. What do you want me to be, on the couch? But one day there were 2 million in boats here. Everybody comes for Mario. But too many guys, we need more women. Kelly’s really great. She brings pieces of London broil. She’s a bartender, body to kill for.”
Kelly, 30, who just moved from California and wants to be a court stenographer, met Mario at Bill’s, where he sometimes drops by on the bicycle that he keeps on shore. At Bill’s, a little brown bar from 1930 with a paper turkey in the window, you can get a Manhattan at 10 in the morning. Kelly thinks Mario’s island is “a riot, a trip. I get seasick so I can’t go out in deep water. But there, the water’s calm.”
“Everybody loves Mario,” Jimmy Lobster says. “You go down, you bullshit about your life. He tells you what’s going on. He don’t look like much but he’s a very smart man. I come from Staten Island just to hang out with Mario. Everybody brings him stuff—clothes, food.”
“He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Ray says.
“There’s something about him,” Kelly says. “People just go to him. They just cling to him.”