Indian Joe suffers a tragic injury, keeps his sense of humor

We spotted Indian Joe, an iconic San Francisco character who’s famous for emulating the look of rock legend Alice Cooper, on the sidewalk outside the Bay Guardian office Monday morning. Donning his signature top hat, he beamed and said hello. But something was wrong.

Joe was sitting in a wheelchair, and the lower half of his right leg was gone.

He filled us in on how it happened: Less than a month ago, a concrete block fell onto his leg at a recycling facility operated by Recology, instantly crushing his ankle and foot. He’d gone to the recycling center, located at Pier 96 on Amadour Street in San Francisco, on Aug. 18, to help a friend unload recycled cardboard.

They’d gone numerous times before. He said they used the same practice for unloading his friend’s pickup truck that they and other recyclers always use, which involves tying one end of a rope securing the bundle of cardboard to a concrete block with an eyelet sticking out of it, and driving forward a few feet to pull the cardboard off the truck bed. But on this day, the concrete somehow came loose and crushed Indian Joe’s leg, causing him to lose a limb.

The day after we encountered Joe on the street, we stopped in to see him at the Hotel Alder, a Sixth Street SRO where he’s lived for four years. He shares his room with a sweet gray cat named Thin Lizzy, named after the rock band. Jack Ottaway, a photographer who’s acted as Joe’s caretaker since the accident, was with him, preparing to take him to a doctor’s appointment later that morning.

Joe said that after the concrete block fell onto his leg, a number of Recology employees came running over but didn’t immediately free him from the enormous weight he was trapped under, even though he could see a forklift nearby. Finally the concrete was moved aside, and he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. “I heard them in the ambulance as they were talking to [San Francisco General Hospital],” he recalled, “and they were saying, ‘we’re going to have to amputate his leg.’”

Joe is still experiencing serious pain and he said he’s been having nightmares about the accident. He got emotional when he explained what had happened, but he’s maintained his sense of humor throughout the ordeal. “I may be down, but I’m not out. The first bionic Indian!” he laughed.

“I’m getting ready to go swimming,” he jokingly told a neighbor later on, top hat in place, as his caretaker wheeled him toward the elevator on their way to the doctor. “I’m gonna do the high dive!”

A few days after the operation, Joe celebrated his 52nd birthday in the hospital. He received a giant get well soon / happy birthday card signed by students from Crocker Middle School. They’d taped a picture of Alice Cooper on the front and covered the card in hand-written messages.

Earlier on the day of the accident, Joe had gone to De Marillac Academy, a school that educates low-income, underserved youth from the Tenderloin, to deliver a “motivational talk.” It’s one of several schools, including Crocker, where he regularly speaks to youth, telling his personal story. “We talk about hunger, homelessness, and what it’s like being Native American,” he explained. “They all love me to death.”

Joe was homeless on the streets of San Francisco for many years before moving into the SRO. “Over the years, the city’s been good to me,” he said. He’s made appearances in two documentary films. One of them, the Emmy-winning “A Brush With the Tenderloin” by filmmaker Paige Bierma, focuses on a Tenderloin mural painted by local artist Mona Caron. Indian Joe is painted into the mural.

“People recognize me,” Joe said. “I got to wearing my top hat, and that became my trademark over the years.” Then came the Alice Cooper makeup, which a friend did for him the first time. Walking down the street, “I felt so self-conscious, and people were looking at me,” he said. “And then I thought: There’s a lot weirder people than me in San Francisco!”

Joe said he grew up in British Columbia, and his family is a part of the Shuswap Tribe. While living on the streets, he said, he became a victim of violence more than once: “I was stabbed eight times,” he noted, lifting his shirt to show the scars. “I was shot in the back with a 9 millimeter.” He also said he kicked a decade-long heroin addiction. “I just told the devil, here’s the needle, I quit,” he said. The withdrawal “was five years of hell,” he said, but since then, a few people have approached him to say that he inspired them to give it up, too.

When Joe sits on the sidewalk outside of his SRO in his wheelchair, practically every other passerby stops to greet him, shake his hand, and ask him how he’s getting along. But he’ll be making many more visits to the doctor in the near future, and meeting with his lawyer.

Attorney Tanya Gomerman, who is representing him, told the Bay Guardian that she and her team are “currently investigating the facts of the injury,” and believe that “Recology was negligent in maintaining their premises in a reasonably safe condition.”

Reached by phone, Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti said the concrete block, called a push wall, wasn’t supposed to be used for the purpose of helping to unload recycled cardboard from the back of a truck. But Alberti said he didn’t have enough information to explain why attendants wouldn’t have intervened to prevent an unsafe practice. “Recology is saddened by this accident and is evaluating all aspects of its operations,” Alberti said. “Our sympathies go out to the customer.”