by Christopher Rowe
In the 1950s, newsstands were everywhere in New York City. There were over 3,000 of them registered, their proprietors hawking newspapers and magazines to busy passersby in every borough. Around 1953, a new one went up at the corner of Hester Street and the Bowery in Jokertown. The wisecracking newsie who ran it was a joker called Jube the Walrus, so named because he resembled a much smaller, anthropomorphic version of the giant sea mammals.
At least that’s what everybody thought.
In the Wild Cards universe, Jube has been there since the beginning. When the first book was published in 1987, in George’s story “Shell Games,” Doctor Tachyon, so-called Father of the Wild Cards, is drinking his way to dissolution at the Jokertown nightclub called the Funhouse. In a brief appearance, Jube the Walrus comes by Tachyon’s table, making his habitual late-night rounds of various Jokertown locales, dragging his wire cart, selling newspapers. He offers a Herald Tribune to the alien scientist and cracks an off-color joke. That’s what Jube does, you see. He sells papers and knows more jokes than anyone else in Jokertown.
As I write this, it’s been just a few weeks since the publication, at tor.com, of “Hanger and Tongs and a Rusty Nail,” by Ian Tregillis, making it the most recent Wild Cards story. Who is there, vending the Jokertown Cry and still cracking wise? It’s Jube, thirty-three years since his first appearance in the canon and almost seventy since his first appearance on the streets of the city in-universe.
There are lots of long-lived jokers and aces in our dozens (is it hundreds?) of tales, of course.
Jube, though, is not one of them. Because Doctor Tachyon is not the only alien scientist on Earth. The alien xenologist, Jhubben of Glabber, observer of the planet for the interstellar trading combine known as the Network, is another. From just a few years after the release of the Wild Card virus down to the present day, he has observed, tracked, and recorded humanity. He has had a crucial role in fending off an invasion by the alien menace of the Swarm, he has brokered a deal that saw Tachyon leave the Earth (apparently for good), he has, always, sold newspapers. He has always told jokes. Not exactly safe-for-work jokes, mind, not jokes that can be described as being in good taste, but jokes that are never mean-spirited.
Because Jube (let us call him by his nom de Terra, for he has surely embraced it as his own), is, at bottom, a being of tremendous good will, possessed of a tremendous heart. He has succumbed to the impulse that many human anthropologists do, to their credit. He has abandoned neutrality and come to love his subject, humanity. He does not simply observe us; he observes us with devotion.
Jube has encountered almost every significant figure in the Wild Cards universe, and dozens of the less significant (but forfend! all of our characters are significant!). In the second volume of the series, Aces High, he hires another character who has been there since the beginning, Croyd Crenson, to help him out with a rather unique problem. In a pair of dovetailed stories, “Jube” by George RR Martin, and “Ashes to Ashes,” by the great Roger Zelazny, the complex plot of the book involving an alien invasion and a secret cult comes together in a series of incidents that range from the tragic to the comic.
It’s in “Jube” that the walrus’s secret comes out, at least to the reader. His basement apartment, lit by dim red light bulbs, freezing cold, and redolent of the spoiled steaks that make up the diet required by his alien physiology, is revealed to be a high-tech observation post full of devices that range from the prosaic, like a police radio, to the exotic, like impossibly sophisticated interstellar communications gear. In the story, Jube, distracted by a typically generous act towards his fellow tenants in the building he secretly owns, misses a very important call placed on such a latter device. This is the genesis of Jube’s major appearance to date in Wild Cards fiction.
But, unusually, it’s not his major appearances that make Jube such a beloved and important character.
Because, as has been said, Jube is always there. He has been on the page so often, more often, in fact, than any other of our characters with the probable exception of Zelazny’s Sleeper. And in fact, when the Sleeper awakens after one of his periodic, transformative hibernations, it’s always Jube he visits first to buy his usual allotment of newspapers, to catch up on the doings of the world. Somehow, Jube always recognizes him.
Jube is there when an ace or a joker needs some information, or a rumor, or even just a pick-me-up. Jube is there when someone is lonely. Jube is there when the whole of the world is in danger.
His minor (“minor”) appearances usually follow a certain pattern. The main character of a given tale is either walking the streets of Jokertown or is ensconced in one of its many colorful locations. Jube approaches them in the latter case (as with Tachyon in Jube’s first appearance) or they approach him in the former (as with Croyd Crenson when he wakes). They exchange greetings, they exchange news, Jube tells a joke. That’s it.
No, that’s not it at all.
Because remember, in Jube’s original and still extant identity as the anthropologist Jhubben of Glabber, he is still studying us. He is making mental notes that he will later record in his basement lair. He is, to be ungenerous, spying on us. He is, to be accurate, learning about us, always and continuously.
And the characters of the Wild Cards universe are always and continuously teaching him. They are teaching him about the exotic effects of the alien virus that transformed the world in in 1946, yes, but also about how humans, transformed or no, act and react to stimuli both outward and inward. How does an angry joker, incandescent over the prejudice and hatred of their kind expressed by so called “nats,” process and direct a rage that potentially leads to terrible violence? How does a gentle man in the body of an iron giant, so careful of his enormous strength, take care of a little girl?
The stories of the Wild Cards universe are many, yes, and the greatest strength of that wide, closely weaved tapestry of telling is that they do something very close to limning a fictional version of the full range of human experience—or at least come as close to doing so as any series in science fiction has ever done. Comedy and tragedy to be reductive about it; sorrow and joy and exhilaration and fear and triumph and loss and hilarity and intensity and breathless, breathless adventure to be, well, perhaps just slightly less reductive.
Because that is the nature of humanity. Diversity within unity, kinship and community expressing difference and uniqueness.
And to a spy from another world, to an anthropologist, that is fascinating. Jhubben of Glabber had never seen anything like it. He has become so involved with the people he was set here to study and record that he has, in fact, become one of them. One of us.
The newsstands of New York City have been in decline for more than half a century. Once numbering thousands, they now number hundreds, with more disappearing every month. Those that survive do not survive selling newspapers and magazines, but cigarettes and soft drinks and other banalities of modern life.
There is one great exception, of course. You know it. It is on the corner of Hester Street and the Bowery. You should go there, say hello to its proprietor, endure a joke, pick up the day’s issue of the Cry.
You should be aware that you are being closely observed, but you should not worry overmuch about that fact. Because Jube the Walrus, by all appearances a joker and by any measure a man, is not just watching us but watching over us, with affection, and with care, and with love.