The Lakeside’s “Mister Bojangles”
By Tom Eck
Find some music with a good beat here at Lakeside, you can almost always see 87-year-old Paul Katz, affectionately referred to as “Mr. Bojangles.” While he may not be able to “jump high and click his heels,” his rhythm and smile make it unmistakable that he enjoys mixing it up with women less than half his age. Sporting his customary dapper fedora and red suspenders, anywhere there is music he will dance, especially to his favorite—rock and roll from the ‘60’s.
The fames painter Javier Zaragoza has even memorialized Paul’s penchant for rhythm on a mural on the corner of Ocampo and Pedro Moreno in Ajijic. He is the only gringo in a sea of Mexican dancers.
Paul was born on March 29, 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, the second child and only son of Max and Ella Katz’s, also native Brooklynites. Along with his older sister, he helped his father in the family’s clothing store.
Just after high school, he was drafted into the Brooklyn Dodger’s farm team in Montreal, where by all accounts he had a mean screwball, especially for a left-handed pitcher. “But,” he laments, “I was drafted again in 1950. This time by the U.S. Army for the Korean War. “
Although a war injury ended a promising baseball career, he looks back at his service years as among his most exciting times, where he drove tanks and once mistakenly crossed into enemy territory in an Army Jeep. “We barely escaped capture by abandoning our Jeep and crawling on our bellies for over a mile, back into the DMZ.”
After Korea, he attended City College of New York, but did not finish. “I quit after three years, just a few credits short of a degree in accounting. I decided that I wanted to make money, not just count it.”
So, he returned to retail clothing, first as a clerk, then a manager, and then a buyer. Finally, in 1955, he opened his own clothing store, Paul’s 109, in New York. The clothing line was “over the top, wild, and appealed to actors and entertainers.”
It was not without its tough times, and Paul often had to survive on his wits. He told of once taking two women out to dinner and discovering that he didn’t have enough money. He quickly excused himself, ran to a neighborhood bar about a quarter mile away and hustled a round of pool. His prowess was well-known, and few would bet against him. He bet the last of his money, $10, on himself. But Paul lost. Yet he managed to make a killing. Surreptitiously, he had earlier slipped a friend $50 to bet against him at 3 to 1 odds. He quickly returned to the restaurant, paid for the meals, and was amply rewarded by the two ladies later that night.
In just ten years, Paul’s 109 had expanded to 55 stores throughout the state of New York. But he grew too quickly, and eventually, the overhead and logistics of so many stores forced him to declare bankruptcy.
“It was one of my saddest moments, seeing what I had built up over the past years all torn away from me. All that work, down the drain.” But Paul didn’t quit. He and his wife, Debra, a former New York model, moved to Mexico, finally settling in Sayula. “Originally, I moved to Mexico because like most, I wanted to get out of the rat race that is New York. But I couldn’t ignore my entrepreneurial spirit. I had to do something or just wilt away.” So, he re-opened Paul’s 109 and eventually established over 20 stores throughout the country.
Paul adopted Debra’s two children, Sindee, who now lives in Florida and Michael, who lives in New York.
“Like many American families, we don’t see each other much. As the years go by, I suppose that we all become more irrelevant to each other, but we do stay in touch,” he muses.
In 2010, Debra, his wife of 34 years died of a heart attack.
“Although I was married briefly before, Debra was the love of my life. She was taken from me so unexpectedly and suddenly. I still deeply miss her today.” His eyes still well when he speaks of her. And his loneliness is apparent even when he is trying hard at having a good time. Paul moved to Ajijic in 2010, leaving behind the constant reminder of Debra. Here, in Ajijic he loves “the people and the weather,” although he often recounts the time he stepped into a limo with a beautiful woman, was taken to Guadalajara, and “shaken down” for all the money he had. “Fortunately, it was less than three thousand pesos.”
He currently works as a booking agent for Jazz bands in the Guadalajara area, trying to generate opportunities for new talent. His dancing is an obvious outlet and for his ongoing loneliness, but it also inspires others to move on and embrace and enjoy the present. His infectious smile and tireless presence on the dance floor shames those much younger to hit the floor and just have fun— Another lonely person, trying to be happy—and doing better at it than most.
When asked about his current interests, he adds, “Women and sex are on the top of my list. I am actually going to see a doctor about lowering my sex drive”.
But then he laughs, “Yeah, right now it’s all in my mind.”
I’m not so sure he was serious...