The Jimmy Report Tiffany Midge
I first met Jimmy at an independent film festival in Burbank. Jimmy played a spoken word poet in the aforementioned Beat Angel, an independent film about Jack Kerouac coming back from the dead. In it, Kerouac’s spirit lands in the body of a hobo bumming for spare change during a poetry open mic held in celebration of Kerouac’s birthday. The filmmaker was from Bellingham, as were many of the actors and crew. Jimmy’s role was brief, just a flash compared to the rest of the film, but I must have watched and re-watched his scene dozens of times. He was so charismatic. He wore a Mad Men-style light-colored suit and a matching fedora. He was smoking a cigarette as he recited one of his original poems, I don’t remember which one, it could have been from one of his chapbooks—“It Takes a Whole Mall to Raise a Child,” or “Women are from Venus, Men are from Bars.” On the back covers of his chapbooks more established poets wrote glowing reviews of Jimmy’s work, saying he wrote in the tradition of Jack Kerouac, or Charles Bukowski. One of his bios described him as having worked as a bouncer on the Blackfeet Indian Rez, as a welfare cheat, and as a plasma donor.
In Burbank during the film festival and within just a couple of hours of meeting him, he barged into my hotel room with all the grace of a jacked-up Billy goat, jumped excitedly from topic to topic, picked up and handled most of my books and personal items, asked dozens of questions, paced from room to room, even checked out my closet, “NICE ROBE, I COULD SELL THESE,” before scrambling out the door as if he was making a critical run for a toilet. That was his style. Hyper-mania. And it often left me feeling ramped up and exhilarated, like some kind of electrical storm just touched down, but the kind that made you feel lucky it picked you to visit.
After Beat Angel premiered at one of the cinemas in Burbank, a group of us drove around, stopping off at different bars and small clubs. Outside one of the clubs, Jimmy introduced himself to a potpourri of hipsters smoking outside. He made the rounds, shaking everyone’s hand saying, “I’m Jimmy Henry, I’m a janitor at Hollywood High, I live in my parent’s basement and I collect gay bondage porn.” And then later at another restaurant he offered to buy my friend and me a drink. But he didn’t have any money, so he told us he’d be right back and left to busk for spare change.
Sunday, April 11, 2004. 10:00 AM. Bellingham, WA.
I’ve been home a week after getting back from Burbank, and I happen to be hanging out at Stuart’s, the coffee shop just around the corner from Jimmy’s store. I’m sitting in the upstairs balcony at Stuart’s when I notice movement coming from the area across the length of tables at the wall opposite me. I look up from my book and watch in astonishment as a rather large section of the wall is removed from the inside, then crashes to the floor. Next, a tall man in polyester plaid pants scuttles rodent-like through the hole and steps casually into the coffee shop, brushing himself off in a resolute kind of way before he turns back to the wall section, hoists it up, and fits it back into the wall like a piece of a life-sized jigsaw puzzle.
It’s no great associative leap to say that Jimmy was Neal Cassady incarnate. For one thing, he never stopped talking. And it seemed like most everything he said was either pee-your-pants riotous or some deep, philosophical truth, like a soothsayer, a soothsayer with a laugh track. A shaman with mic. When I told Jimmy that his vagabond life of riding the rails, eating in missions, and sleeping on the streets should be made into a sitcom, he immediately said, “Yeah, a sitcom called ‘Honey, I’m Homeless!’”
My money and resources seemed to swiftly disappear around Jimmy. But I continued hanging around him for the hilarious things he would say. Once, when he stood me up for about the hundredth time, his excuse was that some old railroad car buddies were in town and they insisted he drink with them all night. Railroad car buddies. As if he just stepped out of a page from The Grapes of Wrath, on his way to the land of milk and honey. He sometimes referred to his sexual encounters as “untying the Boy Scouts,” a euphemism meant to corrupt what’s wholesome or innocent, as in, “I took this high school girl who works in the store to a fancy party, a fundraiser, and after we drank wine and sampled the cheese platter, we went back to my loft and untied the Boy Scouts.” I asked, “Oh, did she wear a backpack? Did she color at the table?” Jimmy once said that when he visited schools to present his poetry, his then-wife, Marilyn, insisted on accompanying him. “Like she was afraid I’d run off with a cheerleader or something.” He joked about a junior-squad cheerleader being too old for him.
Jimmy was decidedly feral. He was the sort of person who would phone you up at three o’clock in the morning on what seemed to be a drug-induced manic jag, in order to read you a poem newly scrawled out in what I imagined might be a purple crayon. Or for a more serious occasion, to bail him out of jail. It also goes without saying that despite all this, I liked him immediately, until the day I decided I didn’t like him anymore. Or couldn’t afford to. Because aside from the charming aspects of his personality, his humor, his energy, Jimmy could also, quite often, be insufferable.
The last time I saw Jimmy was sometime just before he lost his business and left town with plans to bicycle across America. He invited me to drop by his loft to say goodbye. While I sometimes thought he might have a drug habit I never knew for certain, but the unmistakable glass pipe and butane torch sitting atop the coffee table like a gritty still life subject confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t hear from him ever again, but a few years ago I found an article on the internet from some website out of Duluth that explained how Jimmy had spent the last few years of his life living there as the unofficial barstool poet laureate.
Monday, April 3, 2004. 9:00 PM. Burbank, CA.
Jimmy gets back to our table, with money to buy us drinks and appetizers. He tells us he recited poetry on the street to raise the cash. While we sit and enjoy our panhandled drinks, our begged-for appetizer, he pens “tattoos” on himself with a Sharpie. On the knuckles of one hand he writes “LOVE,” and on the knuckles of his other hand, “HATE.” On his left arm he writes “Mama Tried.”
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.