I pass by the front counter and spot him in the back, climbing out from beneath a sizeable pile of clothes. He’s wearing dark blue, polyester pants from a deceased WWII veteran’s closet. The pants have some sort of multi-colored dashes woven into the fabric that look like moth infestation. They’re obviously too big for him, so he belts them with an orange scarf. The shirt is ordinary and coordinated with his pants.
Jimmy owns and operates Blue Moon Vintage Clothing, housed in a proverbial bulwark near the waterfront in the old town section of Bellingham. I happen to catch him on a good day. He says he’s feeling good because he just received a windfall—the aforementioned hill-sized pile of used clothes—from a guy he knows in the wholesale business, some kind of rag dealer. The clothes seem okay, useable, but looks can be deceiving.
I make a mental list of the pile’s contents. A black bustier in a child’s size 2M; a wispy blouse that appears at first glance to be leopard print but is actually owls; Ziggy Stardust shoes; acid green, poly-plaid golf pants (real beauts, Jimmy says, but too small for him), with a matching green Nebraska Tech College t-shirt; a purse with tags still attached; a red, faux-leather, trench coat, à la Audrey Hepburn; tennis shirts from the Bruce Jenner collection; assorted western style shirts, the snappy kind.
Jimmy says that he isn’t selling his business after all, the pile of new clothes apparently the culprit for his optimism. Not to be a naysayer, but I’m not sure there is a thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise in his pile, even with the fetching owl-print blouse. Obviously it makes him happy to think otherwise, and things are looking up from his previous month’s “donation” to the local Lummi tribe—AKA the casino’s craps table—so who am I to rain on his parade? While I’m relieved he isn’t bailing out this week, next week could be different. Eventually, the property management is going to want their back rent, money that Jimmy professes not to have.
Jimmy relays how Paris Texas, the store next door, had been sniffing around his property the month before, and how he feels contemptuous of their hipster posturing, their empty brand of style. He thinks they pander to a faux counter culture, a type of trust fund street waif, which offends his sensibilities because Jimmy considers himself to be the genuine article. A large part of his clientele aren’t posing as poverty stricken, homeless addicts and alcoholics, they are poverty stricken, homeless addicts and alcoholics. Many are Mission residents, or railroad car buddies, apparently. I want to say mostly men who are down on their luck, who possess hearts of gold, but that’d be a cliché. A pair of Alaskan Natives appear on the sidewalk in front of the store and Jimmy rushes out to greet them, slapping one guy on the back and mumbling something about stolen lands and Custer. The pair and others drop by the store frequently throughout the day because Jimmy gives them cigarettes, and all that’s required in return is that they stand still long enough for Jimmy to tell them a funny story.
For me, Jimmy represents the quintessential everyman’s man, champion of the underdog. I admire his contempt for capitalism and corporate sellouts. Part of what drives his decision not to sell the store, he says, is that his retail neighbor wants the space so they can expand, and he takes delight in denying them what they want. As if he’s staying afloat just out of spite. (As he once said, “If someone told me I couldn’t be a Roman Catholic priest, I would be!”) At one point, he posted a sign in the window—written on the back of a poster for Beat Angel, an independent film he starred in—voicing his disdain, and informing his patrons that the rumors weren’t true: Not Selling Out to Paris Texas!
Scanning the expanse of the store I ask him where his Goth girl clerks are, and he says they’re probably tired of being paid only in clothes, adding that his employee are the only reason he’s able to stay afloat, because unlike him, they aren’t constantly wheeling and dealing and slashing prices on a whim. He regularly greets his customers with a rousing “everything’s half off! More if it looks good on you!” He’s excellent with his regular customers: they’ll wander in and he directs them to their preferences and sizes—like a good bartender who always remembers the customers’ usual. A man and woman come in and ask whether Jimmy has any leather chaps. The man is unusually tall, and the woman is unusually short. Some days the Blue Moon looks like the set of a Fellini picture. Jimmy pushes a cart of clothes free for the taking out to the sidewalk. He says proudly that Bellingham has the best-dressed homeless in the country, largely due to him.
Friday, May 8, 2004. 9:30 AM. Bellingham, WA.
I’ve arranged to meet Jimmy for a hunting and gathering errand to Skagit Valley thrift shops. The ironic t-shirt and trucker caps department is running critically low, and he’s out of vintage slips. We made plans to restock. He doesn’t have a car or a license, so I offered to help him out. Jimmy complains, “No one dresses up anymore.” He’s referring to the eighties, the thrift store glory days of Bananarama and Cyndi Lauper, that magical decade when New Wave celebrants and hold-overs from the UK punk scene dressed up like serial killers or Ringling Bros. Circus clowns, the times before irony ruled supreme.
Jimmy phoned at 8:00 to set our meeting back to 9:30, something about a gutter man. Good title for a book: Waiting for the Gutter Man. I don’t ask. When I get to the store to pick him up, Jimmy’s sitting on the curb studying his shoes and gripping a brown, paper sack, filled with not alcohol but a collection of his personal effects: money, checks, ID, comb, etc. He blows into my car like a cyclone hitting a cattle barn.
As the car sits idling in the drive-in bank, I worry that we look like rookies in a drug cartel. A couple of ill-prepared, clumsy mules. The passenger floor is littered with checks and twenty-dollar bills, loose cigarettes, and change. Jimmy loses the pen, he can’t manage to sign his name legibly, can’t find his ID—it’s a hot mess. Then he insists we visit McDonalds for breakfast, which delights him because he apparently doesn’t have access to fast food restaurants living downtown—he also looks forward to asking the drive-thru window guy if fellatio comes with the Happy Meal, or rather the Happy Ending Meal, as he’s decided to call it.
We stop off at the grocery store where Jimmy buys a can of Crisco. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to buy a giant can of Crisco before 10 A.M., but again, it’s better not to ask. In addition to the Crisco, he feeds dollar bills into the scratch-ticket machines, and buys a seven-dollar gadgety lighter shaped like a rocket that shoots out sparks.
Our first stop is a retirement home thrift store somewhere near Stanwood. It’s dollar bag day and Jimmy, self-assured and in his element, gives off a heady note of swagger. What’s better than Norwegian geriatrics and the musty clothes of the recently deceased? Each item has a story to tell and we’re intent upon keeping a running commentary. 1) The needlepoint kit resembling a flattened possum: “Nothing says Home Sweet Home better than a framed cross stitch of road kill.” 2) The ribbon and plastic flora bound books: “An anti-literature craft project for wayward readers.” 3) The Costco-sized bottle of lotion which was too expensive and put back on the shelf: “There goes your social life, Jimmy.”
After stocking up with several grocery sacks of items, Jimmy nearly enters into a physical altercation with some blue haired dame in a sunflower headband. From what I manage to piece together, the proprietors are pissed about his being a messy, inconsiderate slob. Apparently, on a previous visit, Jimmy carelessly abandoned clothing items all over the aisles, on the floor, left them stranded on chairs, and forgot his baskets of items beneath the racks. The blue haired woman chews him out and good; Jimmy’s been shop-shamed. Not that it’s the first time, I’m sure.
“Yeah, but I bought like nine bags of clothes.” Jimmy says to the lady. Nine dollars; I’m sure they really appreciated his business.
“Well, it probably wasn’t you, but the man you were with, then?” Blue hair lady offers diplomatically. I guess she’s referring to Bill, Jimmy’s so-called biographer, a guy who keeps tabs on Jimmy’s activities and helps promote his writing and acting career.
Next stop: Camano Island for another dollar bag sale. That Jimmy—he really has a finger on the pulse of second hand goods! We’re greeted in the parking lot by a jaundiced man with a lopsided scar on his face and a silver hook for a hand. He appears to be the shop’s fix-it man. Jimmy really works up a froth inside the store, telling the proprietors that he’s picking up for clothing charities, like Evergreen Youth Home—at one point I overhear him telling one of the clerks that he’s a priest and is picking up clothes for orphans at Paulie Shore’s House of Casserole, which the clerk assumes is some kind of restaurant. We cram more grocery bags into the trunk of my car. I suggest gingerly that he might consider holding off on the shorts and tank tops and concentrate on adding to his winter/fall departments; a problem since Jimmy seems mostly interested in buying trucker caps, t-shirts, and polyester men’s suits. Stuff he wears.
Jimmy naps most of the way home. When he does manage to stay awake he finishes his McDonald’s sandwiches, tries reading part of a brochure on northwest salmon out loud in a variety of celebrity impersonations, smokes a couple of cigarettes, and in his customary Jimmy style holds forth on a critique of western civilization and his growing up in Queens as an Irish Catholic altar boy. He regales me with names and descriptions of all his homeless buddies, his married girlfriends, his epic drinking binges once upon a time on the Blackfeet Rez, and tells me about his partner in poetic crime sprees, the Lakota poet Luke Warm Water. Then he falls back asleep and a few minutes later awakens with a startled “HEY, BABY.”
When we pull into Bellingham I take an inventory of the inside of my car, which now resembles the nest of a very large and messy bird—strewn newspapers, pamphlets, receipts, spilled bag of chips, crumbs in every crevice, cigarette ashes, scratch tickets, leftover McDonald’s bags, used Kleenex, and the Safeway card Jimmy claims is his only form of ID.
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 Jimmy. He has his own secret entrance from his apartment above the Blue Moon onto the balcony of Stuarts. When he notices me sitting at the table across from the crawl space, my jaw hanging open, he holds his finger to his lips, then nods hello, says he’ll be back, before disappearing down the stairs to grab his morning coffee and pace up and down the street out front, smoking cigarettes and chatting people up.
This is how we become friends—or how I become Jimmy’s personal ATM and chauffeur. We exchange phone numbers and make plans to listen to music at the Grand Avenue that night. He doesn’t show up.
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.”