"I'm a Downtown Man"

Jimmy is a big man in a small, strange world.

The two men are in a backroom of the sportswear store, the Phat Farm jeans and FUBU jerseys piled high on the folding tables. Gus is trying to explain why Jimmy is the way he is. Jimmy's early years were hell. "People made fun of him, and he was ganged up on in school," Gus puts in. "I got a picture of him with a black eye."

Standing in the doorway, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, Jimmy looks away while he's being talked about.

"His mom worked at a tavern on North Broadway," Gus continues. "Jimmy shined shoes and cleaned up the place. He was a pool shark, too. He used to stand on a beer case with a rope tied to it so he could drag it around the table and shoot pool. Then the place closed, and Jimmy and his mom didn't have no means. About that time, he came in my store. He was 17. He was wearing a black peacoat, and he had a white baby face. He looked like an orphan from St. Vincent's Home. I put him to work shining shoes. I took care of Jimmy and his mom, food and rent, for years until she passed ... I got her in the back.

Gus Torregrossa has been Jimmy's boss for nearly 30 years, except for the times he's fired him. "Anything he wants, he gets from Gus," Torregrossa says of Jimmy. "He's like my son -- I raised him."
Jennifer Silverberg
Gus Torregrossa has been Jimmy's boss for nearly 30 years, except for the times he's fired him. "Anything he wants, he gets from Gus," Torregrossa says of Jimmy. "He's like my son -- I raised him."
Gus Torregrossa has been Jimmy's boss for nearly 30 years, except for the times he's fired him. "Anything he wants, he gets from Gus," Torregrossa says of Jimmy. "He's like my son -- I raised him."
Jennifer Silverberg
Gus Torregrossa has been Jimmy's boss for nearly 30 years, except for the times he's fired him. "Anything he wants, he gets from Gus," Torregrossa says of Jimmy. "He's like my son -- I raised him."

"Jimmy gets very emotional when you talk about his mom," says Gus, his voice softening. "He loved her dearly."

"She was the best," Jimmy burbles, a noticeable tremor passing through his small frame.

"When Jimmy's mom remarried, his stepfather didn't want much to do with him. He abused Jimmy and his mom."

Gus is now laying it on thick, how Jimmy was mistreated and victimized by the stepfather and by life in general, when Jimmy goes into a paroxysm. The bad memories well up, and he starts blubbering.

"See? See?" says Gus as if he has just discovered Pavlov's response. "This is what happens!"

"He was a son of a bitch," says Jimmy through sobs. "He beat up my mother, and then my brother turned around and beat the hell out of him."

"His mother was a good woman," says Gus, "but she drank. She ran around with bikers. I got her in the back -- hold on."

Gus leaves the room and returns a minute later. He's carrying a Reebok shoebox. He opens it, and inside is a little rectangular metal box, the kind crematoriums use to return the departed's ashes. A slip of paper inserted into a slot on the box reads: "Frances Ferris died 9-24-94."


He was born James D. Barton, but his street handle, known to hundreds around town -- perhaps thousands -- is Jimmy the Midget. "Don't call him that. He doesn't like that," warns Gus Torregrossa, Jimmy's boss and the owner of Gus's Fashions & Shoes on North Tucker Boulevard. "Five-hundred-pound guys come in to the store, call him that, and he'll look at them and say, 'My name is Jimmy, and don't you forget it, or I'll knock you down.'" In the past, Jimmy has given his name to inquiring journalists as Jimmy Vitale and John Vitale, hinting that he's the son of the late John J. Vitale, a local mobster.

Jimmy, 46, clarifies this issue, pointedly explaining, "I adopted the Italian name Vitale because my own father didn't give a fuck about me. I only use my real name for income tax or for medical papers. Keep the street names and call me what I want to be called." What he wants to be called, he says, is Jimmy, John, Vince, Vito or Joe. Still, and despite the fact that he is not a midget but simply very short -- 4 feet-11-and-a-half inches on a 124-pound frame -- he is saddled with the "midget" moniker. Sometimes it's "Jimmy the Midget"; sometimes it's simply "the midget."

He is an improbable character known for his stature, his penchant for military and law-enforcement uniforms and his having fouled the interior of Vince Schoemehl's mayoral car. Most certainly he is famous downtown, around the intersection of Tucker Boulevard and Washington Avenue. There are plenty of music clubs in that vicinity -- Tangerine, Galaxy, Tabu -- but don't expect to see Jimmy in that set. It's far too hip for an old-school man. Besides, those clubs, with their tattooed, martini-drinking clientele from some soulless suburb out west, that's not downtown to Jimmy. And Jimmy is all about downtown, having toiled here for 30 years.

Jimmy's orbit, elliptical as it may be, starts out in a studio apartment in Plaza Square, at 16th and Locust streets, and travels to Tucker and Washington for a nine-hour day at Gus's Fashions & Shoes. In the evening, it moves one block north on Tucker to the smoky confines of the Missouri Bar & Grill and finally, in the wee hours, the orbit having become somewhat erratic and wobbly, it's back to Plaza Square.

Jimmy knows the downtown cops. He knows the reporters from the Post-Dispatch, two blocks down on Tucker. He knows who the hustlers are, where to step to avoid the pigeon droppings and where to get a kick-ass cheeseburger. "I am a downtown man," he crows, "and that's all I'll ever be."

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