By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By RFT Staff
By Keegan Hamilton
By Gavin Cleaver
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
"Whatever comes to Jimmy's mind, that's what he is that day," confirms Gus. "He's a detective one day, and the next day he's a general. Sometimes he's a fireman. He's got all the clothes for it. One day he wanted to be a gynecologist. He had a sign on the front door: 'Dr. Vitale, Gynecologist.'" Gus isn't saying whether the good doctor saw any patients that day.
And though the uniforms have been a personal trademark and a factor in his fame, Jimmy has grown out of that phase. Indeed, of late he wears a woefully plain navy-blue T-shirt tucked into a pair of Levis with a 29-inch waist. "They have no meaning to me anymore," he explains of the costumes. "The police uniform was the main outfit, the one I wore to watch the store. All the others came later. But it took time to put them on, time to take them off, and it took money to get them cleaned. I never would wear them once they were dirty -- that's disgracing the uniform. I got some probable value out of it," he surmises, "but one day I said, 'Forget it.'"
"You know what happened, doncha?" confides Gus when Jimmy's not around. "One day, and this was a while back, the MPs come and got him, took him down to the federal building and took his uniform off -- the Army uniform with all the medals that everybody gave him. Yeah, he had the outfits. People give them to him, or he'd buy 'em. That general's hat, that must've cost him $75. Yeah, the MPs come and got him. Imitating an officer -- that's what I heard."
At 64, Gus has piercing blue eyes framed by bushy black eyebrows, and his jet-black hair is pulled back in a ponytail. He wears clean white top-of-the-line sneakers and moves around the store with the energy of a 25-year-old. He is also a confederate of The Morning Meeting on KMOX-AM. If he likes a guy, he'll call him Cuz -- as in, "Hey, Cuz, where you been?" Gus himself has about 100 cousins running around the city, part of the constant stream of misfits, backslappers and hucksters who drop by periodically.
Gus has been Jimmy's boss for the last 30 years, except for the times he's fired Jimmy. He's done that only when Jimmy has screwed up badly -- for instance, when he burned actor Ben Gazzara's face or wedged Gus's new VW into the undercarriage of a semi. When customers see them arguing in the store, it's not play-acting. "No, it's for real," says Gus, "'cause he's plastered all the time, and he brings the wrong shoes up and the wrong sizes. The customers will tell him to get a white Reebok, size 10, he brings a white Reebok, size 12. I tell him, 'Jimmy, why don't you write it down?' But he won't do that, and a lot of times we'll get in an argument. He knocked me off the ladder, broke my ribs, yeah. He throws things at me. He threw a brush at me, broke my window, $800 window."
If Jimmy is such a problem, then why keep him? "Because," retorts Gus, "his mother gave him to me. I mean, his mother says, 'There's my son -- take care of him.' She died, and that was it. His stepfather took off. So there I was with him, you know what I mean? That's all he's got but me, nobody else to take care of him, and that's one of the reasons I keep the store open, because where's he gonna get a job?"
Once, when Gus fired Jimmy -- or Jimmy quit -- Trifon Panopoulos over at the Missouri Bar & Grill put Jimmy to work as a gofer. That lasted about a week, until Jimmy went back to Gus's. "I came back on my own," says Jimmy. "I got homesick." Gus always hires Jimmy back, because, well, they need each other -- and besides, he does work every damn day and knows every shoe size and color available in 54 different styles, even if he does sometimes get plastered and bring up the wrong shoes.
Certainly customer abuse doesn't qualify as a reason for firing. One recent afternoon, some young men come into the store, start talking big and loud, as if they're at a street party. Jimmy's sizing them up: They might gonna buy this and that -- not today, though. Today they're just creating a disturbance. Jimmy decides a voice of authority is needed. He calls one a "jizzhead," right to his face, and tells him to "get a life." Startled by the impertinence -- from a store clerk, no less -- the men utter some choice imprecations and walk out as boisterously as they entered.
"At times, I have a tendency to overreact in a vulgar way, when I'm overreactive," says Jimmy after they're gone.
"Jimmy don't play," comments Gus's son Vinnie at the counter.
If he sings the blues, maybe it's because he's had them in real life. Jimmy's early years were fraught with dark clouds and ill winds. His mother, nicknamed Peggy, was the only one who stood by him. "We came to St. Louis from Detroit in 1964, when I was about 10 years old," says Jimmy. "It was just me and her. My dad ... who really knows?" He is sitting in an office in the rear of Gus's store. There is a table, some chairs, an old safe that looks as if it weighs a ton, some boxes for .38 and .357 Magnum ammo atop the safe, a rack full of Starter jackets, a water cooler and a pair of video screens that monitor the floor of the store beyond. Jimmy is too restless to sit. He paces, fingering a Newport that he means to light. Jimmy is not here voluntarily, not today. He had been watching the store, and he would still prefer to be out front, but Gus, always eager for publicity, told him to go in the back, where it's quieter, and answer a few questions for the reporter. Jimmy shrugged fatalistically at this command, muttering, "I do what Gus fucking pays me to do."