"I'm a Downtown Man"

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

Already living in the St. Louis area was Jimmy's older brother, Peggy's son by a man other than Jimmy's father. "His name was James L. Meracle," says Jimmy, "but everyone called him Larry. He was a welder and churchgoing man, but something changed him. He started drinking tall glasses of vodka and bourbon, and that killed him."

Peggy and Jimmy found a flat on Salisbury Street, in Hyde Park. Jimmy went to Webster Elementary on North 11th Street. He made it to the eighth grade before dropping out. Peggy found work as a barmaid at Jasper's Tavern on North Broadway and Madison, across from the old Rag Doll Hotel. Jimmy, even as a preteen, worked there, too. "I'd sweep, wipe the tables and chairs," he says, "but shining shoes was the biggest thing I did. I had a little shine box and made decent money. I'd go to J.C. Penney on 14th Street and get what I wanted. I bought my own school clothes."

Jasper's Tavern was a different kind of school, a place where he learned to shoot pool, enjoy vices and make friends. "It was a biker bar," Jimmy relates, "and so many came in there, it was hard to keep track. There were the Bone Shakers, the Saddle Tramps, the Savages and God's People. I had God's People's colors, white background with English lettering, and they rode me around on the sidecar like the president. It was crazy and stupid, but I lived with it." This went on for a few years. Then, says Jimmy, "there were so many shootings and so much trouble -- out-of-town gangs mostly -- around that place they decided to close." It was 1972. Jimmy was 17, and he didn't have a place to hang out anymore. That's when he met Gus.

"I am a downtown man, and that's all I'll ever be."
Jennifer Silverberg
"I am a downtown man, and that's all I'll ever be."

"A police sergeant named Earl Robertson brought him down to my place," says Gus, who has just come into the backroom to check on things. Gus refers to his former location, Torregrossa's Hair Styling at 623 N. Broadway, since razed. "I already had a shoeshine boy, Simon," says Gus. "He was 6-foot-6 and weighed 500 pounds, but I had to get rid of him, 'cause I felt sorry for Jimmy."

Jimmy sensed that his lot had improved. "I got acquainted with people at the barbershop," he says, "things got brighter." His shoeshine technique served him well, and at Gus's salon he was in demand. "Some want a dull shine; some want it bright. His specialty was spit-shine," says Gus.

For $10, Jimmy shaved the legs of strippers from the old World Theater on Chestnut Street, who came into Gus's salon. But mainly Jimmy shined. He shined for Ben Gazzara, Regis Philbin and Telly Savalas when they came through town. He almost ruined Gazzara's career. "He carries that pistol," says Gus. "It doesn't have real bullets, but Gazzara was nervous. He asked, 'Is that loaded?' Jimmy said it wasn't, and to prove it wasn't loaded, he shot it, and Gazzara got a powder burn to his face. Still, Gazzara wanted him to be in a movie. He called Jimmy from California, and he was going to put him on a plane to Hollywood, but Jimmy said no, he couldn't leave his mother."

"I can't remember the exact offer, but that's what I understand he told me," says Jimmy. "And I said I didn't want to go, didn't want to be bothered by that bullshit. I have what I want here. I don't want to go anywhere."

Gus took Jimmy in. He put him to work. He saw that the rent was paid and that there was food on the table for Jimmy and his mother. Jimmy, in turn, found a new sense of devotion: "I love Gus so much, I called him one day -- he wasn't expecting this -- I said, 'How are you doing, Dad?' I meant that, every word. I love this fucking place. This is my home. These people are my family."

"I take care of him," says Gus. "Anything he wants, he gets from Gus. He's like my son -- I raised him."

And like a wayward son, Jimmy has engaged in typical adolescent behavior on occasion. For instance, he drove Gus' brand-new VW underneath a tractor-trailer on 14th Street. "He wrecked the car," says Gus, "and then he hollered at me for leaving the keys inside."

"I'm not familiar with VWs," remarks Jimmy dismissively, exhaling a gentle plume of smoke from his nose.

"What apparently must've happened is, he forgot to put his foot on the brake," says Gus, still trying to analyze the accident after all these years. "I didn't even know he knew how to start the car."

"I never drove a car where you had to work the gas pedal, the brake and the clutch all at one time," says Jimmy.

"And now you don't drive at all," Gus shoots back.

Yes, Gus takes care of Jimmy. He pays him a living wage, looks out for his welfare. He's introduced Jimmy to his circle of downtown paisans, respected businessmen such as restaurateur Charlie Gitto and Mark Cusumano of Kemoll's. He even gets Jimmy's laundry done for him once a month at a cleaners down on Washington Avenue. But Gus is not the only one who takes care of Jimmy. Over the years, Jimmy has become a favorite with the beat cops downtown, a sort of mascot.

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