"I'm a Downtown Man"

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

"I don't want to discuss it," replies Jimmy, agitated, when asked later about the clandestine restroom activity. "Keep that confidential."

Each evening, after Jimmy closes Gus's at 8 o' clock -- 7 on Sundays -- Jimmy stands on the corner, watching things during the time it takes to drink a beer and smoke a cigarette. Someone might be casing the place. When he's satisfied that everything is cool, he walks to the bar and stays there until he has drunk his fill or the joint closes, whichever comes first. Trifon, Athena or one of the regulars usually takes him home, less than a mile away.

It's cold this night before St. Paddy's Day, and Jimmy is wearing a long blue parka and a Cardinals baseball cap with a dozen sports pins on the crown. Two inches of straight black hair poke out from the back of the cap. When he takes the cap off, some wiseguy at the bar looks at his mane and asks, "Is that shoe polish?" The gibe is an insinuation that Jimmy would color his hair with bootblack, a throwback to his days as a shoeshine. "No, it is not," replies Jimmy indignantly.

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."

Now Jimmy starts to wander through the bar, drink in hand. He's reconnoitering, checking out who's here, who he feels like gabbing with. He has the police radio clipped to his belt, and every now and then some random chatter squawks from his person: Baker 5, I've got a 23-year-old with face injury. "I'm keeping track of what's going on," Jimmy explains; it's just an extension of his role at Gus's. A bit later, a fellow with a green blazer tries to mix it up with Jimmy, asking about the badge he wears on the front pocket of his dress shirt. Jimmy has a collection of real badges from various municipalities, but this one, "St. Louis Police Commissioner No. 007," is his favorite. "Tell him," says another wag at the bar. "Tell him how it was presented to you by Mel Carnahan hisself, God rest his soul."

"Yeah," says Jimmy, several sets of boozy eyes upon him. "Carnahan took it out of a cardboard box and put it into the palm of my hand -- hand to hand," he stresses. "I was worthless ... I mean, speechless." Guffaws. But there's something in Green Blazer's demeanor that annoys Jimmy, and when Green Blazer goes off to the john, Jimmy notes that he's never been able to stand the guy. "He thinks he's hot shit," Jimmy spouts. "He used to make fun of me, about my height. If he tries that again tonight, I'll knock him down."

Told about this, Green Blazer is startled. "He's got me mixed up with someone else," he protests. "This has been going on for years. He always calls me by some other name. He's never known my real name." Still, Green Blazer steers clear of Jimmy for the rest of the evening.

On the backbar, unsold Soulard Mardi Gras beads dangle over the booze shelf, and the talk turns to last month's festivities. Someone asks Jimmy whether he saw the parade. "I don't go to Soulard," he rumbles. "It's too far, and the people there are too goofy." When conversing, Jimmy's deep-set gray eyes grow wide, and his furrowed brow undulates beneath the rim of his cap. His words come out slow and seem to require some effort; it's hard to tell whether he's drunk or thoughtful or simply forgot to take his thyroid medicine.

When Pete Parisi, mastermind of World Wide Magazine, once approached Jimmy about being a character on the offbeat cable-TV show, Jimmy agreed. The plot lines on WWM are fairly thin: In one episode, according to Parisi, Jimmy's character "had the blues because his girlfriend, this 300-pound gal, didn't want to see him anymore." Another segment featured Jimmy, dressed as a cop, approaching unsuspecting people waiting at a bus stop. In a guttural voice, he deadpans: "Have your money ready for the bus." But most of the Jimmy episodes featured the "comedy team" of Gus and Jimmy. "When we would go to Gus's," says WWM regular Vince Cali, "it would be Gus chasing Jimmy around the store, antagonizing him, and Jimmy cussing Gus. His character on that show is to cuss out Gus."

"Gus tortures Jimmy," Parisi emphasizes. "He loves to make fun of him and get him mad."

Jimmy, who has plenty of affection for Gus, has no love whatsoever for the World Wide Magazine crew: "Stupid dago jackoffs," he snorts. "They ask too-personal questions. They insult my intelligence, and I'm a proud, intelligent man. They think they can make a joke of me because I'm not as big as other people."

"He's not stupid, he's ridiculous," says Parisi. "No one takes him seriously. Everything he does is taken as a joke."

Jimmy's reputation as buffoon rests on the stories of his more notorious exploits, youthful indiscretions that he is now striving to live down. The most talked-about one has to do with the mayor's car. In 1988, a cop phoned in to the Breakfast Club (then on 93.7 FM) to regale listeners with a story about Jimmy: "OK, one night I'm down there by KMOX, and my sergeant, Ted Lewandowski, calls me and says, 'I got a VIP that wants to see you.' OK, so he brings the 'VIP,' who is Jimmy the Midget. So we're standing there, and I see Mayor Schoemehl driving his new Buick around. He's got to do an interview on Channel 4, and he can't find a place to park. So I says, 'Oh, pull it up here on the sidewalk; leave the keys in it in case I have to move it.'"

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