Jimmy Lee’s Blues

Stefa had told him that people were meant to sleep indoors and urged him to find a way to get off the street. She was so right. He had been on the street too long. He needed to talk to her and all he could do was curse at the wind.

Short story by George Wynn

Cold snap! Jimmy Lee was wrapped tightly in his blankets near Mission Bay Library. Suddenly, strong hands begin shaking him. “You OK?” the voice asks.

Jimmy Lee looks into the face of a big SFPD cop and gives an angelic smile, then nods twice. The big cop hurries off to his cruiser, probably to check up on other poor souls freezing their asses off in one of America’s premier tourist meccas. Jimmy Lee closes his eyes, then coughs and pulls out a lozenge and swallows.

It’s dawn. His box of blueberry muffins lays in crumbs before him. “Damn, wish Harry hadn’t lost his place.” Eight days a month, Jimmy Lee was good to sleep in Harry’s SRO hotel room. According to the rules of the Tenderloin residential hotel, a resident could have a guest sleep over eight nights a month.

Jimmy had kept telling Harry to clean up the enormous clutter in his room, but Harry paid no mind to him, nor the management. Now he had paid the price and had disappeared.

They had met years ago while cooking in a downtown greasy spoon, six months after Jimmy Lee was discharged from the Air Force for a nervous breakdown after serving a year. Authoritarian figures made him unbearably tense and confused.

After his discharge, his tough Texas father berated him: “You just couldn’t measure up. You were always a mama’s boy.”

Jimmy Lee had wanted to knock his father unconscious at that moment, but instead ran off to a park and bawled his eyes out. He so much missed his Hong Kong-born, gentle mother who was killed while crossing a green light by a hit-and-run driver in Houston’s Chinatown, where Jimmy had grown up.

How could she have married such a beast as his father? But she’d entered the country illegally and his father took full advantage, bossing her around and from time to time even smacking her and him.

Fed up with those confrontations, Jimmy Lee vowed never again to see his father and hitched a ride to Tucson, where he volunteered four hours a day cutting cheese in the hip downtown Co-op. As a reward, he ate all the cheese and bread he could digest.

He slept on the street — a breeze, since it was often 70 degrees at midnight in Arizona. Unable to find full-time work, he moved on to Phoenix and got a job digging ditches until the super-hot summer weather hit and he caught a Greyhound to San Francisco.

Jimmy Lee, wiry, an inch or two over six feet tall, with long arms down to his knees, now rubs his arm over his eyes, stands up and lights an American Spirit. He doesn’t smoke much. A pack lasts him a month. He throws down the cigarette and mashes it with his work boot.

Going to be tough without Harry’s place, he thought. Last night, he slept in a SOMA grocery doorway with a sign in the window saying, “Please Don’t Sleep In Doorway.” The stocky Mediterranean grocer screamed at him in the morning, “Get away. Never come back!”

After his discharge from the Air Force, things went well in the beginning. He had somehow willed himself to prove he was somebody, but then the old anxieties and insecurities came back in Fog City.

Luckily, he was referred to an elderly therapist. White-haired Stefa was tall and slender, with an oblong face and small but intense eyes. Her small office was near Duboce Park and many of her bright watercolors were hanging on the wall.

She was Polish-American, and came from Old Town Chicago, where she used to saunter down to Michigan Avenue to chat with Studs Terkel in his bookstore. Stefa gave a sweet smile when she told Jimmy Lee, “Studs was the friendliest and smartest man I ever met.”

Stefa was on the verge of retirement, and in a barter deal, asked Jimmy Lee to buy her a paperback of his choice for the price of seeing her.

“Why are you being so kind to me?” he asked.

She leaned over slightly and stared deeply into his eyes, “Because you’re in deep need of a friend.’’

Jimmy Lee let out a long, long breath. “You’re so right.”

He told her how the stresses from his father, the military and life on the street sometimes felt insurmountable and how much he hated bossy people and how sometimes he just didn’t know what was the right or wrong thing to do, no matter how hard he tried.

In a serious tone, Stefa said, “I know this will really sound hard to you, Jimmy Lee, but you have to somehow learn and be prepared to handle any eventuality that life presents you!’’ She paused and leaned over and put her hands over his in a caring way and added, “Especially in your precarious situation on and off the street, which I gather is mostly on.”

Sadly, a coronary ended her life on the F line near the Ferry Building only months after Jimmy Lee began seeing her. He felt low and angry at the loss. She’d believed in him, always telling him, “Remember your strength, Jimmy Lee.”

Jimmy Lee rarely did shelters, but one night, it was a real soaker. In the shelter near the doorway, an Oklahoma tough was making fun of an elderly, bent-over, leather-faced Cherokee Indian.

Oklahoma tough spits on the floor, “I grew up around your dumb, liquored-up kind. What the hell you doing out here? You old fool!”

“Leave him alone,” Jimmy Lee shouted.

“Says who?” shouts back the instigator.

“Says me,” Jimmy Lee responds firmly. Oklahoma tough lunges with a right hook that Jimmy blocks. Then he heaves the instigator against the wall, grabbing him by the lapels and putting a fist at the brink of his nose.

Suddenly, a burly staff member rushes over and pulls Jimmy Lee off the tough, who screams, “He hit me!”

Jimmy Lee shouts, “It didn’t happen that way. He was abusing…”

The burly staff guy cuts him off, saying, “I want you out of here now!”

Jimmy Lee sighs, “But, but, but…”

“Coke.” Jimmy Lee remembers that Stefa urged him to find a way to get off the street because it was taking a heavy toll on him. Art by Jonathan Burstein

 

The burly guy shakes his head, then shrugs his shoulders. “Ain’t no buts about it. Get on your way.”

Jimmy packs his stuff and the Cherokee Indian slaps him on the back as he’s walking out. “Sorry, I’m really sorry. You’re a good man.”

Jimmy nods and shakes the old man’s warm, firm hand and steps out into the pouring rain.

The rain abates some by the time he settles in for the night in an alleyway by the Christian Science Church near Ellis Street. Comfortably wrapped in blankets, Jimmy Lee sips hot tea in a cup from his thermos, then screws the top onto his thermos bottle and falls asleep.

At first, he thinks he’s dreaming, then the unmistakable feel of hands rifling through his pockets. He awakens with a start and suddenly he’s being struck. Pow! Pow! He tastes his own blood on his lip and in his mouth. “Ah, ah, ah,” he sighs, enduring the pain as his nose is shattered.

Two thugs, one big-bellied, the other slim, take turns messing up his face before Jimmy Lee reaches inside his coat and lashes out with an aerosol container and sprays them in the face.

Tearing at his eyes, Big Belly screams, “That damn chink got me,” followed by Slim’s cry, “That bastard got me too.”

Both men run off and Jimmy Lee makes his way to San Francisco General to fix his broken nose and some damage to his jaw.

The next day, he heads out to Sigmund Stern Grove and Pine Lake to get some peace and quiet. He desperately needs to get away from the urban jungle. Although the mosquitoes almost eat him alive, he spends a month there just enjoying the solitude.

In the late morning, Jimmy Lee reads Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Traveled.” He doesn’t read much, but he’s always liked Robert Frost, ever since grade school. For breakfast, he tastes WASA rye crackers followed by a big piece of Monterey Jack cheese. Then he catches the L car to Church Station and walks around Duboce Park and passes by Stefa’s old office. He stares at the second-floor window to catch some whiffs of her generous spirit.

It feels weird being close to downtown again. He hasn’t been in town for a full month. Jimmy Lee lays down, staring at the sky and trying to figure things out. He remembers Stefa telling him that people were meant to sleep indoors and urging him to find a way to get off the street.

By evening, he slowly makes his way toward ATT Park where he plans to spend the night. Close to his destination, Jimmy Lee rounds the corner and hears screams from the other end of the street. It’s a familiar voice.

“You bastards!” someone screams at the top of his lungs. It’s Harry.

“Shit, he’s only got 35 dollars,” one of the two well-built thieves shouts. Then another punch lands, and Harry screams again.

Jimmy Lee makes a move in the direction of Harry, then suddenly freezes. The image of his recent beating flashes before his eyes and his heart begins to pound. He doesn’t think he has the nerve to help Harry. Terrified, shriveled up, he turns and runs toward a Mission Bay creek, crying to himself, “I’m a damn coward. Damn it, my old man was right.”

Jimmy wanted to believe in the inner core of humanity that Stefa talked about, but his reality wouldn’t allow it. He cries again, just as he did when he was a kid living with his father and used to hear his old man’s voice telling him, “You were always a mama’s boy! You gutless wonder!”

All his life, Jimmy Lee had tried to prove the old man wrong and now the old man was proven right. He breaks off some blades of grass and chews them. He slaps the sides of his head, saying, “Get hold of yourself, Jimmy Lee!”

He keeps repeating that to himself. He lights up an American Spirit, takes a few drags, shakes his head, then takes another few drags, before crushing the cigarette butt with his boot.

He wants to see Stefa so bad. She’d always been so understanding and made him feel like somebody of worth. Most everybody else except his mother and Stefa had called him a loser.

She’d touched his life in a special way. He felt he’d let her down. She was so right, he’d been on the street too long. He needed to talk to her and all he could do was curse at the wind.

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Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin, Part Two

“What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.”

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The mayor has no understanding of the awful defeat the loss of People’s Park would be. No comprehension of the cost in lives and the sacrifices people have made for the Park’s ideals. So many still find it a refuge in a country needing a political and spiritual overhaul.

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“And Now Where?” Lithograph by Rockwell Kent

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