July 30, 1995 in City

Shoeshine Meant Chance To Let His Character Rub Off

By The Spokesman-Review
 

I hope James Jones died thinking of fresh worms and a fat bass pulling on the end of his line.

That’s not such an unhappy ending for an old shoeshine fisherman.

James’ frail heart gave out July 17, just three days after his 89th birthday. He had no social status, power or wealth, but was a beloved fixture in this city and will be greatly missed.

For more than half a century, this sweet-spirited, tiny man shined the shoes of Spokane’s well-heeled gents.

Customers sat high on his battle-scarred stand while Jimmy applied the wax and popped the cloth and clicked the wood brushes together like oversized castanets.

Two bucks bought a shine. The conversation was free and invariably got around to James’ true love - fishing.

He claimed to know where catfish lurked in the Spokane River. When I once told him how I hated the taste of perch, he rattled off a recipe guaranteed to change my mind.

James spent the last 14 years at the Lincoln Bank barbershop. There he became pals with judges, lawyers and company presidents.

It wasn’t a case of a bunch of fair-skinned big shots trying to patronize a humble black man. People were drawn to Jimmy because of the strength of his character.

“James thought of everyone as the same,” says Betty Brown, who hired James at the barbershop and later adopted him as her surrogate grandfather.

“He was color blind. No matter what they did or who they were, they were all just folks to him.”

James loved his work. After suffering a near-fatal heart attack last April, the thought of getting back to his shoeshine stand probably kept him alive.

“He didn’t ask much from the world or anybody,” says Jackie Stephens, president of an environmental services firm. “He was a giver.”

U.S. District Judge Frem Nielsen is another fan. “Here was this humble person who took all the travails life had to offer and handled them with dignity.”

James was a devout, church-going Christian. Maybe he knew his time was near.

On the Monday he died, James stepped outside the Lincoln Bank. In his hand was a bouquet of helium balloons given him as a birthday present.

One by one, James released the balloons and watched as they drifted to the heavens. “They looked like little marbles,” he told Brown when he went back inside.

A Spokane Transit Authority van was to pick James up in front of the bank.

When James didn’t show for the appointment, the van driver says he poked his head in the barbershop. James may have been in the bathroom. The driver left, assuming the shoeshine man found another way home.

Brown never saw the driver. If he did stop by, she says, he should have asked where his passenger was.

James later went outside to wait for his ride. He was easily confused after his heart attack and often got his bus times mixed up.

The STA van was long gone, of course. Without telling Brown, James started walking home.

An 89-year-old man with a bum ticker obviously had no business trying to hoof it on such a scorcher of a day.

But James was going fishing the next day with Brown and some friends. All he’d been talking about was getting to his yard and digging some worms.

Jimmy died on the sidewalk in front of the Paulsen building, where he began his career as a Spokane shoeshine man in 1942.

A witness saw him raise his arms. Then he collapsed in slow motion, as if a pair of unseen hands laid him softly down.

The only identification on him was his fishing license, tucked in a pocket.

At the barbershop, the familiar shoeshine stand is now a shrine. There are flowers and photographs, but the sign Betty Brown propped on the seat is as good an epitaph as you could write for James Jones.

Just two words: “Gone fishing.”

, DataTimes


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email