The two men are in a backroom of the sportswear store, the Phat Farm jeans and FUBU jerseys piled high on the folding tables. Gus is trying to explain why Jimmy is the way he is. Jimmy's early years were hell. "People made fun of him, and he was ganged up on in school," Gus puts in. "I got a picture of him with a black eye."
Standing in the doorway, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, Jimmy looks away while he's being talked about.
"His mom worked at a tavern on North Broadway," Gus continues. "Jimmy shined shoes and cleaned up the place. He was a pool shark, too. He used to stand on a beer case with a rope tied to it so he could drag it around the table and shoot pool. Then the place closed, and Jimmy and his mom didn't have no means. About that time, he came in my store. He was 17. He was wearing a black peacoat, and he had a white baby face. He looked like an orphan from St. Vincent's Home. I put him to work shining shoes. I took care of Jimmy and his mom, food and rent, for years until she passed ... I got her in the back.
"Jimmy gets very emotional when you talk about his mom," says Gus, his voice softening. "He loved her dearly."
"She was the best," Jimmy burbles, a noticeable tremor passing through his small frame.
"When Jimmy's mom remarried, his stepfather didn't want much to do with him. He abused Jimmy and his mom."
Gus is now laying it on thick, how Jimmy was mistreated and victimized by the stepfather and by life in general, when Jimmy goes into a paroxysm. The bad memories well up, and he starts blubbering.
"See? See?" says Gus as if he has just discovered Pavlov's response. "This is what happens!"
"He was a son of a bitch," says Jimmy through sobs. "He beat up my mother, and then my brother turned around and beat the hell out of him."
"His mother was a good woman," says Gus, "but she drank. She ran around with bikers. I got her in the back -- hold on."
Gus leaves the room and returns a minute later. He's carrying a Reebok shoebox. He opens it, and inside is a little rectangular metal box, the kind crematoriums use to return the departed's ashes. A slip of paper inserted into a slot on the box reads: "Frances Ferris died 9-24-94."
He was born James D. Barton, but his street handle, known to hundreds around town -- perhaps thousands -- is Jimmy the Midget. "Don't call him that. He doesn't like that," warns Gus Torregrossa, Jimmy's boss and the owner of Gus's Fashions & Shoes on North Tucker Boulevard. "Five-hundred-pound guys come in to the store, call him that, and he'll look at them and say, 'My name is Jimmy, and don't you forget it, or I'll knock you down.'" In the past, Jimmy has given his name to inquiring journalists as Jimmy Vitale and John Vitale, hinting that he's the son of the late John J. Vitale, a local mobster.
Jimmy, 46, clarifies this issue, pointedly explaining, "I adopted the Italian name Vitale because my own father didn't give a fuck about me. I only use my real name for income tax or for medical papers. Keep the street names and call me what I want to be called." What he wants to be called, he says, is Jimmy, John, Vince, Vito or Joe. Still, and despite the fact that he is not a midget but simply very short -- 4 feet-11-and-a-half inches on a 124-pound frame -- he is saddled with the "midget" moniker. Sometimes it's "Jimmy the Midget"; sometimes it's simply "the midget."
He is an improbable character known for his stature, his penchant for military and law-enforcement uniforms and his having fouled the interior of Vince Schoemehl's mayoral car. Most certainly he is famous downtown, around the intersection of Tucker Boulevard and Washington Avenue. There are plenty of music clubs in that vicinity -- Tangerine, Galaxy, Tabu -- but don't expect to see Jimmy in that set. It's far too hip for an old-school man. Besides, those clubs, with their tattooed, martini-drinking clientele from some soulless suburb out west, that's not downtown to Jimmy. And Jimmy is all about downtown, having toiled here for 30 years.
Jimmy's orbit, elliptical as it may be, starts out in a studio apartment in Plaza Square, at 16th and Locust streets, and travels to Tucker and Washington for a nine-hour day at Gus's Fashions & Shoes. In the evening, it moves one block north on Tucker to the smoky confines of the Missouri Bar & Grill and finally, in the wee hours, the orbit having become somewhat erratic and wobbly, it's back to Plaza Square.
Jimmy knows the downtown cops. He knows the reporters from the Post-Dispatch, two blocks down on Tucker. He knows who the hustlers are, where to step to avoid the pigeon droppings and where to get a kick-ass cheeseburger. "I am a downtown man," he crows, "and that's all I'll ever be."
Gus's Fashions has occupied the northwest corner of Tucker and Washington for the last 15 years. The store specializes in the jackets, T-shirts, caps, pants and shoes that appeal to the hip-hop crowd and to urban youth in general. The place is bustling most days. Gus doesn't pay to advertise; word-of-mouth sells the store. And what aspiring playa wouldn't want to shop at a store where the big names go? Over on the sales counter, taped to the register, are the Polaroids, and they're advertising enough. There's rapper Flavor Flav in one picture, his arm around a beaming Gus. The setup is repeated in the other pictures -- Kurtis Blow, his arm around Gus; Tupac Shakur, gone these four years now, his arm around Gus; Ice T, leaning into Gus.
The store definitely draws an incongruous mix of customers. On the one hand, as one Loft District business owner disdainfully puts it, "You've got all these posses and crews coming down to buy their colors, their team jackets." On the other hand, the place is well-trafficked by uniformed police officers -- not necessarily patrolling but shopping. "They ought to put a camera in there," says St. Louis Police Sgt. Denny Pollihan, a frequenter of Gus' store. "You could make a hit TV sitcom with all the arguing that goes on between Jimmy and Gus in that store -- it's a classic."
Jimmy is not pictured with any of the rappers in the Polaroids, nor does he care to be. "I'm not into any of that at all," he sniffs. "That's new-school stuff, music to commit suicide by, as far as I'm concerned. I shook hands with them; that doesn't mean I have to like them."
Who he is down with are the legendary bluesmen -- Elmore James, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf. In fact, Sunday nights, late, when he's in the mood, Jimmy sings a few numbers with a band at the Missouri Bar & Grill. "I do 'Red Rooster' two ways," Jimmy elucidates in his thick, croaking voice. "The Sam Cooke way or the Howlin' Wolf way, with the deep-Southern-plantation version."
Walk inside Gus's Fashions between 11 and 8, and, chances are, the first person you'll encounter is Jimmy. He may be at the counter or over by the shoes. The place does a brisk trade in footwear. In sneakers, the Reebok line is big, but so is Converse, and it's not just anywhere in St. Louis that one can get the original high-top All-Stars for $25. As for boots, Gus's carries the nylon-surfaced Avirex in various bright colors, although -- strange, for an inner-city outlet -- it's the Timberland hiking boots that rule sales. The store still carries suede Puma shoes, which lapsed out of style and now are enjoying a comeback with college kids. Carry anything long enough, it becomes retro.
Jimmy's not your ordinary store clerk. He also pulls guard duty -- or, at least, he's wearing the gear. He wears a badge on his shirt, and attached to his belt are a police radio and handcuffs. Sticking out from the waistline of his trousers is the grip of a pistol, unholstered, in plain view. It's a starter's pistol, but customers with larceny on their minds don't need to know that.
Yet, above all, Jimmy is the shoe man. He'll tell customers up front: "I'm not a clothes man. I don't get clothes. I'll get you shoes and I'll wait on you." In a back room, he has organized the inventory according to his own system: "I put the stock numbers in numeric order," he says proudly. "It makes everything a lot easier."
Certainly it works, for customers readily comment on his masterful command of the inventory. Say a customer comes in, acts serious about buying shoes. He asks for a 9-and-a-half in a certain style, and Jimmy might say, "We're out of 9-and-a-halfs." The customer might be dubious at this declaration and press the inquiry: "Are you sure?" And Jimmy will answer authoritatively, "Trust me. I'm sure." Say the size is available. Jimmy will get the box from the back and give the customer half of the pair to try on. "The other shoe is at the counter," says Jimmy. "Nobody gets a whole pair without paying for them -- that was my idea."
And don't look to him for a deal: "I tell them the prices are already marked down: 'You want the shoes, here they are.' I don't go through all that story-change. I don't talk that stupid stuff. I get to the bottom line, and that's it."
When not handling shoes, he's standing around, almost obscured by the piles of clothing, watching keenly for any sleight of hand that might occur. As far as Jimmy is concerned, every customer is a potential shoplifter. "I keep an eye on everything," he says. "I walk around, watch the people. Every now and then, I catch one red-handed." That explains the handcuffs, but does he make an arrest? "I shouldn't," he admits sheepishly, "but I do."
If his normal attire isn't bizarre enough, there are always the costumes. "He's really striking when you walk in, depending on what he's wearing," says Keith Schildroth, a sportswriter for the Post-Dispatch and longtime Jimmy-watcher. "Some days, he looks like he could be a fire captain, with the pressed white shirt and the captain's hat. Then he'll have the Frank Serpico look, with the 5 o' clock shadow. I've seen him as a boat captain. I've seen him in a gangster outfit, looking like a short George Raft. You look at the guy, and you think: 'What kind of show is this?'"
"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."
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.
"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.
Sgt. Mike Bergmann, now in the 1st District, became one of the first men in blue to help Jimmy with the chores of everyday living, back in the early '90s, when Bergman was with the 4th District. He helped Jimmy manage his money. "He wasn't balancing his checkbook," says Bergmann, "and he never did catch on. I ended up doing most of his banking for him for about two years. When I left the 4th, [Sgt. Denny] Pollihan was still down there, and I gave him that job."
"Well, yeah," affirms Pollihan. "I paid his rent every month, because the boy just don't know how to do it. I tried teaching him one time, you know, I told him, I said, 'Jimmy, look at it this way. You got 10 people who come in to Gus's, and they all want this certain pair of shoes, but you only have seven pairs of 'em. I said, 'How many more pairs of shoes will you have to order to satisfy all your customers?' And he thought and he thought for, like, a minute, and he said, 'Well, I'd order a whole case, because it must be a good seller.' Right then I knew: Forget trying to teach him arithmetic. But that's basically what me and Mike did, was take care of his banking for him and his books. If we were on afternoons, after we'd get off, we'd go by the tavern, make sure he got home. That's about all we did, kind of watch out for him."
After Jimmy's mother died in 1994, some cops got together and put him in the Plaza Square Apartments. Gus may have had something to do with that as well. Jimmy can't recall exactly who was responsible for setting him up in his current digs, though Gus casually mentions that he "keeps" Jimmy in the studio apartment because he's an alcoholic who "can't keep himself clean or out of trouble." Gus claims that Jimmy drinks two cases of beer a day, which is probably an exaggeration by half. Gus says a lot of weird things about Jimmy. For instance, Gus says Jimmy's mother once told him that Merle "Okie from Muskogee" Haggard was Jimmy's brother. Jimmy doesn't believe it. "No relation whatsoever," he says.
Although Jimmy's existence has been defined by a prodigious daily consumption of beer, he says he is rethinking matters. "I'm cutting down," he offers later, standing at the rail of the Missouri Bar & Grill, a Bud Light longneck in his right hand. "Yesterday I went to the doctor," he adds. "I got on the scales and weighed 124 pounds, and I felt heavier than that. My blood pressure was 170/70. I'm sometimes noted to drink one or two cups of coffee, but I think maybe it's the beer. I've had the shakes before. I get real woozy, sweaty, pinkish in the face."
He's also a pack-a-day man. He French-inhales, even. In the evening he smokes Newports, but mornings it's the milder Marlboro Lights. Exercise consists of walking the six blocks to work -- that's seven days a week, 365 days a year. "Sleet, rain, snowstorm," he says. "I'm like the mailman. I'm gonna come to work."
Gus is there every day, too. At least he was, until late February, when he had to undergo emergency surgery. "Dad said he was having problems," recounts his son Vinnie. "He got winded while dancing." Gus went in for a checkup; the next day he was on the table, being prepped for a quadruple bypass.
In the weeks after the operation, half the cops in the 4th District stopped by the store to ask about Gus. Worried customers, too. "The ticker? It's OK," rasps Gus, still hoarse from surgery. "I got a new valve in my heart. But Jimmy, since I got sick, instead of coming to work at 11 or 12, he comes in at 9. He feels bad, you know what I mean? He's getting his stuff together, and he's not drinking in the store no more. He cut that out. He only drinks after hours."
Jimmy never visited Gus in the hospital. "I want to remember him like I saw him here -- strong and healthy," he says, as a tear begins to well in the corner of his eye. "We been together a pretty good long time. I don't think I'd be very happy if something happened to him. I wouldn't like that at all."
"C'mere, look at this," says Trifon Panopoulos, standing at the door of the men's room in the Missouri Bar & Grill and pointing to a wastebasket inside. Nestled among the sodden paper towels in the trashcan are three spent cans of Bud Light. The empties are the work of Jimmy, who strolled in 20 minutes earlier carrying a thick and battered briefcase fastened with duct tape. He said hello to his fellow regulars at the bar -- "What's up, Big Time?" -- ordered a beer from Athena the bartender and then made his way to the john, where he stayed for a good long time. Suspiciously long. But Trifon, the owner of the place, knew all the while what Jimmy was up to in the commode. And he's amused by it. "Over at Gus's, toward the end of the day," he says, "they pick up a case and start working on it. Whatever's left at closing time, he brings over here in that briefcase. He'll drink three or four in here while he talks to himself, and he'll order a couple out there." The Greek shoots a wide, toothy grin. "What's funny is, he thinks I don't know."
"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.
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.'"
"So he parks the car. Well, it's a hot night, and me and Jimmy want to listen to the Cardinals, so we're sitting in the car, listening to the game, and all of a sudden I smell this son of a bitch. I says, 'Hey, what'd you do? Did you shit in here?' 'No,' he says. 'I got a new holster -- you're smelling the new leather.' And sure enough, when he got out of the car, the seat was all wet. 'C'mon,' I says, 'We're going into KMOX. We got to clean you up.' So when me and him are going in, Schoemehl's coming out. I'm holding the midget by his hand, and Schoemehl asks, 'What happened?' 'Oh,' I says, 'the midget shit.' And he started laughing, until I says, 'He shit in your car.'"
"I've heard the story," concedes the former mayor. "I can't confirm or deny it."
The incident, if it did take place, was about 15 years ago. Unhappily for Jimmy, the story is broadcast every year on the occasion of the Breakfast Club's anniversary, in May. "If I don't," says J.C. Corcoran, who is carrying on the newest incarnation of the Breakfast Club on KLOU-FM (103.3 FM), "I get 37,000 e-mails from listeners demanding that I play it."
Jimmy summarily denies the whole incident: "It was none of my doing. Any person in their right mind don't do stuff like that. As far as I'm concerned, that situation is unknown to me."
Jimmy is working up to the ritual of ordering supper at the Missouri Bar & Grill. The place has two sides: a bar with a TV and pictures, mostly of sports figures, all over the walls, and the Grill which is open until 2:30 A.M. The gyro is very popular, but Jimmy is a burger man. "That boy can eat," says Trifon. "He'll order a triple cheeseburger with bacon. You can hardly get your mouth around a triple cheeseburger."
As he does Gus, Jimmy considers Trifon family. And, like Gus, Trifon is about 4 inches taller than Jimmy. The bar is a refuge from a long day at Gus's, where, Jimmy admits, "Sometimes the bullshit gets a little too thick." Gus drops in occasionally, but he's not there every night like Jimmy. In fact, both the Missouri Bar and Gus's are open 365 days a year, a fact that prompts Trifon to joke that he keeps the bar open every day just for Jimmy's benefit. Trifon likes telling stories about Jimmy, and one of them involves a man who came into the bar one day: "He's about 7-foot-2, a monster, and he sees Jimmy and asks him, 'Are you the owner?' And Jimmy looks way up at him and says, 'No, I'm not the owner. The owner is a little bitty guy.'"
Sportswriter Schildroth sometimes gets to the bar near midnight, after his evening shift at the P-D is over." When I get back to work the next day, someone'll say, 'Hey, Chopper, how was the Grill? Was the midget there?' That's the first thing, usually: 'Was the midget there?' And I'll say, 'Yeah, he was singing,' or 'Yeah, he was passed out face-down in his fries and double cheeseburger, with ketchup on his eyebrows.'"
Passed out, or exhausted from being on his feet for nine hours? "I get off work, I go to the bar," says Jimmy. "I drink my beer. If I want to be alone, I go to the restaurant side. I drink, smoke, think my thoughts, maybe close my eyes, take a nap. It's like family there -- they don't care."
"I have to get a few beers in me to get up there," says Jimmy, standing at his chosen spot, the bar's service station, where he is all but obscured by a partition as tall as himself. Fifteen feet away, on the grill side, the Mighty Big Band is in the middle of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," with Eric Foreman on vocals. It's midnight on Easter Sunday, and the band has been playing Motown and R&B selections for an hour now. The lights are low, and the lone waitress hustles with drink orders from thirsty customers while the cook brings out plates of food. Jimmy seems restless, every so often leaving his spot to walk over near the band and then back again. After the break, some time into the second set, Jimmy has threatened to sing. It is a performance Sunday-night regulars anticipate.
The bar is now more crowded, and the band is playing its second set to a near-full house. After the third song, guitarist Steve Martin announces, "We have a special guest tonight, and he's going to do a song for us. How about it for Jimmy Vitale?" Whoops and hollers from the audience. Jimmy, who has been standing off in the wings, strolls up, turns his cap backward and pulls the mike up to his pale mug. "Let me bring this down in the tradition of the late, great Elmore James," he announces, "a number called 'Dust My Broom.'" Cigarette in hand, he launches into it: "I'm gonna get up in the morning, I believe I'll dust my broom/I'm gonna write me a letter, send it to every downtown man I know/If I don't find that woman, she's in Michigan I know ..."
Jimmy launches into the refrain. He has the gestures, the moves, the visceral feel of a guy who knows the blues and can sing with his heart. He comes back from the refrain, slips into the finish: "... I don't want no woman to run with every downtown man she see/Goodbye baby, this is the last you'll see of me."
Lusty applause. Loud whoops and hollers. Jimmy grabs his beer and throws back a hit. "Thank you, and God bless you," he says, making a little bow.