November 2016

There’s a towering wooden Santa Clause near a rugged antique strip mall in Christmas, Michigan. The Santa looks like it’s waving to the cars driving down the highway, exclaiming, “It’s Christmas here every day!”  The streets have cheery holiday names, red and green signs. It’s bizarre, but charming, too, much like the main character in this story.

The first time I saw him I was thirteen and he was hitchhiking in Christmas, the tiny town that plays off its name. I reckoned he belonged there in Christmas as he reminded me of a deranged Santa Clause — a bigger man with an unkempt beard, barren dark hair, fringed black eyebrows, baggy clothing — wild, unique.

He would solicit people at gas stations for money, cigarettes, and rides, too. But at thirteen, I didn’t have any of those to offer, so my encounters with him were rare.

There are a lot of boozers in the Upper Peninsula. When I was younger, I assumed he was just another. There were rumors, of course, that came from the mouths of bored small-townees, but no one really seemed to know many truths about him except he was loud and usually alone.

Ten years later, I met him for the first time.

I was training for a part time cashier position at a gas station downtown Marquette, 40 minutes away from the casino in Christmas. As my trainer explained how to get on the manager’s good side, she jumped out of her seat abruptly, and snatched the bathroom key from the front of the counter. “Jumbo!” she yelled.

Looking towards the open-windowed door, a nostalgic curiosity struck as the deranged Santa Claus walked inside. He was wearing a black leather jacket and appeared the same as he did years ago—a disheveled wanderer. He waddled through the door, shifting heavily on each hip, muttering to himself, and carrying a plastic bag full of sunglasses.

He walked toward the cash register and counted 99 cents out of his pocket, mostly nickels and dimes, and grabbed 7 cents from the penny dish. “I’m just gonna get a pop, okay? And use the bathro—is someone in the bathroom? Key’s not up here.”

“It’s broken,” my coworker said gruffly. She rolled her eyes towards me, expecting me to step in and take the money for his soft drink. I smiled and reached my hand out as Jumbo eyed me up and down. He looked rough, like he had just gotten into a fight, but my intuition told me he didn’t.

“You new?” he asked.

“Yep. Just started today.” I said.

“Huh. Okay.”

He walked to the soda fountain machine and filled the largest Styrofoam cup.  He peered over at us with his black eyes, slurping, and leaning on the garbage can. He finished two cups of Mountain Dew and left.

“He does this every day,” my coworker said. “Have fun. This job sucks.”

The first night I worked alone, I was gifted a small portable grill from a customer. The customer heaved a red wagon, which was transporting the grill, up to the front door then came inside to buy cigarettes. I asked him about the grill and he asked if I wanted it, just like that. Said he found it abandoned and was bringing it to the women’s shelter. I asked the man if he’d leave it by the front door and I’d take it to my car when I had free time.

Five minutes later, the top half of Jumbo’s body was inside the station’s door, the other half was outside smoking a cigarette. “Hey, you know where this grill come from?” he hollered.

“Finish that smoke outside and I’ll tell ya afterwards,” I said.

So he did, slowly.

I watched him from behind the counter as he scouted people from outside. He asked customers, who were coming inside to pay for their gas, if they could part with any money for the bus or if they were interested in buying a pair of sunglasses that he “got for ten bucks, give ‘em to ya for five.”

When he finished his cigarette, Jumbo came inside and leaned on the front counter.

“So, what’s that grill doing?” He asked again inquiringly.

“It’s waiting for me.” I said, smiling.

“Oh. It’s a nice grill—I was jus’ wondering.” He scratched his head, looked at the empty penny dish and then over at the lottery tickets.  As he slouched to the left, he pointed, “Hey, can you get me one of those dollar ones? Pick me a winner. Pick me a good one! If it’s a winner I’ll call you my queen of spades. That’s the lucky one, y’know!”

“Weren’t you just asking people for money out there?” I said and pointed outside.

“Yeah. I have a c-c-coupla dollars though. I can get one.”

“I’m gonna start calling you a con artist, man.” He didn’t reply, just waited impatiently for me to grab him a lottery ticket.

It was a winner. 5 bucks.

From then on Jumbo referred to me as the “queen of spades.”

The only time he didn’t come into the gas station was when he was staying in Deerton, a small town between Munising and Marquette. He told me someone he knew was letting him stay with him. “Sometimes I sleep at the police station in Marquette when I have nowhere else to go,” he said. “Or the bus station when it’s not cold.”

He preferred to stay in Marquette, more things to do, more people to talk to. “To bum you cigarettes you mean?” I said to him one time, giving him shit. “You can’t always do that, you know? You’re lucky people give you rides and cigarettes all the time, man. I see you taking a lot but you don’t give a helluva lot back.”

He told me he’d give everyone a ride if he could, but “they” took his license away years ago. “It’s because I talk to myself sometimes,” he said.

He talked to himself a lot. He’d answer himself, too. It’d scare other customers, but I didn’t mind. I’d say things like, “Who ya talking to over there, Jim?” It’d take him out of his trance momentarily, and he’d smile, and I’d smile back at him.  He apologized often, too. “Ran out of my medication the last coupla days.”

It was obvious when he wasn’t on his medication. The aggressive tendencies seemed to come out, like demons hiding in a closet. There was always someone else there, another entity behind the mask, who wasn’t as friendly as the Santa Clause in Christmas.

Whenever he would talk to himself his eyes would fade darker than they were which seemed unimaginable. He would become belligerent and swear. “Fuck you, fuck you, you fucking cocksucker!” Then, whenever he’d respond back, his voice became recognizable again, and he’d apologize to whoever was in his head yelling at him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he’d say, as he’d run his fingers through his hair, grab onto the ends, and pull.

I was organizing files one boring day at work and found an old restraining order lodged in the back of the cabinet. It was from the early 2000’s for James Cherwinski. James? Jim? Jumbo. Apparently he became violent with another person on the gas station’s property when he was having problems with his medication. A coworker said he broke someone’s arm, another claimed he just pushed someone against a wall. I said it was America’s medical system.

Have you ever noticed when people come into your life, they pop up everywhere you go? Needless to say, I started seeing Jumbo everywhere outside of work. I’d run into him walking down the sidewalk. “There she is, the queen of spades!” He’d say. One evening I was relaxing on my couch after working a double when I heard a horrid gravelly voice yelling down the street. It was Jumbo arguing with himself at a park bench under a street light. Other times I saw him hitchhiking in Deerton, waving both of his arms ferociously, and flipping off cars that weren’t picking him up.

Jumbo surprised me one day by giving me two cigarettes. I asked him what they were for and he said, “For treating me like I’m normal. I don’t get that a lot.”

“Oh, Jumbo, nobody’s normal, and if they think they are, they’re probably more fucked than we are. Give those cigarettes to someone else who gave some to you.”

He left one on the counter and smoked the other as he walked away from the gas station.

It’s been years since I’ve worked at that gas station but for the longest time I’d see Jumbo whenever I’d go there. He asked me for a cigarette one time and I looked up, grinned, and said, “Still up to your ole tricks, eh, buddy?” He grimaced trying to become familiar with my face and then with a big smile, he said, “There she is! The queen of spades!”

Too often our society mistakes mental illness as a character flaw in an individual. People fear and cast out what they don’t understand. It’s become the norm to ignore.  And even though people tried to ignore Jumbo, he made it difficult.

He passed away several days ago from a heart attack at the bus station in Marquette. “Thank you for treating me like I’m normal,” he said. No one’s normal and people who claim to be make the lamest characters in a story. Now I know he meant “kind.” Thank you for being kind.


RIP James “Jumbo” Cherwinski, Jr.
September 7, 1958 – November 22, 2016

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.” – Henry David Thoreau






23 thoughts on “Jumbo

  1. Jaymie,
    This is an awesome story about Jumbo. I knew Jumbo most of my life. He used to live out in my neck of the woods. I never had a problem with Jumbo. I used to own a bar in Trenary and Jumbo would come in once in awhile just to chit-chat. I love hearing about your “dealings” with him & how you were able to give him your sass! I hope he is at peace now & still “conning” his acquaintances upstairs. Thank you for your kindness….it’s refreshing to hear ❤️


  2. It’s very kind of you to share your “Jumbo” story. It’s amazing how many lives he has touched. If he only knew how much of an impact he really had.


  3. Thank you so much for your kind words.
    Jim was a regular guest of mine for the 12 years that I worked the midnight shift at the Holiday Station in Munising.
    We had a mutual respect for each other. I never called him Jumbo, as I felt, given his size, that that moniker was demeaning.
    Because I listened to him and his plethora of stories, he listened to me.
    I would let him hangout all night and he would leave shortly before the manager came, so that I wouldn’t get into trouble.
    If he started talking (to himself) too loudly, I’d just say his name. He’d apologize and whisper to whatever demon was in his head at the time.

    Underneath all of the ‘craziness’, there lived a gentle, loving, and caring soul.
    You and I saw that.

    Far too many people view the person as the illness. They rarely, if ever, take the time to learn the facts. To see who the person really is.
    Mental illness is just that. An illness.


  4. Jumbo, you will be sadly missed. I will miss seeing you walking and asking if you need a ride, sharing a cigarette and a soda along the way. R.I.P. My Friend Love Ya & God Bless Everybody.


  5. You are a kind-hearted soul, my lovely girl, and see the good in those that most do not. You amaze me! What a well written tribute; RIP Jumbo.


  6. Very nice story! Many knew Jumbo, few were kind! Thank you for being kind to someone who needed kindness in his life! Mental illness isn’t easy to deal with, or understand. RIP Jumbo!


  7. I knew Jumbo for almost 28 years. I always picked him up along M-28 and gave him a ride,…if he looked like he was on his meds. Otherwise it could be a crazy ride with three people in the car. I saw him on Wed. morning standing outside the Dollar store in Munising, near the bus stop. I said hi and he nodded back. He looked gray and without much color. Probably waiting on his last bus ride to Marquette, RIP Jumbo.


  8. I remember back in the 90’s when Jumbo lived in a small apartment behind the Falls Hotel in Newberry Mi., I used to stop by and hang out with him quite often, he would go off the handle now and then but for the most part he was a pretty nice guy!


  9. Aww, sad to hear he’s gone now. I knew him as a lot of people did because he would come in and destroy the toilet at BK in Marquette. He’d eat himself sick in town when he would come in for his medicine and that was the result.

    The story I gathered over the years is that he used to work at the mine when he was much younger. He had an accident, I heard it was electrocution, and in lay terms it fried his brain. After that he lost touch with reality and ended up in the system without any family or friends.

    Over the years I too had a chance to get to know him. He’d come in and beg from the customers and we would have to put him out after a while. I also had the chance to smoke with him and just chat a while when he was coherent. He was a well meaning and generally caring person even if he was a bit frightening when he’d randomly yell and cuss into the wind.

    Though it was clear he’d been eating himself to death over the years I’m sad to see him go. I’m even more upset that he went like he did, in the cold without family or friends. Jimbo/Jumbo will be missed by myself at the very least. As the saying goes “But for the grace god”, anyone could become a Jumbo under the right circumstances. He wasn’t perfect but he was an unrecognized part of the landscape of our county; many knew of him but few knew him.

    Thank you for writing this and in a way honoring a man that many knew but few took the time to listen to.


  10. Jaymie, you wrote a touching story about a man I never knew, but “Jumbo” could have been several people I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ to make their acquaintance, over these many years. While residing in Cheboygan 2 1/2 years, I had the pleasure of meeting “Mitt” who wandered the streets and in the winters, would carry a snow shovel and shovel the downtown Main Street for the businesses. One snowy evening, on my walk ‘home’ a few blocks from where I worked, “Mitt” bustled up and embarrassingly said “I shoveled your way home for you, young lady, so you wouldn’t have to walk in the deep stuff”. I tried to pay him a few bills, but he kindly refused, and said he just wants to be nice. He followed along behind me the whole way and I don’t mind saying I was a bit uneasy, since there was nobody waiting for me when I got ‘home’. But, he stayed on the sidewalk and each time I peeked out my darkened windows, ‘Mitt’ was shoving the entire intersection of my cross-street, and when I left for work in the morning, my entire walk to work had been freshly shoveled. RIP “Jumbo” and “Mitt”, and all of your brothers and sisters in Life.


  11. That was a wonderfully written tribute. Thanks for sharing. His memory was great and always would start out talking about my parents names by saying you are Willy and Karen’s boy. Then he would thank me for giving him a ride. I picked him up and gave him a ride to Marquette once on my way to see my mom in the nursing home in Ishpeming. Between a few off the wall views (maybe not as off the wall as I thought) he would come back to the stories he would tell me growing up in Eben. He would tell about all my relatives he could remember (which was quite a few).
    I was never afraid of him because all he was looking for is a friendly conversation.
    I had no problem buying him a pop and pack of cigarettes before dropping him off to get his check. He couldn’t thank me enough but as he got out he wished my mom luck and told me to tell her hi from him. He did more for me that day then I did for him. I have other nice stories that I will cherish. My kids were young when I picked him up and I did it to see their reaction. They were scared but I think once they knew he knew me they were releaved. Sometimes you don’t realize you will miss somebody until they are gone. I already miss seeing him flip cars off that go by him.


  12. I gave Jumbo many rides from Munising to Marquette it was always a hell of a ride just Jumbo and I in the truck. He would always try to sell me something. Instead of buying it I would give him a few bucks. He was a hell of a character. All in all a good guy. He will be missed. RIP JUMBO. Who ever wrote Jumbo’s story hats off to you.


  13. Jayme I remember Jumbo from my time in munising,what a beautiful tribute. You have a gift for writing I was lucky enough to see some of that in 4th grade. Keep sharing your writings and the world will be a better place. Love, Kay Landfair


  14. Jaymie this was so beautifully written. I once shared a conversatuon with Jumbo, smoking outside of the courthouse in Munising. It was many moons ago, but I do remember him saying he ran out of his meds and people were afraid of him. I never got the chance to give him a ride, seeing I always had a carful of kids. Your story shows the gentle side of him, the side nobody ever cared to look for!


    1. When I managed the Portside Inn, Jumbo would visit us and in most cases the staff would be scared of him, they would come to get me. I would bring Jumbo a coffee and tell him he could hangout as long as he could behave, he always did. Sometimes I would get him some food and occasionally a ride towards Munising. I will miss him


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