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.
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