It takes a certain kind of person to live in the woods on and off since 1998.
Jimmy has what it takes.
The first time I saw him, I was driving in Belmont, near McLean hospital, and there was a man, walking on the sidewalk, carrying his belongings on a bag tied to the end of a stick. Original hobo. I marveled and drove on.
The second time I saw him, it was on the bus. He wore mirrored shades. It was winter. Shorts exposed his bare calves, which were riddled with thick veins. His face was fuzzy with whiskers, wrinkles, chapped skin.
We exchanged a few words. Probably about the weather. I realized this was the same guy I had seen walking in Belmont. Not because of his stick, which I don’t think he had. Rather, it was the way he carried himself – slowly, as if trying not to fall apart. But steadily, too, like he couldn’t be broken.
The third time I saw Jimmy, he was waiting for the bus as I walked by. I finally arranged to interview him. On a warm, late spring day in 2016, we sat down to talk.
As a child, Jimmy tells me, he got into an open can of paint someone left in the hallway. This resulted in severe lead oxide poisoning. He doesn’t agree with doctors’ diagnosis of him as paranoid schizophrenic. But he is aware of his long-time erratic behavior, especially as a teen and young man.
“I was just so out of it. I couldn’t understand what was being said to me. I would lie like a rug. I was gone, but it didn’t affect my ability to think.”
I ask a few grounding questions, but try to let Jimmy connect the threads of his life.
He turned 21 in a jail in Las Vegas, in solitary.
He’s big on respecting people’s Constitutional rights. People haven’t always respected his.
Winters in the woods can get bad. During the winter of 2015, snow buried his tent so deeply that he struggled to escape. In the summer, there’s the relentless company of mosquitoes and ants. A shrew jumped on him once, and voles share his tent.
But there’s also peace and quiet. The playful stoats. The way the light shifts in the early morning, when he opens his eyes. The birds. The first thing he had seen, the morning before we talked, was a blue jay.
“I just like it that way,” he said of living outdoors. “I don’t like being in a house. I mean, they’re very convenient.” Kitchen stoves and heat are enviable sometimes. Still. He makes fires. When it gets coldest, he heats a hot water bottle and puts it in his sleeping bag.
In the institutions and prisons that he’s floated in an out of, “they were torturing me,” inflicting a suffering in which “you feel like you’re coming apart.” He wasn’t violent, he said. “Just stupid, naïve, gullible.”
He took acid during a protest of the Vietnam War in Washington D.C.
“I shoulda been in the service myself,” he said. “I was so dumb.”
As a kid, Jimmy read biographies and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the time of our conversation, he was reading a military history of war in the Pacific.
I ask him to tell me more about his experience with hospitals and prisons.
“I realized what was wrong when I was in my forties,” he says. That was twenty years ago. “They just kept hammering me with medication.”
He describes a “serial killer nurse” who attempted to inject him with Prolixin, a drug to treat schizophrenia. You’re supposed to just give “a little dab,” he said, but “she gave me the biggest needle and filled it up.” A doctor saved his life with another medication.
He wasn’t supposed to eat salt, but someone put it in his food. So he didn’t eat. When that happened, they sent him to another institution. Then another. When he refused to do a TB test, he was put in solitary.
“I read the Bible six times, except for Revelation; it’s too far out. Did a lot of thinking.”
He wrote a book, titled The Thin Book of Matter, that he says was copyrighted in 2000.
Jimmy’s able to survive on Social Security and donations from people. Thanks to his recent Lasik surgery, he is no longer legally blind. But he does have health scares, including a stroke that happened ten days before our interview.
“I’m wiping brown stuff off my teeth,” he recalls. “I’m hopping from one leg to another like Rumpelstiltskin on crack.”
Does he get lonely?
“No. I got my thoughts. I got my books. I don’t need women.” About 40 years ago, he joined the Shaker church, whose members practice celibacy. A woman introduced him to the faith after he escaped from one of the institutions.
“It helped me a great deal.”
Occasionally, Jimmy finds repair and construction jobs to do. In these, and in his daily interactions with strangers, most people are more than friendly.
“Almost everybody says hi to me. They try to give me money. It’s wonderful to me.” When I try to make a contribution, he insists against it, flashing me a thick wad of cash.
There have been those times, though, when the police or thieves take down his camp. Last April, “someone took everything I had.”
Even so, he trusts and respects cops more than he used to. He grew up hating authority, but now, “these are guys, if I had a house I’d want to have them over for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I used to think they were dumb. They’re very astute.”
Jimmy listens to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters on a CD disc player with foam-padded headphones. He sings for me with the headphones on. We watch the street in front of the patch of grass by our bench, the cars parking and pulling out. His voice is faint, but soulful.
We share some of his potato chips, and it’s time to go. I thank him.
“Six feet under,” he says in response. “That’s where our paths diverge. I’m just getting there fast as I can, same as you. Glad we could help each other today.”