He's Rat Pack charming – cuff links and collared shirt on a regular Monday morning at this large, bustling Panera Bread.
He's sitting at the end of his table, back against the east wall, coffee mug steaming, newspaper crossword puzzle half-finished in ink, as he has for years, six mornings a week. The chairs refill with the 6 a.m. friends, the 7 a.m. friends, the 8 a.m. friends. Some of the faces have changed over the dozen years this place has been open.
But there's always Jimmy.
They breeze through – suits & ties, skirts & heels, jeans & T-shirts, uniforms. The regulars wave or call him by name. He knows bank presidents, lawyers, contractors, financial advisers, entrepreneurs, store owners, teachers, servers, managers, police officers, engineers. The well-heeled and the penny counters. The young and everyone else.
Jimmy’s a natural storyteller whose jokes flow like smoke – edgy with a side of dirt. He speaks softly most of the time, so you may have to lean in to catch the punch line, delivered with sharp precision. Unpretentious in a pretentious sort of way, he’s slightly built and wearing dark slacks, dangling gold earring, custom-designed turquoise rings. His gray hair is combed back, his facial hair neatly trimmed.
A well-educated man who left formal schooling when he was a teenager, he can talk to – no, engage in conversation – anyone – about anything – geography, politics, sports, education, plumbing, relationships, weather, cars, gardening, gourmet cooking, photography, writing, music, home repair, finances, wine, travel. But unless you ask, he will just sit quietly with amused brown eyes.
It’s easy to picture him behind a long, dark bar in Baltimore – the kind where beer mugs slide easily. He used to do that, one eyebrow raised, tongue firmly in cheek, while listening to regular customers’ outrageous stories. It’s not that different here.
Staff members and bartenders on cruise ships, in Las Vegas hotels and many restaurants know Jimmy and his wife. He preserves their adventures in hand-written journals and scrapbooks stuffed full of his photos.
He collects recipes like baseball cards. Next to newspaper clippings, scraps of paper, faded notes with tips for sautéing onions or stuffing shrimp, he has written his critiques and suggestions. Wine tasting notes require separate thick books, of course.
Jimmy doesn’t text. He’s not on Facebook. But he will email recipes and write blonde jokes on coffee napkins. He carries a cell phone that never makes a sound. The irony is not lost on those who know where he spent the majority of his professional life.
Here at Jimmy’s Panera on a cool but sunny Thursday afternoon, I see a scruffy young man, wearing torn jeans and a black T-shirt, sitting at that table on the east wall. He’s talking loudly about a subject he clearly doesn’t know anything about.
I’ll try to be polite when I tell him to get the hell out of Jimmy’s chair.