Imagining community: Coffee Jim

A new column in honor of newspapers and our neighbors

Bill Mash

So here I am, sporting a mischievous smile, pondering why the hell I’m jumping head first into penning a column for the Chico News & Review. Hmmm … I reckon it’s because stories are in my blood, even if there aren’t always enough hours in the day to write them. Plus, I adore newspapers and the CN&R is a big part of this everlasting love. This is an honor.

My early forays into newsprint started in 1973 when I was in the 7th grade. After school, I would hustle home where my mom would have a huge cup of blonde-and-sweet coffee awaiting me alongside both of the Boston morning dailies, the Globe and Herald. At first I resisted the temptation to devour anything but the sweets mom made and the beloved Red Sox and Celtics stories in the sports sections. I craved reading about the Celtics basketball team so dearly that I shed no tears when the Boston Bruins hockey team was eliminated from Stanley Cup contention early. Their untimely demise meant more Celtics coverage in both papers. Hurrah!

I continued this ritual for many months until the day, mostly out of boredom, I thought, “What the heck, let’s read the rest of the paper.” I’ve been a reader, champion and contributor to print media ever since, including delivering the afternoon daily Lawrence Eagle Tribune for three straight summers in my teens.

When I backpacked into Chico in November of 2012, there were four vibrant newspapers in print publication. The daily Chico Enterprise-Record, the weekly Chico News & Review, the weekly Synthesis and the weekly Orion published by Chico State journalism students. Alas the Synthesis ceased publication in 2015 after 21-years in print. The Orion is now online only, and the CN&R is printing monthly (as well as online). The Chico E-R is still printing daily, albeit with a fraction of the staff and a lower circulation than they had they had a decade ago. I pine for the good old days, when visits to the E-R for end rolls of paper gifted me the sights and sounds of a newsroom bustling like a beehive.

I’m saddened by the loss of civic engagement and awareness that only ink on paper provides. So I strike back by writing, and writing some more. Pecking away like a woodpecker, my mind either racing or at ease with the keyboard clicks.

I have had the good fortune of being a regular contributor to the CN&R and E-R via letters to the editor, guest comments and editorials. I’ve also covered stories for other outlets from the perspective of giving a voice to the voiceless during my time in Butte County. It’s what led me here as founder of Without a Roof. I also wrote and curated the back page of the bimonthly Sacramento Homeward Street Journal (2017-2019), and I proudly distributed copies throughout Chico. I was a kid again, delivering newspapers. Only this time my efforts were printed on the back page, just like the Boston Herald’s back page boasting gaudy sports headlines. Sheer nirvana.

The dearest print story I ever crafted was a feature for the now defunct Humboldt Edge based out of Arcata. I researched the article during my six week stay on the streets of Humboldt County in the summer of 2014, during what was affectionately coined the Without a Roof Humboldt Justice Tour. It was written to bring peace to another dear friend and poverty warrior, Debra Carey, the “Lion of Southern Humboldt,” who asked me to write a story in memory of her friend Coffee Jim while standing at his gravesite in Southern Humboldt. I couldn’t possibly refuse and committed on the spot to do the man justice. Thus was born, “We miss Coffee Jim.”

Every community has a Coffee Jim—a person living on the fringe of what society is comfortable to look upon with love and compassion.

Coffee Jim told it like was. He was a streetwise codger, “the soul of the street,” who didn’t shy away from life’s difficulties that surrounded, and often times engulfed him.

Debra adored him. “He was really polite, an old-school type, a road dog, a hobo,” she said. “He was our elder on the streets. He taught the young travelers how not to trash our town. Pack out what you pack in. He had a soft gentle voice that was questioning the Lord when we met. The community had so marginalized him that he couldn’t live another winter outside. We helped him get his S.S.I. which he used to purchase a small mobile home. He playfully referred to it as his retirement home.”

Coffee Jim lived in this humble home more than two years. Tragically, the very thing that provided comfort and safety from decades on the streets was what took his life. He died in a fire in his home during the Thanksgiving season.

“He called me Ma,” Debra told me. “Every time I dropped him off back at home he knocked on my car before I took off. It was his way of telling me he was thankful for the ride and that he loved me.”

Folks like Coffee Jim often rise above hate and miscasting to impart gobs of wisdom and hope to those whose hearts are open to them.

If you have a roof be grateful.

Bill “Guillermo” Mash is a Chico advocate, writer and radio personality, and one-man show behind Imagining Community, a grassroots media and civic engagement endeavor “sharing stories that make our collective imaginations sparkle and engage.”

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