The Jaws of life
Anyone who’s spent anytime downtown will recognize him: short, stocky, pale-blue eyes, white hair and eyebrows, ruddy face and an un-tucked dress shirt. You’ll find him sitting in the window of the Naked Lounge, drafting a floor plan or reading a paperback. His street name is Jaws, and he always seems upbeat and genuinely happy to see you when your paths cross.
Everybody calls you “Jaws.” Where’d that come from?
[Laughs cynically.] I see people wasting too much time, hiding how they see things, how they feel. They deal in implications and use euphemisms to avoid seeing lies coming out of their mouths. I can be pretty terrible. Bullshit doesn’t go too far. I just can’t deal with people just implying things. I’m an old drunk. It’s hard to impress me.
What brought you to Chico?
Rents got way too high in Grass Valley. We were a family on welfare and I’m on disability, so … Marriage broke up 12 years ago. The kids are still around, between Oroville and Chico.
What are some of the jobs you’ve had?
Milking cows in Novato, Calif., gas station in different places, kitchen in different places, busboy, cleanup dishwasher. Line tender for abalone divers off Santa Barbara. Tree-topper, faller, cleared power lines.
Where were you born?
St. Louis, Mo., 1931.
What is your greatest talent?
Being able to perk people up—somehow. It gives me, my life, the biggest lift it could possibly have. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve been told by some people that I can do that. I got a card for my birthday at the Naked Lounge from this lawyer who said, “Thank you so much for bringing light and uplift into my life.” He lost his wife several months or so ago. And I want to say that my greatest accomplishment was getting my certificate in welding from Butte [College]. I didn’t do it to get a job; I did it so that I would have something to pass on to my sons. [He has six.]
Were you able to pass it on?
No. The family broke up before I could.
One more thing. What’s your real name?
On my birth certificate or on my passport? My birth certificate says James Jerome Webb. My passport says Jerome Andrew Webb. I used that one all my life, from kindergarten through school, on my Social Security, in prison. I didn’t know my name was James until I was 55. They say Jesus had a brother named James. How about that?