Hey Now Jimmy was the coolest. He once did a wheelie on his bike down the quarter-mile final stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard up to his driveway on Sanborn Avenue, the street where he grew up in Silver Lake.
“Stay away from the beard,” Jimmy would say. He had a scraggly, mostly gray beard tied in a ponytail. He loved his beard.
Jimmy didn't give a shit, and he was the sweetest man you could meet. In a city where there's often uneasiness about how someone's going to treat you from one interaction to the next, Jimmy was always genuinely friendly.
James “Jimmy” De La Riva died on March 8 at the age of 53. For those in his neighborhood, it was sudden. He had just been there, helping out as always: carrying bags, warning of possible parking tickets, bringing home pet pigs.
Magician Christopher Wonder sits in his living room with his one-eyed, hairless, Chinese crested dog, Dante. Wonder is covered in tattoos and Dante is sporting an orange sweater. Wonder once had a pet pig named Porkchop who ran away to the corner bodega to shoplift potato chips. Jimmy returned him to Wonder. That's how the two met.
When Wonder served as a human piñata in a straitjacket for a kids' party, the adult host encouraged the kids to hit the magician pretty hard, and Wonder was OK with that until a silver cap popped off his tooth. It was Jimmy who kept looking and looking until he found it.
Wonder was touring Italy when he learned Jimmy had died. He was heartbroken and lonely on the road with just his chicken and his dog. Dante was the only living creature around who also knew Jimmy. After all those years, returning to a Sanborn without the prospect of sharing stories with Jimmy was hard. “It really is a different neighborhood,” Wonder says.
As they sit in the front yard of what was one of their regular hang spots with Jimmy, two of Jimmy's lifelong friends, Robert “Indio” Greenwood and Darryl Hernandez, say Sanborn Avenue is empty, like “a hollow spot” or “the Grand Canyon.”
Greenwood is 10 years younger than Jimmy, but Hernandez is 12 years older and remembers the 1960s and '70s when he and Jimmy enjoyed a Sunset Junction that was like Haight-Ashbury — the community, the hippies..
For a time, Jimmy worked in pyrotechnics with his father. But he began to work independently, preferring to stay closer to Sanborn to watch over his mother, who had a weak heart. Hernandez says Jimmy was against the proposed Frost/Chaddock Sunset Junction condo development — a modern bit of architecture that has roiled the changing neighborhood.
Jimmy “hated that idea. Hated to see the change. If he had money he'd buy it,” Hernandez says. The developer would demolish the house where Jimmy grew up at 1069 Sanborn Ave. There's still a pole in the yard from a period in Jimmy's youth when the building was a boarding house for traveling salesmen, the Sanborn House.
As for people, Jimmy remained close to friends from elementary school and earlier. But he also liked meeting the variety of new characters in the shops that lined Sunset Boulevard. “He'd give you his friendship 100 percent,” Greenwood says.
When Wonder moved to the block in the 1990s, a skinny white boy from Indiana, Jimmy would defend him to the residents who had a more hardened attitude to newcomers. “Hey Magic Man, show us that trick,” he'd say, and with that the ice would be broken.
Known as the Mayor and night watchman of Sanborn, Jimmy had many nicknames: Hey Now and Zig-Zag were the most popular, but one of his most unsavory was Bin Laden.
The day after 9/11, Leslie Barrett walked back to her apartment from the 4100 Bar with a male friend. It was a strange time — everything was a shock, everything was bizarre. They were talking and talking and then suddenly Barrett noticed her friend was handing a wallet to a man with a gun.
Jimmy materialized moments later and told the pair he'd seen them being robbed. He volunteered to talk to the police, even though he was putting himself in a bad place. As he was describing the incident, the cops realized Jimmy had outstanding tickets. And suddenly they were putting him in the car.
“Static” was the word Jimmy used for arguments and things he didn't feel comfortable with — like what the cops did to him. He got tickets for petty offenses: open container, not having a light on his bike. He never paid them. Instead he'd tell them, “Fine. I'll eat bologna sandwiches for a few days in jail.”
Cafe Stella owner Gareth Kantner, whose wine and beer bar has a picturesque view of Sanborn Avenue, remembers thinking, “Don't you know who this guy is? Just leave him alone. He lives right there.”
Jimmy's sister sold the house and moved to the Valley, but Jimmy persisted on Sanborn, often sleeping on roofs. Kantner let him stay in the Airstream in Cafe Stella's lot. Three days became five years. “It broke my heart so much when he passed,” Kantner says, his voice cracking with emotion. “I had to move [the trailer] because I didn't even want to look at it anymore. Because it reminded me so much of him.”
Jimmy would answer Kantner's calls on his simple prepaid cell, “Hey G-dog, hey bossman, what do you need?” Jimmy was always ready to help.
Jimmy's favorite pastimes were beer, bikes and music — always better with his friends. His beer of choice for the average day was Bud Light. At Cafe Stella, for his birthday he'd go for a Chimay.
Hernandez had plans to take Jimmy to the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in mid-June, “but he couldn't hang on,” he says.
Jimmy had a cough. He was still smoking. He could hardly drink his beer and could only eat pudding. He had no idea he was as sick as his diagnosis revealed. When he finally went to the doctor, he ended up in the hospital with stage IV throat cancer.
Greenwood says Jimmy was in high spirits during their initial visit but thinks he overheard something in the hospital and was different during the second. The ponytail part of his beard had been cut off, too.
About four weeks into his hospital stay, Jimmy died.
And then he was back in Silver Lake, bringing everyone together, even the static. Mariachis and cops escorted Jimmy from the church through the heart of Sunset Junction.
Kantner had arranged for Jimmy's last wishes to be granted. “He wanted his last ride to be up Sanborn. He wanted to be cremated. He wanted to be stuck in a Budweiser can.” A plaque — dipped in gold, gangster-style — and Jimmy's bicycle will hang on a Cafe Stella wall.
“RIP Sweet Jimmy. You got us. We got you!” read a poster at his wake. “He loved everyone. He looked out for everyone. He was always 'a shout away,'” Hernandez says.
“He actually didn't have hardly anything and was so happy,” Wonder says, musing that he doesn't know if there is some sort of God but it seems Jimmy was kind of like a test. “I don't know much about the Bible, but I think there are stories like that.”