Shakey Jake won the affection of whole city
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
If you think of a community as a crazy-quilt of characters, "Shakey'' Jake Woods was surely among the brightest, funkiest, most enigmatic patches in Ann Arbor.
Shakey Jake, who died Sunday, had been a fixture on downtown streets for more than three decades, playing his version of the blues on a weathered guitar, taking a slow draw on his cigarette, decked out in his signature sunglasses, white shoes, floppy hat and three-piece suit. He was old - maybe 82, maybe older - what does it matter? He was ageless, seemingly unchanged as time and new crops of University of Michigan students flowed past him year after year.
Shakey Jake knew how to work the streets. He fashioned himself as a brand - and sold it through T-shirts, "I brake for Jake'' bumper stickers and CDs. You'd see him sitting outside local shops with a bucket to collect change - sometimes playing his guitar, sometimes not - but few would dare call him a panhandler. When he'd hawk his wares, or himself, slyly, he made you feel you were in on a hip, charming joke.
He was Ann Arbor's rock star - more recognizable than the mayor, or Lloyd Carr, or Jeff Daniels. He had a page on Facebook, and a Wiki entry at arborwiki.org/city/Shakey_Jake.
Though many thought Shakey Jake was homeless - and he had been, at times in the past - he lived in an apartment in a public housing complex operated by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission. It's true that he received government support, but what's remarkable is the support he got from the people of this city. Downtown merchants in particular looked out for him, giving him free food, making sure he got home safely, letting him sit for hours outside their businesses.
Carol Lopez, owner of The Peaceable Kingdom on Main Street, made sure his bills were paid and kept an eye on anything else he needed.
"The whole town cared for him,'' she told The News this week.
And that, perhaps, is the most telling part of Shakey Jake's legacy in Ann Arbor.
So here's a final shout out to you, Shakey - rest in peace, man. _______________________________________________________________________
Hard to imagine A2 without Shakey Jake
Shakey Jake once told me he was going to live forever.
He also said he'd been a smoker since the age of 1, that he'd hitchhiked by himself to New Orleans from Little Rock when he was 2; and that he'd been around the world nine times but never stepped onto a plane.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jake for a profile I wrote eight years ago, and as I said back then, talking to him was a kick and a challenge because you never knew if he was fibbing, kidding, or being sincere.
Some people thought he was mentally "a little off."
To that, I'd always ask: "Aren't we all? Just a little?"
Jake and I had a great time bumming around town. We went to Kroger to buy a carnation for his lapel. We checked out his favorite haunts.
Wherever we went together, people called out to Jake, and he'd nod back. He didn't know them. Most of them didn't know him. Not really. But they knew Shakey Jake, the colorful character in the fur coat and moon boats in the winter, or the suit, straw hat and big plastic sunglasses in the summer. And any season, that guitar case.
Jake enjoyed his celebrity. He loved Ann Arbor, and he loved riding in a convertible in the city's Fourth of July parade, where he'd get more applause than anyone.
We hung out at his Broadway Terrace apartment, which was just as quirky as I expected. His mother taught him to dress well. ("She used to make my sisters put on dresses and high heels just to cross the street," he recalled.) And his closets were packed with suits neatly kept in the dry cleaner's bags. He also had a collection of several dozen pairs of white loafers.
I'm shoe crazy, too, I told him. He nodded, as if to say: Isn't everyone?
I told him I'd take him to lunch. Where did he want to go?
"Say that again?"
"One more time?"
Finally I got it, and we headed east on Washtenaw Avenue to his favorite restaurant, Boston Market. I think that, knowing he wouldn't have to pay, he ordered one of everything - to go.
At least I knew he was eating well for the rest of the week.
After his story was published, I kidded him that I had made him famous. We both knew he was already famous, but he was gracious enough not to argue. He couldn't read, but one of his friends must have read the article to him. He seemed to approve.
From then on, I'd always stop to talk to him.
"Do you remember me?" I'd ask.
"Ann Ahba Nooooos!" he'd say.
In 2001, I told Jake I was going to dress up like him for Halloween. Though he rarely smiled, he almost grinned as he nodded slowly.
"That's all right," he said.
I wore an oversized jacket and dress pants, white loafers, big plastic sunglasses and a straw hat. I carried a guitar case. And the cigarette hanging out of my mouth forced me to growl, "I'm on the move!" in just the perfect pitch, if I do say so.
I loved being Shakey Jake. I felt quirky and cool and popular.
Probably because he enjoyed himself so much, Shakey Jake said he'd live forever. Maybe he couldn't imagine Ann Arbor without him. Neither can I.
Jo Mathis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-994-6849.
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