Jimmy Reed was a fixture in Old Town Alexandria for more than a dozen years, a gentle man with thick, long dreadlocks who spent his days standing silently outside Starbucks and nearby restaurants accepting money and food from passersby.
Since his death last week from an apparent heart attack, people who live and work in the area have been stopping by a makeshift shrine on the sidewalk next to the coffee shop to trade memories about their brief encounters with Reed and theorize about his past.
The shrine, at King and St. Asaph streets, consists of a poster board covered with handwritten eulogies, carnations, a package of microwave beef tacos and even a bundle of dreadlocks. Yesterday, many people whose exchanges with the man consisted mostly of, "Hey, Jimmy," and a nod wiped their eyes, clasped a spouse's hand tightly or smiled before moving on.
Besides his mass of dreadlocks, which drooped well below his chin, Reed was easily recognizable by his military fatigues and the trench coat he wore even in 90-degree weather. People said that because of his unassuming manner, they were drawn to seek him out on busy King Street, which is crowded daily with locals and tourists.
Reed was so well known in tightknit Alexandria that a brief article in the Gazette Packet newspaper, taped to the Starbucks wall, is headlined, "Jimmy Reed Dies," as if he were a public official.
"He never said a word. Never bothered anyone. Never panhandled," said Steve Kornett, general manager of the nearby Portners restaurant, who was passing by Starbucks yesterday. "All I'd say was, 'Hey, Jimmy,' and he'd just give you a nod."
Andrea Grenadier, who grew up and lives in Old Town and who works for the Public Education Network, said she remembers a compliment Reed paid her about eight years ago after she bought new glasses.
"I never thought he noticed me, but one day I was walking down the street and he said, 'Hey, you, nice glasses,' " she said. "You get used to seeing someone. You come to rely on them as a fixture."
Much remains unknown about Reed's life. He appeared to be in his fifties or sixties.
A Starbucks assistant manager, Tom Levay, said one of Reed's relatives and a close friend of the family stopped by last week and said he had died of a heart attack, but neither could be reached for this article.
Theories abound about how and why he ended up on the streets.
Elizabeth Pirsch, a lawyer, said she had heard that Reed fought in the Vietnam War and had a checking and savings account at Burke & Herbert bank. Levay said he caught Reed more than once perusing the stock pages of the Financial Times or the New York Times.
"The friend of the family said he had quite a bit of money. I used to kid around with him . . . and ask him how his stocks were doing," Levay said.
He said the relative and the family friend said Reed would sometimes sleep at his mother's place on Route 1 or at his sister's townhouse in Springfield.
Rodney A. Grimes, a professional photographer, was so riveted by Reed's demeanor that he took a series of pictures of him through the years and regularly gave him bagels or money.
"There are some homeless people I don't give money to because they're so annoying. There's another homeless man here, and you walk around him because he'll be using profanity," he said.
"But Jimmy could say thank you without saying anything."