LYNNWOOD — He’s back.
That bushy-bearded, toothless-grinning, guitar-gyrating man on the sidewalk known as “Wolfman Jim” has returned to the corner of 164th Street SW and Ash Way.
What’s up with that?
Jim Morris might be Snohomish County’s most prolific panhandler. He rocks out for handouts, often with an amplifier or stuffed toy to make sure motorists take notice.
What many noticed is that he wasn’t there, at the busy intersection not far from the I-5 overpasses.
“I took a hiatus for about eight months,” Morris said. “They’re like, ‘Where you been?’ I just tell them I was on vacation. I went to Paris.”
Port Angeles is more like it.
“I put him in the car and took him to detox in Port Angeles,” said Robert Smiley of The Hand Up Project, an advocacy group for the homeless with addiction issues. “I knew Jim and he was ready.”
Morris, 61, spent decades living on the streets and in the woods. He says he started drinking at age 13 and the only times he stopped was when he was in jail. He has a record.
He now lives in a clean and sober home.
“It’s nice not waking up freezing your butt off. I’ve got a bed, heat, a stove,” Morris said.
And a shower.
“Before, being drunk and stuff sometimes I’d just say (expletive) it,” he said.
He sports a black leather bomber jacket over a red plaid shirt, tucked into black jeans. His shoulder-length sandy brown hair is combed and his boots aren’t muddy. He was more coherent than when he was profiled in this Herald column in 2014.
“It’s a whole new me,” Morris said, his voice raspy with a repetitive laugh. “When you’ve been drinking as long as I have, doing drugs, years of living like that, it’s like being born again. It’s better than being baptized.”
The rehab home is a four-mile commute to the 164th Street corner, which was an easy hoof from his tent in nearby woods for some 10 years.
Now he takes the bus. He’s there Thursday through Sunday, weather permitting.
“I call it going to work,” he said.
He tried another corner closer to his new digs. It just didn’t feel right.
“Something just brings me out here,” he said. “I wanted to be a performer and this is my stage.”
On his concrete platform, he takes on the persona of an aging rock star playing to millions of fans, or in his case, gridlocked motorists. His eyes squint in concentration, calloused fingers strike the strings. He might not sound like Eric Clapton, but in his mind he is.
On a recent weekday morning, he got honks, smiles, stares, indifference — and a dollar.
He graciously thanked the $1 donor, capping it off with a jubilant double peace sign.
Then he resumed prancing the sidewalk with the electric guitar and portable amp purchased several years ago from cash handed to him through car windows.
“Not all went for beer,” he said, proud of it.
The way he sees it, he’s not begging for money, he’s putting on a show. He’s giving motorists something for the money or food or fake Rolex they give him in the blink of a stoplight.
He wore the watch until it broke. He doesn’t know of any other panhandlers who received a timepiece, even a knockoff luxury one.
He’s a bit of a snob about his profession.
“I’m out there dancing and giving people the peace sign,” he said. “The other ones, they just hold a piece of cardboard.”
In December, he ups his game by wearing a Santa suit. It historically has been his best paying month and his peak season of imbibing.
“All them years I wasted drinking, who knows what I would have been … I could have been president of the United States.”
Maybe he’ll start with something more local.
“I was thinking more I’d be mayor of Lynnwood,” he said. “I did that one year when they had a mayor’s race. That was back in my Dumpster-diving days. I found a staple gun. I made a sign: Jim Morris for Mayor.”
Some drivers aren’t charmed by the loud man on the sidewalk.
“Before if they flipped me off I’d scream at them or throw something at their car or chase them down the street. I was just being drunk and dumb,” Morris said. “Now I wave and smile. It makes them even madder.”
Morris has a following. His “angels,” as he calls them.
“I got Brandi and Sandra and of course Karen and Kat, don’t forget Kat,” he said.
Over the years the women adopted him after seeing him on the street, bringing him clothes and toiletries. They’d take him out to dinner or home for a bath. They were among the people prodding him to get treatment and disability income.
Others tried to save him from the streets and from himself, but he didn’t want to change.
The turning point to sobriety was turning 60.
“I can’t be doing all that young foolish stuff anymore. I’m too old,” Morris said. “I need to settle down and retire. I’m trying to get housing.”
For Wolfman Jim, those dreams are day by day, just like his recovery.