A State House Institution
"In one ear and out the other,"
he says softly, about the
hundreds of conversations that have taken place between the occupants
of the two red leather chairs just above his head. That's Jim
Chambers speaking. "They call me Jimmy, but my right name is James."
is nearly everyone at the top of the hill in Annapolis who seems
to know him. Jimmy's the man who has been shining shoes for more
than 50 years in the same spot-a little niche on the ground floor
of the State House, against the wall between the wide marble staircase
to the grand lobby upstairs and the ornate brass elevator.
"It all started around '49," says Jimmy. "I was sick at the time---had
seizures---and the rehabilitation [facility] said, 'What do you
want to do? Can you shine shoes?'" Jimmy said he could, and they
bought him a shoeshine stand, the same one he uses today.
Jimmy started working at the State Office Building, when "the
old man called 'Piggy' died---his right name was Simms." Soon
after, Jimmy moved his shoeshine operation to its present location
in the State House. Longtime page program coordinator, Cornelia
Watson, frames Jimmy's longevity this way: "He's been around since
the first dome was set."
Chambers was born 87 years ago in Annapolis on August 10. These
days, Jimmy takes every opportunity he can for a break between
shines. He'll sit in one of the shoeshine chairs, place his feet
on the footstools as a brace and slide down to a comfortable slouch.
"When I first started shining shoes, it was 35 cents," he says.
"Now, it's $3.50 or $4 or $5, and when the shoe polish goes up,
I go up. It runs about $3 or $4 a can now." So how many shines
can you get out of a can, he's asked. "Don't know---never really
counted 'em," he says.
Another thing Jimmy's never really counted is the number of people
who have sat in front of him for a shoeshine. He does recall,
however, that out of "all the governors the whole time I've been
here, only two didn't ever get a shine: Agnew and Schaefer."
With so many visitors to his operation during the legislative
session, Jimmy says, "I know the face, but I can't always remember
the name---that's why I have these." Jimmy pulls open a drawer
full of Maryland General Assembly directories and rosters, some
outdated but still valuable references that everyone around here
seems to have handy.
longtime co-worker, a member of the security force on the ground
floor, knows Jimmy and his predictable patterns well. "He'll walk
in and greet you in the morning, same as he does everybody. Then
he may ask if a particular senator or delegate or lobbyist has
dropped off some shoes." Del. Van Mitchell agrees: "He's always
got a smile, always greets you warmly." Mitchell recalls when
he first came to the Legislature in '95 as a freshman. "One of
the first things that people introduced me to was the downstairs-where
Jimmy is. Whether I get a shoeshine or not, I always stop and
say hello," says Mitchell. "When he's not there, there's a void
at the end of the hall."
keeps abreast of what's going on at the top of the hill so he
can be there for business. When activity slacks off, his famous
saying is, "Things are slow, daddy," and he'll sit back in his
chair to wait for more customers.
One of those customers over the years is Jimmy's longtime admirer,
President of the Senate Thomas V. Mike Miller. Says Miller of
Jimmy, "He's a great friend, a State House institution, and he
can't bring himself to retire." Miller says Jimmy has so many
friends that he just enjoys seeing and being with them. "He is
loved by everyone."
ground floor cubby is tidy and compact, and the shoeshine stand
is at the center. The two red leather chairs are raised up and
bolted down, replacing the original metal chairs that broke. On
the step below are four footstools, at Jimmy's eye level. Within
arms' reach are his big brushes, "two for brown, two for black,"
six dabbers, "to put the polish on the shoes," and black and brown
shoeshine rags. And, oh yes, the polish: one can of brown Lincoln
Stain Wax Shoe Polish and several assorted cans of Kiwi Shoe Polish
("Since 1906, Shines, Nourishes, and Protects").
The wall behind the chairs is covered with well-worn photos: "This
is Christopher Reeves here," says Jimmy. Then he points to Sen.
Mike Miller and former Speaker of the House Casper Taylor---Jimmy
is in many of the photos and several are signed and dated. A narrow,
well-worn metal locker holds a few items of clothing, Jimmy's
wooden shoeshine box and a manila folder of memorabilia. Sitting
on the top of the locker is his felt fedora.
"Jimmy was real flashy when he was younger," say nieces Sandra
Henson and Ann Hammond almost in unison. Their mother was Jimmy's
sister, Louise Chambers Henson. The nieces agree that, although
Jimmy never married, "He was good with the ladies---a real ladies'
man. He used to love to go to Baltimore and shop. A shopaholic
he was," they recall. "Plus, the folks up at the State House used
to give him suits, shoes and overcoats---a little bit of everything."
his shoeshine business? "He can bring an old shoe back to life---make
it look like it's brand new. He's good with a shoe, I'll tell
you," says Sandra.
One of three children, Jimmy lived in Eastport for about 25 years.
His brother and sister are deceased, and his mother, Carrie Chambers,
who lived on her own until she was 100, recently died at 106.
Jimmy now lives within walking distance of the State House at
Timothy House on West Washington Street.
Del. Herb McMillan knows that if Jimmy doesn't shine shoes, he
doesn't get paid. "I became a delegate to represent people who
work from dawn to dusk to make a living for their family---Jimmy
is a daily reminder to me of why I'm there."
At the end of the day, or when business gets too slow, Jimmy packs
up to leave. He tightens the lids on the tins of polish and packs
the brushes, dabbers and shine rags into the wooden shoeshine
box. As he puts the box in the locker, an old calendar catches
his eye. He points proudly to the inscription: "Compliments of
Parris N. Glendening, Governor." Then he tops off his day with
the felt fedora and heads home, same as he always has---on foot.
not wearing one of hats for Inside Annapolis Magazine,
Carolyn Lee can be found paddling her kayak or working in