Streetvibes Distributor James Brown can’t take more than ten steps outside in Cincinnati without a greeting from someone. As we walk from E 12th street to the corner of Vine and Central Parkway, at least 15 people, from business owners to fellow distributors, grin and give James a wave or a handshake.
“What’s up, man?” says a regular patron, Rod, to James upon seeing him. “This guy busts his butt. He really puts in a lot of hours,” he tells me before crossing the street.
James then leads me into The Little Mahatma, a small jewelry and artifact store on Vine St. There, we chat with the owner Dan Schwander, who has been buying papers from James for three years.
“If we’re walking by the Kroger area, James is always there to keep an eye on us,” Schwander said. “He really likes to make sure we’re well-serviced by what he does, and he’s really proud of what he does.”
James then leads me into Suder’s Art Store, where he greets the store cat, George, who is seated on top of a pile of books.
“This cat has been here since (the store) has been here. I just come in and kick it with him,” James says with a smile as he pets George’s head.
“He loves that cat,” laughs Ros Boles, a Suder’s employee of 29 years and patron of James. “And we love James’ personal deliveries. He’s real personable.”
It seems as though most people in Cincinnati know James. His willingness to talk to everybody is his best trait, Boles says.
But James isn’t just the friendly guy with a copy of Streetvibes in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He’s the father of a 22-year-old daughter, a victim of a heart stabbing and a prior caregiver to his dying grandmother, Frances Challold.
Challold had been young for a grandmother—James’ parents were only 14 when he was born—and she was only 50 when she died.
“She spoiled me,” he said, remembering the German chocolate cake she’d make for his birthday every year. “She let me do whatever I wanted.”
When she fell ill, James quit his job in the construction field and dropped out of high school to take care of her. He was only 16 when she died and remembers the day he had to rush back to the hospital he had just left to be with her when she passed away.
“I wish I had stayed with her longer that day… I lost half my heart when she died,” James said. “I remember hearing her heartbeat stop.”
After her death, James spent time on the streets, sleeping on friends’ couches and eventually staying with his mother, Senithia Brown. Although she was strict when he was growing up—fearing he would “get involved with gangs,” he said—she taught him a number of things, from physical therapy to manners.
“To this day, I respect my elders. I always say sir and ma’am. Kids aren’t raised like that now,” James said. “I understand today why she raised us the way she did.”
Senithia encouraged him to participate in summer and after-school programs like swimming, flag football and Boy Scouts. Today, James serves as a mentor for other children in programs like these, such as the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless’ (GCCH) annual Day-by-Day calendar project. The project aims to educate high school students on homelessness and poverty issues.
“The students get out there and we show them how to sell (Streetvibes) papers,” James said. “It makes me understand why my mother had us in programs back in the day. She didn’t want us getting into trouble.”
His mother also encouraged him to play football, which James wishes he had a chance to play for a living, despite being just five foot three. If he wasn’t selling Streetvibes, he said, he’d like to be playing football.
“I loved being a teammate,” said James, looking back on his time as both a “pee-wee” football player and also a wide receiver on the blue and gold Pershing High School Doughboys. “If you ain’t got a team, you ain’t got nothing.”
Maybe he would be a football player if he hadn’t been stabbed in the heart or suffered a major heart attack, he said. Or maybe, he said, if his grandmother hadn’t died when he was 17, his life would be on a completely different path right now. When he’s feeling down, he looks to Psalms 1:16, verse 8: For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
“That keeps me motivated,” said James, pointing to the verse in the Bible he held open. “I got stabbed. I cry sometimes. But if I fall, I always get back up, no matter what.”
And for now, he’s satisfied selling Streetvibes to his regular customers every day and paying the occasional visit to George the cat.
“I worked factory jobs and things like that, but I love my Streetvibes,” James said. “That’s the only thing keeping me above water today.”