Every piece of Streetvibes distributor James Davis’ outfit has a special meaning.
His hat, which has a dolphin on the front, is from Tampa, where he and his friend, Marcus, played music last summer. His bright blue shirt—which reads “Bill Bell for Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge,” is a two-year-old campaign shirt, but he still wears it in support of his friend and patron. He bought his sandals from the old Value City in Kentucky, his all-time favorite store to shop at as a kid. He found the silver ring on his finger under a bench, and claims it’s given him good luck ever since. He listens to 100.3 FM—“old school Cincy”—through the bulky headphones around his neck. And the colorful beads he wears are from New Orleans, where he and his nephew, Dave, like to play music to earn extra cash.
Those beads might be the most defining part of his getup—he hasn’t gone a day without wearing those beads in three years, he says.
“Oh, I love these mardi gras beads,” James grins, laughing and laughing. “My regular (Streetvibes) customers down here, they love them, too. They say, ‘you have on so many magnificent beads!’”
James’ unique style matches his eccentric personality, says William D. Bell Sr., a Cincinnati lawyer and the man behind James’ old campaign shirt.
“I think that (his style) sets him apart from some of the other people who are doing the same thing,” says Bell, who buys papers from James outside of his office on the corner of 9th and Main St. “James is a good spirit, we kid with each other all the time. He’s had some issues, but he has never ceased to be James. He’s never ceased to be a good person.”
Fellow Streetvibes distributor and friend of James, Willa Jones, can attest to his good spirit.
“Me and James, we like to make people laugh,” Jones says. “We try to take bad situations and make some good out of it.”
His style not only attracts potential Streetvibes customers, but it’s also consistent with his music, one of the things he’s been extremely passionate about since a young age.
“I made my first pair of bongos out of oatmeal boxes,” says James. “I took two of them, I cut one shorter than the other and tied them together to get two different sounds out of them. I was 6 years old. I’d sit on the steps, practice and beat along with them.”
In addition to playing the Djembe drum—his favorite—he plays blues, jazz, gospel and reggae on saxophone, trumpet and keyboard. Most of his family, including his parents and his seven brothers and sisters, are musically inclined. He thinks he got it from his mother, the pianist. That was one of his favorite things about her—next to her “to die for” lemon meringue pie, of course.
James admired everything about his mother—for taking him and his siblings on camping trips to Caesar Creek despite “not being the outdoorsy type,” and for taking him and his siblings to church every Sunday.
“We couldn’t get out of church for nothing in the world,” James remembers. “Even if we were sick. She’d tell us we go to church and get healed! Things were so bad (financially for us) then, but she built this faith up in us. Wow, it was remarkable.”
At age 17 he ran away from home in what he describes as a time in his life when he was “naïve” and “didn’t know what to do.” He experienced homelessness, tried out college for a year and a half before his scholarship ran out, and eventually came back around to his mother who welcomed him with open arms. Even though she passed away 10 years ago, he still remembers it like it was yesterday.
“It was one of the worst days of my life,” James says. “Oh god, I will never forget it. I felt like a part of me left the world.”
But James has worked many jobs since, from car washing to landscaping, and lives every day hoping that he’s making her proud. According to Bell, he is.
“He really is phenomenal,” Bell says. “He has this personality that warms somebody’s day, and I think that’s very important. He’s a genuinely good person.”
And every time he enters the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, he has a grin on his face.
“I hate coming in here to hear that I just missed James Davis,” says fellow distributor James Brown. “I see him selling Monday through Friday and I see him selling on the weekend selling At Findlay Market… the way he takes care of business is amazing.”
James is more than just his headphones and mardi gras beads. He dresses to commemorate the memories he’s created with the people who mean the world to him—the snazzy style is just a plus.
“I have a lot of passion for people. I love people to death,” James says. “I’ve been through ups and downs and I’ve learned a lot of things. I believe you can never be too kind. And I believe if you stay strong inside and put your mind to something, you can do anything.”