You probably saw him around the Hill, peddling a bicycle with an enormous black box on the front, a box from which he would remove all manner of equipment that allowed him to fix whatever had gone wrong in a Capitol Hill row house. He was even known to carry a ladder on his bike. Or maybe you even were one of the lucky ones whose house he took care of over the years, for he was the handyman on the bike. His name was Jim Zinn, and he died suddenly on October 14.
Before Jim became the Hill’s favorite handyman, he devoted his life to service. He was born on June 13, 1964 in Sacramento, but soon he and his parents Darrel Zinn and Joyce Ley Zinn, moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Most of his schooling occurred after the family returned west, to Davis, CA, Jim completed his high school there, and then graduated from the University of California in that city. Friends of his have posited that it was his time in Davis that gave him the laid-back attitude he had his whole life.
Upon graduation, he joined the Peace Corps, who sent him to The Gambia in West Africa where he was involved in forestry and chimpanzee projects for three years. He worked for the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, which has been working to reintroduce these animals back to The Gambia under the guidance of Janis Carter. His penchant for story-telling landed him in Dale Peterson’s book Chimpanzee Travels, where he is described as having “thin arms, thin legs, and a long good-looking face with aquiline nose.” He also appears in Peterson’s book Visions of Caliban, co-authored with Jane Goodall, in which Jim describes surveying locals and their attitudes towards chimpanzees and other animals that had been displaced from the area.
Back in the US, he moved to DC in 1996 and joined the District government to help them help the unhoused and others who threatened to fall through the cracks in the system. He built connections not only with this community, but the Secret Service officers whose job it was to patrol Lafayette Square. They knew he was the one to call when one of the homeless regulars whom Jim had helped return to their family, had once again appeared in the park.
During this time, he lived on a houseboat docked on the Wharf, not far from where Representative Randall “Duke” Cunningham lived before his fall from grace and imprisonment. The proximity to scandal added further to Jim’s storehouse of stories, including the times, late in the evening, that people in search of Duke would knock on Jim’s boat.
When working for the District government became too stressful, Jim looked for other ways of helping. After a stint farming, he realized that his skill in renovating and keeping his own home in order could become a career. But not a career that would keep him from what was really important–time with his family, riding his bike, or attending Nats games. Jim even managed to convince his wife Francesca and daughter Sophia, along with their dog Calvi, to spend a year sailing around the Caribbean hopping from one island to the next. While he eventually did sell this boat, he continued to keep an eye on the used sailing ship market over the next years, sure that he would find just the right craft eventually.
In the meantime, he would assuage the travel bug with lengthy bike trips criss-crossing the southern United States, often in areas not usually known for their welcoming attitude to two-wheeled transportation. The stories he would tell of peddling down the narrow verges of southern highways kept most happy to do their biking on the bike paths and sidewalks of the District.
He also arranged his schedule so that he could spend an hour in the morning at Peregrine Coffee on 7th Street, discussing the news of the day with a rotating cast of about a dozen whose schedules allowed for such a break. He was an enthusiastic celebrant of the group’s yearly Festivus observance, an opportunity for all to congregate one last time for that year before family obligations took over. Jim’s contribution was a large Festivus pole, which would be placed outside the coffeeshop to warn all who entered what was happening that day.
It was the day-to-day routine where Jim was most important, however, always with a story to tell or a sly smile to encourage his compatriots. The others knew that when he pulled out his little notebook and stumpy pencil that they had 15 minutes to wrap up the discussion before Jim, daily schedule in hand, mounted his bicycle to continue his one-man fight against old house entropy.
Robert Pohl worked for many years as a computer programmer but recovered from that and became a full time stay-at-home dad. With his son now in school, he has expanded his horizons and become a self-taught historian. He has written books about his house as well as Emancipation in the District of Columbia. You can reach Robert at [email protected].