“He’s just the kind of guy that would do anything for you,” says Highlandtown resident Erin Taylor. “He’s just a really all-around helpful man.”
“We love him,” says Charmaine Stansbury of American Radiology at Conkling and Fleet. “He always has something nice to say.”
“He’s a nice guy,” says Pete Roper of Gough St. “He always has dog biscuits out and ready to give my dog, Charlie.”
“He watches,” says Shannon Cassidy, owner of the Laughing Pint, half a block from JR’s home. “He keeps an eye on things.”
JR Nelson, 59, of the 200 block of S. Conkling St., makes life easier for people. He is the local shepherd of cars, dogs and doughnuts.
He keeps his eye on parked cars. If it’s getting near noon on a street-cleaning day and someone in his flock has forgotten to move her car, JR knocks on her door.
“He’s kept a lot of people from getting tickets—I can tell you that much,” says Cassidy.
Trash day brings another responsibility. JR corrals the stray lids, matching them to their corresponding cans and pulling them up to the stoops.
He checks in on elderly residents, cleans brush from yards, bakes turkeys for people on Thanksgiving, and cleans up the dog poop in the grassy lot outside of Abbott Memorial Church, keeping the place open to responsible dog walkers.
When there’s no more work to be done, JR strolls over to Hoehn’s Bakery, picks up three dozen donuts, and delivers them to his friends, such as the bar staff at the Laughing Pint or the ladies at American Radiology.
“He comes in here at least once a month,” says Stansbury, adding that JR gives out hugs with the doughnuts. “Humble—the man is humble.”
Talking to JR, one would have to agree.
“Some of the things I do, I don’t see anything special about them,” he says. “I’m not trying to impress anybody—it’s just the way I turned out sober.”
Seven years ago, JR quit alcohol and cigarettes cold turkey. He had hepatitis C of the liver at the time, and had just waited three years to get the proper medication, which cost a few thousand dollars.
“I said, since they were able to get that medicine for me, then I should be able to quit for 30 days,” explains JR. “The medicine [label] said ‘no alcohol, no tobacco.’ Thirty days turned into seven years.”
It was not easy.
“It was hell,” says JR.
He knows he can’t slip up one bit.
“I can start on a Monday and end on a Monday, but it’ll be a different week,” he says.
The clean living having apparently paid off, JR is cured of hepatitis C. But life still has its challenges. After triple-bypass surgery in 2008, he is struggling to clean up his eating.
He bought his friend Shannon Cassidy a book of quotes by famous women. After Eleanor Roosevelt, Grandma Moses, Gertrude Stein and Golda Meir, JR wrote in “Shannon Cassidy” with her quote: “You can’t eat that!”
It’s ironic that one of JR’s biggest haunts is still a bar, the Laughing Pint, which he started frequenting back when it was known as Casey’s.
“There were a couple of years when I didn’t even leave this room,” he says.
Now, JR has a key to the place so he can check up on things and take out the trash during the day.
“Back when I was a drunk, my life fantasy was to have a key to a bar,” jokes JR, adding that he is “overwhelmed” by the level of trust Cassidy, the owner, has for him. “I still get nervous sometimes,” he says.
Cassidy notes that even in his drunk days, when she refused to serve him, JR was still a nice guy. No longer rendered inactive by alcohol, he says that he does his neighborly deeds because “it keeps me active and moving around.”
Also, a love of dogs has filled the space left by the absence of booze. JR, who has three Jack Russell terriers of his own, dog sits for practically everyone in the neighborhood, walks their dogs during the day, stops by their homes with dog biscuits when he’s not dog-sitting, takes ownership of pound-bound dogs, and places ads in the Baltimore Guide on the dogs’ birthdays.
JR got a shock a few weeks ago, when 46 neighbors got together and bought him an ad for his birthday.
“That picture in the Guide blew me out of the water,” he says.
That wasn’t all. A couple weeks ago, JR’s friends chipped in and took him on a day trip to New York City. Since JR is a lifelong Beatles fan, the big destination was Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John Lennon in Central Park. For JR, it must have been a wonderful place to visit, but he knows where home is.
“Highlandtown is beautiful,” he says. “The people there are beautiful. There’s no other way to put it.”
by Erik Zygmont