His name was Fuzzy. His life was, too.
All he had on him was a pen, a shoehorn and a laminated ID card with the words “Fuzz W.S. Fuzzy Shoe Shine Doctor.”
Pamela Cash hadn’t seen the man in Apartment 607 for nearly a month, and that wasn’t like him.
The manager of Capital Plaza Apartments and her staff knew very little about him, only that he shined shoes, methodically checked that lobby security doors were locked, had writing projects and paid his rent with money orders. Oh, and he had an unusual name: Fuzz Wood Short Fuzzy.
Fuzzy had spent about a week in the hospital in February for a hernia operation, Cash recalled, and he managed to make it to a seniors luncheon in the building at the end of the month. But now it was April, and Fuzzy had been nowhere for weeks.
On April 13, she called police and asked them to check his apartment. They found a sparse but immaculately kept residence: neatly organized bags and boxes of his belongings; his keys; a shoe box containing cash. What they didn’t find was him.
That’s because Fuzzy, 70, had arrived at the city morgue two days earlier and was listed as a John Doe. A boater found his body floating under the stern of his craft at the Washington Marina, Dock D, Slip 14.
All he had on him was a pen, a shoehorn and a laminated ID card with the words “Fuzz W.S.
Fuzzy Shoe Shine Doctor.”
As authorities pieced together how Fuzzy died, police, his clients and family began piecing together how he lived: He shined shoes at D.C. law firms for nearly 20 years, moving meticulously through the city dreaming of ways to make it big as a writer.
While the District transforms through an age of prosperity, gentrification and unprecedented security due to terrorism fears, there remain people such as Fuzzy who manage to quietly navigate these changes as they traverse the city and leave a mark on those they encounter.
His clients remember a kempt businessman who donned a clean, dark-blue smock and never gave his customers a set price. Instead, he asked for “donations” based on the level of service patrons felt the “Shoe Shine Doctor” had delivered.
And while he went by Fuzzy, he was always clear about one thing.
“I’m just like those Frosted Flakes: ‘Great!’ ” several people recalled him saying often.
“It’s hard to envision law firms and businesses allowing someone like him to come in and set up shop,” said Paul Zarnowiecki, a lawyer at Orrick who used Fuzzy’s services at the company’s 15th Street NW office.
He said Fuzzy will be missed not just because of his animated, passionate personality, but also because his presence represented a simpler time in the city.
“They don’t make them like him anymore,” Zarnowiecki said.
Even though Fuzzy’s presence was a constant for many, no one seems to know much about him, including his brother and neighbors. What they could piece together is that each weekday, Fuzzy stepped outside the lobby doors of his Northwest Washington apartment building and by 7 a.m. headed west on E Street, away from the view of the Capitol dome and bustle ofUnion Station and into his workday, according to staffers at his apartment building. Like clockwork, he arrived at the marble-tiled lobbies of highrise buildings across downtown.
Fuzzy was so popular that he followed Zarnowiecki and his colleagues from the Georgetown waterfront to their newoffices on 15th Street. Each Monday, as he walked through the double glass doors, the receptionist would send an e-mail to about 100 lawyers on the 10th, 11th and 12th floors saying that Fuzzy had arrived.
He popped his head through clients’ office doors, they re- moved their shoes, and he took them to quiet spaces to put a fine polish on their leather.
Paul Hyman, a partner at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, simply remembers that suddenly a shoeshine man with an upbeat outlook made himself a fixture at their firm.
“One day, he just kind of showed up,” Hyman recalled. “He was an enterprising guy, but he was never pushy about anything.”
He occasionally mentioned his writing projects or other entreprenurial dreams, because Fuzzy was about more than shining shoes.
“He was a dreamer,” said his brother, Robert Short.
When he wasn’t shining shoes, Fuzzy apparently spent time writing, as he tried to self-publish at least two stories, both seemingly based in the Jim Crow South of the mid-20th century, experiences probably garnered through his upbringing in South Carolina. He also tried to write screenplays and wanted to start “Shoe Shine University,” a job training program for young people.
But most of his life remained so private that he left behind clues but no answers — not even really explaining his eccentric name change— for family, neighbors, police and the clients who loved him.
“Initially, everyone was hoping that it was a mistake,” said Jeffrey K. Shapiro, another partner at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara.
“It’s sad that he’s not coming back,” Shapiro said.“We’d like to know what happened eventually.”
A history that’s a mystery
For his survivors, so much of Fuzzy’s travels remains, well, fuzzy.
Little seems to be known about his work and life history in the 1980s and 1990s. He changed his name in 1970 to James Valentine and then again in 1990 to Fuzz Wood Short Fuzzy, but no one seems to know precisely why.
What is known is that he was born Woody Short at a Baltimore hospital in the 1940s, Robert Short said. As he grew, so did his hair, a thick, curly mane that caused his mother and family to call him “FuzzyWuzzy,” his brother recalls, and he suspects that’s the genesis of his name.
During grade school, the family moved to Cheraw, S.C., where they lived with their mother and grandmother in a small, segregated city about 80 miles from the state capitol.
Robert Short can recall no serious racial animosity from those days; however, they seemingly left a mark on his brother, as Fuzzy’s later fictional writings would indicate.
Some of his writings involve black characters angry at white society, but when he explains his motivations, Fuzzy expresses a broader sense of humanitarianism.
“My reason for writing is because I deeply believe that the type of stories I am aware of can be a great contribution to society,” he writes in the preface to one book. “If I hadn’t become concerned about all mankind and the world’s problems, I don’t believe that the idea of writing would have entered my mind.”
The brothers first parted ways in 1959, when the elder Robert headed north to the Washington area.
They reunited in Washington during the tumult of the late 1960s, when they lived together for about a year. AlthoughWoody Short mostly stayed home watching television and didn’t drink or even curse, he had big plans.
“He wanted to be a writer all his life,” Robert Short said. “He wanted to write for the movies and all that.”
By 1972, the younger brother moved out on his own, and Robert Short married and moved to a home in the Maryland suburbs, where initially his brother visited. But soon, the pair drifted into their own lives, and by the late 1970s, his brother simply stopped visiting.
No fight occurred. No angry words were exchanged. He simply disappeared into the city for decades.
Then one day this spring, D.C. police detectives knocked on Robert Short’s door.
Fuzzy’s final days
An enigmatic life ended with a mysterious death.
For nearly 10 years, Fuzzy awoke in a studio apartment at the Capital Plaza building, at 35 E St. NW. Each night, he returned to the same space, which was furnished with a simple bed, table and chair.
“He was here 10 years, and that apartment never needed painting,” said Jasper Jones, the building supervisor.
He had no phone and no formal identification or clear connection to the government.
About a month before his disappearance, building manager Cash said, Fuzzy had a serious medical issue in Virginia. For days, she tried to help him set up doctor’s visits, but she discovered that he had no real form of government identification, no Medicare card, just a Social Security number.
“The only thing he had was his Fuzzy shoeshine ID,” Cash said.
On Feb. 17, he complained of lower abdominal pain. Cash called an ambulance, and he spent about a week at Howard University Hospital for a hernia operation, according to Cash and police records.
After he was released, Fuzzy offered few details about his condition. Soon after attending the seniors luncheon Feb. 26, he virtually disappeared.
In the manager’s office, there was contact information for Robert Short in Forestville. Cash showed police building security records that showed he last accessed the building Sunday, March 15, at 4:09 p.m. The medical examiner’s office still has not determined the cause of death.
“I hated it because I couldn’t say goodbye to him,” Robert Short said. “He was a big part of me. I loved him dearly.
“It hurt me. Hurt me to death.”
ABOVE: The shoeshine kit that FuzzWood Short Fuzzy carried to downtown law firms for nearly 20 years. His body was found at the WashingtonMarina in April. RIGHT: An undated photo of Fuzzy.