The Swagalicious Life of Mall Guy: Behind the LED Belt and Colorful Shirts of One of Cleveland's Most Visible Characters 

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Set the record for goals by an American player.

"Yeah, if you can make it in the English league, you can play anywhere," Jim says. "I've been a Manchester United fan for 25 years now. I watch the games every Saturday morning on ESPN – they have two, an early one and another at like 10 a.m., and sometimes they show Manchester United. This morning I watched Arsenal."

Buttered up on talk of the beautiful game and fueled by teriyaki chicken, Jim finally loosens up on some biographical details.

He's 49 and immigrated to the U.S. more than 20 years ago with his family from Hungary – he speaks with a thick Eastern European accent – directly to Cleveland. His aunt lived here and his brother had a few friends running produce at the West Side Market, so that's the business Jim got into. He still distributes produce via a wholesaler near East 55th St. to restaurants. Up before the sun, he'll work until the early afternoon – in regular clothes.

Yes, as incongruous as the thought of Mall Guy wearing anything other than his Mall Guy accouterments is, Jim does in fact wear regular clothes as he grapples boxes of vegetables "Just jeans and a shirt, you know," he says.

The food distribution game, while solid and dependable as a way of life, was not what Jim had always envisioned. Back in Hungary, he went to music school near his small hometown, learning the string bass and keyboards. And, like any young man with shoulder-length hair and a classical music background in a forlorn Hungarian town might do, Jim joined a rock band. They'd play weddings and parties and, according to Jim, were "known all over town."

Some two decades later, while he still plays music privately, those days of professional gigs are done, but one aspect remains. And that is how Mall Guy began to become Mall Guy.

"I always had outfits for when I was onstage," he says. "I would wear weird stuff, I had a ton of shirts, and I never minded looking different."

Showmanship and a healthy lack of self-consciousness comingled when Jim spotted a novelty T-shirt one day about eight years ago. "Drunk Chicks Love Me," it read. Jim had been a semi-regular at Shooter's at the time and chuckled at the phrase. He grabbed a plain white Tee and a black marker and scrawled out the brag and wore it out to his new adoring public at Shooter's. Instant hit, at least to Jim.

(Shooter's is also where very rare photos showing both Mall Guy and Super Pimp, Jim's natural complement in the Cleveland character hierarchy, in the same shot would have been snapped. "A bachelorette party wanted to pose with both of us," he says. Unlike the man with a love of flashy suits, however, Jim doesn't have a Facebook or Twitter presence. "There's already enough pictures of me out there.")

And so it began.

"The next one I made, I think, was 'I'm Too Sexy For My Job,'" he says. Once again, enough people commented and snapped photos that he was motivated to make some more. With cheap plain shirts, fabric paint from Jo-Ann Fabrics and more than a few bedazzled rectangles, the colorful swatch that is Mall Guy's sartorial sense was born.

"I bought the belt at Parmatown Mall, like, eight years ago," he says. "But I didn't wear it for a year. It was too out there for me. But I tried it out and people were crazy about it. It still works."

Jim isn't a sponge of pop culture so much as a parrot. "I was walking around, and these girls would say, 'You swag, you swag,'" he says. "I didn't know what that meant, so I went home and looked it up. I liked it, so I put it on a shirt. But I don't wear this stuff every day. I do it for fun. I come to the mall every Saturday. What else am I going to do? Sit home and watch television?"

Jim lives with his aunt in Cleveland Heights, and around the neighborhood, like on the job, it's regular jeans and shirts. But his family and friends are well aware of his weekend habits. "My family's used to how I dressed when I was a musician," he says. "So it's not weird."

Jim's never seen an American movie, and when he does watch television, it's soccer, Indians games, or reality shows about cars or nature. And yes, he still plays music when he's not making his own clothes.

"I have, like, 40 shirts I think," he says. "People have offered to buy them from me, either right on the spot for, like, $50, or to make a line. But it's like music, you know, it's my creation."

***

"People must think I'm a millionaire," Jim says outside of Macy's the following week.

He won't sit down to talk right now – he's exercising. Those six or seven hours every Saturday at SouthPark are not simply for show; they're for mall walking.

To keep pace with Jim on one of his twice-daily, 45-minute walks is to motor along faster than the average jogger might, and four times the speed of your average geriatric mall-walker. Like an over-caffeinated commuter late for work, Jim dashes in and out of mall traffic, eyeing openings and gaps long before they develop. It's a track with obstacles. He manages to cover the whole length of the complex during the course of only a couple answers.

"You're going to be tired at the end of this," he promises.

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