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Workaday Washington will be a little, well, duller for a while. Big Guy is gone.
Big Guy, also known as Robert Warren Fulton, was a shining star at the National Capital YMCA. He added luster to the loafers of lawyers and journalists and other downtown professionals while they threw steel or climbed StairMasters or litigated foul calls. But it was more than technique with a chamois that made Big Guy luminous. If you worked out at the Y in the last year, even if you weren’t looking for a shine, chances are you caught some portion of his act. He dressed fancy and never missed work, and the small closet he’d converted into a shoeshine booth sat just outside the main locker rooms. He greeted all passers-by with a wide smile and most with a “Hey, big guy!”—which explains his nickname—to which he often added a stream of spiritual non sequiturs and cackles, always indicating that he lived happily in his own little world.
But for as loud and gregarious as he was at work, Big Guy died quietly. He’d been missing for several days by last Wednesday, when Y management, besieged with inquiries about the shoeshine man’s whereabouts, opened up the doors to his stand. They found Fulton inside, long dead.
Foul play was never suspected, and the scene indicated he’d taken a nap and just never waked up. But exactly when Big Guy passed on is something of a mystery. Among fellow employees and the Y membership, word quickly spread that he’d been alone inside his stand for six days before the discovery. Management wouldn’t confirm the speculation.
“Those are just rumors,” says Angie Reese-Hawkins, vice president of the National Capital YMCA. Reese-Hawkins declined to estimate how long Big Guy had been in his office. (An autopsy was performed, but no official cause of Fulton’s death has yet been released, according to Carolyn Johnson of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.)
The Y administration’s actions after the discovery of Big Guy’s corpse only intensified the air of intrigue and sorrow surrounding his departure. Even while his body blocked the entrance to the locker rooms, lower-level staffers were ordered not to answer even the simplest question about the goings-on for concerned or just plain curious members. And when the coroner’s van came by to pick up the deceased, the health club’s brass requested that the covered stretcher be removed not through the main exit on Rhode Island Avenue, but via a back alley.
By the next morning, the stand had been cleared of all the tools of his trade and personal effects, which were mainly religious icons and printouts of the proverbs he used to quote to customers and whoever walked by (“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in or steal. For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”—Matthew 6:19-21).
And, although public shrines are very much in vogue these days, workers say they were banned from erecting one and instructed to maintain silence regarding the death. Nowhere in the building was there a posted explanation of Big Guy’s absence, let alone an acknowledgment of his death. As of five days after the discovery of his body, the only indication that things were not as they once had been came from a minimalist sign taped to the wall outside his former work space: “Sorry, Shoe Shine is not available. Shoe Shine will resume after [Labor Day].”
Fulton lived alone near the Potomac Avenue Metro station in Southeast, and difficulty in locating next of kin in order to officially identify the body delayed the public release of information, preventing local obituary columns from providing any intelligence on Big Guy. It wasn’t as if Y regulars hadn’t taken stock of his disappearance—dependable characters like him aren’t easily forgotten—so questions about the situation began to dominate conversation in the halls of the seven-story workout palace.
Adrienne Johnson can provide most of the answers. Johnson is Fulton’s daughter, and according to Big Guy’s little girl, her father was 59 and is survived by two children and seven grandchildren. She was out of town the week his body was found, and although he’d had serious health problems in recent years, his death came as a shock to her. She wants to assure everybody who misses Big Guy that despite the loneliness of his passing, he really was a very happy man, and that the biggest joys in his life came from family, Jesus, tomato salad, and his job.
He’d taken on shining shoes as a profession late in life, she says, and the gig at the Y—the biggest gym in the city—was the best he’d ever had. It wasn’t really the work that floated his boat, but the access it gave him to people.
“My father was a wonderful cook, but he always said he couldn’t stand being back in the kitchen when all the people were out front,” Johnson says. “And shining shoes gave him what he wanted. I went to see him at the Y when he started, and he was showing off his new digs, and we were both standing there laughing because of the location of that stand. Everybody had to walk by him, and he could just snag everybody as they passed. That was where he wanted to be.”
Reese-Hawkins says a search for the next shiner will soon be under way, and a replacement should take over Big Guy’s last stand sometime in September. He’ll have big shoes to fill.—Dave McKenna