A Voice From the Winthrop: John Heffler

Ask most residents of the Winthrop Hotel if they know John Heffler, and they’ll likely tell you they don’t.

Ask them if they know Yo-Yo Man, and undoubtedly they will say yes.

Heffler can be found most weekdays in the Winthrop’s lobby, spinning one of the many yo-yos he own. “People call me ‘Yo-Yo Man,'” Heffler explains. “It makes me feel like a celebrity.” Heffler is a rumpled figure who speaks in a breathless punch. Sentences are short. Words are mumbled. You might detect a touch of tough-guy accent. And he’s always fidgeting with his namesake yo-yo. But he also provides unique insight into what it is like to live in the Winthrop Hotel downtown.

“I’m 52 years old,” he says. “I’ve never been married. No kids. I’ve been at the Winthrop 10 years. Who knows how long I’m going to be there.”

On this day, seated in a coffee shop across the street from the Winthrop, he wears his typical attire. The brim of a black baseball cap pokes out over his big glasses, and his bushy grey mustache falls in a droopy cascade down his face. He wears a red windbreaker zipped up over a T-shirt. The windbreaker is studded with four vintage pins: one is from the 1977 Seafair Parade; another screams ‘Back By Popular Demand’ in orange and yellow letters; another shows a koala bear with a backpack and a traveling stick; and the fourth simply reads ‘Live United.’ And of course there are the yo-yos — one shoved in each jacket pocket.

He took up the yo-yo several years ago as a way to wean himself off of decades of smoking cigarettes. Also, he is a recovering alcoholic who says he has been clean and sober for six years. He still has a lingering vice, though: “When I get lonesome I eat junk food. It’s a bad habit. I have diabetes. It’s tough.”

Many people have quick opinions on what to do with the 12-story, 85-year old historic hotel at the corner of Ninth and Commerce. Some want to see it restored as an historic hotel; others point to the building’s track record as a magnet for crime and want it shut down; and still others want city leaders to find alternate housing so residents aren’t concentrated in one location. In May, Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) announced that it was asked by Prium (the current building owner who had originally planned to convert the building into a four-star hotel) if it wanted to purchase the building. THA is expected to make a decision on it this summer.

“They don’t know what they’re going to do to this building,” said Heffler. “I think it’s really ridiculous if anybody wants to buy it and bring it back to a hotel. The way the economy has gone, they should keep us here. It would be better off.”

What has not been told through local media coverage is the residents’ story. What do some of the people living in the Winthrop think of all the focus on their building? What is it like to live in the Winthrop? What are some of the residents’ perspectives related to the building’s safety and possible development?

To that end, the Tacoma Daily Index recently spoke with Winthrop resident Glenn Grigsby about the many years he has lived in the high-rise apartment building. Otha Adams, a more recent Winthrop resident, spoke of the two years he has lived in the building. And Nanette Colby talked about how she is raising her young daughter, Naphtali, while living in the building.

The Index learned of Heffler through Colby. “There is one man there who doesn’t speak much,” she said. “We call him ‘Yo-Yo Man.’ Every time he sees a child come in, he does his yo-yo. He tells us, ‘I don’t know any tricks, but it helped me quit smoking.’ We come in and say, ‘Hello, Yo-Yo Man.'”

The series continues today with Heffler’s story.

Here is what he had to say about his life and experience living in the Winthrop.

“I was making 98 cents an hour. You only got one check a month.”

I grew up in Tacoma’s North End. My dad, Ray, worked for Smyth Furniture Company in Tacoma for 27 years. It was next to Alfred’s Diner. He worked hard and retired at an early age. Back in 1943, my mom, Helen, used to work at the Blue Mouse Theater in the Proctor District. She worked the ticket booth. They met in high school and married in 1944. My dad had two jobs and worked for a down payment on a house. My sister, Patty, was born first, in 1945. My brother, Butch, was born in 1946. Scott was born in 1954. Scott passed in 1990. He was 35. He had an aneurysm. I was born in 1957. I used to work at United Cerebral Palsy of Pierce County. That was back when I was 17 years old. I was making 98 cents an hour. You only got one check a month. I had to work to earn my high school diploma. In school, I had a hard time understanding things, I didn’t fit in with regular classes. I had trouble with reading and spelling. I had to work full-time — 8 to 4 — tying fish hooks. We would tie them, put them in a box, and they would ship them somewhere. At one point, I was making $1.50 an hour. I also grinded parts for airplanes. That was a dirty job.

“There is usually a waiting period at the Winthrop.”

Before I moved to the Winthrop, I lived at home with my folks for 10 years. I just lost my dad a few years ago. Before that, I used to live at the Edgecliff Apartments for 15 years. After my dad died, I took over the house for a year. My mom was slowing down and we had to put her in a nursing home. The house had to go. The money had to go to the nursing home. It’s pretty expensive. Me and my sister checked out the Winthrop. I was hoping I would get in there. My sister told me, ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’ I got in just in time. There is usually a waiting period at the Winthrop. I didn’t have to wait very long. We put the house in the North End on the market in February and I moved in to the Winthrop in the fall.

“People call me ‘Yo-Yo Man.’ It makes me feel like a celebrity.”

I’m downstairs in the lobby a lot. I do my thing with my yo-yo. People call me ‘Yo Yo Man.’ It makes me feel like a celebrity. I have quite a few yo-yos. I started when I was a kid, about six or seven. I had a hard time making it go up and down. I said, ‘Heck with it.’ About 12 years ago, I was watching ‘Santa Claus is Comin to Town.’ There’s the Burgermeister who says, ‘A yo-yo! I love yo-yos!’ So it gave me an idea to go back to the yo-yo. I found an old Stardust yo-yo, and I started collecting yo-yos from Safeway and hobby shops. I always play with one when I wait for the doctor. There’s another one I use down in the lobby when I’m waiting for the mailman. I gave up smoking a few years ago. It damn near killed me. I went to the hospital a month after I moved here, right after my birthday. So I took up the yo-yo and gave up smoking. It really helps.

“It used to be really bad. There were prostitutes in this area at one time. I do hear people yelling across the street.”

When I first moved here, my rent was $99 a month. It went up to $187 a month. My income comes from the government — Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. It’s not too bad here. It’s not really quiet, but it’s better than nothing. It used to be really bad. There were prostitutes in this area at one time. I do hear people yelling across the street. I’m a member of Safe Streets. I try to do what I can. I pick up litter. I volunteer to make the building look better. When I first moved here, the manager wouldn’t do a thing. When Jerry took over as manager, things changed. He would get things done. He was better, he was strict. He wouldn’t allow fighting here. He didn’t take nothing from nobody. If you needed something done, you let him know and he would get it done. Michael is in there now. He’s much nicer. Jerry is at the Olympus Hotel now. Michael was at the Olympus Hotel, but he’s at the Winthrop now.

“It’s just what I wanted when I moved here.”

[Living in the Winthrop] is convenient. It’s just what I wanted when I moved here. I can walk down [to Pacific Avenue] and watch the Daffodil Parade. I can go over to the Broadway Farmer’s Market. I can watch the Christmas Tree being lit up every year. That’s pretty neat. There is one bus I take to get to the doctors office at 38th Street and Pacific Avenue. If I were to live in the North End, I would have to take two buses and transfer. The other thing I like about this place is it has two snack machines and two candy machines. When I first moved here, they only had one.

“Anybody who does that has to be a jerk. No respect for us or people who are old. That’s not right at all.”

People push the elevator buttons and it makes the thing go haywire. It burns out the motor. It’s not fair at all. We have to use the elevator just like everyone else. Why do we have to use the stairs when some knucklehead makes the elevator go haywire? It happens about every week. Anybody who does that has to be a jerk. No respect for us or people who are old. That’s not right at all. There are people on the 8th and 9th floors in wheelchairs.

“A place like this, they’re real friendly.”

I know some people in the building. There was a guy named Herman. He passed on about a month ago. He was 68 years old. He died of a heart attack. He was in a wheelchair. I just bumped into his brother. I didn’t know who he was, but he was emptying his apartment out. There’s Jimmy on the third floor. There’s George. Another guy named Dave on the 8th floor. Carl is on the 9th floor. It takes time to get to know people. I like the Winthrop better than the Edgecliff, people at the Edgecliff are not very friendly. A place like this, they’re real friendly. The Winthrop has helped me get to know people and make more friends.

“I gave up smoking a few years ago,” says Winthrop resident John Heffler. Better known as ‘Yo-Yo Man,’ Heffler, 52, has lived in the downtown high-rise for a decade. “I took up the yo-yo and gave up smoking. It really helps.” (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)


To read the complete series of interviews with Winthrop Hotel residents, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.