This story was submitted as a nomination to the Reader’s Digest “Top 50 Nicest Places in America” contest: a crowd-sourced effort to uncover nooks where people are still kind and respectful in an era of cultural and political divides. Be sure and vote for which story you think should be nominated as the Nicest Place by visiting the Reader’s Digest website.
After an ugly incident split this town, the citizens found common ground when they anointed a homeless poet their “adopted grandfather.”
Ask people what they like about Kingman and they’ll bring up the man known as Santa James. Santa James, AKA James Zyla, is a former real-estate salesman turned wandering poet who has become the town’s “adopted grandfather,” according to the local police chief. He’s also homeless.
When residents discovered his thoughtful nature and musical gifts, they teamed up to make sure he always has a place to stay, gigs to play, and a helping hand when he needs it. In return, he shares hugs, songs, and his one-of-a-kind free spirit.
“There exists in Kingman a spirit of generosity,” Santa James told the Los Angeles Times last year. “It’s not just the young or the old. It permeates the generations.”
The town of about 25,000 people sits on the legendary Route 66, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas. Once home to a major military base and mining economy, later bypassed by the interstate and half-forgotten, Kingman got a black eye a few years ago when comic Sacha Baron Cohen’s television cameras captured a rowdy crowd of locals shouting down a proposed mosque. Kingman residents decried the intolerance—the city has had a mosque for thirty years, along with a well-established immigrant population—and locals stepped up their efforts to showcase the city’s best qualities.
“The community was very upset,” says our nominator, Coleen Haines, who has been at the heart of that effort as a city PR specialist. “Kingman is a welcoming place.”
Santa James has become the symbol of the town’s best spirit, Haines says. His story shows that Kingman is the kind of place that finds room for anybody who helps make it better, even if it’s just with a smile and a song.
“The mayor gave him a key to the city,” she says. “It showed how we really go out of the way to help people.”
(WATCH the poet in action as he plays the piano in the video below)
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