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For two decades at the intersection of Eighth and Main streets, hot-dog vendor Shirlette Holmes warmed hearts aplenty. It wasn't just the sausage.

"Where's Shirlette?"

or nearly 20 years, Mildred Shirlette Holmes served hot dogs and humor from her umbrella-covered cart on the southeast corner of Eighth and Main streets. Recessions came and went; ties narrowed and widened; the leaves changed, fell off, grew back again. She was there.

Neither childbirth nor murder nor the most chilling cold and humid heat Mother Nature could wield in this latitude kept her from her place. She was a constant: between 11 and 4 o'clock, her small form as fixed and immutable as the nearby granite towers that seemed to shelter and keep her.

She went into labor between serving customers and delivered in an ambulance on Main Street. She perservered after another child was murdered. Even the manic, incessant bellows of a 400-pound freak — "Shirlette! Shirlette!" — did not drive her away.

But like any beacon worthy of the name, Holmes not only stood. She shone. More important than her presence was her smile, a spark of life and laughter in what otherwise would have been just another grim, shadowy cavern, crowded with the workaday shells of humanity. With her comic grin and kind wit, she brought people out and made them friends. She doled out clever nicknames to attorneys and average Joes alike as easily as she spread their relish.

She was "Shirlette" to many, "that nice hot-dog lady" to most. To everyone whose path she lightened, she mattered. But now she's gone, and everyone wants to know why. Everyone misses her and fears the worst.

"Where's Shirlette?" Since the funny little woman stopped appearing at her small metallic cart in front of the Ross Building last month, the questions have grown increasingly concerned. Alas, the answers are even more dismaying: Holmes, 45, suffered several strokes in mid-October and remained in a coma at MCV last week.

Her husband says it doesn't look good: Most life support systems have been removed; brain activity is minimal. Now, it seems, it is only a matter of time. While no one has given up all hope yet for the life-loving wife and mother, Shirlette Holmes' friends at the Ross Building, 801 E. Main St., are taking up a collection to help her husband, Reginald, and their girls (ages 6 and 7) through the coming weeks.

Pat Spear, who works at the Sands, Anderson, Marks & Miller law firm in the Ross Building, has opened an account for the family and already has received about $1,000 in donations from downtown workers — including a check left without fanfare at the building's front desk last week. "Eight o'clock Tuesday evening," says security guard Roscoe Porter, visibly moved. "One hundred dollars."

Spear, who has worked in the building since 1983, and Porter, since this summer, are but two of the souls Shirlette Holmes has touched. "Bad weather, she was always there," says Spear. "Always in the same spot."

"She knew just about everybody up and down this street," adds Porter. "Even if they didn't know her name, they'd stop and talk to her." Habitually he looks out to where she used to stand. She would make funny faces, point and wave to him from the sidewalk.

Shirlette Holmes would banter with anyone, from executives to ex-cons. "It's her sense of fun," Porter says. "She loved to tease — never let herself be too serious. Dirt Woman (female impersonator Donnie Corker, who has sold flowers at Eighth and Main) would holler from the corner for a hot dog: 'Shirlette! Shirlette!'" Porter laughs at his imitation. "He'd try to trade a rose to her for a hot dog. She'd say, 'I can't eat no rose.'"

Reginald Holmes is a maintenance worker for the Henrico County school system. "I had a beautiful wife," he says simply. "She loved helping people."

At their small, comfortable home across the street from a large city cemetery, Holmes greets visitors on the porch and lets them inside. The girls hide, peeking around a hallway corner at the stranger in their house.

Reginald Holmes proudly displays a sketch of Shirlette at the Ross Building, and says he appreciates the help of his wife's friends downtown. "We think the world of them," he says. "This is not the first time they helped us out."

The first time was the only time anyone remembers seeing Shirlette Holmes less than buoyant. It was after her 23-year-old son was shot to death three years ago. But she was right back on the street when it was all over, and tried to smile.

Not this time. On a Friday last month she called complaining of a "terrible headache," says boss Jim Shiels, owner of S&S Caterers. But she insisted on working a couple of hours Saturday as well. It wasn't until Wednesday, after the seizures began, that she saw a doctor.

"We're so fond of her it really hurts," Shiels says. "She's obviously made a lot of friends down there. We get a lot of calls. It's really amazing the outpouring she's getting."

Now his wife, Maureen, is working the cart. Shortly before lunchtime, looking stricken and beleaguered, Maureen Shiels took time out between orders to speak.

"We're just trying to pick up the pieces here. I almost took her for granted," she says.

"You almost don't realize how valuable people are until they're gone."

She pauses, shaking her head. "Forty-five. Ain't that a shame?" She shakes her head again, then gets back to work. "So sad."

Below her, on the side of the cart, is a small yellow sign. "Help Wanted," it reads.

(Contributions to the Holmes family can be made to: The Mildred Shirlette Holmes Fund, Bank of Richmond, P.O. Box 35819, Richmond, Virginia 23235.)

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