The writer sits alone, aware of but unaffected by the buzz of Friday night in a college town, penning a short story about an unfaithful wife and her inglorious demise. Or maybe this was the one about a drunk whose decaying body, seagulls pecking at it, was found in the middle of the ocean. The man had fallen from his boat, stayed alive on a raft, decided to take his life, then choked on pain meds before he could end it himself.
No matter. The writer is writing, and that’s one of the reasons he’s alive.
Lee Jones is 55, a wine connoisseur, a pot smoker, self-contradictory and homeless. It’s this last one that defines him. Homeless. Jones hates it. He’s a proud man, loves fine dining, knows the difference between normal and beluga caviar (egg size). He’s served dinner and wine to Elton John, Ted Turner, Emilio Estevez. He’s read Stephen King and Roald Dahl.
But he’s homeless.
And that clash — between his pride and the austerity of his current lifestyle, between what he knows he could be and what he is, between memories and reality — has driven him to life’s ultimate precipice.
“I’ve got two choices,” Jones says. “I can either keep kickin’, or I can go buy a string of rope and fuckin’ hang myself.”
Chapel Hill, 1972. Jones is 14 and lives on Severin Street, between Estes Drive and what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
He’s rebellious, smart, loves the Tar Heels. Smokes marijuana near Silent Sam. Goes to school with Dean Smith’s son.
Those are memories.
This Friday in October is reality: Jones sits on a wooden bench outside Four Corners on Franklin Street, wearing blue jeans, black dress shoes and a red long-sleeve polo. He’s just come from the hospital — checked himself in for rehab five days ago — so the clothes are clean, as is Jones’ face and combed gray hair that covers a fourth of his shining head. On his lap sits his journal, filled with illegible handwriting, and to his right rests a wooden cane.
“Hey y’all, be safe tonight,” he says to a group of girls that passes by.
Written in black marker on a tattered piece of folded cardboard in front of the bench is this:
In front of the sign sits a cardboard saucer with several copper and silver coins.
“I don’t bum money,” Jones says. “They know what the hell is going on.”
Money. That’s what Jones needs. He hates it but craves it. It’s what drove his previous lifestyle but why he’s on the street now.
“I may be a bastard, but I’m not a greedy bastard,” he likes to say. “Greed is a horrible, horrible thing.”
Later that night a man with long dreadlocks walks past Jones and accidentally kicks over his change saucer.
“Jesus criminy!” Jones yells. “Holy cow. You didn’t see it, man. That’s OK, man.”
“I apologize,” the man says, and leans over to give Jones a couple bucks.
Jones moved to Atlanta when he was 18.
He found jobs in restaurants and eventually became a waiter and award-winning wine sommelier, serving some of the city’s most famous and wealthy at Pano’s and Paul’s, one of Buckhead Life’s Restaurant Group’s premier restaurants.
The restaurant, since closed, was renowned for its tableside service. Bananas fosters. Caesar salads. Café diablo, a flaming drink of coffee mixed with multiple liqueurs. Smoked salmon. 1961 Petrus, a wine produced only in a specific vineyard in France that costs $1,600 a bottle.
“The vintage of the century,” Jones calls it.
Jones always served wine with the label facing the guest, holding the bottle tight.
“You drop one bottle of wine,” Jones says, “and you’ll never drop another bottle of wine in your life.”
The chef and co-founder of Pano’s and Paul’s is a man named Paul Albrecht. He said in an email that Jones “performed his job satisfactorily” and “his strong points [were] customer relationships.”
“People are particular when they’re spending boatloads of money,” Jones says. “They deserve boatloads of service.”
There was a well-known party that came into Pano’s and Paul’s 17 different times when Jones worked there. The table always ordered Petrus and left generous tips that grew with every visit. The first time it was $500. The last time it was $5,000.
A man in a blue polo with yellow stripes approaches Jones’ bench on Franklin.
“Yo man can you help me get something to eat?” he asks me. He says he needs a couple bucks to buy a meal at [B]Ski’s.
“Easy, easy,” Jones says to me as I pull out my wallet and hand the man some money.
“I love you bro,” the man tells me and shakes my hand. “I’ll never forget.”
After he walks away, Jones turns toward me.
“I’m not telling you what to do,” he says, uncomfortable that I gave the man more than the pennies, nickels, dime, maybe quarters he’s used to receiving.
“But you’d tell me not to do that?” I ask.
“I would tell you not to do that,” he says. “Paper money is king.”
Jones says he owned a $38,000 house in Buckhead, a buzzing district of Atlanta, that he and a few tenants lived in, and he treasured it.
He had a living room, office, kitchen and music studio. But his favorite room was an art studio he filled with abstract paintings, sculptures and mobiles.
“I’d go down there, get stoned, drink a couple beers, smoke cigarettes,” he says. “That was when the shit was good.”
Paul — not the chef Jones worked for in Atlanta — is a heavy, bearded homeless man with scraggly gray hair and a blue shirt tucked into jeans, which makes his gut look bigger. He and Jones had cut a deal for the night: if Jones bought Paul beer and cigarettes, Paul would let him sleep on the floor of a hotel room he was going to buy.
Paul, drunk and troubled, walks toward the bench.
“Hey bro, we got a problem,” he says.
“What’s the problem?” Jones asks, interested.
“I know I got $100 on here,” Paul says, waving a debit card. “But it says you got $43, then I put it in again — I didn’t take nothin’ out — and it says now you got zero balance.”
He asks where the closest non-Wells Fargo ATM is located. He says the Wells Fargo on Franklin is faulty.
There’s a bank in University Square, Jones tells him.
“I’m too sick to walk down that far,” he says.
Jones gives him directions to it anyway.
“We’re fucked if we don’t get it,” Paul says. “I know I had another $100 left.”
Jones continues telling him how to get there.
“How far down is it? The Bank of America is locked up unless you have your own card. That’s locked up. So I gotta go… so how far down?” Paul says, and begins the trek to the ATM.
“All right, take your time,” Jones says as Paul walks away. “Don’t rush, man. And don’t get frustrated. Ask people where you’re going.”
Paul never returned that night, and Jones slept with the dumpsters behind The Daily Tar Heel.
When Jones worked in restaurants, he took care of the chefs and bartenders.
“When some of my people wanted some green,” Jones says, “I always had some green contacts.”
He enjoyed being their liaison, and when they couldn’t find any marijuana, Jones would share some of his.
“I may not have much, but I’ll give ya half of everything I got,” he says.
A man in his early 20s — with unkempt curly brown hair, a tattered backpack, boots and a green jacket — approaches Jones. He asks if he has a bowl he could borrow.
“You’re bumming from a homeless guy?” Jones asks, laughing.
“No I ain’t trying to bum from you,” the man says. “I was just trying to ask you if you had like, ya know, a weed pipe, so I could smoke you out. ‘Cause I got marijuana in pocket — I just don’t have no pipe.”
“I got like $2 to my name,” Jones says, then offers to buy the man what he needs.
“I just need to smoke a bowl,” the man says. “If you find a bowl, man, see me tomorrow.” He starts to leave.
“Strangely enough I think I have a bowl,” Jones says.
The man turns back.
“You got a bowl?”
“It’s really a fake cigarette, but you can pack something into it.”
“At this point it works, man. I give no fucks. I’ll put my bag down if you got it. I’ll smoke you out.”
In Atlanta, Jones, living comfortably, built a six-figure stock portfolio and owned mutual funds. He was happy.
Then his life began to unravel.
First it was the tenants. They began missing rent payments to Jones, and he had to eat into his stock portfolio to pay the house’s mortgage. He refinanced multiple times before the payments became too much.
Next it was the flooding. Jones says he lost his house twice to floods. Damages were between $24,000 and $30,000, and his insurance covered one-fifth of them. Every time there was a flood he would haul most of his furniture to the street and buy only the essentials, because he knew all would be lost soon.
Jones never recovered. A struggling economy didn’t help — it “went to hell in a hand basket,” Jones says — and the bank foreclosed on his house, forcing him to move to a hotel. Soon he could no longer make payments there and was kicked out. So, 10 months ago, he took everything he could carry in one trip and left for Chapel Hill, where he stayed with a friend for six months.
After his friend told him he could no longer live at his house, Jones went to the streets. He’s been there for the past four months.
Albrecht, the chef, said in an email that he had no idea how Jones became homeless.
“Perhaps drug/alcohol problems, which [are] quite common in the restaurant business,” he wrote.
“I have got to take a wicked piss,” Jones says suddenly. “I am gonna ask you to sit here and guard this stuff while I go over there and take a piss.”
He was banned from Four Corners’ bathroom because he used it so often, but he walks into the restaurant to buy beer.
When he comes back out he’s carrying a brown bag with two Keystone Lights. He grabs one, checks his pocket for a lighter and crosses the street to pee and drink and smoke.
Jones spends his days searching for money, writing short stories, planning out where he’ll sleep that night. Most times it’s at the DTH dumpsters; he stays there until the garbage truck comes in the morning.
“I normally wake up with the sun,” he says.
Meals — three a day — are at the Interfaith Council for Social Services on West Rosemary Street. He’d rather find food himself, but hunger is impervious to pride.
He smokes cigarettes and marijuana, and drinks most days.
“I abide by all three,” he says, and explains how he scans the sidewalks for “dog ends,” the leftover stubs of cigarettes thrown to the ground by smokers.
“You just really don’t know when you’re gonna need one,” he says.
Jones has been robbed three times. It could have been four, but he beat the man with his cane.
“I egged him on, he punched me in the face and I took him down,” Jones says simply. “When people attack me I will kill them before they kill me first. And that’s the only way I’m gonna survive.”
Five days ago, on the verge of suicide, he checked himself into the hospital. He told them he needed a psychologist and a doctor.
“Sometimes you just get to a point where you just really get tired of fucking living,” he says.
Jones is planning an exit strategy. He’s applied for a job at every restaurant in the area, but he says there are three things against him: he’s over-experienced, old and male.
“I bring more to the party than anyone in this fuckin’ town,” he says.
He needs to move, he says. Chapel Hill is not the place for him. It’s changed a lot since his childhood.
“It’s the whole attitude of the people,” Jones says. “If you have no money, you’re not welcome.”
“There are the haves and the have-nots,” he continues. “And the disparities between the two have become so prevalent.”
Jones was once a have, and that’s what eats at him.
Exactly two weeks later, Jones is sitting on the same bench, writing. He’s dirtier now and sports a thin beard, and two shocks of gray hair jut out wildly on either side of his head. There’s a piece of duct tape wrapped around the tip of his right shoe. The sign and the change saucer are unchanged.
He says he’s hoping to get one of his short stories published. He’ll send them to an editor he knows then find someone to help him transcribe the words to a computer. He talks excitedly about this.
As I’m leaving, he calls after me.
“Be home and in bed by 11!” he yells. “And this time I mean it!”
He laughs, then returns to his writing.