“I think that was the guy who sold me that bag of crack,” Lee Jones says irritably, nodding toward a man who just walked past him on Franklin Street. “And I still have it with me.”
It’s just before 3 p.m. on a warm October weekday, and Jones, a 56-year-old contradiction, formerly homeless and currently drunk, is sitting on the bench outside Four Corners restaurant, six PBRs deep into another day on his long path to better. He is smoking, Pall Malls lit with a white BIC, and slighted. He just wanted some marijuana from this guy, he says.
“I don’t even wanna tell you what that story’s about,” Jones said, abruptly, when the man in question, who looked happy with a woman at his side, strode past the bench toward Henderson Street. “But I will.”
Two or three days ago, Jones begins, when he was searching for a “20 bag” of green, the man approached him. Give me your $20, he told Jones, and he’d be right back with the marijuana.
“And he gave me a bag of crack,” Jones says, his anger rising with the arc of the story. “Never smoked crack in my life. I mean, when I was doing cocaine, I was doing the best cocaine on the East Coast because the guy that I dealt with was the brother of the guitar player in my old band. And he didn’t deal in grams or ounces — he would cut it off a fuckin’ brick.”
Jones, who one year ago spent days searching for leftover cigarette butts on Franklin and nights sleeping on top of the Wells Fargo building, has escaped homelessness, the beneficiary of community altruism and government aid. He has an apartment, and food, and he says the days ahead look far better than those behind. He wants more and better, a job and a normal life.
But what is he willing to give up to get there?
Last year, around this time, I roamed Franklin on a Friday night, searching for a homeless person who would talk to me for a story. I walked down West Franklin first, then East, then did it again. I found no one. When I was about to leave for the night, deciding to return some other time, I spotted a man sitting on the Four Corners bench. I crossed the street, approached the man, who looked tired but welcoming, and asked if I could talk to him over a meal. No, he told me: He’d be happy to talk, but he wasn’t leaving the bench.
So there Jones and I sat — an unlikely pair, to be sure — for the next two-plus hours, where he lectured — he looked, and spoke, like a professor, with glasses, little hair and sophisticated vocabulary — about drugs and pride and money and memories and beluga caviar. As a waiter and wine sommelier in Atlanta, he said, he would serve Elton John and Emilio Estevez and receive $5,000 tips. He loved talking about the past, held onto it stronger than anything, and wanted to recreate it in the future. Homelessness came because of ill-timed flooding and sketchy tenants, but, no, let’s not talk about that, he said. Bananas fosters, he said, let’s talk about those.
Here was an atypical homeless person, sure, but something more. Jones hated living on the streets, he told me so many times, wanted nothing more than to get back to serving expensive wine, but he needed money. When he got money, he would spend it, almost immediately, on marijuana or cigarettes or Keystone Light.
And there is where Lee Jones’ ultimate contradiction lives: between the fierce desire to get off that bench and the equally fierce dependence on drugs and alcohol that keeps him sitting there.
Before all this, Jones, who lived in Chapel Hill until he was 18, would run through the forests near Horace Williams Airport, the air thick with the smell of muscadine grapes and his mind with possibility. It was there one day 8-year-old Lee and his friend rode their bikes to a hangar. Inside was an abandoned milk or postage truck, and the boys climbed in to play “Submarine.” They closed the door and started shouting.
“Dive! Dive! Dive!”
The noise riled a hornet’s nest. The boys scrambled to the door. They couldn’t get it open. So there, trapped inside a derelict truck in the middle of a hangar, young Lee and Richard learned the fury of a group of pissed-off hornets.
“Needless to say,” Jones says, “the party broke up.”
Same thing happened when Lee, living on Severin Street, and a different friend were throwing a large, 10-inch knife across the street, trying to get it to stick in the ground. After a few unsuccessful tosses, Lee threw the knife, and…
“BANG!” Jones yells. “Caught him right in the head.
“Needless to say,” he says, “a trip to the hospital was necessary. And then, all of a sudden, the party broke up.”
Years later, the party would rage on. Lee discovered drugs and alcohol and cursing from the older boys, and he embraced all three.
“I actually did LSD before I smoked marijuana,” Jones says thoughtfully. “It was age 14, and it was at Silent Sam.”
At 16, he would sneak into He’s Not Here and drink. At 18, he says, he moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. Five years later — four at Berklee and one in the Bostonian restaurant business — his mom, June Sibley, who was living in Atlanta, called. “There’s lots of great restaurants down here, Lee,” she told him. “Why don’t you come on now?”
This is the first time in any of our dozens of meetings that Jones mentions family, and his tone changes. He’s more thoughtful. “The ‘June Unit’ is what we used to call my mother,” he says. “And she was my best friend, man. June Sibley.”
He has a brother too, Wynn. Once, when Lee was 6, their grandma, Luca B, came into town from Danville, Ky., and took the boys to Sutton’s. Here’s a dollar, she told them. Buy whatever you want. Lee bought 100 pieces of bubble gum, a penny apiece.
Now when Jones goes to Sutton’s, he buys cigarettes.
He listened to his mother and moved to Atlanta, where he worked for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group and his reliance on marijuana and alcohol grew. “When I left work, my first stop was gonna be the beer store,” Jones says. “Well, it got to a point where my first stop before I even got to work was the beer store.” He laughs.
Today, the first stop in the morning is the fridge, where he pops open a Busch, “frostys,” he calls them, at 10 a.m. to start the day. Community Empowerment Fund, a Chapel Hill non-profit run by students, plus Housing for New Hope, an organization dedicated to eliminating homelessness, helped Jones get an apartment at Ashley Forest Apartments in Chapel Hill. (Those who helped him find the apartment — “they effectively saved my life,” Jones says — are not allowed to publicly discuss their work because of client confidentiality.) He pays $550 a month for a place at Ashley, he says, and his sources of income are Social Security and Disability Insurance, which total $1,460 a month.
In front of his bench stands a square cardboard sign that reads:
AND NEED SURGURY
About nine months ago, he was living in a friend’s apartment in Estes Park Apartments, when, at 3 one morning, drunk and high, Jones tripped over himself or a shoe and landed, hard, on his right knee. He doesn’t know, or won’t say, what actually happened to it — the diagnosis — but he says he saw a specialist, who confirmed that he needed surgery.
And it qualified him for disability insurance, which is the only way he can survive. (The Social Security wouldn’t be enough to live on, he says.)
So, then, was the injury a blessing in disguise? “Uhh… ya know, it’s funny you say that,” Jones starts. “I never really looked at it that way, but that certainly would be the case as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, no, that would make sense to me.”
And there might be the biggest contradiction of a life filled with them: Jones’ disability, triggered by marijuana and beer, has enabled him to live.
“Now what are you doing?” Jones, in black jeans and two blue long-sleeve shirts, asks me as I jot down a name in my notebook. “I thought you were supposed to be editing a story for me.”
I explain to him, as I had before, that I’m writing a follow-up story on his rise out of homelessness, and that I had edited his dark and winding story, titled “Frank the Cat.”
He giggles, snorts, giggles again.
“I’m sorry, Robbie,” he says. “I just don’t know what’s going on sometimes. And I’ve got this horrendous two-beer buzz going on, which is a wonderful thing.”
After the morning beers, he’ll head out to his balcony at Ashley, survey the weather and plan his day. If it’s cold or rainy, he’ll stay in his room all day, eating smoked-ham-and-cheddar sandwiches on the grill and clam chowder or vegetable beef soup, thickened with fresh corn. If it’s nice out, he’ll take a bus to Franklin, where he’ll post up on the bench and ask for money from those passing by.
“A quarter, gentlemen, is all I need,” he’ll say to two sharply dressed business men walking by.
“It’s considerable, but it doesn’t cover everything,” Jones says of the government aid. “And so I panhandle to get the stuff the government refuses to pay for, i.e. alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes.”
He laughs sinisterly.
In “Frank the Cat,” a tale of a vengeful feline whom Jones calls “the shit,” Jones writes: “Panama Peter was a very kind and peaceful man who simply did not want to live in a real home. He was always polite and surprisingly well spoken. Always steered clear of any problems in the neighborhood of which there were very few unless it involved the indangerment [sic] of any of the children or families for that matter in the neighborhood…” Later in the story, Panama Peter is punched and badly injured by a woman’s drunk boyfriend for extending a greeting.
Panama Peter is an obvious representation of Jones: a kind man of the streets who believes everyone is out to get him, when, in fact, so many people are trying to help.
Like the man who, seven months ago, cornered Jones close to Starbucks. “I’m gonna give you this,” the man told Jones, holding $11, “if you donate 10 percent of it to your local church.” Jones said he would. A few minutes later he realized it was not $11; it was $211. He did not donate any of it to his local church.
Or the guy walking out of Four Corners one night earlier who, upon spotting Jones’ guitar leaning on the bench, asked if he could play it. It’s left-handed, Jones told him. “Are you serious?” the guy said. “I’m left-handed, too.” He dropped $5 into Jones’ money basket, picked up the guitar and played a song under the lights of Franklin.
Or St. Joseph Christian Methodist Church on Rosemary Street, which provides food twice a week. Or his friend at a coffee shop who says he’ll help Jones find a good deal for a laptop, which he desperately wants to be able to copy his stories electronically.
Yes, these are all people who want Jones to succeed. The biggest threat to Lee Jones’ journey to something more, the drunk boyfriend in “Frank the Cat,” is Lee Jones.
An old man wearing cargo camo shorts and a bucket hat and listening to music walks by with a tattered bike and looks toward Jones.
“Hey, young man, how are you!” Jones exclaims. “What have I done now, dammit!”
“Nothin’,” the old man says, dropping money into Jones’ basket.
“Thank you so much,” Jones tells him.
“Nobody’s given you a place to live yet?” the old man asks, with great sadness.
“I’ve got a bed. And I’m damn thankful for that.”
“That’s about it. Things have only gotta get better for ya.”
“Oh, no, no doubt. No, no, I’m very optimistic. I mean, compared to where I was at this time last year — and we were just talking about it — life is good, man. Thank you so much.”
The old man continues down Franklin.
“Who’s that?” I ask Jones.
He pauses, thinks.
“I don’t know who he is.”