by Brian Clarey/ photos by Amanda Salter
The palace of Don Ames sits a bit back from the road, a two-bedroom cottage on the downslope that runs along a half-acre lot in a fine neighborhood of middle-class aspirations.
Like a lot of homes on the block, it came up in the 1940s during a period of postwar earnestness, and save for an extension to the basement put in at some point in the 1970s and a side deck of dubious lineage, not a much has been done in the way of home maintenance.
Besides a bit of termite damage and a few issues with the roof, Don’s looking at a complete interior teardown and rebuild, plus there’s that 75-year-old plumbing and the old-school fuse box in the basement that will both need upgrades before the place becomes anything resembling a finished home.
Still, it’s a palace: the first place Don’s had to call his own in all the years I’ve known him. His ownership of this magnificent wreck — which I would have warned just about any of my other friends against — is the most wonderful news I’ve heard in years.
“I don’t know why you say that,” he says. “I’m nothing special.”
That’s not exactly true.
When I first met Don, almost seven years ago, he was living outside — a tent in the woods along the downtown tracks of the Norfolk-Southern Line, in the derelict space known informally as the Freeman Mill Campground, and even less formally as the downtown hobo camp.
That’s where Don lived.
It used to be a bad idea to go out to the homeless camp too late in the day — most everyone was drunk by early afternoon and by sunset, I had been told, things sometimes got a little stabby.
So it was early on a bright fall morning when I first met Don Ames.
Before the Downtown Greenway cut through this wild patch of post-industrial wilderness, more than a dozen of Greensboro’s itinerants took up refuge in the acute triangle formed by the Freeman Mill Road overpass and the railroad tracks.
The men lived on one side of a fence tangled with wiry vine; I remember seeing a structure made from castoff roofing materials, with architecture similar to that of a concession stand at a high school ballpark.