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.

The previous owner cuastomized the mailbox in front of Don Ames’ house; he decided to keep it, along with the yard art and tree ornaments. But everything else has to go.


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.

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