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.
The women — Cotton, who at that point had survived 16 years outside, nine of them in a wheelchair, and the Korean woman who kept a yard of raked gravel outside her tent — allowed Don to set up his orange and yellow Walmart tent within their sphere.
He had been outside for about a year at that point, and the short version of how it happened is fairly mundane: About four hours after moving to Greensboro in 2008 looking for work, he had all his belongings, including every single form of ID, stolen from a room he had taken at the Greensboro Inn.
The long version has chapters on his days as a fireman on Navy ships, years in a Michigan machine shop and time in Alaska, where a bad winter just might kill a man. And yet, in a dangerous life, the biggest setback he had ever encountered came in Greensboro, in his 48th year.
With no connections in town and no paperwork to prove his own existence, Don soon found himself in need of the services of places like the Urban Ministry, where even from the beginning he spent as much time volunteering as he did partaking.
Don liked to keep busy. And his skill set, which included all manner of carpentry and shop work, public safety and survivalism, was, I thought at the time, formidable.
Even then he had some power tools rigged to a small solar panel out at the campground.
It’s ironic that this guy is homeless, I remember thinking, because if he had the materials and the tools, he could probably build himself a house.
“You said I was happy,” Don says to me now. We’re in a coffee shop in College Hill, talking face-to-face for the first time in at least five years.
“I didn’t know how to take that,” he says. “I wasn’t happy out there.”
Don’s been pushing against the upwardly mobile curve since the day we first met. He would do another three years on the street, during which time he would earn a modicum of relative fame.
After a time, Don had collected enough aluminum cans and odd-job payoffs to set up a woodshop out there by the tracks, and local media got wind of this perfect bootstrap story just in time for the 2011 holiday season. North Carolina Public Radio’s “The Story” did a piece on him that year with an emphasis on his solar panels.
The media coverage, he said, gave him some leverage with the Veteran’s Administration, which was eventually able to help him get a valid, government-issue ID. With this key piece of his personal infrastructure in place, things started moving in the right direction.
In 2013 he ran a successful IndieGoGo campaign, raising $1,500 for more solar panels and a scroll saw. By then he was inside — living in the backyard shed of the house he now owns, a major turning point in his life.
It wasn’t much, more of a workshop than a living space, but for the first time in almost five years, Don lived within four walls and under a roof, behind a door with a lock. It meant his tools wouldn’t get stolen any longer, that he could sleep through the night away from the rowdy denizens of the Freeman Mill Campground. He started making small pieces and selling commissioned ones, picking up occasional construction work. The picture of his life was becoming more clear.
And that’s when New Age Builders came calling.
That, too, was a benefit of his newfound notoriety, but was also possible only because he now had a phone.
“They called me,” Don says. “I don’t know how they got my number. They said, ‘You want a job, be here at such and such a time.’ I was there.”
Jan. 17, 2014, he says. That was his first day of full-time, regular work since he got to Greensboro in 2008.
In the prefab workshop of New Age Builders, off Gate City Boulevard and tucked under the very same train tracks that run east past the old Freeman Mill camp, Don Ames leans over a mahogany door he’s building for a homeowner in Oak Ridge who’s converting an old tobacco barn into a living space. He’s got a measuring tape in his hand.
It’s a custom job — “The doorway is a trapezoid,” Don explains, and he plans to shave it down to fit after he constructs it.
“Four eighths here, four eighths there,” he says to Tol Rahlan, who’s also on the job. “It has to be thirteen sixteenths.” Don gestures with the extended tape to the piece of square dowel in Rahlan’s hands. “That one is too small. If it were one sixteenth of an inch longer we’d be set. But I don’t have a wood stretcher.”
Rahlan, a Montagnard who came to Greensboro in June 2002 from Cambodia, has been with New Age for seven years. He’s of an age that he still remembers a little of the war, the explosions near his village, the American troops who would give him candy.
Don pulls two new mahogany dowels from the store, measures twice and cuts once. Rahlan shapes them on a miter saw as Don lines the upper portion of the door with epoxy.
Together they wedge the framing pieces in place, secure them with clamps and tap the last of it down with soft hammer blows.
“Glass is gonna go in there,” Don says, “so it’s gotta be flat.”
After a few pops with the nail gun, the day’s work is done.
“It’s been 25 or 30 years since I did any cabinet work,” Don says later in the coffee shop down the street. “But I told them: ‘I’m real interested, and I’m willing to learn whatever you’ve got to teach.”
A roof and a door. A regular paycheck. Things were coming together.
And then he got the house.
“That shed was just a stepping stone,” Don says, saying it like he means it, has known it the whole time.
His residency in the shed came from the generosity of a man Don identifies only as Henry, who would come check up on Don when he was still living outside. When the greenway broke ground, displacing Don and everyone else at the Freeman Mill camp, Henry offered the shed behind his mother’s house.
“I told him I’d take it on one condition,” Don says. “[I said,] ‘I won’t tell anyone where I live and you don’t either.’
“I didn’t want the homeless community coming around,” he explains. “I’ve been there; I know that lifestyle. I didn’t want it around my house.”
When Henry’s mother died, he made Don an offer he couldn’t refuse: He’d sell him the house for $15,000, and with a small down payment would finance the deal himself, without interest.
He had a condition, too: The house would come as is. And the picture wasn’t pretty.
A crooked spiderweb of wooden beams holds the roof aloft over the front porch of Don Ames’ house. Here the concrete is taken up by spare pieces of wood, tools, food and water dishes for his dogs, Biscuit and Buddy.
In the front yard, shoots of fennel volunteer from the weeds of a raised garden bed, long neglected. In the side yard, below the sagging deck off the kitchen, 50 old tires stand in sloppy columns.
“When I get to it,” Don says, “I’m gonna build out that deck for a hot tub. But that comes later. Right now I can walk on it, but I don’t trust it.”
Inside, where Don’s torn the walls down to studs, there’s a new-ish refrigerator, a decent double sink and a perfectly serviceable stove.
“I’m gonna go with LED lighting in here,” Don says. He’ll take out the old-fashioned wooden cabinetry and the wall by the front door and move some of the appliances around.
“What I’m gonna do is put the stove over where that door is,” he says. “I’m gonna close that door off.”
But those projects are further down the line in Don’s linear equation. First came a structural issue: a bad joist repair made during the basement renovation in the 1970s. He jacked up the foundation himself, alone, in the basement.
“It was a pretty eerie feeling,” he says. “You hear crack, creak, pop. I figured, I’m all by my lonesome — I better have an escape route if it starts to come down.”
Later there’s the gradual installation of more modern plumbing and wiring. He’s already laid a couple hundred feet of copper wire and should need a couple hundred more.
But now there’s a problem with the wood.
Behind the pulled drywall in the living room, Don discovered profound termite damage, affecting window frames and load-bearing wall studs running down to the basement. He’ll have to borrow some heavy equipment to make the repair, which would go faster if he had more money, more time, more help. But these things are still in short supply. He expects he’ll go it alone, like always.
Once the foundation is secure, he’ll be able to move forward with the roof. Then it’s the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, one thing at a time.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “I’m getting the pieces together. Eventually it’s gonna be a pretty picture.”
Sooner or later he’ll get to the front yard, where he’ll shape up the landscaping, remove a couple trees and cut a French drain along the side of the house. He’ll haul off the tires on the other side and build a raised bed for his garden of solar panels in the backyard. The shed is still back there, hidden behind clotheslines strung with Don’s clothes for the impending workweek, abandoned since he took on the main house.
“I lost the key for it,” Don says. “I don’t have the heart to cut that lock yet.”
The house is the biggest project he’s ever taken on, and he knows he’s looking at a couple years before he’s through. He’s tries to keep the grand scheme in sight.
“My plan is to have it finished the same time I make the last payment on it,” he says. “Then save up my money, find another house and do it again.”
Back to A:
After checking out of Don’s palace I make a few turns and find myself at what used to be the Freeman Mill Homeless Camp, now a fenced-off addendum to this short leg of the Downtown Greenway.
I park nearby, then hop down the broken-off roadway, across the small creek made in the bed of the railroad track. The greenway runs clear through the spot where the men’s camp used to be. The trees that hid the tents of Don, Cotton and the rest have been chipped down to mulch, with nothing left in the way of archaeological remains.
The city’s been clearing out homeless camps this winter, yet there’s one homesteader tucked back among the few trees left standing, territory marked by a domed blue tarp and windscreen blocking its entrance.
Don says he hasn’t been by the camp since he left for the shed. But his time out here took its toll. He’s 57, and though he somehow looks younger than he did when we first met — brighter in the eyes, more vibrant skin — he is also getting older, and his years on the street will soon take their due. This problem, too, just another to be solved, has its place in Don’s linear equation.
“For right now, I know where I want to be,” he says. “I’ll have the house paid in 2017, then I’ll start addressing medical issues.
“I know where I want to be,” he says again, “and what it’s gonna take to get there. It’s just a matter of making the right sacrifices. The choices I make now, I’m ensuring I don’t go back.”
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