Writing Jesse Maxwell

By Alejandro Ramirez

Courtesy of Alex Ramirez

Courtesy of Alex Ramirez

Harvard Square was empty on Black Friday. It was usually crowded, full of tourists and students and angry loud traffic, but not that day, most students and workers probably away at home for the long weekend. I was in town on a rather morbid assignment for Spare Change News, a street paper based in Cambridge, Mass.. SCN hires homeless and formerly-homeless citizens to sell papers for them, and that week, on Monday, November 25, 2013, one of their vendors was murdered: Jesse Maxwell. Jesse wasn’t actually homeless anymore. Though he still sold papers, he had an apartment in Cambridge. At the age of 75, he was killed in that same apartment by his own nephew.

Joshua Eaton, SCN’s editor at the time, asked me to write a story about Jesse. Not a crime piece, but something that really showed who he was as a person, not just a former homeless guy. I had an hour to waste before the vendor’s meeting so I hunted down a spot to eat breakfast. I wandered around the Square, trying to settle on a spot, freezing my face off beneath my grey, flat-brimmed Celtics hat. Walking away from the Harvard T stop along some closed storefronts at the corner of Brattle Street and Brattle Square, I passed by a homeless man laying facedown on a pile of bags in a puffy coat, tucked away in a storefront. He left an open Styrofoam box of Chinese food on the sidewalk, facing outwards, as if he was offering it to the pigeons now pecking the meal apart. He lay motionless, and reminded me of one man I used to see in Kenmore Square during my college years, who used to hole up in an ATM lobby at night and sprawl out flat on the floor. He looked dead most of the time, flattened out, immobile, just like this guy. Makes sense, I guess—having no home must be exhausting. 
A young woman walking in front of me looked back towards him a couple times. We were the only two on the sidewalk. I think she thought he was dead or needed help. Nothing to worry about, I thought, he’s just sleeping, although I wasn't completely convinced. 
Later that morning, I passed by the same set of storefronts on my way to the Spare Change office, but the scene had changed in the man’s nook. He was under a white sheet with mismatched sneakers on his feet (one red, one yellow, pointed straight into the air) and three police officers were standing over him. I slowed down, practically shuffled my feet. One of the cops said something about it being cold out, another mentioned getting a doctor to look at the man. I considered stopping, asking the officers if he was dead, but I walked on by. 
Joshua’s text came back to me, about why I was writing the story. I was supposed to give a dead man an identity, but I had casually passed over this guy, didn’t realize he was dead, didn’t even try to keep some damn birds off his food. A lot went through my head, and I questioned what my own views really were, how committed to things like equality and justice and decency I really was. After all, I cover homeless issues, but do I see them as invisible, unapproachable entities, like everyone else seems to?

It was then I realized I wasn’t better than anyone else who passes by the homeless every day, ignoring them, pretending they aren’t there. And on top of those thoughts, I had just seen a dead body in the street—which is a fucked up way to start the morning in general. A dead homeless body across the street from Harvard’s campus, down the street from Cambridge’s taller, more metro buildings, in the heart of one of the more prominent cities in Massachusetts. I wanted to stop walking, to just end the day there. But I shrugged it off.  I was in Cambridge to do a job. The fear and shock and guilt could wait until after I gathered my quotes.

I arrived at the Spare Change offices, located in a church basement, as Joshua was describing the latest issue to vendors. He introduced me to the vendors, told them I was writing about Jesse, and I gathered my quotes.

I learned Jesse was a quiet man, who didn’t talk about his personal life too much. He usually spoke about work, but he was always polite, friendly, and no one had ever seen him get angry. For such a reserved man he was a hell of a salesman, very engaging and out-going when it came to moving papers. He had a good spot by Pi Alley in Downtown Boston, and would sell from noon to seven at night, with a coffee break at 4 p.m. He’d often let a newcomer sell in his spot, to get accustomed to the job. He always brought a pouch with exact change in it. On holidays, he’d hand out gift cards to Dunkin Donuts or McDonald’s to his loyal customers. His customers loved him and would even call the offices asking for Jesse if he took a week or two off. People told me he had a warm smile, though it doesn’t quite show in the only picture I saw of him—a grayscale photo of a young African-American man with a slight smile, and friendly eyes. Vendors told me Spare Change helped Jesse out, helped him buckle down, and he managed to get himself an apartment after some time as a vendor . I learned he was proud of this new apartment, had a girlfriend, and loved to cook. In a later interview with his sister, I learned he used to be a professional chef. He was planning to host Thanksgiving dinner that year for his relatives.

He also had a troubled nephew named Antoine who, like Jesse, found himself without a home. Jesse tried to help his nephew out with work, and even let Antoine and his girlfriend crash at his apartment for a while, but eventually his nephew was banned from the building for causing trouble. Then Antoine showed up at the apartment one last time. Maybe Jesse wanted to give him another chance. Maybe that’s why he let him in.

I got home and talked to my parents about my day. I needed to decompress. Mom went into "Protective Mother Mode" as soon as I told her about the dead man in Harvard Square. She was a nurse for 40 years, and lived in Nicaragua during the outbreak of a civil war, so she’d seen her fair share of death and disturbing images. She of all people should be the calm one in the room.

“But they weren’t on the street,” she said, her voice getting a little shrill, like she was about to start crying.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess that’s different...”

Dad was in "Concerned Father Mode," a seemingly more clear-headed parental state. He assured me I did nothing wrong, whether he was ok or not.

“Alex, you never know what could happen if you tried to wake him up—maybe he was a schizophrenic.” It’s not like I’d ever try to wake up or disturb a homeless person, I told him. I just didn’t seem to care, walked by without much concern. I didn’t even stop walking. It made me question my motivations as a reporter. After all, I didn’t start writing for Spare Change because I had strong feelings about homeless issues—it was a paying gig. It felt like one of those city horror stories, where something terrible or violent happens and one which bystanders seemed to ignore . People pull out their phones and take pics and videos, or just turn away, hoping someone else will take care of it I was a young, eager, justice-minded reporter. And I strutted right past a dead man.

I played the game Hotline Miami that night. It’s a ridiculously violent game done in an 8-bit style, similar to old Nintento games. So as gritty and gruesome as it is, it’s rendered kind of silly by its simple visuals. You don’t really play it for the graphics and gore as much as the fast-paced gameplay, which requires a mix of strategy, timing, and pure reflex to beat each level. So maybe I was thinking with my twitchy thumbs and not my head when I started it up and began mowing down pixelated mobsters with machetes and baseball bats and shotguns. I zoned out as I played, and then I got to the end of the level. A cutscene played where main character strangles a wounded antagonist. The rival 8-bit character was down on his back, turning pink, then purple, then blue. The game uses a top down perspective so the little blue dead man was staring right at me. The motionless, faceless, blocky little body on screen reminded me of the dead man I saw, feet pointed in the air. And maybe that dead man reminded me of Jesse and his own violent end, the man whose story I was supposed to tell. I turned the system off, and sat in silence for a few seconds, breathing a little faster.

Maybe I was a little traumatized after all. Maybe I was still feeling guilty. Maybe I had a weird moment of realization, an understanding that death isn’t just something on the screen for entertainment. I thought I always understood it. Maybe the idea just carried more weight that day. Nameless bodies littered my screen that whole level. Nameless bodies litter our screens every day, with even more nameless bodies on our streets and in our shelters. Near the end of the year, Boston holds an annual memorial service for homeless and formerly homeless folks who have passed. They list their names and the first letter of their last name. Dozens of names are read off, often over 100. Days after I saw the man in Harvard Square, I searched news sites to see if there was any mention of him. I didn’t find any, never learned if he had a name, or even a last initial. Looking back, maybe that was the moment I realized Jesse wasn’t just another profile article in my young career.

Pi Alley is a narrow shopping arcade tucked between a few historic buildings in downtown. A mix of skyscrapers and colonial stone structures tower over men and women in suits who rush over brick and cobblestone sidewalks and past the statues of 18th century heroes. Like most of Boston, it’s really pretty on a sunny day, rays of light reflecting off glass buildings and giving vibrant life to old stone buildings. But on a cloudy day, like that Friday morning, everything is a deep, heavy grey.

I was at Jesse’s spot on Pi Alley where some folks set up a small memorial. No bronze figure of him on a horse like the dead white guy a few blocks away. No headstone emblazoned with brass letters. Not even a plaque, like the elegant black one adorning the entrance to the Old City Hall. Just two big sheets of paper, the first reading “RIP Jesse Maxwell” and the second with the words “Make my day in memory of Jesse Maxwell” and a long list of names, friends of Jesse’s and local businesses located in the alley.

“Thanks for brightening every day,” reads one note on the memorial. “You always asked me how I was,” says another. When I heard about the memorial, I was glad, mostly because I needed a way to close my article, and new that was the place to do it. But when I saw the memorial in person, I remembered how real Jesse was—he wasn’t just an assignment. He was a popular guy, part of people’s lives, like everyone at SCN told me. Wish I had the chance to meet him.

It was around 10:30 in the morning—well before the lunch hour rush he usually worked. I was hoping to interview his usual customers, but it was freezing, and it looked like rain was coming. A few people slowed down to read the memorial as they walked by, business types in suits and skirts and winter jackets. One man—a tall white guy with glasses and brown hair—stopped completely, reading the memorial and the attached article. I asked if he knew Jesse well. He didn’t. He bought a paper from him every once in a while, said he seemed like a nice guy.

“Really sad to hear this happened to him,” he said. I ventured down Pi Alley, looking for one of the businesses listed on the memorial. I decided to try the cobbler at Odessa Shoe Repair for an interview. It was a small store front, though you could tell there was a sizable workroom in the back. It smelled like leather, with belts and shoe leather adorning the walls. A bell rang as I entered, and stocky man in glasses came from the back. I told him I was with Spare Change, and asked if he knew Jesse.

“He was a sweet guy,” said Robert Glover (who Jesse nicknamed “Master Cobbler”). “He was out there all the time, never bothered anyone. It’s a shame what happened.”

I mentioned the memorial outside and all the businesses that signed it. “It really looks like he belonged here as much as any storefront,” I said.

“Yeah, he was basically a part of the alley. Everyone in this alley knew him and pitched in. We saw him out there everyday… Such a sweet guy, I can’t believe a family member would do something like that.”

After speaking with Robert, I went into a coffee shop by Jesse’s spot, the same one he went to during his four o’clock break. I asked a barista if anyone behind the counter knew the vendor down the street. She shook her head. I sat down at a table near the back of the cafe, a large window to my right, and got to work on the story. The café was pretty packed. Two young women looking at apartments online sat behind me, occasionally calling a real estate agent or landlord asking to look at properties. A woman at the table across from me toyed with her phone in one hand and guarded her coffee cup with the other. A couple sat side by side in a row of seats placed against the wall, opposite the window, waiting for someone to leave a table. Like the suits outside, no one spoke to anyone they didn’t know.

It’s curious how someone so quiet and private like Jesse could be so warm and friendly to strangers, especially in the city. Maybe Jesse knew all too well what it was like to be invisible. Not just a face in the crowd, but a face you glance over, avoid eye contact with, and walk past as quickly as you can. I wonder if Jesse ever sat in that same seat. Maybe he would’ve sat there later that day, striking up a friendly conversation with people nearby, handing them a copy of the paper and departing with his signature smile and a sincere “God bless you.”

I started to consider what it meant to write someone’s story. To give them a voice with your own words, to tell someone’s narrative with your own creative sensibilities. I’ve written many profiles in my early career, and I always wonder, how do I do people justice? You want to be honest, capture the complexity, get the tension and conflicts—both internal and external—that drives them, their careers, their lives. You want to shape a round character. But people aren’t characters, and even the most fleshed out representation on paper can’t capture the whole of a person. I think in the end, I painted a picture of Jesse as more than just a homeless man. I was proud of my work. But I still didn’t capture all of him. I went to the memorial to finish telling Jesse’s story, but in reality it was just a slice of his story; it was my interpretation of his story. I’ve always wondered what I missed, what didn’t make it into that 800 word article.

Almost a year after writing the profile, I met Jesse’s son, also named Jesse. He’s homeless; he’s also politically active, a vocal proponent of homeless rights and increased housing vouchers, associated with the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, which was formed after the Long Island Shelter—Boston’s largest shelter—was closed down in the fall of 2014. He’s a sharp dude, and very friendly, and gives good quotes. In fact, I met him because I was covering the shelter’s closing. (The short version of what went down on Long Island: the shelter was located on an island; the only access to the island was a rusty old bridge; one October afternoon, the city decides the bridge must be closed, thus the shelter and many other services were lost or displaced.) I was interviewing homeless folks on Mass. Ave, by Boston Medical Center—where many shelters and clinics are located—about the closing, and he was hanging out with others on the street, and he had plenty to say on the subject. All the homeless have plenty to say: they’re more than just sad stories or charity cases, they’ve got ideas and opinions and voices.

I’ve seen Jesse several times since that day on Mass. Ave. I always want to ask him more about his dad. But for some reason, I can’t bring myself to do it. And I think that’s alright. Maybe it’s up to Jesse to tell those stories, now. If he wants, maybe one day I can help him out.

Alejandro Ramirez is a freelance writer from the Greater Boston Area. His essays have appeared in Defunct: A Literary Repository for the Ages and Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.  His journalism has appeared Spare Change News, DigBoston, and BDCWire. He is currently a Master of Fine Arts student in Pine Manor College's Solstice Creative Writing Program. You follow him on Twitter at @ramirezalej.