Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Benvolio Jones

Gold Kist Mill, 2003

Benvolio Jones was so named by the grandfather who raised him. The old man had a penchant for the classics and thought the uncommon first name might not only give the boy something distinctive enough to draw attention from his common last name, but also give him something ambitious to live up to later in life, considering the need he’d probably have to set himself apart from the ignoble example set by his mother.

Instead, Benvolio went by “Benny” a soon as he was old enough to go off to school and as an adult lived on the streets, his peculiarities never acknowledged, diagnosed or, because his grandfather considered any mental illness to be a sign of bad breeding, treated.

When the grandfather died and left the bulk of his estate to a televangelist he liked to watch on cable TV, Benny’s mother, his only child, was left with almost nothing, not even the old man’s house. There was nothing left for Benny when she passed.

When I met Benny, he was living under a bridge. He battles with “the voices.” He talks to people who aren’t there, and is untrusting of those who are. He is generally harmless, though, more a hazard to himself than to others. He takes pride in remembering your name if he’s met you before. The social worker from the Little Sisters of the Poor has found housing for him before, but he never stays long, preferring his life off the grid to the warm bed, regular meals and responsibilities of the group home.

I'd been exploring the neighborhood near his bridge with my camera and encountered Benny several times on the street. Many people in the neighborhood treat him like Boo Radley and wish he would wander somewhere else. Children are warned to steer clear of him. A few kindhearted elderly ladies try to look out for Benny when they know he’s around. They leave their sheds unlocked in the winter so he'll have a dry place to sleep. They leave food out for him. One described to me how she creates diversions when she knows there are people present—mostly teens or drunken rednecks—who would harm Benny.

I didn’t know where Benny lived until the morning I took this picture. As I walked close to the bridge, he came out from the bushes. I was startled at first and a little uncertain of what Benny might do. I was relieved when he greeted me by name like an old friend. His mind seemed uncharacteristically at rest. He still would not let me photograph him, not even his shadow, for fear that I would show his picture to “the wrong people.” Nor, fearing that I might tip off other area homeless, would he allow me to photograph the place where he keeps his stuff.

The next time I saw Benny he was on the other side of town near the old peanut mills. He was frantic and told me he thought the pipes on the top of the factory shown above were actually "them" keeping an eye on him. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see why he thought that.


  1. I can well imagine how he'd think that. Great photo.

    I worked at a sheltered workshop for the disabled for a number of years, when I was young--doing grant writing, and administering those grants when we won them.

    I had no background in working with that population, and I was concerned that I would be depressed, but far from it--I fell in love with those folks.

    I do remember, however, that that was the one time I experienced the physical embodiment of the expression "tearing one's hair out," and I will never forget hearing the sound that that particular activity makes. One of the disgnosed schyzophrenics, who was normally quite calm and very bright, went off his meds, and yanked a huge clump of hair out of his head and scared me to death.

  2. That would be "diagnosed," and "schizophrenics." I can't type!

  3. I had a 15-20 minute talk with a dulcimer artist playing on the street in New Orleans a few weeks ago. He told me about the dulcimer and played the music he'd written for it. It was beautiful and I bought his homemade CD. He also told me about the aliens who had abducted him once and about the "hybrid" people who are more and more evident in the city. He was sweet and crazy and I liked him.