By Gus Garcia-Roberts and Vince Grzegorek
It all started with four words uttered by a man named Patches: “Shit, I’ll wear anything.”
It’s mid-September and Gus Garcia-Roberts is conducting an experiment on the streets of Miami. The former Scene staffer and current Miami New Times scribe has strayed just a few hundred feet from the King’s new castle: American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat. He is armed with a LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey that has never been worn.
Enter Patches, an ex-con standing in a bombed-out block strewn with groggy homeless. He’s lean and muscular, and he speaks with a strong accent from his native Cuba. He wears mesh shorts, a green bandanna folded over his dead left eye (hence the nickname), a red Pizza Hut hat, and a twig between his teeth. Patches manages to make it all look more badass than bedraggled.
Gus offers him the wine-and-gold jersey, its $59.99 price tag only recently removed. He is all but sure what will happen. Without hesitation and bearing a wide grin, Patches throws it on his bare torso and struts across filthy pavement. A buddy, slouching against a chain-link fence, eyes him enviously.
Patches is the sole test subject. The study’s conclusion: The homeless don’t mind wearing out-of-date sports gear, even if it comes with a little baggage. This may not seem like a groundbreaking epiphany — unless you’re a homeless advocate in Miami.
Two months earlier, “The Decision” left all of us up north with seven years’ worth of suddenly worthless, useless, and utterly unwanted LeBron garb, all of it tinged with the pain of another sports heartache and the nationally televised betrayal at the hands of our Chosen One.
The question, besides Why exactly does God hate us so much?, was what to do with the accumulated bounty of the LeBron years. Seconds after James revealed that he was taking his talents to South Beach, one natural option became clear: Fire. A live shot of an improvised jersey bonfire was even depicted on a split-screen during the program, alongside James’ semi-shocked face.
Thanks to the expansion-era Browns and the trade-happy Indians, we have long been a people accustomed to sporting jerseys of players long departed from our fertile shores. But this was different. These would never be worn here again. These were burning effigies before ESPN could cut to commercial.
Despite what a casual YouTube search might suggest, only a fraction of Cavs fans torched their gear. But what was to become of the rest? Surely they could not see the light of day here again. This, after all, is detritus not fit even for Cleveland’s own unnumerable homeless, who could take little comfort in a traitor’s togs that offer no shield from unforgiving weather.
One forward-thinking local citizen stepped forward to collect your unwanted jerseys — and sneakers and T-shirts and everything else LeBron — and ship it to Miami for distribution to the homeless. In short order, Chris Jungjohann (pronounced “Young John”) founded “Break Up With LeBron,” a DIY collection using a website and boxes distributed at supermarkets and Yours Truly restaurants around Cleveland. Foolish, he figured, to burn perfectly good clothing that somebody somewhere would gladly wear.
Within weeks, Jungjohann had amassed more than 400 jerseys and other items. The only remaining detail was delivery to those in need. It was simple brilliance, but it was doomed to meet the buzzsaw of south Florida bureaucracy.
The Miami Coalition for the Homeless and several other agencies rejected Jungjohann’s bounty. “It’s on hold right now,” policy director Rita Clark told us, adding that Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado was privately against the project, though his spokesperson denied it. “There’s a lot of politics around this.”
“The general consensus was that it was an attempt to mock the homeless population,” explained Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust. “The reaction was a tense but pleasant ‘No thanks.’”
Our general consensus was that Miami’s homeless wouldn’t mind giving their self-proclaimed advocates a pleasant slash to the tires.
In south Florida, after all, there is some precedent for Samaritan buffoonery. Last year, a local advocacy group attempted to make it illegal to give leftovers to the homeless without first taking a class on the subject. They also added suddenly-ubiquitous coin meters designed to keep kind citizens from donating directly to panhandlers.
There’s a common theme here: Nobody ever asks the Colt 45-quaffing set what they want for themselves. Hence Patches.
Gus drives away, leaving the buff street dweller lounging against the fence wearing sixty bucks in mesh and a grin, and calls Scene’s offices.
Shit, he says. We’re going to have to do this ourselves.
The plan — or at least what passed as a plan — came together quickly. Scene would partner with Miami New Times for a jersey and clothing drive of our own, then bypass the stubborn officials in Miami to distribute the goods to Miami’s homeless ourselves.
Jungjohann made it look all too easy — plus, we figured, Clevelanders were bound to have mountains of newly reviled LeBron gear hidden away in closets and drawers. Right?
Alas, our announcement was made to little fanfare and fewer donations. Cleveland radio stations far and wide deftly ignored our press-release plea for help. A single navy-blue T-shirt bearing LeBron’s mug was the lone score of week one. Had Cleveland already expunged every thread of No. 23 memorabilia? It couldn’t be possible.
Besides Jungjohann’s collection drive, other promotions at area businesses had given fans easy opportunities to part with their gear. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers, inspired by a fan who lit his jersey ablaze at the ballpark on the night of LeBron’s decision, held a “LeBronfire,” offering a free ticket to all who handed over a jersey.
The Akron Aeros celebrated “Ship Out LeBron James” night, offering free admission for LeBron gear and, in turn, giving it all to the United Methodist Church to be distributed on an upcoming mission trip.
Downtown in Cleveland, McNulty’s Bier Markt offered free beverages to patrons who gave up their jerseys, which were promptly shredded with garden shears.
By September it was clear that LeBron gear was trash, and we were the only souls rummaging for it.
Still staring at a solitary T-shirt on a large empty table, the sum total of our donations, we decide to kick in an incentive: club seats to the Cavs vs. Heat game in Miami on December 15 to the person who donates the most swag. A nice score for the winner, even if the prudent route would be to unload the tickets on eBay.
But we get no bites, and we’ve got another problem.
Jungjohann, with his ominously non-phonetic name, has become a villain. In the weeks since we gave that first jersey away, he has been frustratingly non-committal about whether he’ll allow us to distribute his goods. “I’m still waiting to hear for sure” from Miami’s homeless agencies, he explains in an endlessly affable tone. He won’t fathom that he’s been stiffed with a garage full of semi-worthless sports gear and we’re the only people dumb enough to offer to get it down to Florida for free.
Jungjohann owns his own marketing company. He made collecting a literal ton of LeBron crap look awfully easy. For starters, he had timing on his side. When people throw their ex’s stuff out the window onto the street below, they tend to do it in the hours — not weeks — after the breakup.
Some journalistic codes are harmed as we try to get Jungjohann to pry open his Broadview Heights vault. “You’re going to have that shit in your garage for the rest of your life,” we tell him over the phone. “We’re going to write bad things about you.”
He continues to demur. Despite the threats, bribes, and offers of free promotion in two newspapers, the T-shirt sits alone and the calendar turns to October.
Then a guy named Adam shows up at the Scene offices. The 31-year-old wears a low cap over messy hair, glasses, a deep-seated loathing of LeBron, and — more important — two garbage bags filled with LeBron stuff: jerseys, T-shirts, mint-condition bobbleheads, and shoes. He’s got it all. “I don’t want this stuff in my house anymore, and I wasn’t going to burn it because I spent money on all this stuff,” he explains. “It’s cathartic to give it away.”
A text is sent to Gus in Miami: Operation Jersey Drop is a go. Within days, the first batch of wine & gold castoffs has landed on a cubicle desk in Miami.
The little stabs of backlash come quickly after the so-called “Wino & Gold” drive is publicized. “I think it’s totally inappropriate to go dress up homeless people,” a reader named Jason Howlin seethes in an e-mail, “and take pictures with condescending captions for your newspaper.”
“I challenge Miami New Times to step up and do some real honest good for the homeless community,” writes Lauren Greer. “Organize a food drive to go along with this other gimmick.”
Not a bad idea. So when we head back to the mean streets to distribute the bounty, we proceed with a platter of food dispensed from the back of Gus’s 1989 Corolla. Today’s menu: a fortifying repast of pierogies and the customary sides of applesauce and sour cream.
“I don’t know what that is,” announces Gary Elliot, a droopy-eyed fellow dressed like a maintenance worker in blue Dickie shorts and a matching collared shirt.
“It’s like a Polish empañada,” Gus helpfully translates.
“I don’t know what that is,” Elliot responds. But the mystery grub disappears quickly, as do the day’s dozen or so jerseys and T-shirts.
A crowd gathers around the car, gabbing pleasantly as Patches stands nearby, leaning on a bicycle and listening to a tiny radio playing salsa music. “Let me trade you — I got blue pants,” Elliot tells a buddy, deftly bartering for a matching road jersey. “I’m going to cherish this.”
The Jersey Drop is proceeding as planned.
“Why wouldn’t we want them? We’re homeless,” says a man named Darius Moore as he pulls on a size-XL home jersey. He’s sporting camouflage shorts, a faded black military-style cap worn backwards, and a few touches of gold jewelry. His breath smells like the floor of a distillery. “I know they’re old clothes, but it’s the sentiment behind the garment. Somebody cares.”
The folks here come from Alabama, Cuba, and Detroit, by way of prison, lost jobs, and penchants for drug and drink. Most of them say they’ve been homeless for two years. It’s unclear if that has to do with the start of the recession or that’s how long it takes to stop keeping track.
“Seven days a week — to five, to three, to two,” says Juan Reyes of how his last job, setting up banquets, began to evaporate. The Havana native wears a heavy sweatshirt adorned with the Indians’ Chief Wahoo logo — customized with a diamond earring and a headband, to look like LeBron James. “Then to twice a month. Then, job’s over.”
“I already know I’m going to get off these streets,” says Darius. “I got a four-month-old baby, and I’m going to raise her.”
But like most conversations in Miami lately, this one eventually turns to sports, and everybody’s a pundit. “It’s a hell of a team,” says Darius, who keeps up with the Heat through discarded newspapers and sports radio. “But then again, it’s an unbalanced team.”
A few hours later, we are fresh out of stuff.
We leave the steps and head home, where Gus immediately gets on the phone to Cleveland. It’s the equivalent of the scene in Blow where the street-level coke dealer calls Johnny Depp frantically after selling the first big shipment in a day.
Can you get more?
On October 11, just over two weeks before the new NBA season opens, the LeBron crypt-keeper finally caves.
Gus is up in Cleveland to help with the collection, so we drive Vince’s resilient 2000 Saturn to Broadview Heights and up the driveway of a Stadium Mustard brown house. Jungjohann, waving gregariously as he lumbers from the garage, looks more like an amiable Muppet (google: Bunsen Honeydew) than a philanthropic villain. He is burly, hairless, and pleasantly round-headed. An unseen puppy whines behind a door to the house.
Behind Jungjohann on the garage floor are eight or so large boxes filled with what might just be the universe’s biggest surviving collection of Cavaliers-era LeBron gear.
He offers us carte blanche to dig through the boxes, and the booty is incredible. There are jerseys of every ilk: orange-and-white throwbacks, All-Star Game jerseys, NBA Finals jerseys from 2007, and hundreds of T-shirts. One features a Slam magazine cover depicting LeBron wearing a king’s robe and a crown. Others are inlaid with glossy gold lettering. There’s a pink jersey with no adornment but for LeBron’s head, floating phantasmagorically, across the front.
One T-shirt is merely a Wet Seal women’s v-neck featuring a message scrawled creepily with fabric marker: “Why did you leave Cleveland is your home?”
Most common are the simple wine-colored T-shirts modeled after LeBron’s jersey. In many, the lettering has cracked from repeated washings; these, after all, were people’s favorite shirts — the first ones they put on after doing the laundry.
There are also upwards of 50 children’s jerseys, each of them tragically representing another kid doomed to worship failure.
And then, buried near the bottom of the box, is The Afghan: a trippy, thin wool blanket stitched with the portrait of LeBron standing next to another LeBron. With a nippy — perhaps 55 degrees — winter on its way to Miami’s streets, this is the crown jewel of the collection.
As per Jungjohann’s instructions, we fill our trunk with only two boxes, leaving him with the rest. He says he has secret channels he’ll use to get the other stuff to Miami’s homeless. It appears that certain Florida advocacy groups, afraid of pissing anybody off, have agreed to take his collection as long as word doesn’t get out.
But Jungjohann still smarts from his cold snub at the hands of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. “We really connected on a personal level,” he says of Rita Clark. “She told me that she used to live in Cleveland and this and that. We talked for a long time. Then she just stopped returning my calls.”
Jungjohann certainly earned his prize of Cavs-Heat tickets. He’s not Lex Luthor after all, we conclude as we drive off with a trunkful of Grade A LeBron shit, speeding just a bit with the irrational fear that he’ll change his mind.
Marcelo, who’s trolling up Biscayne Boulevard around 25th Street with a baby carriage full of belongings, grabs a large jersey and size 11.5 Nike Air Force One LeBrons. He’s a bearded Puerto Rican drifter who has the look of a master collector with his stroller full of junk, a Dickies cap atop his head, and sport sandals over socks. He admits he has size-9 feet — but he has a plan for the shoes. “I got a friend,” he explains coyly. “I make a deal with him.”
It’s hard not to see the imaginary crack rocks dancing above Marcelo’s head like sugar plums. We make a mental note to ask for shoe size before giving out any more sneakers.
A retro-style jersey T-shirt goes to a man named Willie, who is sleeping at a bus station nearby. He promptly uses it as a pillow and shuts his eyes again. A matching shirt goes to his neighbor Reggie, who is perched a few concrete tiles away. A veteran of the streets who says he once had a couch to crash on and a clean wardrobe, Reggie now sits on a brick ledge appearing dirty and defeated. He just did a prison sentence and is hitting the crack too hard. Life on the streets is defined by Nasdaq-esque ups and downs, and Reggie’s in a bear market.
The last jersey drop has unfolded in an orderly fashion, perhaps a tribute to the honed skill of the distribution team manning the dented beige Corolla. But as we turn up Northeast Eighth Street between First and Second Avenues, the street’s denizens are on the lookout for us. A small crowd gathers around the car, window shopping from the open boxes in the backseat.
A local Miami TV station has been tipped off as well, which further attracts a flock.
Soon we are beset by Miami homeless of every race and ilk. Many are unsurprisingly grubby, but a few have a scavenger’s dapperness perfectly complemented by wine-and-gold mesh. Women want XXL jerseys to wear as dresses. Husband-and-wife couples demand matching jerseys. Nobody wants to settle for a T-shirt. One loquacious woman named Paula asks for a petite pink jersey for her daughter. We give one to her and ask what her kid’s name is. Paula is stumped.
Word spreads to a nearby homeless shelter, and new speed-walking waves of homeless join the rabble. Then come the attempts at double-dipping. “I told you, I gave it to my man!” a woman named Mississippi keeps yelling when reminded that she already nabbed a jersey. She slaps a reporter’s left shoulder with increasing ferocity.
“Take all the shit out and give me the car!” yells a man named Pablo, who is perhaps half-joking.
After 45 minutes of being pawed, prodded, needled, and harassed, Gus is sweating like Shaq at the free-throw line. The boxes are down to their dregs. The car rocks back and forth, but mercifully nobody is reaching inside. The scene borders on ugly, but never hops the fence.
The mob is enjoying itself. Main Man Stacks, a pudgy dude who happens to be wearing a Tribe hat that we didn’t give him, makes it clear he wants the last jersey — and “don’t even give me no other kinda shit!
“We can be choosy!” he booms, as the crowd noise nears its crescendo.
After the final escapade downtown, only a few items remain in the car. The bobbleheads we collected — not the most practical item for people with no shelf to display them on — will be auctioned on eBay, with proceeds going to homeless groups in Miami and Cleveland. A pair of shorts and two wristbands go to Josh, a beggar just north of Little Haiti. His Mr. T-esque mass of Catholic rosarys and chains around his neck peg him as a serial accessorizer.
At the discharge window at the county jail downtown, where prisoners are freed wearing only blue scrubs, a cheery vagrant trades his government-issue top for our last T-shirt — an ’80s-style petite women’s item, split on the sides and reconnected using knots. Shoes are given to the reclusive homeless colony under a bridge, where Vietnam-vet-looking bums threaten to “destroy you right now” when you ask for their name or a photo.
Nearby in Coconut Grove, it’s late in the afternoon and raining. But the neighborhood’s most gregarious beggar is cheerily cradling a Hurricane High Gravity with his bare feet, begging for cigarettes, and shooting the shit. The guy, who sports Charles Manson’s gray locks and facial hair, and gives his name as Departee Hardee, is hanging out with his more reserved, nearly toothless buddy, Michael Chaver.
Somehow, Hardee steers the conversation to his porn-making days in Europe. “It was what we called triple-X — all penetration, for sure,” he reminisces. “Not in me, though — I kept it straight. That was some good money.”
Then he bursts into a raw hacking cough. Gus hands Michael a pair of LeBron III sneakers and gives Hardee the final remnant of the collection: LeAfghan.
Modeling it like a poncho, Hardee has an epiphany. “What if I poke a hole in it and put my little hamster through there?” he posits. “I could put my little dick through there right where his nose is at.”
With that, Hardee starts excitedly unstringing his khaki shorts while pressing the blanket up to himself. And a thousand miles away, Cleveland cheers.