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Bench Becomes a Memorial to Jesse Zele
By Sue Cattoche
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 6, Noe Valley lost a beloved citizen. Jesse Zele passed away at St. Luke's Hospital from complications stemming from lung cancer. He was 60.
Zele resided on Worth Street in Eureka Valley, but conducted the business of his life from a bench on 24th Street (near Le Zinc) that he affectionately called his "office." Sporting a jaunty black beret and a puckish grin, this sprite of a man entered Noe Valley as a homeless scavenger, but he departed as a respected and contributing member of the community. Upon news of his death, an impromptu shrine of flowers, candles, photos, trinkets, and testimonials appeared on the bench where he stopped each day to drink his morning coffee, work a crossword puzzle, or chat with his many friends.
A native of Los Angeles, Zele was born with a curvature of the spine that gradually worsened over the years. Later on, he injured a foot in a motorcycle accident. He is survived by his parents, who reside in a South Carolina nursing home, and a cousin, Donna McMahon of South Carolina. He was predeceased by a brother, Thomas Scott Ezelle, who died in 1970.
Most who knew him admired his pluck and his work ethic, and his relentless refusal to give in to self-pity. Zele never asked for anything, and was reluctant to take gifts or ask for favors.
Not long after he began his 20-year tenure on the bench, Kay Lamming noticed him washing windshields and offered him work cleaning the windows at Cotton Basics, the store she managed at the corner of Castro and 24th streets. Zele continued to do odd jobs for merchants and neighbors for the next two decades, including light construction, mowing lawns, painting, and picking up newspapers for vacationing neighbors.
According to his good friend Bill Spivey, his name was really Jess Ezelle, but the many postcards mailed by globetrotting Noe Valleyans to him in care of Lamming's store were addressed simply to "Jesse Zele." His friends across the street at The Peaks bar described him as "very private, very proud, and always very positive."
Longtime 28th Street resident JoAnn Boatwright often helped him carry his groceries home and sometimes cooked for him. She recalls that Zele was very spiritual and hoped to travel to India someday. When they celebrated his birthday on Aug. 21 of this year, he told her he was happy he had lived to be 60 years old.
Glen Evans looks up from the shopping cart he pilots down 24th Street to recall that, many years ago, he used to hear Zele playing flamenco guitar at the Old Spaghetti Factory on Green Street. Zele was a very good performer, having traveled to Spain to study the instrument, Evans says. He points to a copy of The American Legion magazine, which someone has left with the candles and flowers on the bench, and says, "He loved to read that." The name on the magazine's address label is that of Jesse's friend Harry J. Aleo, of Twin Peaks Properties on 24th Street.
Local composer Ramon Sender could see that Zele's health was deteriorating, but says, "In typical Jesse fashion, he made light of his own aches and pains, and was more interested in what was going on in my life. Jesse and I frequently discussed meditation and yoga.... Jesse was a very special, very loving person," Sender adds. "I always thought that children must have seen him as a kind of fairytale character, because he had a certain magic about him. Noe Valley will be poorer for his loss."
Carol Yenne, a 30-year resident of Noe Valley and owner of Small Frys, the shop across the street from Zele's bench, takes exception to people who characterized him as "homeless." She knew that the respect and generosity of Noe Valley neighbors had provided him with shelter and necessities for many years. "He wanted to continue to have the lifestyle he had chosen, which included daily conversations on his bench with people in the neighborhood, odd jobs, and regular visits to the two bars within a block of his bench. The people of Noe Valley were caring towards Jesse. He was a part of the community."
A note left on Zele's bench by "Terry and Leapin' Lizzie" captures the feeling: "The last time I saw you, you told me that you had become so bent over you couldn't walk without crutches and that you couldn't find ones small enough, and then a friend had called you up to say she had found a pair of children's crutches in her basement. 'Ain't I lucky?' you said with a big smile. You were a flower of a man."
Olivier Delerm and his wife, Sarah, often entertained Zele as a dinner guest at their home. The couple also included him on road trips to the coast and to Napa and Calistoga.
Olivier Delerm recalls the time Jesse fell in love. "The woman was from Missouri and he'd met her in Noe Valley. He went to visit her twice. It was quite an adventure. Without proper ID, Jesse could not get a flight ticket, so I dropped him off at the Greyhound station, got him a ticket, and tried to make sure he would remember not to miss the connections for the three-day trip! Jesse talked about his cross-country adventures for a long time."
Delerm has a more recent memory, one that touched him deeply. "Last time I saw Jesse, two weeks before he died, he asked if Sarah and I were planning to have children soon. I told him I was sure this was going to happen, and he said with a tear in his eye, 'I'd love them to call me Uncle Jesse.' When Sarah and I have children, we will tell them stories of Uncle Jesse."
More than 150 people told their stories at the Noe Valley Ministry on Sunday, Sept. 25, as the Rev. Keenan Kelsey led a memorial service celebrating Zele's life. Bill Spivey brought Zele's worn black beret, a poem he had written when his brother died, and photos of Jesse Zele as a handsome young man playing the guitar. The photos and the poem are currently on display in the window of Cotton Basics.