Though he was homeless, Aaron Zugaide worked hot and sweaty jobs nearly every day of his life: cutting grass, tending gardens, whatever he could find. He never wanted much money, and when he took a free meal at a soup kitchen, he stayed behind to wash the dishes and mop the floors.
For the last years of his life, he lived in a shack made from pallets and tar paper, hidden in the woods behind a Subway on Lake Wheeler Road. To get there, he had to cross a log that stretched over Walnut Creek, and he wore garbage bags on his feet to keep them dry. He had a mattress inside his hut, propped on cinder blocks in case the creek flooded, and he listened to a battery-operated radio that he kept inside. Sometimes, he took care of a fox that lived nearby.
He was easily recognized by the red bandana he always wore around his long black hair, and he insisted that friends call him “Indio” or “Chief” though he came from Mexico, had Aztec ancestry and pronounced his name a-ROAN. For years, they offered him space in rooming houses or heated outbuildings in their backyards, and he turned them all down, returning to his camp and his propane stove.
And now that Zugaide has died at age 62, his body discovered on July 9 in the wetlands downstream from his camp, they wonder what shaped his decision to live as he did – the experiences that formed the heart of his life. He knew hardship few could imagine, enduring heat, insects and incessant highway noise, and yet he remained a proud and principled man. Always on time. Meticulous. A workaholic who lived in poverty.
The best explanation is one that’s hard to understand unless you’ve lived as Zugaide did. He’d been robbed repeatedly, often by other homeless people who stole and pawned his tools. He’d been arrested a dozen times, usually for trespassing or drinking. He’d been cheated by bosses who paid him $10 for three hours of work. The woods and their solitude gave him protection from a world that seemed out to get him from day one. They kept him courteous and pleasant despite a thousand kicks in the teeth.
“I don’t think it’s what he liked in the woods,” said retired Raleigh police officer A.J. Wisniewski, who works security at Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen and is better known around town as “Sgt. Ski.” “I think it’s what he could escape. His famous words were, ‘Boss Man Ski, that person has a black heart.’ ”
A hard life
I’ve heard a few stories about Zugaide’s past, both of which start with him being given up by a mother in Mexico who couldn’t afford to raise him. He ran away at 16 from an uncle who beat him, crossing the border either in San Diego, where he got jailed as an immigrant who entered the country illegally, or in Texas, where he got shot at by officers with the Border Patrol and escaped into a pipe. He’d been shot in a robbery at a check-cashing store and carried the scars, as well as a bullet still lodged in his lower back.
He never learned much English, moving around the country picking oranges in Florida or onions in Georgia and learning the construction trade which brought him to Raleigh. He ate lunch regularly at Shepherd’s Table on Morgan Street, insisting on cleaning up after the hundreds who eat there daily, guiding others around the kitchen.
“He showed me the ropes with dish water,” said Michael Smith, who was hired to work at the soup kitchen two years ago. “Watch how hot it be. Here’s how much soap to use. I had mad nicknames for him. Chief. Cherokee. Indio. The cop called him Kemosabe.”
Zugaide worked for dozens of people around Raleigh, chopping firewood or mowing grass. He grew especially close to one of them: Martin Wallace, a retired veteran Zugaide nicknamed “Mr. Eddie,” who set aside a plot in his back yard for Zugaide to grow tomatoes, squash and corn. Zugaide kept the lawn neat and tended to a dozen other odd jobs, and when Wallace tried to pay him more than $10 an hour, he would decline the money. Wallace bought Zugaide clothes and kept the refrigerator stocked with King Cobra beer – his favorite – offering everything from a car to a permanent room. Once, he bought Zugaide a pair of $300 Red Wing work boots with steel toes, and the homeless man raved about them to anyone who would listen.
Once last winter, Wallace drove out to collect Zugaide near his spot in the woods, and when his homeless friend showed up at 6:45 a.m. rather than at 6, he gently scolded him with, “You’re late.” Zugaide immediately exited the truck and snarled, “No work today.” Months later, over a beer, Zugaide explained that he had fallen off his log into a frigid Walnut Creek. He shambled back to his shack and changed into dry clothes, and once he made his way back across the log, he was in no mood to be chastised.
“I thought the world of him,” said Wallace. “He was an unusual fellow. The hardest-working man I ever met in my life. He was honest. He was trustworthy. He was loyal. You don’t find that in people no more. I’m gonna miss him. He was something else.”
‘Somebody loved him’
It is thought that Zugaide suffered a heart attack, and that his body was carried down the creek almost to South Saunders Street. Not long before his death, the staff at Shepherd’s Table made Zugaide a cake and bought him what Executive Director Tamara Gregory described as a pretty generic birthday card.
“He carried that card for months,” she said. “He was very proud that somebody loved him.”
It comforts her that he realized this, dying alone but still a happy man.
I crossed Walnut Creek behind the Subway on Thursday, looking for Zugaide’s house. I should have worn a pair of hip waders, crossing first through brush and briars that rose knee-high and almost certainly hid dozens of snakes, then sinking up to my knees in the mud. I found a few blankets and empty Icehouse cans – obviously, not Zugaide’s trash – but I couldn’t locate the shack he must have worked hard to conceal.
As I trudged around in those woods, I considered being thousands of miles from home, having no family, speaking a different language, carving out a corner of my own underneath a few pieces of scrap wood – no running water or heat for comfort. I tried to imagine circumstances so dire that I would prefer Zugaide’s oppressive isolation. I couldn’t take the mosquitoes, the mud or the sweat in my eyes for more than 30 minutes, so I crossed the creek again – this time wading shin-deep without bothering the use the log. And as I left, I said goodbye to the man who finally found his place in the world – as harsh and empty as we, the more-fortunate, might find it.
How to help
Shepherd’s Table plans to have Aaron Zugaide’s body cremated and its ashes spread in the garden he worked at Martin Wallace’s house. To help with the costs, contributions may be made at www.shepherds-table.org or Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen, 121 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NC, 27603.