By Mark Binelli
In prison, Rodney Jones told me, everyone had a nickname. Jones’s was Saint E’s, short for St. Elizabeths, the federal psychiatric hospital in Washington, best known for housing John Hinckley Jr. after he shot Ronald Reagan. Jones spent time there as well, having shown signs of mental illness from an early age; he first attempted suicide at 12, when he drank an entire bottle of Clorox. Later, he became addicted to PCP and crack and turned to robbery to support his habit.
I met Jones a few blocks from his childhood home in LeDroit Park, a D.C. neighborhood not far from Howard University. It was a warm October afternoon, but Jones, 46, was wearing a puffy black vest. The keys to his grandmother’s house, where he currently lives, hung from a lanyard around his neck. His face was thin, a tightly cropped beard undergirding prominent cheekbones, and he had a lookout’s gaze, drifting more than darting but always alert.
Jones had been out of prison for three years, a record for him, at least as an adult, but he still sounded a bit like Rip Van Winkle as he marveled at how gentrified his old neighborhood had become. We sat on a cafe’s sun-dappled terrace, surrounded by creative-class types. A chef wandered outside to pluck some fresh rosemary from a planter. Jones was the only black patron at the cafe and probably the only person who remembered when it used to be a liquor store. “You wouldn’t be sitting here,” Jones said. He nodded at some toddlers playing across the street. “That park right there, that wasn’t a park. That was just an open field where everybody gambled. At any given time, you would hear shots ring out.”