The very moment I heard Jesse’s name uttered at the scene of the crash, I knew I had a big story on my hands.

It is news when anybody gets hit by a car, but this was Jesse Kontoes lying there in a heap on the cold, slushy street. This was a local icon. A man of such singular mystique it almost defies description.

For decades, Jesse has been walking the Twin Cities’ streets, stopping to greet anyone who shows interest. He is handsome. Charismatic. In some ways, childlike.

Sometimes, he walks like just an ordinary Joe in boots, jeans and a windbreaker. Sometimes, he goes out in a lavish dress or even a gown, often wearing them with thick boots and a full beard — it depends, I guess, on what he feels like wearing that day.

Somewhere back in time, one person or another offered up the nickname “Dressy Jesse.” And it has stuck. While there might be a snide fool here or there who uses the moniker derisively, many more use it with affection.

Jesse is peculiar, yes. He is mysterious, for sure. But above all, the man is supremely likable, to the point where complete strangers are won over to his side with a single, odd conversation on a sidewalk.

“Jesse,” says one young woman who has known him almost all of her life, “is always telling me I’m beautiful and lifting my spirits. He has a kind heart and tries to brighten everyone’s day.”

Jesse, says another, “really lives the ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’ life model.”

For all of his quirks, Jesse is almost universally beloved — by those who know him well and by many who have merely a passing familiarity.

It is a hyper-local kind of thing — a brand of affection one cannot fully understand unless he or she has spent considerable time in Lewiston, getting to know the many charms of its street-wandering legends.

In Lewiston, especially, people tend to care about the enigmatic souls who walk its avenues. They care about Punk, a man who looks like a landlocked pirate as he stomps from block to block with a hard, determined gaze and a familiar bandana atop his head.

They care about Gordon, the thin, bent little man who shuffles from one place to the next in search of returnable bottles and cans.

They care about the lady who twirls on the sidewalks, and they care about Jesse, who has possibly been roaming longer than the rest of them combined.

My God, how they care about Jesse.

Before the grim news story was even on the page, my mailbox, phone and Facebook inbox were absolutely overloaded with messages. Some just wanted to know that Jesse was getting the care he needed. Others wanted to talk about his unhappy past. Most just wanted to relate happy memories and words of affection.

“The guy is one of the most real and one of the kindest people I know,” said one woman, who got to know Jesse one night as she walked the downtown streets with him for fear he would be set upon by bullies.

“If you ever get to talk to him,” said another, “he is very kind and sweet. Jesse is a rare soul with a heart of gold.”

“As bad as I’ve always felt for Jesse — and anyone that knows his story knows there’s lots to sympathize about — he’s actually very lucky,” said a woman who stayed up late to wait for updates on Jesse’s condition the night of the crash. “He probably has more people that genuinely love him than many of us do.”

So many messages. So much adoration and respect and love. Not to mention a sense of protectiveness that borders on fierce.

In the days following the accident, it became clear that Jesse would live through this latest ordeal. It will be a long recovery, sure, but the worst of the medical crisis had passed, and that is often when admirers and well-wishers wander away.

Not this time. Because while hundreds shared warm memories and personal “Jesse Kontoes” stories on social media, a few others got busy preparing fundraisers in his name.

I would like to think at least some of those people had only the best intentions, but that has not been the popular opinion. As one, then two, then three GoFundMe pages were started with Jesse named as a benefactor, words of caution spread across Facebook.

Whenever a new “Help Jesse Kontoes” page would appear, dozens would investigate the sources of those pages, looking for red flags of exploitation. Some of those investigating included social workers who were involved with Jesse before.

“There are a lot of mean-spirited people in the world,” said one woman, familiar with Jesse’s personal situation, “and it’s feared someone will take advantage.”

Indeed. Some of the fundraisers described Jesse as a homeless man lingering in utter destitution. But several social workers familiar with Jesse’s situation blasted that characterization as hyperbole. Jesse is not homeless, they say, and he’s covered by federal insurance.

Not that very many people were fooled: on one GoFundMe page, almost every online visitor left a message of warning rather than a donation. They advised that this particular page creator would very likely keep any money raised rather than donate it to Jesse.

Word spread quickly and by Tuesday morning, the fundraiser page had been taken down — once again, Jesse’s ferociously protective admirers had circled their wagons.

It is said that the true measure of any community can be found in the way it treats its most vulnerable members. If that is the case, the way people have rallied around Jesse Kontoes should make Lewiston-Auburn shine brightly.

I do not know if that does anything to ease the misery of being confined to a hospital bed, but at the very least Jesse Kontoes should recognize that whatever he has to go through next, he will certainly not go through it alone.

“Jesse,” observed one man, “has more friends in this town than he realizes.”

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. Jesse Kontoes admirers can email Mark at [email protected]

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