Jess Paquette didn’t know the man in the white van. But when he pulled up to the curb at Lisbon and Main streets in Lewiston, she went right to him because that’s what panhandlers do. 

Cash given to panhandler Jess Paquette by a mysterious stranger in Lewiston. Submitted photo

The man got right down to business. 

“He called me over to his van and showed me a bunch of money,” Jess said. “He said, ‘I’ll give this to you on one condition: That you go to the Sun Journal right now and tell them your story. I want to read it in the paper.'” 

An unusual request, but Jess promised the stranger she would do just as he instructed. Accepting the promise, the fellow handed over the cash — a total of $170 in $50s and a $20. 

Obediently, Jess pocketed the loot and went directly to the Sun Journal, just a couple of blocks away. 

“That’s what he wanted,” she said. “And I’m a girl who honors wishes.” 

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It was late in the day, however, and the Sun Journal office on Park Street was closed for business. Standing there on the sidewalk, Jess examined the money she had been given and noticed that one of the $20 bills had a message scrawled across it in blue ink. 

“In memory of Mom & Dad,” the message said and it was followed by a signature. Jess had no idea who was referenced in the message or what it meant, exactly, yet the sight of it moved her. 

“I just started bawling my eyes out,” Jess said. “I had myself a good five-minute cry.” 

It was a strange moment, Jess said. But she was hell-bent on honoring the conditions connected to the money, so Jess called a Sun Journal columnist she happens to know from previous shenanigans. 

“I have to tell you my story,” she told me. “I promised the man that I would.” 

As it happens, Jess’ story is an interesting one with many a dark and sordid twist. At times the story of her life feels gloomy and unrelenting. At other times, it’s uplifting. 

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Cash given to panhandler Jess Paquette by a mysterious stranger in Lewiston. Submitted photo

Her tale begins in 1976 on a grim note. On the way to the hospital to deliver baby Jess, her mother was involved in a car accident and suffered a broken pelvis. Jess was born amid that chaos in a hospital at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. There were complications, however. Jess said the doctors didn’t sufficiently remove placenta from her mother, and as a result, she died 10 days later, on July 3, of a blood clot. 

This was the beginning of dark and uncertain days for baby Jess. 

“My mom,” she said, “was really the only one who wanted me. And I don’t know if she had any time at all to enjoy me before she died.” 

For years, Jess said, her older brother and sister blamed her for the loss of their mother. Her father was unable to care for her, so at 2 years old, Jess was shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle.  

She lived with the couple for a reasonably happy year, Jess said, but then her father decided he wanted her back. By then, her dad had remarried, and Jess said his new wife was “very abusive: physically, emotionally and verbally.” 

When Jess was 3, her stepmother was driving a car that crashed near the Auburn Mall. Unbuckled, Jess went flying and cracked her head open upon the impact. The wound, for which she still bears scars, required 55 stitches to close. 

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But it was worse than that. Jess had suffered a traumatic head injury of the type that wasn’t yet fully understood by the medical community. 

“They described it as Shaken Baby Syndrome without actually having been shaken,” Jess said. “They said the consequences of it would come out later in my life. I really believe I suffer from an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury.” 

As she recovered, Jess was sent off to a babysitter where she said she was sexually abused by two boys who lived at the home.  

“This is a part of my life I don’t ever talk about because it’s just too painful,” Jess said. “It was just a lot of nasty stuff.” 

Jess Paquette                               Sun Journal file photo

She ran away for the first time at 6 years old. She came back home a short time later, she said, to find that nobody had been looking for her. 

Jess, rebelling against the conditions of her home life, became uncontrollable, often getting into trouble at school as a first- and second-grader.  

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“And then eventually, the state came in and took me away,” Jess said. “That was the beginning of a life of living on the streets, living in group homes, living in shelters.” 

For many years, Jess forever lived under a shadow of uncertainty and upheaval. By the time she was 18, an age where most girls are busy with boyfriends, proms and college applications, Jess was a patient at the Jackson Brook Institute, a mental health facility in South Portland. After a conflict with a doctor there, Jess said, she was ushered into an ambulance and sent off to what was then the Augusta Mental Health Institute. 

Jess’ young life was an unhappy affair as she bounced from institute, to shelter and then back again. But she is adamant: She did receive some kindnesses along the way. 

“I was a New Beginnings kid,” she said of the home for runaway and homeless youth in Lewiston. “And they are just awesome.” 

Over time, Jess scrambled her way out of the vicious cycle she had been caught in her whole life. She started collecting disability benefits, which helped her maintain some autonomy.  

“I’ve always managed to keep a roof over my head,” she said. “I was homeless here and there, but nothing chronic.” 

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She still has lingering mental health problems, some of which may be due to the early injury to her head. She is a “cutter,” for one thing, and will occasionally gash herself as a means of emotional relief. 

“I describe it as being like a baked potato,” she said. “You’re baking and baking and baking. You get just so hot inside and people can’t see it unless you break open the potato. When I cut myself, I literally envision steam coming out of my wounds and I’m like, finally. I can breathe again. It’s a release, you know?” 

She has bouts of rage, which occasionally land her in trouble, but mostly Jess is known locally as one of the friendliest and more colorful buskers on the street. She makes friends quickly with everyone who is willing — cops and newspaper reporters among them — and will always make sure to tell these friends how much she loves them. 

She credits that part of her personality to her mother, Lila, which also happens to be Jess’ middle name. 

“I didn’t know anything about her,” she said. “But I heard that she was one of the kindest, most giving people in the world and that she would do anything for anybody. And I promised that I would live my life according to how she lived hers.” 

Some folks know Jess for her love of LEGO and for the elaborate landscapes she has created with the blocks. Mostly, though, she’s the affable lady in the Carhartt coat who stands out at Lisbon and Main streets awaiting donations from passing strangers. 

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She meets all kinds of interesting people, she said, but until last week, she’d never been handed such a sizable donation nor had she heard such an odd request. 

The man in the white van wanted to hear her story, and now, presuming he picks up a newspaper, he has — although Jess is quick to point out that what was relayed here is only a small part of her ongoing tale. 

Will the van man ever be identified? Was there a reason why he forked over $170 specifically, and was it he who scribbled the strange message on one of the bills?  

Does the man really exist, or is he some do-gooder out of the realm of angels? 

Jess can’t say for sure. But she said the van rolled up at just the right time. She’d been having a horrible time in the days before he came, she said. One of her neighbors died, her dog had been vomiting and there were other issues that left her unsettled. 

But life has been OK since the appearance of that unnamed man with big generosity, and the cash is only a part of it. 

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Will he be content with this story as told? What else would he like to know about Jess? 

She offers an additional tidbit. 

“Because of my mom’s death,” she said, “I really hate the Fourth of July and my birthday.” 

Mostly, Jess said, she wants the mysterious fellow to know that, in spite of the long, pain-ravaged road that got her here, she’s doing all right. 

“I haven’t cut myself in a very long time,” Jess said. “I have a good therapist, a good case manager, a good landlord and a good community that supports me. I’m doing OK, really.” 

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