The little information booth sits in downtown Oak Bluffs, an ornate yellow and red axis around which the machinery of summer seems to rotate. At 9 a.m. on a July Saturday morning, the breeze moves through the booth window and out the open door. Laced with buttered popcorn and the whine of passing mopeds, it carries the smells and sounds of a resort town at the height of the season.
Inside, Charles H. (Cee-Jay) Jones Jr., drums on the windowsill and whistles through his teeth. The radio is tuned to Ocean 104.7, and Juice Newton’s Angel of the Morning is just another sound in the air.
The floodgates open and the questions pour in. They are mostly from day-trippers, styled with accents from across the country and the world, peppered with the small indicators that mark a first trip to the Vineyard. The visitors know that the movie Jaws was shot here, but stare blankly at the mention of up-Island. Many are convinced Edgartown is pronounced with more of a “ton” sound at the end. The questions pile on one another.
“Where’s the famous carousel?” they ask, the large sign of the Flying Horses almost screaming from the building behind them.
The bathrooms? The bus? The beach? A good hearty breakfast?
But if Cee-Jay is annoyed at their questions, he doesn’t let on. He gives out simple directions — like, turn around and enter over there — without a hint of condescension, and usually with a smile that reflects back onto the asker’s face.
After pointing a visitor in the right direction, Cee-Jay hits a metallic clicker with his thumb and its little white numbers flip up, a numerical representation attempting to quantify his value as an ambassador. By 10 a.m., he has 33.
Cee-Jay has been working at the booth since it was built in 1992. He’s been coming to the Vineyard since 1942, moved here permanently in 1989. At 91, he is a well-known, well-liked fixture in the Oak Bluffs community.
He is included in Jill Nelson’s book Finding Martha’s Vineyard, which tells the story of African Americans on the Island.
“He’s one of those people who bridges the winter and summer communities, and that’s pretty unique here.” Ms. Nelson said from her Oak Bluffs home later in the week. “He’s the gene that connects these different people who love the Vineyard.”
In L’Elegance, on Circuit avenue, there is a portrait of Cee-Jay in his booth. It’s part of a collection of paintings by artist Harry N. Seymour, each depicting familiar Vineyard scenes.
It is an understatement to say Cee-Jay is a people person. People are his lifeblood. And he’s picked the right job in the right place.
“A lot of celebrities have houses on Chappaquiddick,” he says. “I don’t want to be there. No, I’m not a pioneer. I want to be where the people are.”
At the booth, when he’s on duty, the window is for questions. He calls it the office. The open door just a few feet away is for socializing. On this Saturday both are heavily trafficked and Cee-Jay makes a point to maintain the distinction.
Friends of many backgrounds come to the door to check in, bringing news and jokes. Some bring their kids. Cee-Jay greets them with high-fives.
When the occasional passerby tries to throw a quick question through the door, Cee-Jay points to the window. “Come around to the office and I’ll help you,” he says.
They oblige and disappear, popping up a moment later at the window.
He answers their queries, like the whereabouts of Sun’n’Fun rentals, finishing with: “Tell them Cee-Jay sent you. You might get a better deal.”
Many might not know him personally but know of him.
One woman steps up to the window with a knowing look on her face. She smiles at Cee-Jay, but does not introduce herself.
“You got a book in you,” she says.
“A what?” Cee-Jay is taken off-guard. She repeats herself.
“A little one,” he jokes, indicating its small size with his fingers.
“You got to get it on screen while Morgan Freeman is still doing his work.”
Cee-Jay laughs and thanked her. “Ta, ta.” After she leaves, he turns, surprised.
“I don’t know her.”
That book, the story of Cee-Jay, would be bigger than he was willing to admit.
Born April 22, 1917, in Winston-Salem, N.C., he grew up in the South almost five decades before the Voting Rights Act. He knows a little Greek, which he learned from a waiter named Shorty at a restaurant he would frequent. He went to Talladega College in Alabama for a year, and was first married in 1937. He moved to Harlem in 1942 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943. In the midst of World War II, rather than being sent to Europe or Asia, Cee-Jay was shipped to Philadelphia to work in the redistribution and salvage division.
“I’m blessed, I tell you I’m blessed,” he says, his favored explanation for the good fortune he’s come across in his life.
“Being blessed is better than being rich,” he says.
When he leaves for Florida in mid-December every year, it takes him a good three weeks to make it down, as he makes frequent stops to visit friends along the way in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
His 90th birthday party at the Portuguese-American Club last year was a blow-out, drawing friends from across the country to the Vineyard months before their summer vacation.
“Out of sight!” he says, clapping his hands. “People said it was one of the greatest parties they’d ever been to.”
After a 39-year career in the U.S. Postal Service, he was able to retire at 65.
He has five grandchildren, seven great-grand-children and six great-great-grandchildren. He could easily be in his 70s.
“I’ve had guys say ‘wait ’til you get as old as I am,’ ” he says. “I don’t look as old as I am and I know it.”
Sitting in the booth, he wears a baseball cap, a golf shirt, Dockers and Reeboks. His gray mustache is short and neatly trimmed.
When he removes his glasses, his hazel eyes are the youngest thing about him, bordered by long black lashes and the subject of compliments throughout his life.
“They say, ‘You got a twinkle,’ and I say, ‘Sure do,’ ” he twinkles.
“I’m a very positive person. I don’t worry about anything. I’m concerned, but I don’t worry.”
During the school year, when he’s not in Florida, Cee-Jay serves as a crossing guard at the Oak Bluffs School in the afternoon. He has five kids at his crosswalk, he said, and they each pass with a high-five and ta,ta.
His story wouldn’t be complete without his second wife, Mavis Jones, who died in 1998 after 38 years of marriage.
“All I think about is the good times,” he says. The glasses are back on, masking the eyes. But there is a tiny crack in his voice.
The two met in 1958 and he brought her to the Vineyard in 1959.
“To see if she liked it up here,” he says. “Cause if she didn’t, I don’t know if we would have gotten together — but she loved it.”
Cee-Jay has seen the Vineyard change and swell over the years, but he has never stopped loving it himself.
“Listen, years ago starting in July, you walk by any house and hear music, you’d go in. It was beautiful. Party, party, party.
“It’s a little different now. You have to be invited.”
He remembers beach parties with music, dancing and booze, cooking food right on the beach.
“It was apple pie,” he says. “They don’t do that anymore.”
Now his days are relaxing and his nights are dictated by where he’s invited. He’ll come for dinner or go dancing at Lola’s, depending on who’s extending the invitation.
“I tell people, I got little to do and a whole lot of time to do it,” he says.
In Ms. Nelson’s book, he states, “I’m going to be buried in the Oak Bluffs cemetery, after I reach a hundred. You said you hope you’re around? I hope I am, too.”
At 1 p.m., Cee-Jay is relieved of his duties at the booth. He checks the clicker and records the number in a green log. Today he helped 148 people. And by the looks of it, he loved every minute.