We now know his name is Johnny, occasionally Juan.
He has come to my door for several years, and aside from the noise he makes jingling the Christmas bells that substitute for a doorbell to my house, he asks for fifty cents in a quiet voice. Not every day or even every week, and sometimes not even every month. But there he is again. My daughter is calling me to the door. I always give him fifty cents, and sometimes more. My son, living in New York, was surprised that I knew “the fifty cent guy” when I mentioned him over the phone.
He’s missing some teeth, has some tattoos, and an injury to his right arm from a bicycle accident. Johnny used to be homeless, but for three months now, he has had a small studio apartment in a converted motel in the northeast. Just as we have a name for him, he has one for our house: Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. My house got the name one day when he found Raymundo and me in the back yard making little imaginary animals, alebrijes, out of papier mache. It reminded him of the TV show. He thinks of this house as a gentle house, kind to children, doing projects.
And, in fact, we were working on another art project when he came this time. But this time, we decided to ask for an interview and permission to take photographs. So here is some small part of Johnny’s story.
He was born in Cd. Juárez in 1970. One of his first memories, at age three, is of being able to levitate in what he called an awake dream. He was sexually abused by a teenage neighbor boy when he was young, but he never told anyone at the time because even as young as seven, he felt shame about what was happening to him. His relationship with his father was also problematic, although he didn’t really want to elaborate on it. He just said “there were monsters all around me” growing up.
As a young man he got into trouble. Drugs and crime. His first stint in prison was for six years; he burglarized a K-Mart. His second stint was for “some violence and some cocaine.” His brother is currently in prison in the Dallas area. He also has one sister, but doesn’t say anything about her.
He gave us detailed descriptions of some methods for making prison tats. Johnny told us about one way where they would melt cheap chess pieces and then collect the sticky soot from the smoke to use as ink. He has a lovely crow on the inside of his forearm; he also has hepatitis C which can be acquired from non-sterile needles used in tattoos or IV drug use, or from sexual contact with persons who already have the disease. Prison populations are at high risk. Johnny is clean now, doesn’t use drugs, and even though he wasn’t completely off using alcohol, we don’t think he drinks often.
The prison system is not the only system Johnny knows. He has a case worker from MHMR (Mental Health/Mental Retardation) and receives a small check from SSI (Supplemental Security Income). They are the folks who found him the studio apartment. Johnny speaks of his diagnosis and treatment with the medical terminology and knowledge of a professional. He says he has schizophrenic affect, meaning a mix between schizophrenia and bipolar, and sees the doctor once a month. He wants to change his current drug to Elavil so that it doesn’t interfere with his sexual performance.
Johnny has a girlfriend. He keeps a photo of her in his wallet. Mary is older than he is by about 20 years. She’s in a methadone treatment program, has Type II diabetes and uses a walker. They have known each other for some years, but it isn’t a smooth relationship. Mary has had a tough life too: two Apache children with one ex-husband and another drug-dealing, gun-running Puerto Rican ex-husband that she left in New York. Mary is suspicious and, we’re guessing, wouldn’t tell us a thing about her life, not even about her French poodle that she recently bought with her SSI check.
The poodle seems to be one of the points of contention in this relationship. Johnny thinks she has no business having it, since neither of them can very well take care of themselves, much less a small, helpless dog. He got very excited while talking about the dog being dropped on the floor and the ensuing argument between Mary and him. As he became more and more excited, he mentioned that this is part of his mental health problem; he tends to get fixated and overwrought about some things. He was clearly very self-aware, cognizant of how other people might perceive him. He was also very observant of us, asking about my swollen ankles and whether I had water retention, if I was being treated.
Johnny always mentions two things when he comes by: God and his mother. He says that his mother and Mary are really the only two people in his life, the only ones who really care about him. And he is religious, striving for perfection, since he believes we are created perfect, in God’s image. Even though we inevitably fail to live up to that perfection, Johnny thinks we should still try.
We asked him why he came to this neighborhood when he lived in the northeast part of town. We expected he would say something about how the people here helped him out when he needed it, but he didn’t. Only three houses on the entire block had ever given him anything, and some of them would not even open their doors to say no. He was not offended by this in any way and launched into a lecture that a social worker had given when he moved into his studio apartment, telling him that he did not have to open the door unless he wished to. By extension then, all persons have that right.
Johnny is a happy person and a forgiving one. That may seem unlikely given his life circumstances, but he told us a story about how making pancakes makes him happy, that he could make pancakes every day. If he didn’t get enough today for a new bicycle tube, he would get it fixed tomorrow. He never seems to waste his time blaming someone for how things are; all he asks for is fifty cents.
Story a collaboration between Dr. Cheryl Howard and Raymundo Aguirre.
Thank you kindly for reading along!
(now here’s a few more photos)