What can be learned from situations that seem bleak or hopeless? Perhaps there is a reason tucked inside the changing tide that is higher than our human understanding? Joy can come from the darkest of places and ignite like a sparkler in the blackest sky.
In my early 20s, this suburbia girl found herself living in a shotgun house with ceiling tiles missing, windows nailed shut, and a dark alley that allowed one to park right up to the back door and jolt inside for safety. The shingles slid off the roof like a sleigh in winter and landed next to the chipped army green porch. My mind could not comprehend how a young woman like myself, raised in a quiet subdivision, had ended up with a box of government cheese and several mouths to feed. In the past, my prior husband and I had lived off and on with my father-in-law. We had lived with my brother, my sister, and sometimes we just struggled to live. But the year or two I spent in this place taught me more life lessons than I could have imagined. It was primarily due to my next-door neighbor.
She had one of those cool unisex names you hear spoken over a spunky three-year-old tomboy with ringlets–a name like Charlie, Jessie, and Bobbie. I’ll call her Johnnie. The first time I met Johnnie is imprinted in my mind, branded even. I had just moved into a house on the other side of the railroad tracks. You know, the side where the white folks turn honey brown and the corner store sells more lottery tickets and liquor than food. My neighborhood was not frequented by family much, and my mother refused to visit in her sports car after my car was vandalized. The trunk busted open. The windows shattered. The small home had one air conditioning unit and several rooms with slanted floors, paneling from 1950, and dirt for a yard, which saved us gas in the mower. For months, we had a refrigerator but no stove. For cooking purposes, I used an electric skillet to supplement the microwave. The dark paneled walls left much to be desired, and, unbeknownst to me, there was a rat infestation in the building at the end of my backyard.
One night, in the summer of 1991, I was hot and slightly pregnant with my third son, a gift from above. I had gone outside to sit on the porch and look up at the moon, feel the breeze blow upon my perspiring neck, and try to cool off a bit. As I sat there, a man approached me and began to talk smack. He made sexual advances. His eyes were shifting up and down, and then his words began to make me nervous. He was darker than honey brown—warm charcoal. It would be hours before my then-husband would be home from his second job delivering pizzas. I could not breathe. I eyed the distance from the steps by the sidewalk to my front door. My children were sleeping. Suddenly out of nowhere, Johnnie was standing behind the man, and swifter than a jackrabbit, she jumped up and grabbed his arm. I heard the click of her switchblade before I listened to her voice that bellowed, “Nigga, touch this girl, and I’ll kill ya. I’ll drain your blood all over the sidewalk. Understand? Now get on outta here.” I watched the man stagger on down the sidewalk, mouthing words unheard of in my familiar circles.
I looked up at this savior–this woman who was smiling from ear to ear and began to thank her and explain how I wasn’t sure what I would have done if she hadn’t come along at just the right time. However, my eyes were carefully watching the knife and her hands that folded and slid it back down into her front pocket. She smiled even wider, her gold front tooth catching the streetlight.
“Girl, he knows better than to mess with Johnnie Portland! You saw his tired @##% get on down the street didn’t ya. Ha Ha! My name’s Johnnie, and you must be my new neighbor. Yep, that’s my little house next door.”
She pointed to the brown shotgun house on the left side of me with pride. She held her arms out and hugged me. I will never forget that moment. It was a hug with several layers of good fat. The kind of fat that smells like cornbread and greens, fried chicken, and biscuits made with real butter. Her body grabbed me and enveloped me in a sandwich-style hold. “Anyone around here tries and mess with you just call ol’ Johnnie. I’ll make sure you’re okay. Alright? Alright then, shoot. You don’t really need to be out here at night alone, though. Understand?” I nodded, smiled, and tilted my head down nervously, then back up again. “Girl, you’re not from around here, are ya?” “No, I must admit, I’m not. Thanks for looking out for me.”
In the summer of 1991, Johnnie taught me lessons I would never learn at a college or a church house. Like the time I had to gas up for work on an early Sunday morning and was confronted by a drunk man, reeking and slurring. From the sight of him, he had been in a fight. There was blood and cuts on his dress shirt and hand. He did not look homeless. He had a nice suit coat and dress pants on. He tried to grab my purse and began asking for my money. I looked him directly in the eye, and, in Johnnie fashion, said, “I don’t have any money, and I’m on my way to work. Now go inside and clean yourself up. You’re drunk.” He looked stunned but headed towards the door of the corner store. He had obeyed me like the man Johnnie had told to get on down the road.
Somehow, I had moved to this area of town and reached this place of loss and poverty through events that caused a chain reaction. I was uneducated, pregnant with a third, and at times depressed. Johnnie helped me get through many social issues and spiritual issues. She had a way of making me believe and hope. My place of poverty was her place of rescue. It was her new beginning. Her vision was helping me adjust to the news lens my eyes were taking in. Could I find gratitude in this place I had landed?
I will never forget the first time I was invited to Johnnie’s house and ushered into her living room. She smiled her fantastic smile while taking off her flip-flop to swat a cockroach that she declared was just greeting me at the door. As I made my way into the kitchen, I met her son and daughter, who were both pleasant and excited to get to know me–their mysterious new neighbor. Johnnie was wearing a housecoat, and she had a comb stuck in her hair. She had spunk and big, beautiful eyes. Jonnie also had a huge cast-iron skillet. She was carefully and meticulously frying up chicken Colonel Sanders would have coveted. Her daughter squashed a roach and looked at me, and made a face. “I hate these bugs, mama,” she said. “I’m scared they will crawl inside my ears while I’m asleep, or worse my mouth.” I shook my head and said how sorry I was, while trying to refrain from leaping atop the table and screaming for the Orkin man to come and fumigate the place.
Johnnie brushed it off and acted as if she was not aware of the roaches that greeted her guest. Instead, she ushered me back into the front room and began to show off her new black sofa and love seat. “I got this living room furniture at Rent-A-Center. Just got rid of my tired raggedy little couch last week.” She pointed to her new glass coffee table and bragged. Johnnie was taking me on a tour of her little house like many who live in mansions would do. She loved it here. It was much better than the last place Jonnie had lived. “We hardly ever hear any gunshots,” she said. I sighed, thinking about the sights and sounds of my new environment. It was finally starting to sink in. I had been thrust into a social status that was unfamiliar. At the ripe age of 24, I had felt eviction, gone without electricity, scrounged for food, and watched my husband turn the water back on from the main shut off. However, now I had entered a place different from my childhood. I didn’t understand the culture or language, but thank the Lord, I had a friend. This friend would help me survive, make me smile, love me for who I was, and cause my children’s eyes to light up every time she made an appearance.
One night, I told Johnnie that we should go to the store and get bombs to let off and kill all the roaches. I told her I needed some as well and would share with her. Even though I lacked ceilings and a stove, I had not seen any roaches. We carted her kids off to spend the night with family and sealed up the windows. The next morning after sweeping up the dead bugs and cleaning the floors, I was thanked by her daughter, who told me she thought she would find it easier to sleep now. A few months later, I asked her son and daughter what color they would like their rooms to be painted. The young man wanted blue. He was named after the great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, but I was not sure he, nor his mother who placed the title on him, knew this. Honestly, I did not at the time. This was before taking art history and English 101 years later. Her daughter wanted a pink or purple room, like most girls her age. Johnnie and I got to work the following week painting their rooms.
One morning, after another bombing of bugs, Johnnie sent her daughter over to get me. She was frying country steaks, crispy potatoes, and making buttery biscuits. “I’ve got plenty,” she said. I noticed a bottle of bleach and a mop and began to clean and sweep up dead roaches. I pressed the bleach-filled mop hard against the linoleum until its dark sticky brown turned a speckled robin blue. Johnnie’s husband came in from the bedroom to the kitchen and looked as surprised to see a white gal mopping his floor as he did the blue color that had laid dormant underneath. He smiled and said, “Wow, it looks nice in here.” Johnnie introduced us. He grabbed his food and kissed his woman and then made his way back down the hall where he would collide on the mattress in front of the small TV. Johnnie’s kids ran from their rooms to the kitchen, back and forth bringing me pictures they had colored and school papers which they were proud of. Her young son had won a creative writing contest for budding authors. Maybe she knew more about his famous name than I had given her credit.
My children ended up playing with her children and their cousins. Some people warned me to keep my sons away from the children there, but what harm could come from children running through dirt, kicking balls, and passing the hours away with make-believe games? Were we different from them? No, and our children found ways amid poverty to laugh, hide, run, play, and eat their share of cold leftover pizzas. No color or prejudice mindset came between us. Each skin pigment was a beautiful hue of copper and gold, coffee and cream, and respect.
Johnnie knew about life, and she knew about death. She had lost family to senseless drugs, and, yes, shots fired. One night, Johnnie pointed to each house on the street, and one by one, informed me of who lived there. She knew who was hooked on crack or some other substance. Johnnie knew who was a God-fearing man and who was a nosey woman. She knew the names of the dirty kids that lived on the corner. Whenever they came to her house, she would give them baths because she never knew if they had water or not. Johnnie was cleaning things more important than floors.
Dinners were shared between our two families on many nights, and her food stamps supplied a few staple items when things were lean for my family. One night after Johnnie had bought a lottery ticket, she looked at me and said, “When I win the lottery, I am going to get off these little food stamps.” I said, “Well, Johnnie, with millions you could eat dinner in a different country every night.” She had no idea what a million dollars even amounted to. Like me, she lacked math skills but not love. She brought me half of her government cheese, and I gave her half my towels I found at a yard sale. She got my boys’ soda pops and Cheetos and hugged them in Johnnie fashion. I helped her children with homework. When the day came that I went into labor, Johnnie came over and cleaned my house. She folded my clothes and picked up the toys. When my relatives and family members showed up to see the baby, they were quite surprised to see Johnnie embracing my Samuel in a motherly hold. Her eyes lit up as she looked down at my son like he was part of her. Anytime she came by to visit, she would walk in and look me in the eye, that gold tooth shining, and exclaim, “Give me my Lil white baby!”
Over the years, we lost touch. I moved, then she moved. Gosh, I loved her, and how I miss her. I wonder if her son is writing. I wonder if her daughter is a mother now. I can still taste her chicken, her words, and her heart. She forever changed my view of the world and my voice as a writer. Wherever you are tonight, Johnnie, thank you for saving me on a hot summer night and for sharing all your wealth with me. Your wealth was what helped me get through many rough nights. And when I packed up and moved back across town into a lower-middle-class subdivision, the smallest unkempt house on the street, I was ecstatic. Every room had ceilings, and the backyard was fenced in. There were no dilapidated buildings with rats or mice–no bugs greeting friends at the door. The backyard had a bright green substance called grass, and the front porch was safe enough to sit on most nights at any hour and gaze up at the moon. However, no one brought me or my children golden smiles, packaged cheese, and hope the size of giant helium balloons.
Whatever you are going through right now that looks hopeless and without joy, just remember joy comes in multiple hues and often gives us lessons we would never choose, but underneath the poverty is a wealth of knowledge. Praise Him for where you are, for Joseph would have never acquired the tools he needed for the palace if he had not ventured to the pit and the prison.
If this ministered to you, you’ll want to pick up a copy of my new release, Jumping for Joy in the Midst of Sorrow: