Everyone should have a Mister Johnson in their neighborhood

You know Mister Johnson.

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He’s the “retired” guy who lives down the street with his wife.  He wears navy blue work shirts and pants. That shirt is always tucked in. His hands are working hands, and his hair is whiter than snow. His glasses habitually slide down his nose, and his voice is gravelly with a strong south of Boston cadence which refuses to be homogenized by tv, the internet, and convention.

His children are long-fledged, but his small yellow ranch on a little lot in Manomet is brightly decorated with each holiday–Halloween, Easter, and especially Christmas. People slow down on busy route 3-A to view the angels, the penguins and the candy canes. His yard is more crowded with Christmas elves each year, it seems. Some might say it’s gauche or even an eyesore. But his enthusiasm and his joy are undeniable. To him, such seasonal decor is a gift to others, to the community.

When our boys were little and we’d walk down to the bus stop next to his house, he would often come out and ask the kids about their homework or hockey.  I don’t think we ever learned his first name. To me and mine, he’s always been Mister Johnson.

He tinkers. He’s always doing something. A couple years ago, a younger family member came and spent the weekend helping him fell some oaks and pitch pines in the corner of his property. There he raised a little metal workshop and turned up the soil for some tomatoes and pumpkins. Some nights, as I drive past his house on my way home from work, I hear pounding metal. Other nights, later in the season when work brings us home in the dusk, the workshop is silent but the glow of florescent light spills out of the windows. He made a 4-foot tall lighthouse for his friends–a retired policeman and his wife– across the street. Just a little yard ornament for a fellow retiree.

He drives an old beat up Chevy whose rich exhaust reminds me of the 70’s.  I see him driving everywhere around town. In a world full of sleek GMCs and Toyotas and Dodges, his scratched and well-worn ride stands out a quarter a mile down the road. There goes Mister Johnson, I say to whomever might be in my own truck at the time.  There is almost ALWAYS something in the bed of his truck, unless he’s just returned from a scrap metal delivery.

Mister Johnson is the go-to guy when it comes to scrap metal. He drives 45 minutes to Hanson with a load–and he tells me he’s had as much as a ton of it on his truck.

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Mr Johnson shows us Polaroids of an epic scrap metal pick-up. Note the refrigerator on top of the tool box.

My wife and I had fallen into a full-court cleaning mode. Years of detritus had accumulated in the back of our yard–the old box springs, mattresses, metal gutters–they had all found their way behind and next to a shed. It was an archaeology of sorts, digging through the stacked piles of children’s bikes,  discarded tvs, and garden hoses we once had the noble intention of making into soaker hoses but never got around to. Life.

We hid our stuff–our junk and our memories–in the furthest corner of our own property; forgotten, as life continued around us fast and furious.

But today was different. Perhaps it was because this was the first Sunday after our own eldest son had fledged. Maybe we felt the first tangible stings of an empty nest. For whatever reason, we had time and inclination to address that place where hornets nest, where mice hunker down, and where the grass grows tall. Forgive us, dear south-facing neighbors, for having left you with such an uninspiring view of our discarded Salvation Army upholstered chair lo these several years.

Our digging led to sorting which led to a pile of metal. As we drove  down our little road with a heap of old couches and rolled rugs tied down in the back of our pickup to be delivered unceremoniously unto the difficult to manage waste facility, we happened upon Mister Johnson and his wife pulling into their little ranch. My wife and I thought the same thing: Let’s ask Mister Johnson if he wants the metal for scrap.

“Hi Mister Johnson. Do you still collect metal and would you like some?

“Yes I do”, he said.

“Do you take aluminum too?” I asked, thinking of the pieces of old gutters on the margin of our wood.

“If it’s metal I take it,” he replied.

“He’ll clean you up!” said Mrs. Johnson, cheerfully, from the cab of that Chevy.

He backed into our narrow driveway and across the lawn where our kids used to play wiffle ball and expertly parked between two semi-dwarf apple trees. Our dog, Bogey, gave him the hey, i’m not sure who you are bark. Mister Johnson is the guy who carries dog biscuits in his truck to give to dogs who just aren’t sure why there’s a gentleman noisily throwing scrap metal into the unlined metal bed of his truck. Bogey made a friend today.

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You know Mister Johnson. He’s the guy who takes away your scrap metal and the physical memories you are finally willing to let go of.  He’s the guy who brings you a plastic bag of tomatoes when he comes to pick it all up.

The weeds have got the better of me this year, he told us, speaking about his tomatoes. He said the manure from a local pig farm had too many weeds in it and he won’t use that again.

He’s seemingly happy in retirement, doing all the small things that turn little or no profit but which benefit a neighborhood richly. There’s a timeless sense to it all. In his work clothes and beater truck he reminds me of my own grandfather. Change the color of the photos to sepia or black and white and they could be from the 1960’s or earlier.

There are a lot of Mister Johnsons in the world, humbly picking away at the odds and ends of our lives. They enrich our community, and are part of the ties that bind a neighborhood.

I hope your neighborhood has a Mister Johnson.

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Oh right…Harry. That’s Mister Johnson’s first name. And his wife’s name is Myrt.

Harry and Myrt.

We’ll see you next time, Mister Johnson.

blue-acorn11

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16 thoughts on “Everyone should have a Mister Johnson in their neighborhood

  1. pfollansbee says:

    Nicely written, McKee. Good going. Happy ending too, I was afraid he was gonna be dead!
    PF

  2. Ron says:

    You’re a great writer! This made me a little sad as I think back to my little towns version of Mister Johnson. We always referred to him as the “Peanut Man” because any time kids stopped by his backyard shop he would always have peanuts for them as a treat. Heck of a woodworker and handyman and to this day when ever I eat peanuts in a shell I think of him and my little town.

  3. I love all your posts and look forward to the next with anticipation. This one was a beaut! But they generally all are.
    Thanks mate. Keep it coming.

  4. Jen Durant says:

    That is so true and beautifully written!! – Sharing it. 🙂 – Jen

  5. John Wolf says:

    Very nice Rick! I’ve been fortunate to have one or two Mr. Johnsons around ( and the equally important neighbor type we’ll call Mrs. Johnson). There are much worse things to become if we grow up.

  6. Rick says:

    Well said, John–

  7. graemeu says:

    I was thinking about these words of wisdom and it occurred to me that Mr McKee is not so different from Mr Johnson. Taking an interest in the little things that slip most peoples notice and giving a social commentary about the communities in which you live and work and the interesting people you meet. It might be just a bit of fun but it can be important work this documenting of the way things are, for someone in the future to look back at the way things were.

  8. Martha says:

    I live vicariously through their Christmas display and look forward to it all year long! It’s lovely to know something about the people behind the lights and to find out something positive rather than negative.

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