LEE JOHNSON'S life makes no sense, unless you take the Beatitudes very seriously. It is much too irregular, for instance, for the D.C. Department of Human Services, which routinely calls her in for further questioning. It is much too irregular for her own neighbors in Anacostia, who wonder why a white woman lives in a black community at all. And then there is this latest development. At 42, with four children, no husband, no job and no foundation grants to make up the difference, Johnson is about to open a home for unwanted elderly women. The plan is as uncomplicated as Johnson herself. She is going to give up her own home, with everything in it, move next door, and commute.
Johnson knows what it feels like to have worn out your welcome in the universe. At age 5 (her mother was killed in a car accident, her tenant dairy farmer father gave all nine children up to welfare authorities), Johnson spent her childhood in a series of grim foster homes in rural Maryland, nearly all of them with farm families which needed an extra hand and her welfare check.
"It was terrible," said Johnson, who talks about her past only when prodded. "People only took you in for the money, and then they'd use it on themselves even though they always told the social worker that they was going to buy me new clothes and be real nice."
She picked crops, washed dishes and scrubbed the heel marks of other people's children off the linoleum. She hated school. "Kids teased you because you didn't have a mother and because I wasn't smart. But you didn't have time to be smart, you wereso tired most of the time."
Sexually molested, beaten up by older brothers in one family, and ignored by her own extended family, which was in the area but too poor to take her in, except for yearly family reunions ("you didn't go to see anybody, you went because you could eat all youwanted"), Johnson was an off-Broadway Annie, who says she would not have survived had it not been for the black people who mothered her on the run.
"I guess I came in contact with black people for the first time when I was in my second family. I was about 8. There was an old crippled black couple who lived in a tenant farm down the road who used to let me come in. Miss Beulah would take me on her lap and comb my hair for hours. She loved doing that and she would give me homemade bread to eat. I guess if it hadn't been for black people when she was older, another couple found her sleeping in their car and took her in for a year , I wouldn't have survived."
At 15, Johnson ran away from her last foster home and went to work in an old people's home in Frederick, Md. That was when she first got her idea to take care of the elderly poor. "Honey, you can't believe how they treated them old people. I always said that if I ever became a millionaire I'd take care of them the right way."
Johnson never became a millionaire and, financially, she is of the "Little Eliza" school of economics, leaping from one ice floe to another, hoping the floe won't melt. A fiercely independent woman, she worked (usually as a domestic) until five years ago when her fourth child was born. Then her doctor told her she had to stop because of high blood pressure. She yearns to be self-sufficient again, but worries that people will think she is going to use public assistance money (some of her children are on grants) or take a profit out of the elderly women's welfare checks.
"I talked to one lady who takes care of old people and she says there's no way I can make it, unless I take their whole check. But I can't do that. They've got to have something of their own. But I figure if I can get enough to pay the rent and feed 'em right--I'm not going to feed 'em no damn dog food--we'll be all right. Anyway, it's too late to turn back."
Right now, Johnson's household includes four preteen daughters, a 21-year-old woman whose mother kicked her out six weeks ago for being pregnant and an elderly ex-inmate of St. Elizabeths named Dorothy. Dorothy could hardly walk when Johnson found her across the street at a bus stop, wearing only a cotton housecoat, with no place to go.
"I went on over and said, 'Dorothy, where's your clothes?' and she said she didn't have any and I said, 'Well, you can't sit out here in the rain like that.' " Dorothy became part of Johnson's family in a very straightforward manner. Johnson took her by the hand and led her across the street.
"I went to Eastover Md. the next day and bought her some new clothes for $100. Dorothy said she'd pay me back with her next welfare check. But when the check came she wouldn't give me any. So I just decided that you had to go ahead and laugh at that. 'All right, Dorothy,' I said. 'No problem.' So that's the story of Dorothy. She's such a trip!"
Lee Johnson is large, ginger-haired and gentle, the kind of mother that kids instinctively dive into for consolation or a present. "You want a present?" she exclaims, picking up her 5-year-old. "Well, you got one--me!"
The outside of Johnson's row house on a grimy strip of Martin Luther King Avenue SE is indestructibly depressing. But inside, the floors are waxed, fluffy Priscilla curtains hang in the windows, and small bowls of pink and white artificial flowers are set out on glass tables. A potful of greens simmers quietly in a spotless kitchen. There is not a mote of dust in the air.
Next door is an identical, unoccupied row house. It had been savaged by tenants who must have played darts on the walls with hatchets. In a desperate moment, somebody had painted the kitchen walls blood red. The kitchen itself consists of a tilting sink, a gas stove and a floor with the texture and flexibility of wet cardboard. When Johnson first hatched her plan to preside over a double dwelling, she was faced with having to undo the damage caused by countless dispirited tenants who had taken out their frustration on the house.
Today, all the trash has been hauled to the back and removed by the sanitation department. The walls are nearly all repainted, with donated paint. Several out-of-work friends of Johnson offered to do some work on the windows, scraping panes that had been spray-painted and replacing broken ones. Clad in a sweat suit and old tennis shoes, Johnson spends every free minute knee-deep in Lysol and determination. "I'm not going to take anything from the other house except my bedroom suit--I worked too hard to get that," she said.
But the word is out that Johnson has a whole house to fill up with necessities and, little by little, the need is being met. Sister Julia McMurrough, a longtime friend and social worker at Assumption Church, where Johnson used to work as a housekeeper, found four kitchen chairs and a bookcase. A girlfriend who is getting married gave her two sofas. Somebody donated a rug. At night, after the children are asleep, Johnson plugs in a radio and scrubs away at the smoke stains on the fireplace ("that's one good feature of this house the other one doesn't have") and wonders how she is going to repay the friend who loaned her two months' rent and security deposit on the new house.
"I'm prepared to accept the fact that nobody will believe me when they see that I'm doing this. I mean, people know that the money has to come from somewhere." But benefactors tend to materialize just when she needs them. "It was Rosie not the real name of the 21-year-old who came to live with Johnson six weeks ago who gave me the money to buy the paint, for instance," said Johnson. "She also said that she'd stay in the other house and help with the old people after they come."
Locking the porch door of the vacant house, she glanced briefly back inside the blood-red kitchen she plans to paint a buttercup yellow. As she walked down the steps, a new thought crossed her mind.
"When my own mother died, I had to raise myself, you know. But if this thing comes together, I guess I'll have more mothers than I'll know what to do with."
Back on her own kitchen porch, she rapped on the window to get Dorothy's attention. "Hurry up, Dorothy, it's cold out here." Dorothy fumbled with the inside lock and finally opened it.
Slinging one arm around Dorothy's neck, Johnson said, "I bet if I was a bumper of beer knockin', you'd have come running."
"Sometimes," said Johnson, "Dorothy gets on my nerves so bad, but there's nothing you can do with her except go ahead and laugh."
Johnson laughs more than she thinks she does, although she is rather hard on herself. "I don't go to church because I can't follow all them rules. Or at least I haven't been able to so far, and when Jesus comes to take me home, he's going to have to overlook a lot if I'm going to get into heaven."
Does this mean, Johnson is asked, that if she were in God's shoes, she wouldn't have enough compassion to forgive herself? Johnson was silent for several moments. "I'd have to think about it," she said quietly. "I'd have to think about it for a while."