Picture, Johnny Taylor, By Sharon Farmer for The Washington Post
Johnny (Newsboy) Taylor starts serving his customers well before they reach his newsrack. They never have to say a word; one look is all he needs.
Whether it's a Washington Post, Washington Star, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, a combination of papers or a copy of his own "Notes From a Newsboy's Diary," a one-page amalgam of tidbits of information and religious homilies published every Thursday, Taylor knows the territory.
From 6 until 10, five mornings a week, he owns the northwest corner of 15th and K streets NW.
"He drives the prettiest Cadillac in town," Taylor tells a bystander as a man in a chauffeur's uniform approaches. "His boss always wants seven or eight papers."
He wants them this particular morning, but can't get them. Neither can most of the other customers who arrive after 8:45. Taylor has received 45 fewer copies of one paper than usual, and the others are late.
"Bless your heart, I'm out of it," he tells at least 40 people. He persuades a few to buy a substitute, but most leave disappointed.
"It never hurts to be friendly," says the 70-year-old former bantamweight boxer. "They know I'm honest and they know I like people. I believe in a fair shake. When I first started, folks would walk by and not even know I was here. Now I've got them smiling when they used to frown."
Taylor is quite familiar with such conversions. He's been doing them, one way or another, since he took his first stab at preaching in his hometown of Wadesboro, N.C.
He moved -- physically but not spiritually -- from the pulpit to photography, buying a store from his stepfather when he was 14, and paying for it within a year. When a customer asked for 100 photos of his latest boxing protege, Taylor was immediately converted to boxing.
"I'd fight Monday night in one town, Tuesday night in another and Thursday night in a third," Taylor recalls.
Seven years, 44 states and 163 fights later, Taylor stopped -- at an age when many fighters have barely started. Still, he left late enough to be selected for the Boxing Hall of Fame.
"My coordination was gone," he explained."My head told me to make the moves but my body wouldn't do it. It was taking me seven or eight rounds to knock out guys I should have in two. Yeah, I was pretty young to stop, but I don't have cauliflower ears and I never got my nose broke."
Just his heart and his wallet. He has since worked in theatrical studios and relief missions, served in the Navy ("for 13 months and 19 days -- and if you have to ask me why I count the days, you've never been in the service"), lost all of his family -- a subject he will not discuss in detail -- and was given last rites after suffering a heart attack 18 years ago in Baltimore. During all that time his riches have been far more spiritual than monetary.
He came to his current occupation by accident. One day on his way downtown, he noticed that there were many people passing 15th and K but no one there to sell them anything. A friend suggested that he try selling papers.
He started two years ago, with 65 per day and no clientele. Now he sells 300 a day, collects autographs from his customers, receives cards and letters from across the country, thanking him for his newsletter or his kind words, and has his picture taken an average of five times a day.
"No adults sell papers anymore, because you can't make enough money," Taylor says regretfully. "Between this and my Social Security check, I'm just about making enough to take care of the dry cleaning and the laundry and the food."
"How about doing something else?" an observer asked.
"Tell me what I can do at 70 to make more money, and I'll start next week," he replied.
No way. He couldn't afford to disappoint so many people.