In a mission riddled with decay and grime, Johnny was a man apart. Here, in the middle of it all, was a meticulous gentleman who wore expensive sunglasses, tucked away dry-cleaned trousers in a tidy duffel bag and ate supper with a paper napkin opened neatly on his lap.
His cleanliness and aloof nature spurred all sorts of scandalous rumors about Johnny's integrity. One old-timer speculated that he was a spy for the Baltimore police. Another declared that Johnny must be on the lam. A few men insinuated that he actually came to the Helping-Up to partake in illicit sexual relations there.
Mission innuendo was often exotic but usually inaccurate, and Johnny's case was no exception to this rule. He was simply a modest soul who was left homeless by the death of his grandmother. He sang in a local church choir, aspired to be a minister and slept at the mission because he could both save money there and learn about the very people he most wanted to help. Johnny was no angel, I would learn later, but his life was no more duplicitous than the other guys' and certainly less so at that point than mine.
Late one night at the mission, Johnny and I got to talking about his life and about what it was that he did during those occasional periods when he left the mission for days at a time. "I got a job," he said. "The company delivers papers to different neighborhoods. You know, those shopping news things."
When I told Johnny I was interested in working, he offered to speak to his foreman about getting me on to a crew. A few days later, he told me to show up at a tavern on Washington Boulevard, where the men met every day before boarding their trucks. Said Johnny of my new job: "It doesn't pay all that hot, but it ain't hard, either."
The 520 Cafe was a gritty little beer bar squatting at the nub of a major road leading into the city. I arrived there at 6 a.m. and found a dozen men inside, puffing smokes and sipping coffee at a bunch of broken-down circular tables, all crammed together.
The white-haired manager of the tavern swept up cigarette butts and other refuse from business the previous night while groups of other men -- in jeans and work boots and ranging in age from late teens to mid 60s -- crowded around pinball machines and an old juke box. Half were white, half black, and they took turns boogying to the country and western and the soul tunes that blasted out of the music machine.
I took a seat near the door, which every minute or two swung open like a scene from a western movie and deposited worker after worker from out of the windy cold. Each man greeted the others with loud cheer and robust hand slaps.
The men all carried papers for Advertising Distributors of Maryland, and the 520 Cafe was their morning headquarters. ADM usually sent out three or four trucks a day, each containing a crew of nine men responsible for 2,000 drug store and supermarket circulars. Monday, when the local Fooderama papers came out, was an exception. Sometimes as many as 10 trucks took to the streets Mondays to blanket the city and Baltimore County with news of impending discounts on such items as hamburger and grapefruit.
The pay was strictly minimum wage but the job had advantages over others. The pay was in cash, and it came the same day we worked.
Soon after I arrived that first morning, Johnny bounded in amid shouts of "Hey Kid" and "What say, Kid" and led me over to Oscar, our foreman, a bald toothless man who spoke in a hoarse, high-pitched whisper which was the result of a larynx operation several years back.
Oscar and I hit it off nicely after I disclosed that my home address was the Helping-Up Mission. He chuckled, patted me on the back and whispered that he too had slept at Helping-Up "a few weeks in my time, if you catch my drift, when things were king of rough."
Oscar had been with ADM some 10 years, starting out as a carrier like the rest of the men, then finally getting a job as foreman, which meant he drove us around while we did the leg work.
He was usually the last to roll into 520 in the morning, and by the time of his arrival the bojo banter was in high gear, with Nate at center stage. Nate, Oscar's best buddy, was a retired construction worker who supplemented his social security pension by carrying papers for ADM. He was a rambunctious old codger who would lope into the 520 with a devilish "dare you" smirk on his face while patting the right rear pocket of his orange corduroys -- home, he said, of his four-inch "hawk" pocketknife.
Each morning Nate began a jovial dispute among the men that never failed to make the cafe erupt into a whirlwind of jive. He was the only man around who, at 6 a.m., could get 50 others to argue, for instance, about whether Kung Fu artist Bruce Lee played the Green Hornet's chauffeur in the old television series.
My first morning a few men were discussing old Tarzan movies at a table next to mine when Nate came in with a floppy-eared hat atop his head and said the baddest jungle flick he ever saw was one starring Sabu, the Elephant Boy.
It was an old Clyde Beatty movie, Nate said, the one where he played Sabu and had to fight a mean tiger. A snake came along and told him how to defeat the tiger and gave him a lift down the river on its back, Nate declared. The men, of course, moaned and groaned because they knew there was no stopping Nate once he got started.
"Nate," asked one man, lighting a stogie, "who the hell asked you?"
"I'm just telling you, Sam, Sabu was a mean mother."
Oscar, our foreman, overheard all this, wheeled around on his barstool and let loose a brief but spirited unintelligible growl and the men all smiled in anticipation and looked at Pete, who was sitting closest to Oscar and was best able to translate what the man had said.
"Oscar says Nate don't know his behind from . . ." Pete said. "He says you're so screwed up you're talking about Adam and Eve and don't even know it."
To which Nate responded with a loud, extensive and skillful degradation of Oscar's sexual prowess that had everyone in an uproar until Oscar defeated, ended it all with the words that began our work day: "Roll it!"
As Oscar tooled his creaky white truck through the city's bumpy streets, Johnny pulled on a pair of ink-stained coveralls and began unstacking the bundles of supermarket newspapers piled in back.
"Hey Kid," Oscar wheezed shortly after departing the 520, "Help out the tramp."
Johnny handed out gray shoulder satchels to each of us, then sat opposite me in the back of the truck demonstrating how to roll up the papers and slip rubber bands around them. In the streets those days Johnny also showed me how to work the T, the most common practice among the paper carriers. Working the T meant two men distributed newspapers on parallel sides of a neighborhood block. They met halfway down a perpendicular street, then returned to the next block and repeated the sequence until the neighborhood was finished.
Johnny also advised me to carry about 30 papers folded under one arm, while keeping a ready supply of rubber bands around the fingers of my opposite hand. "It's easy from there," Johnny said. "Just take the paper out, roll a band around it and throw the thing."
Once I figured out how to slip a rubber band around the paper with one hand, the job became easier. But I never became as skilled as it as the eight talented veterans on my crew who could go from door to door in a jampacked rowhouse neighborhood dropping neatly rolled Epstein's market circulars on each porch without ever losing step.
The toughest part of the job was the weight of the 100 to 150 papers each of us carried in our ink-stained satchels. In the proud working-class neighborhoods of South Baltimore, where it seemed each block was punctuated by a carryout or corner tavern, the burden was quickly eased. These were rowhouse communities, so the distance between doors was not great and we didn't have to carry our burdens very far.
In fact, many of these homes were adorned with wrought-iron hand rails that reached all the way to the sidewalk, and at the end of each rail was a tiny convenient loop, so all we had to do was fit a paper into the loop and be on our way to the next house without even worrying about the tricky rubber bands.
As an added treat a housewife or grandmother anxious to learn of shopping discounts occasionally would be waiting for us outside the front door, so all we had to do was hand the paper to her. This job was heaven to bums like Johnny and me. Since most of our time anyway would've been spent trudging for miles from soup kitchen to soup kitchen, why not be paid for it?
Of course there were always several ingrates lurking who make the job unnecessarily tough.
"Dumb woman," moaned Shorty, another man on our crew as he climbed back into the truck one day after working a T. "Dumb woman found the thing outside her door then ran all over the neighborhood looking for me 'cuz she didn't want it. I shoulda took them curlers out her hair and shoved 'em down her throat."
The same day Nate and I worked a T in a squalid Baltimore ghetto known as Sandtown, going from dilapidated housing projects to blocks so lonely that we would walk past seven or eight abandoned homes before coming to one that was occupied. When we finished that T we went into a gritty little cutrate liquor store to purchase a pack of cigarettes and noticed a sign behind the plexiglass counter declaring, "Shoplifters will be killed."
Outside, while we waited for Oscar to pick us up, Nate, the amiable retired construction worker, was reduced to anguish when a rowdy crew of teen-agers swaggered past calling him "boy."
In general, however, Baltimore City was easy to work in, compared to the county. Here were neighborhoods of large two-story homes set far back behind spacious lawns. In Baltimore City we could easily unload 25 or 30 papers on each block. But in the wide openess of the county it was not unusual to find distance of 50 or 60 yards separating two homes.
Some men were good to have in the county because they could do a single county block by themselves. Shorty was such a fellow. He could walk straight up the middle of the street without missing a step, whistling some blues tune and tossing papers right and left.
But Johnny was the best to have around because he knew the most outstanding "dump" and "double-up" tricks. Doubling-up was simply rolling two or three papers into a single rubber band. We had to do this for two reasons in Baltimore County: one, we lessened our burdens faster and two, we could throw the papers farther.
"Here," Johnny said to me, standing in the middle of a tree-lined street. "Try throwing one paper over into that yard." I threw it as hard as I could but the wind was against me and the paper barely made the sidewalk.
"Now try this," he said, handing me one of his doubled-up circulars. I threw and the papers very nearly broke a window. An old woman in a pink frock peeped out to see what all the racket was about. As we sprinted out of the lady's eyeshot Johnny muttered, "Be cool, Slim, you ain't no Terry Bradshaw."
Three papers were the most we were allowed to roll up into a single rubber band. Johnny said customers complained to ADM whenever they found four or more of the same circulars on their doorsteps, but for some reason they didn't mind having three.
The dump trick was by far the most effective and Johnny was an expert at it. No one was better than him at sporting secluded newspaper dumping grounds. I was working a T with another worker one day when Johnny and Shorty came up and told us to follow them.
We walked several blocks past a scrap iron yard and turned off into an alley behind an elementary school. There, nestled behind a rotting row boat, was a rusty forgotten garbage bin half-filled with soggy newspapers. We took turns emptying our shoulder bags into the bin and afterward Johnny and Shorty lifted the rowboat and neatly placed it on top of the heap -- which would stay there until the next time they had to carry papers in this neck of the woods.
Later, after we received our wages at ADM headquarters, we returned to the 520 Cafe for beers and pinball. Johnny took off his coveralls and placed them in the back of Oscar's truck and late that Friday afternoon, after listening to Nate's bojo a while, Johnny said goodbye.
He was going away to Hyattsville that weekend to sing with his church choir and said he wouldn't be back at Helping-Up until the following Monday. c
I had money now and, as it turned out, I never saw Johnny or my other Helping-Up comrades again. A day later I would be hitchhiking my way south toward Washington. There was one thing I wanted to do before I left Baltimore, however, and it was something many of my mission friends did whenever they came across a little cash.
I walked to The Block early that evening and, maneuvering my way past transvestites, prostitutes and piles of rain-soaked liquor boxes, came to the filthy front door of the Edison Hotel. A pink-faced wino buzzed me in and suspiciously inquired about the nature of my business.
"I'd like a room for the night," I said.