Monday, January 21, 2013

Johnny Morris Was Unseen But Not Forgotten

By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

I wonder how many people realize the number of homeless camps that set up shop at the schools of Fullerton every night, only to see the residents vanish from sight in time for the kids to arrive each morning. And that largely is how they want to keep it, some relative invisibility to keep from seeming a bother. When that invisibility is interrupted, the community has a way of taking sides against each other while the homeless silently slip out of sight again.

But it really isn't always that way. At one time, sleeping in a doorway on Wilshire near Malden, was Fullerton's most prominent homeless man about town.

There was nothing unusual about someone walking up to him and handing him a muffin or some soup. A patron leaving a restaurant might bring him a cup of coffee.

One Christmas time I would see a woman dressed as though she was on her way to one of the better restaurants suddenly call "Johnny" and run to him, pulling a Christmas card from her purse she had been carrying in case she saw him. As always, he would be unable to look right at the person giving him something, but his face would slowly come to a very bright smile.

When I asked this woman about the phenomenon I was witnessing, she told me they had gone to high school together, that a number of old schoolmates had started doing small things to take care of him. But I don't think they were all old classmates, I never had the chance to find out about why most of them were looking out for him. It probably came easy in this case, because look at the appreciation he showed.

Johnny Morris, to my limited understanding, appeared to be a Catatonic Schizophrenic, which bears some resemblance to autism. The articulated hand movements he exhibited as he acted out using imaginary objects drew my envy, as I was involved live improv comedy and "Spacework" at the time. The first time I intervened in one of his episodes, he was using his hand as though holding a Colt 1911 automatic pistol or something with a similar thumb safety, judging from the use of his opposing digit. Literally, from watching his hand, I could name the gun. The other hand was held up as though he was showing his badge; he was yelling "FREEZE! FBI UNDERCOVER!"

I learned a few things as a volunteer working with the mentally ill. In this case, I ran up next to him and took up his same position, mimicking his actions. So these people in the parking lot he'd been threatening to gun down now had two of us. But I explained quickly that he was harmless and it helped to mirror his movements to bring him out of it.

He stopped moving, but his hand remained up pointing his "Gun." Since my moving out of position might set him in motion again, I asked if one of them would please just run over to Back Alley Grill right close and get the owner, who was very good at dealing with Johnny. The "Victims" were already laughing nervously, one asked if he was going to frisk them. At the sound of the owners voice, Johnny broke that slow smile.

It wasn't always so amiable. At Fullerton Library he might start yelling as he acted out some drama; maybe imagined, maybe remembered. Often it would involve violence or threats of violence. But always it was Johnny himself on the receiving end of the violence. The librarians never seemed to question when I'd squat into an imaginary chair next to him and match his gestures, between his shouts saying "Johnny, you can't be doing this here."

They're educated people, they know something is working when he quiets down. But Johnny wore out his welcome in a library that welcomes the homeless, he was finally told not to come back. And he didn't, he really didn't want to be a problem.

And mostly he wasn't. I don't know if the business owner was bothered that Johnny would keep himself out of the rain, mostly out of the wind by spending the night in the inset space of the doorway, or if the owner even knew. I do know how I'd feel if I owned a business, if customers were uncomfortable with the homeless, even with my understanding that these people are alive and have to fill a space somewhere, even as we build cities they can't adapt to and take away all the free space. These matters create a lot of tough questions without ready answers.

The end came for Johnny while he was having a rare moment indoors. He was given some coffee, he sat at a table, suddenly he went face down. Easy to think he'd fallen asleep, it wasn't quite sun up. The word traveled quickly, so many knew Johnny.

A plaque went up memorializing Johnny at Back Alley Grill. People left food, I'm not sure if it was simply a memorial or if it was meant for other homeless, but they don't seem to go to that neighborhood and it went to waste. Not the case at the memorial site for Kelly Thomas, the food, clothes, cigarettes are quickly put to use. I'm asked why I bring cigarettes and I point out that in my time working with the mentally ill I realized that smoking brought what little pleasure some of them had. I'm not a smoker myself and I had the opportunity to decide that on my own. I'll let them do the same.

The Kelly Thomas site is temporary, unless the OCTA should decide to allow something permanent. No reason that they should. Either way, the drop offs should subside after a month or so of relative prosperity for these people who survive on so little. They smile about that, saying they appreciate it for as long as it might last.

They can't all be Johnny Morris.

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