My Friend Johnny

Every two years we rerun the “My Friend Named John” story because it is such a meaningful story. It’s for sure a story to give thanks and praise for allowing us the chance to be a friend of John. We work all kinds of crazy hours here and no matter what time of the day it is you will see Johnny hanging out outside my office. My Friend Named John has so much peace in his eyes and love in his heart that no matter how big of a guy you are, or no matter how tough you are, Johnny is Johnny and you will fall in love with him as a warm heartfelt individual that will always brings peace to any. To be truthful there have been many times over the years that I just wanted to walk out the door and never look back but then John walks by or he knocks on my office door always saying something funny and from this, from his pure need you just can’t and you start to wonder where would he be or where would the others be if you exited and never came back. Some of my friends have asked me over the years, “Sean, don’t you feel taken for granted by these people?”I have said sure and when it comes to Johnny there is only pure need of him using us and is what makes it so beautiful, he needs everything. He needs to be told when to go shower and it is us who gives him his bath. From the article will see getting him to take a shower can be a long journey but with the extra help I hired it only takes a few days to get him to do that and now the aide we hired gives him his bath, making it a little easier for me at times. Some of the times I have to even treat him as if he were a child but that feeling of him needing me also means using him for my own sense to be needed as well. Even when I get my well deserved break trying to get an hour of sleep in the day time and I hear his knock on my door with his soft voice calling out to me “Sean I need a soda cause I left mine on the plane” you get that daytime smile. He always says something that means nothing. Just last week he said he swallowed soap while he and I were scuba diving in the Nile River in Egypt…. I almost died from laughing to death.

He seems as peaceful as Jesus. You could be in the middle of a stressful day and want to just walk out the door and then you run into John and the whole world stops and the stress is erased by John’s presence.This and many Thanksgivings now eleven years later since I found Johnny just sitting there, there is not a day that I don’t thank Jesus for meeting Johnny.

We urge you to read this story and then give this story to your friends. It was written by Robert George of the Sun-Sentinel in 1999.Happy Thanksgiving!
Love Sean….

Sean Cononie, almost a millionaire and just 35, works 20 hours a day finding homes for the homeless, hope for the hopeless. And when he loses faith, he turns to the neediest one of all to restore it.

Johnny’s feet are black again; his stomach, bare beneath his unbuttoned shirt, is shiny with sweat; and he’s swearing, which he never does, and threatening to leave if Sean doesn’t back off about him needing a shower.

“I don’t wanna be tossed around by anyone,” Johnny says, and then he leans back on the couch in Room 8 of Sean Cononie’s homeless shelter in Hollywood and folds his arms across his chest.

Sean swivels around to look into Johnny’s face. Leave? Is he serious? Sean knows that Johnny McCormick, who, at 47, had long ago fried his brain on drugs, would be lost without the shelter. And Sean would be a little lost too, since he has decided he wants to take care of Johnny forever.

There is no smile on Johnny’s face, and he turns away when Sean keeps looking at him, and so Sean softens his tone, uses baby talk.

“Why don’t you get wet in the shower?” Sean asks, very gently this time. “We’ll go out to din-din.”

“Well,” Johnny says, uncrossing his arms, “if I take a shower I need pants.”

“I just gave you pants yesterday. I took off my own pair and gave them to you.”

“I might shower in the future if I get a sharper razor.”

Sean smiles. His cell phone rings. He clicks it open and listens while rolling his head around in a circle to loosen the knot in his neck.

The hospital is calling again. Is there room for one more? That makes 10 and it’s still lights out.

“It’s gonna be a helluva night, ” he says, and then he hangs up. Patting Johnny on the back, he lifts himself up from the couch and heads down the well-worn path through the patch of trees and the gap in the chain-link fence and to the stairs that lead to Penthouse 4.

Sean anchors himself in the chair behind an old desk cluttered with phones, an ashtray spilling ashes and three packs of Prozac someone found in the trash. Cases of cranberry juice line one wall from floor to ceiling. Paper cups and cookie jars separate the soda money from the cigarette money from the rent money from the street collection money.

From the clutter, he picks up the list of today’s new arrivals.

Lois, the mugging victim, with open wounds on her skinny knees from the dragging she took though an alleyway.

Tom, who likes to tell people he is bisexual.

Joe, with a perforated ulcer.

All people who are too old, or too sick, or too troublesome for other homeless shelters to bother with, and too poor for the hospitals to take care of.

It’s sort of a rogue shelter, this place Sean Cononie has set aside for them. It is made up of pink bungalows that were once an Army barracks and are now a rundown apartment complex in a tidy downtown neighborhood. To pay the rent, it sends its people out to beg for money. It turns no one away. And it seems to grow attached to the most needy, the ones who will almost certainly end up back on the streets without its help. Even if one of them breaks the rules, even if one of them refuses to take a shower for 10 days straight, The Corporation of Sean Anthonie Cononie (COSAC) doesn’t let him go without a fight.

At 35, Sean is wealthy, a millionaire almost. And he doesn’t know why, when he could do whatever he wanted with his life, he spends his time here, 20 hours a day, seven days a week, here among the rejects. It makes no sense, other than it’s important to help people, especially people who really need help, and most especially, Johnny.

When someone at the shelter gets drunk or high again, or when someone dies or goes back to the street, Sean knows that Johnny will still be there, probably refusing to wear a belt and pulling his pants up with his left hand, or maybe holding the newspaper upside down and pretending to read it, or saying one of those funny things, like he did the other night at the ice cream shop.

On most nights, he takes in more people than any other shelter in the county. He wants to take in even more, shopping around to buy a building of his own, applying for grants, while at the same time trying to figure out ways to run the shelter without government money and all the rules that would come with that.

Sean wants his shelter to always be the sort of place that doesn’t pretend every single person has the ability to make it on his own, the sort of shelter where people like Johnny never have to leave at all.

And so he has fewer rules and more of the classes where homeless people go to learn how to balance a checkbook and make a grocery list. Instead, those without disability checks to contribute to the rent can either join the day labor pool digging ditches or they can take one of Sean’s plastic cookie jars and one of his red, white and blue “Helping People in America” T-shirts.

Hollywood Boulevard, or Andrews Avenue, or Arvida Parkway. At rush hours across the county, Sean’s people wait for the lights to turn red and then, ID badges dangling, they walk among the rows of cars, their jars stretched out for change.

Jose, the first of the collection crew chiefs to finish this day, comes into Penthouse 4 a few minutes after Sean. He plops down on the couch, plunks a plastic cookie jar on the carpet and picks out the dollar bills.

Della is drinking other people’s soda again, he says, without looking up from the cookie jar.

Sean rolls his head. He looks down at the bed list, assigns Lois to No. 11, Tom to No. 17, Joe to No. 10, and the rooms at 2707 Lincoln St. quickly fill up.

Sean had prayed once to have a child of his own. Now he has dozens of them without even having to get married, which is good because dating and courtship take up a lot of time. And even before the shelter he was too busy for romance.

Quick to help

He grew up in Hollywood, the youngest son of an airline mechanic who coached all of his Little League teams and a mother who stayed at home to raise the kids.

Helping people came natural to him. In his teens, he stopped at every accident he ever saw, pulling one baby from a burning car and bringing another back to life with CPR. He was even a bit stubborn about helping people and doing the right thing, like it was the only thing, the only choice. He actually sought out old ladies to help cross the street, found homes for stray dogs and, when that didn’t seem enough, he made sandwiches to hand out to homeless people he might come across.

In his 20s, he got a half-million dollar worker’s comp settlement after he slipped and fell at his job as a store security guard, rupturing disks in the neck and back. He invested the money in stocks just as the market took off and then watched his portfolio grow so fast that he could buy a Lexus, a Rolex watch, and his own house in his own hometown with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi in the back yard.

He even had enough money to write a $60,000 check just so he could fly out to California for Liz Taylor’s birthday party. It was a fund-raiser for her AIDS foundation and he found himself climbing out of a limousine in a tuxedo, chatting up with one beauty, sipping champagne with another.

But the best part of the night came when Liz Taylor said “each and every one of you” were doing a tremendous amount of good. That had to mean him, too. And he felt just so elated and so proud and he realized the best part of his good life came when he was being stubborn again about doing the right thing.

He flew home and filed the papers to start his nonprofit charity, naming it after himself. Not one to think much about the why and the what next of things, he simply started stuffing the trunk of his Lexus full of sandwiches, driving down to the slums of Overtown and handing them out to homeless people.

That seemed like a good idea. After all, God must have put the homeless here on Earth to give people like him, people with everything, an opportunity to do something sacred. What was it that Jesus said in the Bible? Sean could never get the words exactly right, just the meaning. What was it? If you feed the hungry, if you feed the best of mankind, you’re feeding me, too?

The Answer Man

Meals are served out of Room 16, he tells the newcomers. No gourmet meals, but donated doughnuts for breakfast, bologna sandwiches for lunch and macaroni and cheese with hot dogs and beans for supper.

Sean rents five bungalows worth of beds, small buildings in two parallel rows separated by a littered courtyard. And behind one row, separated by the chain link fence with the gap in it, in the two-story white complex where Penthouse 4 is, Sean has even more beds.

Beds for 79. In a pinch, beds for 85. In a real pinch, 89. And when the 90th comes, he somehow digs up a 90th bed.

The place gets so crowded sometimes, with people sitting on the cement stoops, bumming cigarettes at the gazebo, watching cartoons in their living rooms, making piles of aluminum cans to sell to the recycling company.

And stopping Sean. They’re always stopping Sean as he tramps from bungalow to bungalow, from problem to problem, this curly red-haired man with a doughboy face, muscular shoulders and thick hands that pat them on the back, tussle their hair and massage their shoulders.

He has the answer to whatever the question might be.

No, it doesn’t matter that you went on vacation, he told a man one day earlier this fall, you were still supposed to pay the rent. And to another: Just because you weren’t driving the car doesn’t mean you didn’t have to make the payments. Wear nice clothes to court, he says to a third, but not so nice that it looks like you’re sucking up. The normal practice in America is for people to work an eight-hour day, he told a labor crew that called in at noon to complain, “we’re getting tired.”

He keeps track of their doctors appointments, hands out their medications, tells them what to say to their shrinks and social workers, to their judges and probation officers, their mothers and fathers.

Sure they are using him, but they are needing him too, and none so much as Johnny.

The very least of the least of mankind. Johnny, who smokes five packs of cigarettes a day, whose disability check costs taxpayers $500 a month, who volunteers for nothing, who produces nothing, accomplishes nothing, aspires to nothing.

Junkie, human trash, that’s how Sean figures Johnny must appear to other people. To him though, Johnny is the cutest one of all, “the cutest little thing, “in fact. And Johnny is a saint, very very close to God. Why? Because Johnny never lies, never talks to impress people, and couldn’t if he tried. He can’t pretend anything.

He is a broken-down walking bag of needs, a sack of sacred opportunities.

Sometimes, when Johnny and Sean sit next to each other on the couch in Room 8, Sean asks Johnny where he came from.

He was born in Massachusetts, Johnny tells him. But though he has tried to recall that particular day of being born, well, it happened a long time ago and he just can’t. He was the son of a druggist. He went to a reform school where a big hand made the boys line up in a row and then swooped down, slapping all of them all at once. He did drugs, too many drugs, and then, about 20 years ago, he began to travel.

Not too long ago, he hitchhiked all the way from Florida to Paris. Had a nervous breakdown or something like that. Not sure how he got back, floated down, yeah, on Eastern Airlines, that’s it, and Sean found him when he got here.

Johnny gives away his clothes. He laughs at almost anything, a soft laugh that barely makes it past his beard. Says please and thank you and you’re welcome at all the right times.

He calls nothing of this world his own, except for a single possession, a small blue blanket that he holds onto each night when he goes to sleep. He has had it for years and has never washed it and yet it doesn’t smell. Even now in the midst of Johnny’s longest showerless streak ever, the blue blanket has no smell. Johnny does though, and people are starting to complain.

A gentle push

All the beds are filled and the sun has long set upon the pink bungalows and Sean is alone in Penthouse 4 with Jenny Scott, who was Principal of the Year once up north, and then she had some family problems and then she was a homeless woman in South Florida and now she is Sean’s assistant.

“Am I pushing Johnny too hard?” he asks her.

“I could smell him all the way across the courtyard,” she says.

“I really don’t want him to leave again.”

The last time Johnny left, Sean had half the shelter out looking for him for two straight days. He was covered with sand fleas when they found him by the beach and Sean had to put on rubber gloves and scrub his body from head to toe.

“It’s up to you, Sean,” Jenny says, going through the door to the back room where her bed is. “It’s up to you.”

Well, it’s important for Johnny to keep clean, Sean tells himself after she shuts the door, and not just for everyone out there having to smell him, but for himself, too.

Sean tallies the last of the cookie jars. About $500. Some days the cookie jars fill up with as much as $1,000 and some months the pennies and dollar bills add up to $20,000, almost enough to pay the rent, and buy the gas and the medications for people without insurance, and the hundreds of packs of bologna in Sean’s refrigerator back at his house, where he rarely gets to use the Jacuzzi anymore.

Midnight comes and goes with Sean still awake and scanning through the proof sheets of the first edition of the new shelter newspaper. He plans on selling The Homeless Herald at churches and on street corners.

“I’m Homeless, But Not Lazy,” is one headline. The paper has some poems, a few ads (not nearly enough) and, on Page 6, Sean’s own article, “My Friend Named John.”

Who still needs to take a shower. Sean resolves as he drives home, wondering if he’ll be able to sleep this night.

Sleep comes hard

But this night is like the rest, he gets two hours.

First it is the sleep disorder that came with the pain that came with the injuries to his neck and back. His stomach is a mess again, too, so when he does nod off he gags and jolts awake in a panic. His two precious hours start just before dawn in the semi-darkness and semi-quiet of a bedroom with the television on.

He worries more than he dreams, worries about all of the things on all of the lists that come with this shelter of his. And is he doing the right thing?

It’s not as though he ever planned on starting a shelter. In fact, it happened by accident almost, a thing of impulse born into a night three years ago when it was worry what to do with his new foundation that was keeping Sean Cononie up late, driving him from his bed and into his Lexus and down darkened streets in search of a purpose. Around midnight he spotted a homeless couple huddled beneath a highway bridge.

“Need a place to stay?” he had asked.

It happened just like that. An impulse, a question, a shelter.

He put the couple up in an apartment at 2707 Lincoln St. And then, on another sleepless night, he found another homeless person. And then two apartments, then an entire bungalow. And then, when there were just a dozen or so people, Johnny came. Then another and another.

And then the other shelters heard about this Sean guy who had his own shelter, and they began calling him, asking him to take in the drug addicts and the mentally ill, the old senile drunks and the young troublemaking ones, while at the same time demanding to know when he was going to get a board of directors made up of people other than the people staying in the shelter. Maybe then he would get some proper funding. And when was he going to quit sending them out to beg? That gave everybody a bad name.

And the police began calling, too, asking him to pick up drunks passed out on the streets where they would ban Sean’s collection crews on the very next day. And the hospitals called with their poor patients and a warning they wouldn’t keep them, and so Sean had to take them too, didn’t he?

Is he doing the right thing, taking in people no other shelter would touch, sending them into that rush-hour traffic, publishing a newspaper written by them? Is he doing the right thing?

Sean’s two hours of rest and worry end just after dawn when his legs start to jerk up and down. That happens a lot, too. Up and down, up and down, so hard it’s impossible to keep his eyes closed a minute longer.

A clean start?

On this morning, Sean stays at his house pouring jars of coins into sorting machines while, back at the shelter, Johnny gets caught faking a shower.

His roommates, Eddie and Pete, bug him so much that he finally goes inside the bathroom and shuts the door. Eddie, whom Sean had found passed out by a fire hydrant, and Pete, whom Sean had found in a dumpster, hear the water running.

When Johnny comes out a few minutes later, the blackness of his feet, once uniform from toes to ankles, is streaked as if splashed, however briefly, by a stream of water. Johnny is wearing the same soiled jeans, the same unbuttoned shirt. Eddie and Pete poke their heads inside the bathroom and notice there is no bar of soap.

“What do I gotta do, throw you in the shower?” Pete says to him.

Sean hears about the phantom shower when he gets to the shelter later that day and calls Johnny up to Penthouse 4. Johnny shuffles into the front room and searches out the one vacant chair, a lighted cigarette in his hand, another unlighted one in his mouth, a third sticking out of his hair, next to, but not actually behind, his ear. The phones are ringing, the smoke is thickening, the line outside is getting longer, and Della is standing off to the side by the crates of cranberry juice.

“We’re going to have to hose you down,” Sean says to Johnny, who is using the last ember of one cigarette to light up another.

Johnny furrows his brow, and then he smiles a bit.

“If you scrub me,” he says, “put on the rubber gloves.”

Della giggles. With her hands clasped in front of her, that sheepish smile on her face, she looks almost girlish, despite being middle-aged and world-weary.

“Della, the Miracle,” Sean calls her, sober and off crack for three months now, and able for the first time in the year he’s known her to follow a conversation.

She had come home drunk last night and now she was swearing to God, for the fourth time, that she never had a single drug, even though, reeking of booze, she had banged on the door of Penthouse 4 and woke up Jenny at 3 a.m.

“Can you just not discharge me, please?” she begs Sean.

Sean just stares at her. Della shifts her foot, opens her mouth, as if to repeat her oath, closes it back up. She fixes a smile on her face, and then tries out a frown, and when that doesn’t work either, she looks at the floor. Sean stares. She looks at the ceiling. Then she looks away altogether.

“OK, Sean”, she finally says, “I was drinkin’ last night.”

It was a bottle of schnapps. Her disability check came in and she cashed it and her boyfriend came around and they decided to get drunk. It just happened.

“You remember that I told you not to sneak out?” he says.

“Yes, Sir.”

“You wanna end up brain dead?”

“That’s why I’m bipolar,” she says. “Because of all those drugs I’ve done and all the booze I’ve had.”

“You’re gonna come back with a wet brain. You’re not even gonna know when you pee.”

“I’ve already got cirrhosis, ” she says, as if to compliment Sean for being so perceptive.

Susan knocks on the door and lumbers in. Sean yells at her for smoking when she’s so out of breath. Jeff, a day laborer who attributes his perpetually bowed head to his chronically low self-esteem, comes in to pay his $16 in daily rent. Sean tells Annie, who is about to spend her first night ever at a shelter, to wipe the toilet seat before using it and to sleep with her money on her, even if she has to put it in her bra, and to not be afraid, that everything is going to be OK. The line keeps coming and the phone keeps ringing and Johnny shuffles away, still smoking, still dirty.

As darkness falls, Sean hands a slip of paper to Della for her to sign.

Thirty days of no visitors and 10 days of AA meetings, that was her punishment. When she signs, Sean notices a black mark on her fingernail, the sort of burn caused when the lighter held over a crack pipe flickers up between each inhale.

It’s an old stain, Della says. She swears to God it is. But it doesn’t look old to Sean.

A new man

Four more two-hour nights and Sean is exhausted. Four more showerless days and Johnny is rank.

Then comes Day 15 of Johnny’s showerless streak, the day when Johnny goes inside the bathroom of Room 8 and the water goes on and stays on this time.

“Hey,” Pete says, smiling through the door after a half-hour has passed. “you’re going to have to pay the water bill!”

When Johnny finally comes out, he is wearing a new T-shirt and he is holding up a new pair of pants, Sean’s black jeans, size 42, at least two sizes too big for Johnny.

Eddie and Pete talk about boiling his old clothes while Johnny brags about his new ones, offering in his quiet mumbly voice to buy a soda for anyone who wants one. No one says a word about the T-shirt being on backwards.

Sean is sorting change again and misses the whole thing. And then the next day, before he can even sit down at the desk in Penthouse 4, he is distracted by news that Carol got a $20 bill from somewhere, and that it is gone now, and that ever since it disappeared her jaw has been wobbling.

That can mean only one thing. Crack in the shelter. And he sends for Carol, whose middle-aged world-weariness shows a lot more than Della’s does.

Carol comes up the stairs and through the door. She gave the $20 to Caroline, she says. Caroline is Carol’s friend. No one has ever seen Caroline. No one even knows who Caroline is.

“I gotta problem.” Sean says. “I know you’re lyin’.”

He empties Carol’s purse, opens her lipstick, looks inside her half-crushed pack of cigarettes. It will take Sean seven hours before Carol finally admits to smoking crack. It is past midnight when Carol, jaw wobbling like mad, finally says where she got it.

Della has it, she says. It’s Della.

Sean smashes Carol’s crack in front of her, tells her if she wants to stay she’ll be confined to her room for 30 days.

“I wanna stay, Sean, I wanna stay,” she says.

But Della won’t give up her crack. She won’t agree to room confinement. She lets Sean give her a hug, but she won’t give him any excuse to keep her and she walks away — Della the Miracle, a bundle of clothes, unbrushed hair, smiles, frowns, swearing to God with her hidden cash into the night.

Jenny goes into the back room to fall asleep and Sean is left alone, knowing his own bed will offer no comfort. He goes into that hot night, down the stairs and through the gap in the chain-link fence where Johnny’s old jeans, freshly cleaned, if not boiled too, have been set out to dry.

He opens the door to Room 8. Sean knows Johnny would be asleep. Johnny can sleep anywhere, either where he is now — on the couch, holding his blanket — or beneath the gazebo, or in the lawn chair outside, anywhere, anytime, bucketfuls of slumber on demand.

Sean snaps on the light and Johnny opens his eyes.

Here at the end of a tired day, it turns out that Johnny McCormick, the neediest, is the one Sean Cononie, the givingest, is needing again.

“Wanna cigarette?” Sean asks, and of course Johnny does, and he takes a light, too.

Sean pulls a copy of The Homeless Herald out of his back pocket.

“Look Johnny, you’re famous,” Sean says, opening to Page 6. He holds it out for Johnny.

Johnny rustles it, turns it this way and that.

Sean’s story, “My Friend Named John,” tells of how they had met on the curb by a bus station, and how Sean had tried to get the psych ward at the hospital to take Johnny in, but the hospital had refused and how, over the months, people had come and gone, hundreds of them so far — Annies and Carols and Toms and lots and lots of Dellas — and Johnny was always there holding his pants up with his left hand and making Sean smile.

Johnny’s eyes, flickering beneath the tangle of his hair, scan back and forth across the upside-down newspaper. To Sean, he looks like Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter that Johnny’s feet are already turning black again. Hadn’t Christ’s feet gotten dirty in the Bible and didn’t someone have to wash them off, or something like that?

And there it is in black and white and in Sean’s own words. “He is the best present God has ever given me in my entire life.”

“Johnny, I love you,” Sean says.

“And I hate you, too,” Johnny says.

But he can’t help smiling when he says it and then he gives himself away with that soft laugh of his.

Copyright 1999, Sun-Sentinel

Written by Robert George