The media’s embrace of the plight of a homeless ex Marine EMT firefighter from North Carolina who struck public relations pay dirt when he came to the aid of a driver who ran out of gas near his Philadelphia I-95 exit panhandling station had all the elements of a Walt Disney After School Special. Pretty girl runs out of gas, attempts to leave her vehicle after sunset in an area as bleak as it is dark; sees a shadowy figure emerge in front of her. Is it an alien from Whitely Strieber’s Communion? No, it’s Johnny S. Bobbitt, Jr. a transplant to Philadelphia some 10 months ago who wound up homeless on the streets of the city through a series of “bad choices.”
The “bad choices” part is what the media has chosen to ignore now that the full story of this nocturnal meeting has gone viral.
Most people are probably unaware that the 95 exit ramp near Richmond Street where Johnny met the woman Kate was a relatively new panhandling spot for Johnny. A few months prior to the meeting Johnny was stationed outside the Dollar Tree store in the Port Richmond Shopping Center. He would sit yogi-like on a slat of cardboard near the entrance of the store so that shoppers had a good view of him. A sign propped up beside him read: Homeless ex-Vet trying to go home, anything helps. He would change the sign periodically, as most homeless do. Upgrading your sign is essential if you want to grab the attention of the public.
Johnny’s method of asking for money in front of Dollar Tree was never intrusive. He often had his nose in a book and only rarely looked at people entering the store. There’d usually be a small stack of books beside him as well as a large plastic WAWA cup for donations. The fact that he was reading books stood out. When other homeless people sit on the ground they usually stare into space. During Johnny’s Dollar Tree days about a year ago, other homeless would stand outside stores like WAWA where they would make it a point to hold open the doors for customers. Some of the homeless asked for money outright but aggressive asking often got many of the homeless banned from various businesses. The fact that Johnny never asked for money outright but seemed earnestly engrossed in his books sparked the interest of many people, myself included.
Many Dollar Tree customers engaged Johnny in conversation and asked him the same questions: How did you wind up homeless? Johnny’s story was that he came to Philadelphia to start a job but then the job fell through and because of that he was not able to rent an apartment. But if Johnny’s homelessness was just a matter of a job falling through, why didn’t he return to North Carolina? There had to be another reason for his homelessness, and of course there was.
Some background information: Most heroin addicts lie about their addiction. This is especially the case when you first meet them. I’ve talked to many homeless men in Philadelphia and very few of them will tell you upfront that they are panhandling for drug money. Ask them how they became homeless and the vast majority will blame it on everything but drugs: the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, getting kicked out of their homes by upset parents. When they do mention drugs they will often mention prescription drugs. A heroin confession usually comes later and after a bit of probing. While Johnny never admitted that he was a heroin addict (we would argue about that later), he did tell me that when he came to Philadelphia he was on prescription meds for depression but when he was unable to renew his prescription, he was forced to buy drugs on the street.
Ironically, this seems to put the blame on his drug problem square on Philadelphia’s pharmaceutical bureaucracy. After all, what’s a good guy to do if he needs his meds in order to function normally? Johnny stuck to his “I’m addicted to a prescription drug” story for the duration of our friendship although in time I would meet his closest friends on the street, heroin addicts all, who would tell me otherwise (more about that later). We’ve all heard that old joke: How do you know when a drug addict is lying? Answer, when he opens his mouth. Anyway, in the beginning of his homeless spree Johnny kept pretty much to himself despite the fact that in this part of Philadelphia there are plenty of homeless men in their twenties and thirties who could have kept him company. There are also plenty of heroin addicted old times who have been in the Riverwards area for years. These tribes easily mix with vagabond homeless addicts who come here from all over the country. The area around the WAWA on Aramingo Avenue has until recently been known as a safe space for panhandling and sleeping outdoors, whether that be behind Arby’s Roast Beef or under the dank cement corridors of I-95.
Since no man is an island, it wasn’t long before Johnny graduated from his mostly solitary existence outside Dollar Tree where he’d sit on cardboard and wait for coins and bills to be dropped into his plastic cup. In those Dollar Store days Johnny had quite a following. When I would visit to give him books or to say hello, I was amazed at the number of people who would drive up and present him with bags of groceries. Some people would offer to shop for him in Dollar Tree while others presented him with five dollar bills. He seemed to have a fan club of pudgy middle aged women who wanted to mother him. My impression then was that everybody thought they had a special relationship with him. I certainly thought so. One summer’s night, for instance, I invited him to my house where we sat on my patio under a quarter moon. The mood was soft and intimate and afterwards I promised to bring him an extra pair of jeans when I was able.
In many ways the attention that Johnny received was well deserved. He was adept at conversation, after all, and he was personable and polite to a fault. I suppose it helped that he had a southern accent and could claim to be a veteran. For those poor homeless guys unable to hold a conversation or who found it hard to make eye contact with another human being, creating a fan club base just wasn’t in the cards. But Johnny had the “people thing” down pat.
Johnny tended to avoid the “in your face” panhandlers in the area although several times a day he would walk to WAWA to collect cigarette butts with a homeless vet friend known only his initials, RW. The outdoor saucer shaped public ashtrays at WAWA had containers that were filled with butts. Many homeless would sweep past WAWA, lift these ashtray lids and then pocket what they found. The 2-minute process was a nightly ritual for Johnny who by now had a comparatively comfortable situation at Dollar Tree. With his engaging charm, he was able to convince the managers at Dollar Tree to allow him to sit outside the store during the day in exchange for volunteer work at night. His volunteer work consisted of sweeping the floors and helping to lock up the place. He was also allowed to use the Dollar Tree bathroom whenever he wished whereas other homeless were discouraged or even banned from doing so. Management came to regard him as an outdoor pseudo employee although that ended when he attempted to thwart a shoplifter by entering a secure area of the Dollar Tree offices. A certain manager there misinterpreted Johnny’s action as complicit with the attempted theft and told him he could no longer sit outside with his plastic cup.
Johnny was miffed, as he should have been. Whatever he was, he was no thief nor was he an aid to a thief. That much I knew. After our first tête-à-tête on my patio I wanted him to return for a more sustained get together but he was miffed at me for not giving him 5 dollars the first night we hung out.
“I don’t have five dollars,” I told him then. He was standoffish for some time after that. I’d go back to Dollar Tree to see if he was there whenever I went to the shopping center. Usually I found him sitting on the ground with his nose in a book. Some of the books he bought for a dollar inside Dollar Tree, other books were given to him. At one point he was reading Dan Brown. One day I gave him a copy of my first book, The Cliffs of Aries. He called the book different but said he couldn’t put it down and added that he thought it would make a good movie.
“I always thought it would make a good movie,” I said. “People have told me it’s very visual. “
To be continued...