“Let me look at the prose.”
Charles Johnson picks up the paperback, warped with secondhand overuse, examines its cover through his professorial eyewear, noting the New York Times Bestseller sticker, and reads from the prologue, mumbling unintelligibly, thoughtfulness and maybe a little skepticism marking his face.
When he speaks again with a smooth tenor and the whisper of smoke on his breath, the punctuated consonants and soft clarity are from a man well accustomed to lecture halls and hushed chats alike.
“It’s not bad.”
A phrase more magnanimous than truthful, said with unmistakable cheer and sincerity. I had a quiet suspicion it was more for my friend’s benefit than any other. She had been reading it in a quiet alcove, hand steepled on her cheek, when Johnson and I walked up a moment ago. He asked to see the book. She obliged, wide-eyed and nervous.
The book under scrutiny: a romance novel-turned Hollywood hit, a weekend read for working moms and millennials alike, what some might call “literary pork.”
The Johnson standing in the bookstore — where not a small shelf held his prize-winning works of philosophical fiction — speaks with kind necessity of the words on the page, the author who wrote them, and more pointedly, to my friend from whose hands he plucked the dog-eared pop novel a moment ago.
Johnson, the 1990 winner of the National Book Award for Middle Passage, the recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, a scholar, artist, teacher and philosopher, is a man of letters. He is also a man of great kindness, and I would soon come to learn, of great mystery.
OK, so stick with us here.
The universe — and the people who inhabit it — is a great and fascinating enigma. Say the entire cosmos is a dark, galactic puzzle made of 100 pieces, a jigsaw of relative knowns and unknowns yet-to-be-discovered.
Cosmologists, experts in this macrocosm of existence, say only five of those pieces are observable, with corners and colors, shape and definition, things we can see and touch and taste.
Dark matter occupies 23 pieces of the whole. The last remaining 72 pieces — a sweeping majority by any standards — are dark energy, a mystifying form believed to be responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe.
Johnson — eyes alive with wonder, hands open and moving — does his best to describe this to me. Me with my notepad and pen and eyes focused, hoping to capture whatever pieces I can of the man across from me.
“I believe we live in the midst of A Great Mystery.” He says this the way someone might about an obvious secret, a paradox in plain sight.
I am writing a story about this man — a dreamer who looks at the stars and wonders. You’d think, with the 300 published interviews and his mighty collection of short stories, novels, screenplays, essays and illustrations, that there is little left of Charles Johnson to explore.
You’d be wrong, of course.
Johnson is a top-shelf enigma, and much like the cosmos, a brilliant puzzle. What follows is but one piece. A truth, not the truth, as far I see it. Minutes before Johnson arrived for our afternoon chat, I sipped the last wash of tepid coffee, my fingers finding a phrase in The Way of the Writer I had underlined twice in red pen: “And every story is a transcendental object, i.e. an aesthetic object brought into being (our experience) by sustained acts of consciousness.”
This is the Johnson I’m interviewing. I thought I’d squeeze in one last minutiae of insight to add to my already exhaustive list of questions I hoped no one has asked him before. I felt desperately inadequate to write a story — transcendental or not — about a man who uses “oeuvre” and “aesthetic” like salt and pepper.
“This isn’t helping my heart rate.”
“The coffee?” My friend Kayla looked up from across the table, book in hand.
I pushed aside the stack of books — all Johnson’s — and decided just to stare at Seattle in spring outside the window.
Lucky for me, he’s a delightful conversationalist.
The same man met me by a stack of clearance paperbacks ten minutes later eager to escape the day’s most recent dilemma: Charles Johnson’s Facebook was hacked this morning.
“And I had to clean up dog poop, too.” Johnson has two dogs, Nova and Biggie, well past 15 years old, both of whom leave him inconvenient messes.
The hacking, by way of his descriptions, is less a hack and more a catfish, virtual imposters disguised as Johnson’s Facebook friends seeking naivete wherever it can be found. Needless to say, Johnson’s plight is disarming. I calm down, laughing away the last tremors of tension.
He orders a small drip coffee from the soft-spoken adolescent across the counter, leaning in, hand to his left ear to make out the price ($2.76). We find a corner table in the downstairs pub, below Third Place Books, a bright and lively space perched on a hill in the quiet neighborhood of Ravenna.
He speaks with hands twined together, the thin, braided gold wedding band on his left nearly touching the thick, handcrafted ring on his right. A Nine Planets ring plated with Gibeon Meteorite with colored gemstones spaced around the band like the inner planets of the solar system. Jupiter had fallen out, a shallow crater where the opal used to be.
At that table, where the yellowed light overhead falls over his face, Johnson tells me stories of his life, the parts that make up the piece I see before me.
Johnson was born in 1948 in Evanston, Illinois, a town founded by Methodist ministers nearly 100 years prior, 12 miles from Chicago’s center, bordered on the east by Lake Michigan — known also as “Heavenston” for the easy life people made there. Wealthy Evanstonians worked in Chicago and lived by the lake, funnelling money into a school system that ranked one of the highest in the nation at the time, of which Johnson was a grateful recipient.
“It was very progressive in the sense that the high school I went to, my mother had went to in the ’30s. So it was integrated. I grew up with kids, white and black. It was just the way the world was as far as I could understand it.”
Black people from Chicago understood it differently, so said a woman Johnson met at a book signing.
“She said ‘that’s where the uppity black people live.’ And they were uppity.” Johnson laughed quick and full, both amused and resigned.
Black families in Evanston at the time came by work as domestics for wealthy white families. Others, like Johnson’s great uncle, were tradesmen. His father’s uncle left South Carolina for Evanston in the ’20s to work as a general contractor, starting an all-black construction company. He was also the town’s first black milkman.
“I grew up in a place where I could literally see my family’s industry and creativity on the street. It’s just all over the place. My grandmother’s house is across the street from Springfield Baptist Church that my great uncle built. When I’d sit on the front porch, I’d be looking at his handiwork.”
His great uncle built residences, apartment buildings, churches along the north shore, and even his own home that sat atop a beauty parlor and barber shop. When Johnson as a child would visit that place, his great uncle, a man born around the turn of the century, would study the news on television.
“And he’d tell us kids, ‘Get an education. That’s the only thing that ever held me back.’ And I took that to heart.”
Indeed he did. A bachelor’s in journalism and a master’s in philosophy at Southern Illinois University. Then a PhD in philosophy from SUNY Stony Brook. But before all that, during a time when black men were workmen, not artists, Johnson drew cartoons, something his father said just wasn’t done.
Johnson collected his first professional dollar at age 17 for his drawings. He published hundreds of illustrations, some for his high school newspaper, others for the Chicago Tribune, and ultimately curated a collection of drawings of the racially satirical variety in Black Humor.
But any earnings he got from his drawings were a far cry from covering all the tuition and fees of college education. So when Johnson came back to Evanston for the summer, he needed money. His father, the most moral man he’s ever known, found him a job.
Johnson’s father spoke quietly but with conviction.
“You should set your clock early.”
“Why?” The 19-year-old Johnson was skeptical.
“Because you have a job.”
“Oh? What’s this job?”
“You’re going to be a garbage man.”
Johnson’s father worked for the city of Evanston as a night watchman. The city also hired students over the summer as garbage men.
“He just walked down the hallway and signed me up.”
And for two years, Johnson worked with the mingled smells of his own sweat and residential refuse under the summer sun.
“It was physical. We carried garbage on our backs in a big tub. We walked down alleys and poured people’s garbage into a big tub and put it on our back and walked it back to the truck. And my dad wanted me to know the men who did that.”
That same summer, Johnson had decided in addition to money, he needed something to spend it on. He told his parents a motorcycle would do. His mother, a deeply religious woman, was terrified with the certain notion it would be the death of her son.
One day, after coming home hot and tired from hauling garbage all morning, Johnson lay down on his bed for a nap.
The sound of his mother’s voice shook him from his slumber.
“Your father wants to talk to you.”
“Why? About what?”
“He’s at the front door.” Her non-answer is enough to pull him off the bed and through the house to the front door.
The figure of his father framed the doorway, obscuring the outside.
“Here. These are for you.” His father hands him a set of keys and steps away.
Parked by the curb, that summer sun glinting off its gold paint, sat not a motorcycle but a Corvette convertible. Johnson’s father, a man whose own father pulled him from school after fifth grade to work the family farm, bought his son his first car.
Johnson drove that car all the way through college. It would take Johnson and a young student named Joan on many dates together, except for their first, when it broke down and he had to call and cancel.
Twelve miles to the south of Evanston, Johnson’s wife Joan was born seven days apart from his own entry into the world.
“I joke often that our fathers probably impregnated our mothers at the same moment.”
Unlike her husband, Joan lived in South Side Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens, one of the nation’s first housing projects, encircled by the city’s landfills and miles away from a police station. “A very rough place” by Johnson’s standards.
Joan met Johnson during his second summer as a garbage man. Johnson was deep into Nietzsche the day two friends from high school knocked on his door and told him about a girl he had to meet. The cousins of Johnson’s friends, ones he had grown up with, had met a girl at their church and she had been staying with them that summer. He was a little curious but mostly wanted to catch up with the girls he hadn’t seen in years.
“As I walk in the door, and his cousins are there, and there’s this 20-year-old girl sitting on the couch with this great big beaming smile and I thought, ‘Jesus, this is it. This is her. I don’t have to look anymore.’”
The pair dated that summer and married at 22, Joan in a homemade dress and Charles in a rented tux.
Soon after the stories of family have been told, our talk turns to writing, its uninhibited power and its limitations.
I glance down at my phone on the table, checking first that the recording hasn’t failed and second to see how much time we’d spent together. Nearly an hour, but Johnson is still eager to talk and listen. What remains of Johnson’s coffee sits forgotten to the side. My water is gone, ice and a lonely lemon in its place.
We turn to words, our shared craft a topic of endless speculation and mystery. For a man who has spent his life’s work in the midst of words, Johnson has a sense of incredulity about them.
“I have spent all my life writing stuff and being immersed in language, and I do it every day. And it’s my job. And it’s my joy. To create, novels and stories.”
Then his face pulls together like a closed fist, pensive and searching.
“But because of meditation practice, I find myself very … ” He hesitates, rummaging through his brain for The Right Word. “Gosh, how can I put this … cautious about language and narratives and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”
Language, Johnson says, is the child of consciousness, “the flesh of thought.” And that skin, though designed to give shape and substance to our inner musings, is not and can never be the experiences themselves.
In Buddhism, a way of living Johnson has subscribed to since 1981, the experience of Awakening is a non-verbal one.
“You cannot describe it. And it’s really different for everybody. And there are no ways you can express that in language.”
Johnson recalls a Buddhist story in which a finger points at the moon. The moon is truth, and the finger is words.
“That’s language. But that’s not the moon. It’s not the experience. But it can at least point towards it.”
I measure those words, recalling that underlined phrase from his book, that stories transcend, springing from our consciousness. I think about this story, his story, and the words, however limited, I might use as a finger and what exactly the moon might be.
“Life is endlessly fascinating. And language doesn’t capture it all.”
One of those “its” Johnson says words can’t capture? Love.
Love, Johnson says, is one of those experiences language simply cannot describe in its entirety.
“Love is inexhaustible, even after the words themselves have all been said.”
This coming from a man who once re-supplied his lexicon with an arsenal of words by reading an unabridged, 2,129-page Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary for serious fun.
“We have to take a step back from that and understand that, as Plato would say in Timaeus, ‘All of our accounts, even scientific accounts, are a likely story.’”
The likely story, the piece of what I can see, is of a man who saw a hole in the world. Every line and phrase pulled from his consciousness was an attempt to fill that void in literary culture. And fill it he did.
With a painfully accurate historical narrative about a stowaway on an 1830s slave ship.
With an odyssey of humor and suffering in one girl’s pursuit of A Good Thing.
With an adventure of love and quest for identity for a man born a slave.
With a rich and relatable guide to the art and craft of words on a page.
Among many other things.
The rest of the story, the other 95 percent is out there somewhere, a dark and unexplored place, much like the place in every person, where words cannot touch.
Our time together ends in the late afternoon outside the bookstore where, long after my recorder went dark; Johnson says he has some errands to run, the grocery store namely. Then later he’ll go home and lift some weights — his first day of exercise after a two-week stretch without any. Doctor’s orders after a tooth extraction, the only outward sign of his age at 69, I suppose.
He signs my copy of The Way of the Writer in thin script and narrow swoops of disconnected lettering: “For Leah — with great joy from speaking with you. Charles Johnson.”
When I told people I’d be interviewing Charles Johnson for a story, the responses fell into two remarkably distinct camps. “Oh, you mean, the Charles Johnson?” and “Does he play football or something?” The former group, who knows the man needs no introduction, were ecstatic, maybe even a little jealous. The latter group, much like my friend Kayla, have never read Johnson before. Or yet, I should say.
Kayla and I begin our goodbyes, graciously thanking Johnson for his time and his kindness. Kayla feels as though she has to apologize for the book she has been reading, as though not reading Charles Johnson when the man himself approaches you is a sin worthy of shame. She says something to that effect, pink with embarrassment.
And Johnson — a man who by all accounts, even the likeliest ones, is serious to the core — leaves us with a phrase and a deep laugh that we soon echo in turn: “At least it wasn’t Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Thank God for small mercies.
Bet you didn’t know …
Johnson likes omelets, solitude and soft instrumental jazz.
Before he was paid to write professionally, Johnson would crank out term papers for his undergrad friends on the weekend for a $5 flat fee: “Money back guaranteed if they failed to get an 'A.' I never had to return those payments, and the assignments I did for them meant later I would become a writer and they wouldn’t.”
Johnson joined a martial arts school in Chicago during the time of the Dojo wars in the city. At his best, Johnson could throw 45 punches in 10 seconds, front, side and back, his friends in his dorm timing him with a stopwatch.
Johnson sits in formal meditation daily, perched on the pillow he has used since his commitment to Buddhism in 1981: “There’s a lot of meditation energy in that cushion. And when I stand up from that, I’m totally clear. I’m totally right here, right now. You should still have that meditative consciousness when you’re off the pillow, when I’m doing anything, when I’m washing and drying the dishes, when I’m picking up dog poop, when I’m talking to you. All through my day, I should have that consciousness that I get when I sit formally.”