Postcards from Lonnie – A Book Excerpt

POSTCARDS FROM LONNIE
HOW I REDISCOVERED MY BROTHER ON THE 
STREET CORNER HE CALLED HOME
by
Lisa Johnson
Biography / Photo Journal / Poverty
Publisher: Rand-Smith LLC
Date of Publication: January 14, 2020
Number of Pages: 200

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It all started on Christmas Day 1993. Lisa and Lonnie were sitting on their mom’s rickety yard swing, when Lisa’s curiosity took over. She asked Lonnie questions about his life on the street, about being homeless. To her surprise, he answered honestly, humorously, and thoughtfully.

That conversation continued throughout the next four years as Lisa wrote questions on postcards addressed to herself, then mailed them in packets to Lonnie at the flower shop on his corner. He wrote his answers and mailed them back. Lonnie answered a lot of questions and even asked a few, too. His detailed, matter-of-fact responses gave Lisa an unfettered view of a population living on the fringes of society and the issues they face every day.

Postcards from Lonnie is a dialogue between Lonnie, who speaks through the postcards, and his sister, who not only learns a lot about her brother but also about herself. Intimate and revealing, this is a unique family memoir and a universal story of love, respect, family, and ultimately hope.

 

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Excerpt

 

Chapter 1: February/March 1994
Card 11

QUESTION: You’ve talked about the last 10 years. What about the next 10 years? How do you see yourself?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask Lonnie this question. He rarely focused his attention beyond his next meal or beer or place to sleep. Besides, I had no trouble conjuring visions of Lonnie’s future, and none of them were much to look at. But I had asked him to look back, and now I wanted him to look ahead. I was curious whether he would even have a forward view, and whether his forward view would resemble what I imagined was ahead for him.

It didn’t. After Dad died, Mom and I were on the front line of Lonnie’s hazardous life. While we constantly braced ourselves for the worst — the phone call from the police or the hospital — Lonnie worked his interior magic on his future as he did on his present. His positive view is what anyone would want to see in their future “many people who love and/or are gentle with me,” and people who can help each other get old. He does allow for a pessimistic view, but it is only one option, and even that option ends well, with him an old grump “that people have fun with.”

Lonnie had plenty of dead friends. People on the street died of diseases or exposure, fell to violence, or simply disappeared. Lonnie also had plenty of dead relatives. Our dad died in his mid 60s in 1988, a loss that devastated both of us. Our grandparents on both sides, two aunts and an uncle had died. But the loss that clung to Lonnie the most bitterly was his daughter, Abigail Dawn. She was three years old when she drowned in the bathtub. At the time, Lonnie and Magda, the baby’s mother, were divorced, and Magda was in a relationship with the man who later would become her second husband. When Lonnie wrote this postcard, Dawn had been dead for nearly 20 years.

It has always been tempting to say that his daughter’s death was what put Lonnie over the edge and sent him into alcoholism. It certainly added to his momentum. But he was well on his way before the baby came along. He and Magda were musicians, making their living in the rock music world, where alcohol, drugs and recklessness surrounded them constantly. Lonnie’s freefall accelerated, while Magda found her way, somehow, to a safer and saner path.

 

Lisa Johnson was born in Middletown, Ohio, at Middletown Hospital, where her brother, Lonnie, was born almost five years earlier. Two years after Lisa was born, they settled in Houston, Texas. In a couple more years, they moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Before Lisa started elementary school, they moved again, to Atlanta, Georgia. Lonnie was in fifth grade and was starting to misbehave in his classroom, not “applying himself.” A new first-grader, Lisa applied herself big time, and, once she got a taste of the praise and affirmation that came with high grades, she was hooked for life.
By the time Lisa was in junior high, they had moved again, to Topeka, Kansas, and as she started high school, they moved back to Houston.
Lisa went to college, Lonnie got married. Lisa got married, Lonnie’s daughter was born. Lonnie got divorced, Lisa got divorced. Lonnie’s daughter drowned in the bathtub. Lisa graduated from college, went to graduate school (where she got a good taste of misbehavior but lived through it). Lisa moved to Houston to mooch off their parents for a year or so. Lonnie remarried. Lisa moved to New York to teach at Queens College, CUNY, but soon found her dream job as a copywriter in a large New York ad agency.
Lonnie got divorced and disappeared onto the streets of Houston. Lisa moved to Atlanta. Their dad died. One Christmas Day, Lonnie and Lisa dreamed up an idea for a book. She started sending Lonnie questions on postcards, and he answered every one.
Lisa quit the advertising business to go to seminary — loved seminary, hated being a church-based chief executive officer. She returned to Houston, where their mom still lived. Lonnie died. Lisa found a job writing corporate stuff for a large oil-related company.
 
Then Lisa finished the book she and her brother had dreamed up: Postcards from Lonnie: How I Rediscovered My Brother on the Street Corner He Called Home. 

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