Arts & Entertainment Karl Johnson: It’s never too late to “Rebound”
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Arts & Entertainment
Karl Johnson: It’s never too late to “Rebound”
by Jeffery Williams
Twenty years behind prison bars. Twenty years of self-inflicted, scarring memories, including a bullet lodged in his leg to never forget.
Twenty years of losing his hopes and dreams through his own broken promises and poor choices.
For many people, those details describe a life to be written off, a sad existence that underscores the point that some people never get it together, never figure it out.
For many people, a man who has wasted 20 years of his life in hard time is to be given up on, not given more chances to make right.
But for a few people, Karl Johnson represents the principle that it’s never too late to start doing what is good and right.
Johnson, a valet at the Downtown Club and owner of Anytime Shoe Shine, has been emerging as an increasingly popular fixture in downtown Fresno for the past four years. After 20 years of prison and a subsequent year of homelessness, Johnson now works full-time and serves on two boards that seek to help Fresno’s homeless – United Way and the City Housing Authority Commission.
“I guess my background has given me credentials and credibility,” Johnson says while shining shoes at his shop in the T.W. Patterson Building on Tulare Avenue.
Johnson also recently published an account of his life story titled “Rebound: An inspiring comeback story that explores the mystery of the human spirit” (CreateSpace). Co-written with Samantha Bauer, the book is in development for a screenplay as well, Johnson says.
While Johnson works shining shoes, he frequently tosses spirited shout-outs to people walking by. Johnson’s warm and friendly manner prompts many to stop and chat for a spell.
Attorney at law Timothy Cox lingers to share a few moments of playful banter with Johnson.
“Karl has come a long way,” Cox says, who met Johnson when the author was homeless. “He wasn’t asking for a handout. He wanted to work and make his way. I saw his character, we became friends, and now I help him when I can.”
Cox worked with the owners of the T.W. Patterson Building, Rick and Jeff Rouse, to give Johnson a chance and allow him to set up a shoeshine shop there. Two years later, Johnson’s business continues to go well.
By his own admission, Johnson’s young adult years were drowned in drug addiction and crime. He did a few short stints in jail before being arrested and charged for transporting narcotics. He was sentenced to 22 years. But the first 15 years of jail and prison had virtually no impact on his hardened attitude or character.
“I had been completely out of control. Once you start that pattern, it is so hard to break it,” Johnson says.
But then in 2006 a turning point occurred in Johnson’s life. His mother had died of a heart attack.
“Even though everyone else had written me off, my mother had still sent me a letter every month. She gave everything she had to her 16 kids. My mom was my best friend.”
Johnson pauses in his work of buffing out a scuff on a boot. “Did you know she had 76 grand and great-grandchildren? When she passed away I was so broke up.”
Adding to his sorrow, his brother Dennis Johnson died of a heart attack one year later. Dennis Johnson played for 14 seasons with the Boston Celtics.
“He had never given up on me. He believed to his last day that I would turn my life around.
“That tore me up. Right then I knew it was time to stop, time to turn my life around with what time I had left,” Johnson says.
He started following the rules, began seeing a chaplain, took up a pencil and began to write his story. The book is a tribute to the goodness of his parents Charles Lynn and Margaret Johnson, his brother Dennis, and his other 14 siblings, as well as the potential and power of change.
Five years later Johnson was released from prison and landed on the same Los Angeles streets where he had been busted.
“I needed a change so I bought a bus ticket to Seattle where a friend lived, but when the bus stopped for a layover in Fresno, I never left,” Johnson says with a smile. “Fresno turned out to be the best thing that happened to me.”
Johnson had four cans of shoe polish with him. He offered to shine people’s shoes and earned $200 that first day.
“My father taught me how to shine shoes and I hated it,” Johnson chuckles. “And here I am making a living with it.”
“I’m grateful to those who helped me find work and a home. I meet great people every day,” he continues. “I know there are people who don’t believe I’ve changed, but I have good friends who are my checks and balances in life.”
His future plans are simple and direct: “Now my focus is helping instead of hurting people.”
The issue of homelessness remains an ongoing concern for him.
In addition to serving on the boards at United Way and the housing authority, Johnson recently participated in the making of a training video for Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in San Diego to lend insight to cadets who work with the homeless. Through the housing authority, he will be going to Washington D.C. this month to meet with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and congressional members concerning the plight of the homeless and the need for creating affordable housing for all.
Johnson speaks highly of those willing to draw near and help him. He credits Victor Salazar, former County Clerk; Mayor Ashley Swearengin; Attorney Timothy Cox and writer Samantha Bauer with influencing his life.
And now Johnson finds himself being asked to make speaking engagements.
“Fifteen so far. I’ll talk to anyone who wants to listen. I have to pay it forward,” he says. “Life can be so good when you’re doing it right.