Johnny Alexander spent nearly 40 years of his life involved in crime ranging from boot-legging to running gambling houses, and even white-collar crimes such as check-forgery. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he found himself rapidly enveloped in a world of crime. From there he moved all across the country, from California to Indiana and Mississippi to Illinois, before settling in Colorado. His involvement with crime made settling down extremely difficult, and left him in constant search of a new start—the efforts were marred by his continuity in the crime world.
One of the most notable things he observed was more vocalized racism in California and the Midwest than it was Mississippi—even though he was a black boy living in the South on the eve of the civil rights movement. Though the voice of racism was stifled, he still witnessed hatred in the South—though he asserts that such contempt can still be found anywhere.
As he travelled, the differences across the nation struck him, as he went from the racial and wealth integrated society in the Twin Cities to the crime-ridden under-belly of the Midwest. It was when he came to Colorado and found a relatively muted crime environment and social integration just short of what he remembers in Minnesota that he felt he had found a place he could call home.
“Here in Colorado, you have crime, but in comparison what you have is imitation,” Johnny said. “Here, you can come outside and leave your house safely. If you figure this neighborhood with the crimes is to the right, you can come out and go the other way to avoid it. That’s what I like about Colorado. It’s different.”
With 40 years of hard-living behind him, Johnny felt he was ready to make a new start. His efforts were to be stalled. When he retired from a life involved with crime, he became addicted to drugs—notably crack-cocaine—and lost his entire life, plunging into homelessness with his habit ever by his side; the ordeal would stretch nearly 23 years, providing him with experiences that most people could never dream of.
In 2008, Johnny became a vendor of the Denver Voice, something that fed on his boyhood job of selling peanuts. From there, he rapidly became a successful vendor and eventually gave up his drug addiction. His personality combined with his story has seen him give guest lectures at universities throughout the Denver area. It was Johnny’s downfall that has given him his current purpose; feeling blessed by the changes he’s experienced, he has dedicated his life and knowledge as a medium to teach people about homelessness, the perils of drugs and spreading his tolerance of humanity to everyone he meets.
Recently, Johnny has had the honor of sharing his experiences at Denver’s Cathedral of Immaculate Conception where he told his story and offered experiential wisdom on the state of the world. Shortly after, he experienced a minor stroke, but he has slowed down remarkably little.
In spite of being off-site and snow falling he agreed to have a sit-down Q&A at a student lounge on the Auraria campus. His experience in classroom lectures managed to shine through flawlessly. In fact, he was so well versed in answering questions that he nearly dropped into a lecture suited for a hybrid and philosophy class—he discussed everything from the origins of hatred in Nazi Germany to how Southerners may have actually helped build the Underground Railroad. Between his tangents, he willingly shared the darker side of his life, his philosophy on life and the messages he hopes to spread.
Johnny: Everything is on the table here. It’s all open so go ahead and ask what you like.
Brian Forth: Alright. You said that you were involved in crime you were on drugs. Did the two coincide?
Johnny: I do have to view getting out of that as a blessing. I did retire, and I’ve never been to prison. Then I really got hooked on drugs. I would be experimenting, having a good time at a party and that came in. Crack-cocaine was a particular drug. For 23 years I was addicted to drugs and homeless.
BF: Were the two related?
Johnny: In my case, drugs caused it. Now people look at the homeless and say drugs and alcohol caused it. That’s a rare exception. I’m one of the ones that got addicted to drugs… and became homeless. It was priorities. I wasn’t thinking of looking for a home. It wasn’t on the list. Where the dope was, that was on the top of my list for 20-some years. Even getting a decent meal came a distant second.
BF: And you just couldn’t get out of it?
Johnny: That’s why they call it “hooked.” It’s like a fish that’s been hooked; once that fish bites down into that sharp metal, he’s hooked. All the while, there’s the fisherman trying to reel him in, and he’s fighting, trying to get away. It’s the same thing with the drug-addict. They want to get away. Of course, every fisherman has a story about the one that got away. When you see drug addicts in my position, they’re like that fish. But other than that… you’re stuck.
BF: So you’re writing the odd article now for the Denver Voice, often about your experiences as a drug-addict. You started working there before you kicked your addiction?
Johnny: Yes. Right here on the campus. The first day wasn’t successful, but I figured I’d come back the next day. It’s not like I was immediately a record-setter for selling the papers. It was those first few people who came out of the crowd and talked to me, you know, asked my name and what I was selling, they made me decide I’d come back tomorrow and the next day.
BF: It was after you started selling newspapers that you kicked the drug habits?
Johnny: Yeah. Denver Voice right here on Auraria. It was a blessing to meet so many different people and just be treated in different way. It was the kindness, the for-realness and the concern that people showed me that gave me the ability to even consider quitting drugs. And now… here I am. I sell papers. I write articles. I give lectures. I’m starting my own outreach ministry.
BF: Outreach ministry?
Johnny: I call it outreach ministry. It’s teaching, doing community work and reaching out in different forms. Clothing, soup-kitchen—I’m not beating anybody over the head with the Bible, and threatening them with Hell and damnation. No brimstone. It’s about the lord and goodness to everybody.
BF: So it’s about being helpful and open to people?
Johnny: I think that’s what goodness stands for. You’re not a good person because you belong with this type of people, but you want to kill this type of people because they’re a different color or religion. The value of life is universal. I want to teach an acceptance outside of the labels.
BF: Do you think you could teach people a lot through that approach?
Johnny: It’s about that mostly. I hope that people will learn more, find a way that God can touch their own soul—if they find that and learn that goodness, they won’t learn hatred. Hatred is learned. Whether it’s for black people or people of another religion it’s learned. Babies aren’t born with hatred.
BF: Right. And you saw things like that in your experiences?
Johnny: Yeah. I mean, it’s like college where you go for so long and then get a certificate that you can put on the wall. Well, it’s my 63 years of experience, everything I’ve seen: that’s my certificate. That gives me the right to say things like this. I know. I’ve seen it. Maybe that helps me see people as people.
BF: So you don’t really believe in judging people.
Johnny: No. I’ve seen white people, lived around white people, but they’re all different. The same goes for Mexicans; they get called dirty, lazy, but let me tell you that no matter how I can describe them… I know many black people who are worse. So you judge a person by their ways and actions. That’s what I was taught at the dinner table.
BF: Your family had a big role in teaching you to be like this?
Johnny: Yes. A lot of it was my father.
BF: So he taught you not to buy into labels?
Johnny: Oh yes. Back then it was all over. It still is. Now people will lay into you if you’re from the South because they were racists, but it’s attacking people for differences.
I want to make a point. If you see some winos and the one wino who has the bottle passes it to the next wino guy. Now this guy looks at it and takes it and pours it onto the ground.
‘Cause, well he read the label and this isn’t the brand he wants.
BF: I don’t think that happens much.
Johnny: That’s the point. To winos, it’s alcohol. It’s what he wants. So that’s the problem we’re seeing now. People point out that a man is a southerner, or that he’s a democrat or republican, and hate him for it. People are just really divided, and it’s almost like a new sort of racism. That’s why I want to make this outreach. I have no labels.
BF: You think people are focusing too much on what makes us different?
Johnny: Yes. The life I lived… I’ve learned people aren’t as different as they think.
BF: Is that the sort of thing you talk about at your lectures? Which college do you do those at?
Johnny: Oh I’ve been giving lectures all over the city now. I’ve given them at the schools on this campus and at some other campus.
BF: At the lectures themselves, what do talk about?
Johnny: I talk about a lot of things, but usually the homeless and homelessness. I try talking about the whole process, about what’s really going on under what they see. When they see a homeless person, maybe it was a veteran or college person. I tell them about how they become what you see crawling out from under the dumpster. That’s not the way that person started. I want to give them that understanding.
BF: And the students are open to it?
Johnny: Yes. Many people would stand and express they were hated, or they hated somebody, and now they have a better understanding of themselves. They start to get a feeling about why they feel that way. It’s very open.
BF: If we were to turn back ten years, would you have thought it was possible for you to turn your life around like you have?
Johnny: Oh, I was blessed during all those years. I never lost faith in God. I never considered myself a criminal. I considered it an occupation. Even when I was homeless and on drugs I never blamed God. I never thought “why me?” I always felt that it was a chapter in my life. No book has only one chapter, they’re all full of different chapters. The different chapters are full of different things. In my book, homelessness was a chapter. I always felt that there would be another chapter.
BF: But did you ever think you would be giving lectures in classes?
Johnny: I guess I never really thought about it because I had that life I was in. Being a drug addict, I was way down, and I never was thinking about who was crossing my path, who was maybe going to change my life. But I tried getting the most from my experience so I could benefit others.
BF: So try looking for a light in every day?
Johnny: Yeah, that was a blessing from God that I had that attitude because many people don’t have that attitude. That’s what causes so much of the misery and then people end up killing themselves or someone else. That’s where anyone can go wrong.
BF: Last question: have you ever wondered what would be if you’d stayed away from drugs and crime?
Johnny: I never wondered because I’m really thankful about and grateful about the different experiences that have added to my life. Every one of us, our life is a book. I always looked at what happened in each chapter, and I can see myself standing in front of people, and I’m speaking—trying to guide or help—and I understand it.
When I look back over the past hurts and disappointments and near-deaths and other tragedies, it’s given me the ability to help. So if I look back, if I could change the path, there might have been a lot that I would have missed.
In life, you don’t get to quit until your dead. There’s still more for me to learn and share, and I’m not ready to end my book yet.