On the Death of Willie “Chan” Johnson

Willie & family

Willie “Chan” Johnson in better times, with his wife Tawanda, and their two daughters, Destiny and Ebony.

I’m in an odd business for a sensitive guy. I’ve been diagnosed as having my heart too close to my skin, and I prove it just about every day. Every person who has ever betrayed me, lied to me, lovers who have loved and left, they all took a chunk out of me, and I heal slowly, if at all.

I carry the wounds around, close to the surface, and never can tell what might start one of them bleeding. It’s like knocking a knee scab against the sharp edge of a thrift store coffee table. It hurts enough to bring tears to your eyes, and then you have to dab it for a couple of days, lay on the ointment liberally until the bleeding stops.

The wrong word, the wrong kind of look, bad news that didn’t even occur on the inside of my cage—they’re all there waiting to trip me up. I put on an unsmiling face, maybe a teeth-gritting grin, and guard against any offense to my psychic scabs, and I do okay, all things considered.

And then I met Tawanda Green. Tawanda’s suddenly famous in this city, at least in one part of this town, with the terrible distinction of being the widow of Willie Johnson, known to many as simply “Chan.” He drove around in the Johnson’s Taxi minivan, you’ve surely seen it. Nice guy, working hard, always ready for a conversation, always personable. The kind of guy who is everywhere, but fades into the background because he’s just getting along, doing what he needs to be doing.

Well, Willie became famous last Thursday night too, though he never got to enjoy even a minute of his notoriety. Willie had to deal with a couple of thugs who decided they were going to rob him. Only the three of them know for sure what went down on the 400 block of Willis Street, and Willie isn’t talking about it because he’s vacuuming out his new cab in Heaven right now, getting ready for his first shift.

I met Tawanda Green, his wife, on the night of a prayer vigil for poor Willie, who went off to meet his maker. Two local thieves, two guys who at any other time may have called him Brother, shot him in the face for…what? For money? How much money does a taxicab driver make in Cambridge? How much money does he carry around? Maybe forty, fifty, sixty dollars?

For that kind of money, Willie gets to push up daisies. The two guys who robbed him get to…what can they get to do with a few bucks? Ten little packets of heroin, maybe? Maybe just six and a couple cases of beer—it’s so hard to choose when you didn’t win that 1.2 billion dollar lottery, you know.
But for whatever they were going to do with that dough, Willie had to die. It’s a damn shame.

And then I met Tawanda Green. She was nervous, a little giddy; smiling too much, taken aback by all the attention she was getting on a frigid evening; a little amazed at all the friends that came out, even strangers, people she didn’t know, people crying, even white people—asking is she okay, does she need anything, will she be all right.

All the while her daughter is clutching at her—because of the cold, sure; it was as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss out there. And that’s what little girls do, they hang onto their mother, especially when they’re cold, and scared, and now suddenly grieving.

They’re going home from that fine display of solidarity, feeling kinda good that they have friends after all; but you know, Willie isn’t coming home.

They have to make plans. They have to find a way to compensate for that. Tawanda has to decide if she’s going to get behind the wheel and continue the family business. Maybe she has some concerns about it, maybe she has questions. But she’s not going to ask Willie about it, because he’s not going to be there. Not since 9:13 Thursday night, when a handful of dollars cost Willie his last breath, and took him out of Tawanda’s life.

What did the two thieves get? Sixty dollars? Eighty? I would have given them both a hundred just to not shoot Willie, and I didn’t even know him. I would have given them $200, even more. I would have bought them the dope and said go ahead, shoot it up man, and just go away. Float away and become a statistic, for the good of us all, just don’t shoot Willie. He’s the last person to deserve it.

I met Tawanda. And I saw that last picture of Willie, and I felt it knock another chunk out of my heart. It isn’t right. Nobody deserves to die because somebody else wants something, and thinks it’s okay to kill somebody to get it.

There’s nothing worth that much. Not in this little town. Not anywhere.

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