From Mary Burgan. You can email her at mary[AT]borderstan.com
Author’s note: I met Marie Johnson one Sunday morning when a friend called me and asked if I could bring some soup over to the apartment building on T Street, where they both lived. He told me that his neighbor, Ms. Johnson, had a bad cold and needed some soup. I brought the soup and made a friend for life. If she hasn’t heard from me, she calls me up to see how I’m doing — and I keep track of her, which is how I knew of her birthday. Ms. Johnson knows the Borderstan neighborhood better than anyone else. She has watched many changes pass by her window, but she is ever cheerful and a good friend to all.
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Ms. Marie Johnson, or “Mother Johnson” as her friends at Canaan Baptist Church on 16th and Newton Streets NW call her, was 100 years old on March 3. “I was born on the third day of March in 1912,” she says, “It rained some time, the sun shone sometime, and it snowed sometime.” That was in Norfolk, Virginia, where she was born. And that is what her mother told her about her birth day.
Johnson came to Washington to work after her job in Norfolk closed out, and her boss found her a job in DC. She came with her husband, Floyd, and they worked at the Marriott at Wisconsin and Porter NW — and Johnson didn’t like it at first. “They worked you to death, “she said. People in DC also put her off: “People didn’t look good. They looked like they were evil. Looked like they were mean.” But she got used to them.
She took streetcars to work; they used to run everywhere in Washington. She and Floyd lived on Oak Street NW at first, and then they moved to the apartment building on the 1700 block of T Street NW where she lives now. At first they lived on the second floor of the three-story building — one of the last rent-controlled apartment buildings in Ward 2. Floyd died in 1979.
Moved to T Street in 1968
Now Johnson has moved to the first floor where she has a good view of everything in the building and on T Street. Her eyes have not missed much since she came to the neighborhood in 1968. She joined the congregation at Canaan in 1970, two years after it was founded, and she has been there ever since.
Canaan had a big birthday party for Mother Johnson last year, but it put on an even better one this year on Sunday, March 4, the day after her hundredth. For one thing, they brought in a gigantic carton box, almost the size of her wall in the T Street apartment. When they opened it, It was a huge HD TV that will probably fill up that wall. Johnson can hardly wait till it gets set up. And neither can some of her neighbors.
A Love of Animals
Johnson is an animal lover, and one of her earliest memories was seeing a man whipping a horse on the street where she lived in Norfolk. She went out to stand between that man and the horse and said, “Mr. Man, you don’t treat a horse like that.” But then a police officer came by, and he pulled her from in front of the horse, and she said to him, “Mr. Policeman, he won’t hurt me.”
Here in Washington she goes out to a city park and there are horses there. She went up to about three of them lined up together, and she said to the first one, “Have you been a good horse?” Then she went to the third one, a white horse, and he “put his head on my shoulder, and I rubbed his face.” She told him “You’re a good looking horse.” She can’t wait to go back to the park to see the horses.
And she likes turtles and dogs. When she was a little girl and a storm washed creatures from the sea up near her house, she picked up a turtle, even though her mother feared that she would get hurt. She says that her mother called her “the odd girl.”
A dog adopted her in the building on T Street. The dog’s name was Half-a-Pint, and he really belonged to a man upstairs, Ron Morgan. But she took Half-a-Pint out in the mornings because the owner is blind and couldn’t take Half-a-Pint very far. She told the dog, “I’m not going to hurt you.” And then she would say, “Come here, dog.” And they would go everywhere — up to Columbia Heights and down to Dupont Circle. And one day that dog didn’t go upstairs to Johnson but “stayed right here” by her door for the rest of his life. Which probably didn’t hurt Ron because he comes down to Johnson’s for breakfast every morning.
A Changing Street
She commented about T Street that when she moved there, “Nothin but color.” But then the “Spanish people lived on this street.” She said that a group of them were drunk all the time, and she said to one of them, “Why do you stay drunk so much?” And he just laughed. But the Spanish men that gathered at the whiskey store on 18th and T NW protected her and her friends. They told people, “Say nothing to them wrong.” Now Johnson’s block of T Street has many more white residents, reflecting the changes on her block and in the city.
She likes to remember U Street back in the day before she came to T Street and before the riots there. It was nice then, and she and her husband would go to eat at Rand’s on Sundays. There were nice stores there, too. They lived on Oak Street, but they moved to T Street after the riots were over.
She is a shrewd judge of people. She told a friend once, “Not everybody that grins in your face is your friend.” She believes that you must treat people like you want to be treated, “Don’t be mean and nasty. Don’t fuss with them. Don’t argue with them.”
Summing it all up, she says “I’ve had a good life. If I had it, I gave it.” While she was speaking, Shanika Thomas from an upstairs apartment dropped by. She was checking the parking because the police were giving out tickets to people who didn’t move their cars for street cleaning. Tuesday morning is street cleaning on T Street, and Thomas had taken the day off from work.
Thomas has known Johnson all her life, since she was brought home to T Street 23 years ago . Her family still lives at the T Street apartment building. She works at public relations for the U.S. Army, living at home. She said that Johnson stays up watching TV late at night. Once, when Thomas came in late, she looked in and said, “Do you know what time it is?” And Johnson said, “Do you know what time it is?”
Ms. Johnson does know what time it is.
She was born on March 3, 1912, and although she has been a good person, she can also see who’s bad and mean. That’s why she has friends among the horses and the dogs and almost every human being she meets. She is going to stay in her apartment. And she will not leave until the Lord calls her home.