I was reflecting on some of the events in my past recently and I remembered this episode which I’ve had a burning desire to share. Back in the day, when I returned to Toronto, Canada from Jamaica in my late teens, there was a guy in the neighbourhood by the name of Johnny Denton. Now Johnny was known as the “bad” guy of the ‘hood. Not so much as a “thug” in the way it means today, but a guy you didn’t mess with. More importantly, you never, and I mean n-e-v-e-r messed with his family, especially his sisters. There was a story that he beat a guy to a pulp for hitting one of his sisters, but I don’t know if this was true.
First off don’t get it twisted. This was your typical Toronto neighbourhood in the late 70’s, early 80’s. It was a clean, safe middle-class neighbourhood, mixed with all races and cultures. There was no violence, drug dealing/using, rival gangs or racial/cultural tensions among us. Everyone just hung out, played sports, raced our bikes, listened to music, and we were just starting to get interested in the opposite sex. Johnny was much older than the rest of us, in his mid to late 20’s, about 6’ 4”, over 200lbs, dark, muscular and always had a scowl. I don’t ever remember seeing him smile or laugh. He didn’t really hang out in the neighbourhood that much, although he lived with his Mother and other siblings. He drove a Cadillac and the word on the street was that he was a pimp and a drug dealer. He never did any of this rumored business in our neighbourhood, so I don’t know if this was true. However, he had a reputation and that was enough for us not to mess with him or his blood. One of his sisters Patricia and I were in the same grade, so we studied a few times together, but there was nothing romantic between us. It wasn’t because I had a fear of Johnny…. we were just cool like that and assisted each other with homework. I don’t ever remember having a conversation with Johnny back in those days. I would greet him with a “wassup” nod and he would return one as an acknowledgment. A couple of years after I was in Toronto, his brother Huey “came up” from Jamaica to Toronto also and we hung out for a minute. But Huey wasn’t into school and studying as I was back then, so after a while he dropped out and hung with Johnny. It was rumored that he also got into the pimping and drug game with his brother, but I don’t know if this was true.
When I went to university, I lost touch, or to be honest, lost interest, in what Johnny and Huey were doing. After a couple years of university life, due to personal and family reasons I had to drop out and I started drifting into the wild party lifestyle. I had a dead end job as a short order cook and was living with a buddy of mine named Walter and his girlfriend. Walter and I were hard, and I mean h-a-r-d partiers. We also worked at the same restaurant, so our normal routine would be to work from 4pm until around midnight, then party until around 5 –6am, sleep during the day and head back to work for 4 pm. We would do this practically 7 days a week. At work we would take “smoking weed” breaks. Sometimes after work we would head to this after hours bar, a “speakeasy” that opened at 1am. It was like the ones you see in movies, where you had to knock on this steel door, a window would slide open and if the bouncer knew you or someone who could vouch that you weren’t Five-0, then you could come in. Walter and I would go there, drink, smoke weed and dance to music all night while hanging with the pimps, hookers, drug dealers and other hustlers. Every so often I would see Johnny and Huey there. I would nod to Johnny, while Huey and I would talk for a moment and/or share a joint. I remember having this uncomfortable feeling on occasion when I would nod at Johnny. He would give me this “hard” look and then after a while give me a nod. I didn’t dwell on it though and dismissed it quickly as I partied on.
One night when I was in this speakeasy, I saw Johnny Denton and did my customary nod “hello”. I was just about to spark my joint when he walked up to me. We had a conversation which went something like this:
J.D.: What you doing here?
Asa: Hey Johnny. I’m here with my buddy…. we’re just hanging out.
J.D.: Why you hanging out here? This is not the place for you to be.
Asa: (incredulous look and silence)
J.D.: I remember you from the neighbourhood as a smart guy. You studied with Pat (his sister) and I know you got brains. You’ve got something I don’t have and a lot of other people here…. an opportunity to make something of yourself…. and you are wasting it hanging out here. I never would have thought you would be wasting your life here. I always thought you would be a success and I am disappointed seeing you here. Hanging out with these hustlers, pimps and doing drugs isn’t what you should be about…. you’re better than this. So I don’t want to see you here again…. and if I never see you again, that will be a good thing. I will know that it’s because you are doing okay, better than this….
Asa: (hanging my head in silence)
He then walked away. I told Walter that we had to go. I never went there again. In time I turned my life around, stopped partying, went back to school and accomplished some positive things in my life.
Many years later I saw Johnny Denton at a clothing store. He was with a woman and some young children who I assumed were his wife and kids. I don’t know if he saw me or would have even recognized me. I didn’t go up to him. I don’t know why. I had heard that he had found God and had become a preacher and was doing positive things with troubled teenagers in the black community. I don’t know if this was true. But I do know this. Looking back, my life started to change for the better, after Johnny Denton spoke to me for the very first time…. on that night.