Within the past 32 vendor profiles in the Denver VOICE—which is my stint as the biographer for these prodigious individuals—no one has ever been repeated. However, it’s time to revisit the profile from 33 issues ago (December 2008), Johnny Alexander.
Signing up in September 2008, Johnny initially took to vending the paper in high numbers, and was highlighted for it. As much as vending was an instant economic tool—that doesn’t capture the true change vending the VOICE afforded him.
It’s logical he would instantly excel. He was born in Grand Rapids, MI, moved quite a bit, and by the age of seven was living in Los Angeles. His father would pack up his knap-sack with bags of peanuts and he would hop on a bus—all alone for the whole day—travelling all over the metro area selling peanuts. He didn’t know the bus routes, but even hours away, he would get on the closest bus, tell the driver where he was headed and sit closely.
At eight, his family moved to Minnesota and peanuts were replaced with shoe shining equipment. Johnny would go into the “white bars” and shine shoes for $0.25. By the age of eighteen, he owned his own pool hall, and his life began to paint a hustler’s tale. He was sober then, but Capital Hill in Denver would someday change that.
In 1989, after moving a lot, he made it to Cap Hill. A consummate entrepreneur, Johnny sold his artwork (as he still does), but also got into selling drugs. In October, without logic, he stepped into a Colfax motel and began to use his product. Not leaving the room for three days and nights, he was an instant addict.
Johnny suffered with the pangs of addiction, hustling this-and-that, and one day found his money eaten up by his habit. He ran into his brother, who talked of the VOICE, a legal way to make money. Johnny signed up, thinking he would get the ten free papers, make a little money and leave.
But, it didn’t turn out that way. Johnny went straight to the Auraria Campus and students and professors were instantly intrigued with his welcoming demeanor; it was the beginning of Johnny’s iconic tenure. The police came and tried to shoo him off many times, and by saving business cards and politely standing his ground, it has definitively become “his” spot.
As he got to know his customers’ names, including students sharing their term papers or personal lives with him, he made money, but “I could find no peace,” he said. Johnny kept repeating that line—over and over again, each time etching in the reason why this “job” helped an addicted man transform into the leader he is today.
The money given by these sincere people was still going to drugs, and the paradox of their sincerity and his façade as he accepted their “blessings,” overwhelmed him. For the first time in twenty years he began to rid himself of his drugs. “I could find no peace until I did,” he said.
Johnny’s life was literally saved by his customers. Those simple hellos, those heartfelt inquiries to his day, propelled him to a healthy life. He has since been lecturing in classes on the stereotypes of homelessness, transforming a seemingly tragic life into one of inspiration. He has lectured for five different professors in over twenty classrooms. He was also highlighted in a 9 News story, an Internet radio show, a documentary film and will soon be auditing classes in public speaking. For nearly a year, he has paid for an apartment using earnings from vending.
Not all vendors who do well will ultimately succeed. The streets are harsh and unforgiving. But, Johnny’s access to a better life has been side-by-side with the small tether offered by the VOICE. In a testament to his strength, Johnny was able to grab on and pull himself to a venerable platform—as a leader for students, professors, friends and especially me.