Home Again for H.B. Johnson

December 18, 1993|By MIKE BOWLER

There'll be a coming-home party on West Lexington Street tomorrow afternoon. True, the guest of honor is dying of AIDS. True, he has a home detention monitor strapped to his right ankle.

But it will be a time to celebrate. Indeed, a large part of 47-year-old Harry B. Johnson Jr.'s story is a Christmas story. It's about coming home for the holidays, about forgiveness and redemption and good will. It's also much too sad for Christmas.

H.B. (as some call him; others call him Skinny) has sent more than 150 invitations to this nonalcoholic fest. The invitees include Governor Schaefer and a host of state officials, politicians, academicians, family and friends, many from H.B.'s former place of residence, 954 Forrest St. -- the Maryland State Penitentiary.

The governor made the party possible last month when he commuted H.B.'s 35-year sentence for robbery with a deadly weapon. The governor almost didn't do it. At least two of his earlier pardons had backfired embarrassingly, and H.B.'s criminal record could fill the page of a telephone book.

Then there was the sensitive matter of how H.B. contracted AIDS in prison, where he had daily access to cocaine and heroin, much of it supplied by guards ultimately in the governor's employ.

In the late 1980s, though, H.B. changed. He sought medical help for his addiction, went cold turkey after 21 days in the hospital -- and began writing.

Oh, did he write! Letters, poems, essays, plays, even a novel poured out of 954 Forrest. He completed his high school education and began taking college courses. He corresponded with fellow poets. Some of his work found its way into print, and two years ago (and again this year) he won Channel 2's playwriting contest.

About a year ago, H.B. discovered he had AIDS. Word of it spread rapidly, and a most amazing thing happened: The many people whose lives he had intersected from his cell mobilized. They began petitioning, writing and calling the governor, requesting one simple thing: that H.B. be allowed to go home for the time he had left.

The campaign was a long and arduous one, but so many people took the time from busy schedules to come to the aid of a fellow human that state officials were astonished. ''I've never seen an outpouring like this,'' said Paul J. Davis, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission. They were black and white, rich and poor, the heard of and the unheard of, dozens of them. Some wrote the governor two and three times.

There was Drew Leder, a philosophy professor at Loyola College, who drafted the original petition to the governor; Sharette Kern, H.B.'s former clinical social worker at the prison; Gossie Hudson, a Morgan State professor who interviewed H.B. from prison on his Sunday night WEAA-FM talk show; Robert H. Deluty, a UMBC professor who had struck up a friendship with H.B. after their poems appeared side-by-side in The Evening Sun; Lionel Griffin, a friend from childhood who arranged a place for H.B. to live while he dies; the Arena Players, who donated a third of the proceeds of one of their November productions to H.B.; politicians Elijah Cummings, Nathan Irby, Anthony Ambridge, Vera Hall, Clarence ''Tiger'' Davis.

If H.B.'s deteriorating health permits, Delegate Davis wants to use him (and H.B. has agreed) as a kind of reverse role model -- the opposite, if you will, of Michael Jordan. If retired basketball superstar Jordan is the emblem of success, convicted criminal and former addict Johnson is the emblem of failure, the very picture of a man destroyed by drugs and crime, a negative exemplar.

On November 22, Governor Schaefer finally allowed H.B. to go home, citing his ''touching [of] the lives of those who have read his work.'' H.B. took a taxi home. The taxi passed Monroe and Fayette, an intersection where he had played as a youngster.

''I saw how the addicts had taken over the corner,'' he said, ''and even though I was going home, I was overwhelmed by sadness. That corner used to sparkle. People used to walk proud. They don't now. I recognized the expression on the faces. I used to wear it. Man, it's death alive.''

But H.B.'s first after-prison poem, ''Homecoming,'' was an affirmation of life: ''Incredible is/ This homecoming thing!/ Made of wife and kids,/ Parents and friends!/ Heavenly hellos,/ Historical sins./ And I am back!/ I am black. I am free,/ And I am back!/ On a street of smiles/ New life begins.''

Mike Bowler is editor of The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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