Thursday, October 1, 2015



“The Johnson Family” or "Johnsons" was a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves. It was elaborated into a code of conduct. A Johnson honors his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy, self-righteous, troublemaking person. A Johnson will give help when help is needed. He will not stand by while someone is drowning or trapped in a burning car."

In contrast to the honorable world of hobos and criminals, Burroughs describes a type of person known simply as a `Shit.’ Unlike the Johnsons, Shits are obsessed with minding other’s business. They are the town busy body, the preacher, the lawman. Shits are incapable of taking the honorable road of each-to-his-own. Burroughs describes the situation in his essay “My Own Business” thus:

This world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: `Some people are shits, darling.” I was never able to forget it.

 A term that appears regularly in the later works of William S. Burroughs. The Johnson Family is a late 19th century expression referring to 'honorable' members of the American underclass - typically hobos and small-time criminals such as petty thieves. Johnsons may defy the laws and conventions of society, but adhere to an implicit code of conduct that is essentially laissez faire.

“In this world of shabby rooming houses, furtive gray figures in dark suits, hop joints and chili parlors the Johnson Family took shape as a code of conduct. To say someone is a Johnson means he keeps his word and honors his obligations. He's a good man to have on your team. He is not a malicious, snooping, interfering self-righteous trouble making person.” - The Place of Dead Roads (1983)
"Salt Chunk Mary" had all the "nos" and none of them ever meant "yes". She named a price heavy and cold as a cop's blackjack on a winter night and that was it. She didn't name another. Mary didn't like talk and she didn't like talkers. She received and did business in the kitchen. And she kept it in a sugar bowl. Nobody thought about that. Her cold grey eyes would have seen the thought and maybe something goes wrong on the next lay John Citizen come up with a load of 00 into your soft and tenders or Johnny Law just happens by. She sat there and heard. When you spread the gear out on her kitchen table she already knows where you sloped it. She looks at the gear and a price falls out heavy and cold and her mouth closes and stays shut. If she doesn't want to do business she just wraps the gear up and shoves it back across the table and that is that. Mary keeps a blue coffee pot and a pot of salt pork and beans always on the wood stove. When you fall in she gets up without a word and puts a mug of coffee and plate of salt chunk in front of you. You eat and then you talk business.
The Place of Dead Roads, Burroughs 'frontier' novel (the second in his Western Lands trilogy), was originally titled The Johnson Family, and explores the notion and nature of the Johnson (waggish critics might suggest at this point that the whole body of Burroughs' work is somewhat Johnson-obsessed). He aligns the Johnson Family against the authoritarian and dishonest, their natural enemies - in their ultimate form, the rulers of the planet.


How to be a Johnson

To paraphrase a good envelope of mine, you may already be a Johnson! The situation is: via the doctrine of live and let live, Johnsons cooperate, and their hidden, intangible - and so unbreakable - society is founded on that cooperation. It is not necessary for the Johnson Family to meet once a month at Holiday Inn to discuss their agenda and schedule. Johnsons know what needs to be done and they will do it when the time comes. An unjust law will not deter a Johnson. The Nova Police will not deter a Johnson. The correct path of action is clear; even those who block the path know it is correct.

Think: What Would Johnsons Do? Asks Burroughs, "Which side are you on?"


1 comment:

Doug said...

You always write things which I get much from.

Here is a little something in return. I didn't write it, but I read it as a teenager, it was and still is a wonderful influence on me. If anything, this story improved with age.
I think you will appreciate it for what it is. Right up your alley really.

Eric Frank Russell's masterpiece, 'And Then There Where None'