Every day for ten years, Rick Johnson set up shop on the courthouse steps. He was usually there by dawn, selling M&Ms and umbrellas, water and gum. He sang “Don’t worry, be happy” and yelled “I love you!” to passers-by. He hugged some of them — the courthouse regulars — like they were family. And then one day in late July, Rick Johnson wasn't there.
Almost immediately, defense attorneys and prosecutors and judges started asking around: Has anybody seen Rick? Some had heard he was not feeling well the week before. Was he sick?
His absence was rare. Rick, 59, had become a fixture on those courthouse steps, the happy character greeting lawyers and judges on their way to murder trials, to meet with prisoners or to determine the fates of petty thieves. He was a dose of optimism in a bleak place, and so his absence, though rare, was deeply felt even for just a day.
When Rick wasn’t answering his phone or his door, defense attorneys dispatched a private investigator to ask his neighbors if they knew anything, to no avail. Finally, though, attorney Vivian King made contact with Rick’s family. The news was bad: He had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Rick would remain in the hospital for 33 days through the month of August, too weak to return to the courthouse steps once he was discharged.
Months later, many in the Harris County criminal-justice system have continued to rally around Rick — trying to lift his spirits, perhaps as a way to return the favor. Prosecutors at the Harris County District Attorney's Office have raised more than $2,200 for him after one prosecutor's wife heard the bad news and wanted to hold a bake sale. Others are chipping in to pay his rent and utility bills, calling him to check in and visiting him at his apartment when they can. One defense attorney, Kent Schaffer, is even trying to hire someone to keep Rick company at night, when he feels most alone.
“He became part of the criminal-courthouse family,” said defense attorney Deborah Keyser, who helped get Rick started selling M&Ms. “It’s really quiet and lonely without him out there now. You could hear him from a block away: ‘Good morning, good morning, good morning! Happy hump day!’ I know everybody is enormously concerned about him now, just hoping that he doesn't give up.”
Keyser met Rick more than a decade ago when she bought an umbrella from him outside the courthouse. The following day, when Rick tried to sell her another umbrella, Keyser suggested he might want to expand his business. “I said, ‘You need to come up with a different marketing plan — people can only buy so many umbrellas,” Keyser said. “‘You need something they can buy every single day.’”
That’s where the M&Ms came in. After Rick agreed to the plan, Keyser purchased a huge box of them—48 bags for $25 — and Rick got to work, bringing Keyser enough money for more stock once he ran out. They continued the business model for the next ten years. “He started building up a clientele, and before you knew it, he was going through ten of those boxes a week,” Keyser said. “If the rest of the world had his work ethic, we'd be beaming.”
Eventually, the jubilant salesman on the courthouse corner became more like a friend to the regulars. He knew everyone’s birthdays and gave out Christmas cards, too — the expensive pop-up kind that play music. He came to their children’s birthday parties and holiday dinners and sat in church with Vivian King. He sat in the front row at defense attorney Monique Sparks's wedding, and he sat in the front row, too, at Kent Schaffer's daughter's funeral. "He told me, 'You're my friend, man. I couldn't miss this for the world,'" Schaffer said. "He's just a remarkable guy."
On an unseasonably warm November afternoon, I paid Rick a visit at his modest Midtown apartment, tucked away at the end of a dead-end street. He was almost unfamiliar — his subdued and soft manner an unusual contrast to his animated singing and dancing on Franklin Street. He lay in bed watching TMZ, taking a couple of sips here and there from a Sonic shake on his nightstand that he said he had been working on for days.
He said nights have been hard lately. He is worried he might die alone in his sleep, and so sometimes he stays awake. Days are hard too, because he feels so weak. He says he hates having to rely on help. Lately, his cousins and his brother have been taking care of him (and will take him to Thanksgiving dinner), but Rick says he just wants to be working again, back on his feet.
“I can’t get up,” Rick said. “I can’t even write. I don’t have an appetite. Sometimes I throw up. But everybody else, they're just out there living their life.”
Rick raises his arm to show how thin he has become. He is 118 pounds.
The chemotherapy has been rough, Rick says. At first he didn’t want any treatment at all, knowing what the chemo might do to him. But then, he says, Keyser and some other attorneys convinced him to accept the treatment, encouraging him to keep fighting.
He calls Keyser his “shero” — his female hero. Before she came along, Rick says, he was selling dope. He hasn’t touched drugs in more than a decade now.
“I’m very grateful that she inspired me to do something else and become more productive,” Rick said. “She’s a smart woman, and she took a liking to me.”
He’s grateful, too, he said, for the friendship and kindness courthouse mainstays have shown him over the years. Along with Keyser, Sparks and Schaffer, Rick named prominent attorneys such as Dick DeGuerin, Mike DeGeurin, Rusty Hardin, Vivian King and Kim Ogg; and judges Michael McSpadden and Jean Spradling Hughes as his closest friends.
He says he has found it hard to stay positive feeling this weak. But, asked if he would like his picture taken at the end of the visit, he managed to crack a large, familiar smile. As though broadcasting a message, he looked into the camera and sang a familiar line: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
A GoFundMe donation page has now been set up for Rick Johnson, with all proceeds going toward his in-home medical care. Click here to donate.
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