Opinion: John the Baptist was a panhandler ambassador


He is mostly forgotten by now. Those of us who walked the downtown streets as high school students in the 1950s still remember him I suppose. But we’re vanishing too, one by one and his memory fades with us.

Everyone knew him as John the Baptist, and I’m ashamed to say I never knew his real name. In legal terms he was a panhandler, but in our hearts he was much more.

Old John was probably simpleminded from birth, and grew into a simple, honest gentleman of color who graced the downtown streets of Jefferson City, Missouri for untallied years.

His routine never varied. He arrived on the bus just as the downtown stores opened their doors, carrying with him the tools of his trade: a wind-up monkey that clanged noisy cymbals together, a broken organ grinder’s organ, and a chipped collection plate from some forgotten church.

He usually wore a faded and threadbare tuxedo jacket adorned with an array of bright ribbons that testified among other things, to Second Place for some competition at an unspecified county fair. Cocked on his head at a jaunty angle was an old silk top hat with a dent in one side and a rip in the top.

Sometimes as he sat in front of one of the stores, he squeezed an ancient accordion and sang senseless lyrics to a tuneless melody. If you stopped and listened, he would look up with a giant smile and ask you for some money. He didn’t want nickels and dimes, either. He wanted “gold money.” Pennies. Most of us carried a few in our pockets just for John.

The store owners considered him an asset, a goodwill ambassador of sorts. And no one ever objected to him selecting their store to grace for the day.

When the stores closed at the end of the day, he picked up his belongings, slipped the day’s take of “gold money” into an ancient coin purse and got back on the bus to go home. Bus drivers never charged him to ride, and all we knew was that he lived with a relative somewhere a few blocks from downtown.

Long after I moved away I learned that one day John didn’t show up at the store. Folks said the bus driver found him sitting on the bench at the bus stop. At first he thought he was sleeping.

We’ll always have panhandlers, of course. But none of them will ever take the place of John the Baptist.


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