A man climbs a ladder
Jake Stimpson/Flickr

Growing up in my neighborhood there were many colorful characters — mostly functional, sometimes not so much — with equally colorful names:

Hog Jowls

Sweet Pete

Shoebooty

Stringbeans

Sonny C (before there was

Sunny D…fitting, no?)

Empty Pockets Hopkins

Panhandle

Poordevil

Postman and

The Geezer

One of our most memorable figures, and the first I recall, was Lightning Bug Johnson, a/k/a LBJ. He was a little guy with a mouth as big as the outdoors (and twice as filthy). When LBJ came round, mothers would scoop up their young and hold them close to their bosoms. Young ladies would brace themselves for the anticipated insults to their pulchritude, while their male escorts grudgingly withheld their rage. Anyone who beat up that little man would lose their street cred forever.

However, I recall a time that he was on crutches for 18 months, though, of course, no one ever claimed to be the proximate cause of his misfortune. We never knew whether alcohol, malnutrition or repeat offenses prevented him from healing.

But we always knew LBJ had a heart as good as it gets. When he was sober, he was the neighborhood’s trim painter. People would trust him on ladders to decorate their homes. Though they were risking tidiness and neatness with his work, they knew they could live with his price. (Let us recall, however, that those were far less litigious times.)

Lightning Bug died from alcohol poisoning at 46 years young. An astonishing number of mourners came to his farewell, a tribute to the boisterous, churlish irritant who, against all odds, became a cult figure.

And though few knew the true story behind his pain, deep down he was one of the best-loved people in our neighborhood.