Brokenhearted over a woman, Johnny Jay Johnson spent all his money on a bus ticket from Virginia and rolled into town five years ago in tears, planning to kill himself.
Today, he’s married, owns a two-bedroom house, works as a salesman, invests at a brokerage house and preaches positive thinking and self-discipline, sounding not unlike the speakers on motivational tapes he listens to daily. Now 40, he’s confident he’ll reach his goal of having $2 million by the time he’s 54.
While Johnson sought help from counselors and a homeless shelter, he says he regained his will to live at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where a librarian helped him find books on investing and self-help that turned his life around.
“If it wasn’t for the library, God knows where I’d be right now,” said Johnson, a talkative man who sells cleaning additives for septic systems, making about $570 in a good week.
Five years ago, Johnson was forced to quit a retail sales job in Virginia because he would cry at work over his breakup. He stopped eating, lived on Gatorade and worked as a dishwasher. He spent his free time trying to kill himself.
First, he stood in a K mart and selected a rifle by putting it in his mouth. When he tried to use it later, it jammed. Then he bought some rope and tried to hang himself from a tree, but the branch snapped and hit him in the head.
He decided to catch a bus from Norfolk, Va., to a faraway city, thinking he’d be more successful at suicide elsewhere. A bus to Philadelphia was sitting outside the station, so he spent his last $18 on the ticket.
Soon, he was on Philadelphia streets, eating at church soup kitchens. He spent six months in a homeless shelter.
He first visited the library in the neighborhood where he got meals at churches. Sandra Owens, the head librarian at the time, said Johnson was different from the other homeless people.
“There’s always homeless that come in all the time . . . but I really think it’s more to pass the time, either to get out of the weather or they have nowhere else to go,” she said. “But he used his time. That’s unusual.”
Johnson’s transformation included therapy and job-skill lessons, welfare, menial jobs and help from the St. Barnabas Mission for the Homeless, near the home he now owns.
He learned from what he read to save. In the shower, he left the water on long enough to get wet, then turned it off to apply his discount shampoo.
At one job, Johnson saw co-workers spend their money on junk food and cigarettes, then complain about the bad neighborhoods they lived in.
Mission coordinator Helen Allen said Johnson stops in from time to time to offer encouragement to the residents. “He’s encouraged others to go the way he went,” she said.
His way includes daily study of business, health and psychology, meditation and a nightly review of his day to see what he’s done to improve himself. He insists he’s neither smart nor unusual.
“This is anything anybody can do,” he said. “This is no big deal. All you have to do is just apply yourself.”