Johnny Tut-da-Grass

As Ritten ba Ma Self

Broomall, Pencilbanea

May 10, 1953


ACME supermarket near Philadelphia

Eberybody still call me Johnny. Dont matter I’m foaty-fore. Ill never be John. Ill always be just Johnny — Johnny Tut-da-Grass.

Hey, where ya git yur hare tut? I ast peeple goin’ in and outta da Atme or atross da street at Vince’s Barber Chop. Dey say, “At Vince’s”. Den I point to ma hed and say, “No, no. no! On yur hed! On yur hed!”. Dey laugh da first time dey here it. Now dey shake deyr heds and wok away like Im a pest.

I got my nickname years ago. Used to tut da grass for the Hartins, the Lawsons, an da Bonsalls. All de neybors. I luv to tut grass. Nebber cared bout gittin’ payed.  Jess like tuttin grass. Sompin nice I coud do to show ‘em I luved ‘em. Mr. and Mrs. Bonsall were nicest. And deyr dawter, Nancy. She was difrent, like me. She used to bring me lemonade and cookies after I got dun tuttin deyr lawn. Dey sed Nancy was re-tarded. Nancys gone now. Sometimes I wish I was too. She jest disappeared. I miss Nancy. Dey say she died. I wish I cood too.

Dey all tink I’m stupid. Tause I tock funny and tell da same joke ebbery day. “Oh, dat’s just Johnny,” dey say to de new people in town, “Johnny Tut-da-Grass. He’s not all there.” But I am. I am all there. Just not the same way dey are. Dey tink tause dey tok better and tause dey gradeated from Marple Allamentery School, deyr better dan me. And dey are. Dey got jobs and houses and lawns. I dont. But dey arnt. Bein smart dont make ya better! Bein smart and havin’ a job an a big lawn to mow wont git ya into heaben!


Howdy Doody

I tock funny tause I got hit in da hed when I was six. Da brick almos kilt me. Before dat, I tocked normal. Now I tock funny. And Im slow. Im foaty-fore yeers old now but it doan madder. Howdy Doody’s my best frend. And Tlarabel. Deyr funny but dey nebber makes fun o other peeple. I dont like da peanut galry! All doze kids doin’ what Buflo Bob tell em to. Dat’s stupid! But I dont call em dat. I dont laff at em. I keeps my feelins to ma self. Preechr say evry Sunday, be nice. If u luv only doz who luv u, u got a ting or to comin! I do ma best to luv ebrybody da same.

Here come a stranger! Probly lonely here in Broomall. Nebber bin to da Atme or Vince’s bfore. “Hey, where ya git yur hare tut?” I ast wid a smile. He dont smile back. He look at ol Johnny like da old-timers do. He just shake his hed side to side. I ast agin, Hey, where ya git yur hare tut? Den he say “Vince’s” and I say “No,” pointin to ma hed, “On yur hed! On yur hed!” and laff lite I always do — lite I nebber toll it bfore. No madder how smart u r, ya still git yur hare tut…on yer hed! 

— In memory of John with no last name,

— Gordon C. Stewart, graduate of Marple Elementary School, Chaska, Minnesota, January 24, 2019.


Those who have lived their lives in one place are blessed with enduring friendships over time. The schoolmates who stayed in my home town see each other all the time. They still bump into each other at Vince’s Barber Shop where Vince gave us Kindergartners crew cuts while the older men leafed through the stack of Playboys. The Playboys aren’t there anymore, but the little boys are, complete with oxygen tanks. Vince and his brother Tony, now in their 90s, are still behind the chairs telling stories that recall their relationships over time.

On my way to the 50th high school class reunion back in Broomall, the question occurred whether Vince’s Barber Shop was still there. It was. I walked in and began to introduce myself. “You’re Ken Stewart’s son.” I was a Kindergartner, a sixth-grader, a ninth-grader, and a senior all over again – a boy-turned-man who had been known over time once upon a time.

There are the friendships that date back to childhood, and there are the friendships that come by choice for those of us who left home for various parts of the world. These friendships also come by mutual bonds of affection that date themselves to different times and locate themselves in definable places. Like the hometown friendships that fell into our laps by birth, these later friendships endure by virtue of shared experience. If the early friendships are sustained by common memories of being called into Pop Werfel’s principal’s office for shooting spit balls in class or getting into a fight at recess, afternoons playing hide-and-seek or capture the flag in each other’s backyard, catching fire flies at dusk, or playing in the school band or on a school team, the friendships that come later happen because some spark of commonality draws us to each other.

Old dogs at The Gathering

Old dogs at The Gathering

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between the later friendships and those early one. I’m thinking now of my friend Steve Shoemaker from Urbana, Illinois. Although we were in graduate school at the same time, we barely knew each other. Steve was married and lived in the married student apartments. I was single, living in the singles dorm. Each had a job that diminished our free time. We rarely took the same classes. We barely knew each other except by sight and name until 12 years ago when our mutual friend Wayne brought seven kindred spirits together once a year for renewal, friendship, and theology. In jest we called ourselves “The Chicago Seven” until Dale died earlier this past year. (Views from the Edge published “The Surrogate’s Voice” following Dale’s last time the group.) Now we’re just The Gathering.

Steve and Nadja were guests these last two nights here in Minnesota. Steve drove 11 hours to do a program of poetry and reflection on Becoming Free: Go Fly a Kite. When I presented him with the honorarium for Shepherd of the Hill’s Dialogue program, he refused it… on the basis of friendship. “Besides,” he said, “You’re my publisher!” I insisted. So did he. Friendship prevailed.

During last night’s poetry reading Steve was asked how his poems come to be. He often writes in the middle of night, lying in bed, composing on his iPhone, like the other night when a combination of three compound words came to mind: “sleepy-head, lazy-bones, slug-a-bed.”

Then, early this morning in the night following his presentation, the egg was hatched.

Verse – Missing Sunrise

Sleeply-head, lazy-bones, slug-a-bed,
where were you when the sun raised its head?
Purple and violet, rosy-red:
you lie there like you’re already dead…
Get up and greet the day! Live instead
of hiding – cat and dog must be fed!
Alarm dinging, birds are singing, led
by sunlight bringing New Love ahead.

Steve’s verse reminded me of a few lines from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crown: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership as Written by Himself:

“What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the place’s true being, its presence you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, expect that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the place was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears. This would come over you and then pass away, as fragile as a moment of light.”

Two barber shops. Two barbers. Two places. One story. Don’t “lie there like you’re already dead! Get up and greet the day… led by sunlight bringing New Love ahead.”

Thank you, Steve.