Only fools don’t lock the front door in this tough neighborhood.
Only fools, perhaps, and Darold Johnson.
Johnson makes a point of showing visitors the lockless front door of 1st Step - the clean and sober social club he founded a year ago to help the troubled East Central district.
1st Step, 1927 E. First, is open 24 hours a day to anyone who steps inside the cavernous former post office building. It’s an island of sobriety in an area of bars, adult bookstores and strip joints.
Just keep the drugs, booze and trouble outside, warns Johnson, who carries a 9mm handgun under his shirt in case anyone doesn’t get the message.
Some don’t. Johnson says he had to pull the pistol once to get rid of a troublemaker. His wife, Penny, and volunteer workers have been threatened and cursed at by dealers and pimps who see 1st Step as a threat to their illegal activities.
“I’ve been told we’re on someone’s list for a drive-by (shooting),” Johnson, 51, says in the gravelly voice of an accomplished cigarette smoker. “But we can’t worry about that. If it happens, it happens.”
Inside 1st Step are pool tables, video games and a snack bar. Those in need of a shower can take one.
The place is a center for various activities: 12-step recovery programs, Block Watch meetings and dances on the weekends.
Steaming coffee is 40 cents a cup - less, depending on your financial condition. “I give most of the coffee away,” adds Johnson, who says he has sunk his savings into keeping 1st Step going.
The club celebrated its first birthday the other day with two big cakes and 50 well-wishers.
But pimps and dealers aren’t the only ones unhappy with 1st Step. A few area business owners complain that 1st Step is a magnet for undesirables - hookers, pimps, drug dealers, addicts, etc. - and the problems they bring.
“We didn’t have a lot of crime until 1st Step opened,” says Anna Fellin of A&B; Printing, 1916 E. Sprague.
Others, however, applaud Johnson. “More power to him,” says Harriet Welch, who owns the Antique Emporium, 1906 E. Sprague. “It’s about time somebody did something to help these people.”
“How can anyone think that place is a magnet?” wonders Lisa Matlock, a secretary at Clayman Commercial Service, 1912 E. Sprague. “The reality is that this is the neighborhood. These people are already here.”
Johnson is unmoved by the criticism or the compliments.
“I’ve been told what I’m doing is a labor of love or a labor of stupidity,” he says, adding a dry laugh. “I guess it’s kind of a tossup.”
It’s easy to see that his interest in street people is personal.
Before he sobered up a decade ago, Johnson was one of those undesirables - a guy who chased a case of beer each day with a bottle or two of cheap high-octane wine.
“You can’t print what it was really like,” says Penny, who somehow stood by her man despite a one-year separation.
“All but one of our three children left home because of his drinking. We went through a bankruptcy, lost our first home and just about everything.”
Johnson’s binge drinking put him on the street and then in a mental hospital. Then one day, he bottomed out: “I had to start climbing or end up in a hole.”
As a changed man, he managed a social club based on the 12-step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But Johnson says he found the AA structure too limiting. Last year, he started 1st Step to reach people with other addictions and problems besides alcohol.
Johnson is careful to emphasize that 1st Step is neither a detox center nor a place to receive formal treatment.
What it is, according to regular Gordon Abild, is a place to find some friendship and fun without having to be in a bar. “This is a little oasis in the middle of hell,” he adds.
In AA parlance, the “first step” is when an alcoholic admits that booze is running and ruining his life.
Darold Johnson simplifies the concept.
“Here, the first step is just walking through that front door. That’s all you have to do to be accepted.”