WHITTIER — They call Elston Johnson "The Whittier Walker," and rumors about him abound.
He's reported to carry wine, or maybe money, in the saxophone case that he wheels around town in a wire pushcart.
Johnson never takes a handout, they say. Maybe that's why, despite his advanced age and grubby appearance, some folks are convinced he has a fortune stashed somewhere.
People also claim to know why he walks so much. Johnson's favorite route carries him up to Rose Hills Memorial Park, they say, where his parents--or maybe his dead wife--are buried.
Taking the rumors from the top, Johnson, 72, actually carries a violin and a brown umbrella in his sax case, and a harmonica in his pocket. Rain or shine, he spends at least six hours a day hunched over his cart, shuffling slowly along Whittier's tree-lined streets and pausing occasionally to play a song.
Johnson says he never married and he scoffs at the notion of playing daily at his parents' graves or frequenting Rose Hills.
"Why should I?" he said. "Nothing there but a bunch of graves."
He said he walks so he won't get "all stove-up" like his father, who was physically disabled for seven years before he died.
With his white beard, bright blue eyes and red watch cap, he wanders around town looking like a poor man's Santa Claus. Appropriately enough, he loves to play Christmas carols.
Johnson says he gives two to six impromptu concerts a day. Perched on a bench in the uptown business district, a picnic table in a city park or the steps of city hall, he plays Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and traditional Scottish and Irish tunes.
He lights up when a bystander asks to hear "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." Although he is rumored to have hundreds of songs in his repertoire, Johnson explains later that he really only knows about 30 "by heart," and, because they are out of fashion now, people rarely ask to hear them.
Occasionally, Johnson takes a handout, like the navy blue UCLA sweat shirt he wears constantly. It was given to him by somebody at Whittier Friends Church, he said.
But more often, he says, he turns people down because he doesn't need any help.
Subject of Museum Painting
A local artist said she has given up offering him clothing, money and rides. "He won't take anything unless he feels it is in payment," said Wanda Riske, whose painting of Johnson is in the Whittier Historical Museum collection.
Johnson sometimes earns a few dollars from appreciative listeners, and from Riske, who pays him to model. But mostly, he lives on Social Security, making do in a run-down house with a portable heater, a torn sofa and an old piano. He laughs at the idea that he has a fortune.
In fact, he said that during the 10 years
between the time his parents died and his Social Security checks started arriving, he sold most of his possessions, including a car, a truck, and his gardening tools, to support himself.
"Money is the least of my worries," he said, during an interview in Central Park. "If you have a lot of money, other people try to get it from you, so I say the less the better--as long as it's not too little."
It's easy to understand why people tell stories about Johnson, though. An encounter with him raises many more questions than it answers.
Courteous, shy and in his own way charming, he also appears to be friendless, virtually penniless and content. Occasionally, he answers a question directly, but more often, he rambles in polite avoidance. Sometimes, the burden of conversation seems to become too much for him, whereupon he pulls out his violin and asks, "Care for a tune?"
People seem to care about him intuitively, while speculating about how he got to be the man commonly know as "The Whittier Walker."
"He's a very special person" said Riske, who specializes in portraits of street people. "He's just not like most people value wise."
Riske said she has sold about 1,000 prints of his portrait. But when she showed it to Johnson, he just said "Yup, that's me," and walked away.
Johnson says he has another reason besides exercise to ply Whittier's streets by the hour. He claims to work for the Whittier Police Department. He walks a daily route, checking parks for adequate maintenance.
"I spot trees that need watering, lights that need fixing, all sorts of things," he said.
Whittier police gently deny Johnson's story. Community Relations officer Ed Childs called it "sweet, but not accurate." Johnson does not report to the Police Department, nor does he receive any special attention, Childs said.
Like everyone else in town, though, the police know Johnson by his music, which he sometimes plays in the Police Department's lobby. Police once videotaped him playing and used it for the opening and closing of a department training film.
Some Are Offended
Police said that they do occasionally escort Johnson out of a restaurant, because his appearance has offended someone.