Poor Penny Carson and Sweet Pea Johnson at Beach and Hodges Boulevards, Blanding Boulevard and 103rd Street, University Boulevard and Matthews Bridge / Arlington Expressway

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

In 1976, he was sitting in his house when he thought that God might speak his Truth to the world through this wooden ventriloquist dummy, because he knew that man did not listen to man, but man might listen to a dummy. Then he went around back to his shed that was locked with a padlock, but he had lost the key, so he took a hatchet to the padlock. But then God seized control of the arm that held the hatchet, and against his own will, the arm swung the hatchet and the hatchet hit him right next to the heart, and he understood three things. The first thing God had him understand was, “Listen, fool, I’m the master.” The second thing God would have him understand was that this hatchet had come within an inch and that if God wanted to kill him, God would kill him. The third thing was that if he was serious about taking that wooden ventriloquist dummy and having that dummy speak the Gospel of God, then he had better not waste any more time but take that dummy into every city and every state and tell the world the truth that it might be saved.

Walking up and down a place that looks like noplace, he comes to preach to everyplace.

Six lanes of traffic, gas station on this street corner and gas station on that, Beach and Hodges looks like a place where cars killed off all the humans and rebuilt the landscape for themselves. Only the very blue sky saves this intersection from its ugliness.

Perhaps if Poor Penny Carson can’t save this intersection from Hell, he can save it from its dullness. He walks up and down the side of Beach Boulevard wearing on his back a giant placard stenciled with misspelled messages. He holds Sweet Pea Johnson, his wooden dummy, before him, and carries a bullhorn in his hand through which Sweet Pea tells the people within the cars about how Jesus shed his blood on this earth and how people are still walking on the blood he shed on this earth and sinning. All kinds of people are doing it, women and men and teenagers. They’re drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes and reefer. There are even homosexuals. There are homosexuals, Sweet Pea says, walking on the blood Jesus shed on this earth.

Last week he was in North Carolina. Before that he was in Kentucky. Before that, Alabama. Earlier this week, he was at the corner of Blanding Boulevard and 103rd Street on Jacksonville’s Westside, an intersection identical in kind to Beach and Hodges, though developed three decades earlier and thus half-vacant and decrepit, the health of such chain-store and gas station intersections having rarely lasted much longer in such a city.

First placard, stenciled, in all capital letters: “poor penny carson god revealed to me first beast over 27 years ago revel 13: 18 ronald wilson reagan 666 also one of his seven heads or members was wounded unto death an was healed revel 13:13 now the second beast is out their an he is coming from this nation also he might be in power now is know time for you to be living in sin my friend turn unto the lord jesus now people an he will save your soul jesus is the only way”

This morning Poor Penny Carson was on University Boulevard just before the Matthews Bridge becomes Arlington Expressway. In a broken-up asphalt parking lot he had parked his camper, covered in stenciled messages. Up and down University Boulevard walked Poor Penny Carson, an old black man, holding before him Sweet Pea Johnson, the white dummy who does the preaching. Sweet Pea’s bushy hair stands out beneath his dirty baseball cap.

The back of Poor Penny Carson’s camper, stenciled, in all capital letters: “take heed i was in the livingroom practicing over some songs an jokes ant open up my mouth and said lord if i deliver the word you give me through that dummy man might take heed because he dont believe man an i know it was true but i said i will do it later on in life now fifteen minutes later i got up and went out side an i had a lock on the garage gate i had lost the key an i wanted to get it off so i got a hatchet an came back an start it beating down the lock with it an that hatchet came off of that lock still on the handle with my hand wrap around it with great power an force i did’t have know control over my arm at all and come right around to my heart as fast as lightening an stop an let me look down an touch me softly as a finger an went out of my hand with great power an force an i went down on my knees an said oh lord my god then i got up off my knees he impress upon my heart an mind to go around this nation and tell them that jesus is coming soon so except him as lord an saviour now god reveal the first beast over 23 years ago to me in reveal 13:18 ronald wilson reagan 666 also one of his seven heads or members was wounded unto death an was healed reveal 13:13 james s brady now the second beast is out there an he is coming from this nation also it is know time for you to be living in sin my friend turn unto the lord jesus now he will save your soul the dummy was laying on the bed i was setting in a chair i fell a sleep once i woke up he was setting up on the bed god reveal to me as he lifted up dummy he also going to lift up his people oneday soon same god told noah to build a ark on dry land is the same god that told me to preach his word through a dummy jesus is coming soon he bought the flood did’t he he will also bring the rapture”

Whence this ventriloquist dummy, and how old is the thing? Whence Poor Penny Carson, and how old is he? And when he was a little boy, who loved him?

And if anyone calls him crazy, and if the person who calls him crazy believes in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and if that person believes that a cosmic war between good and evil is unfolding, and if that person believes the faithful will spend eternity in Heaven while sinners burn forever in the pits of Hell (and this describes what so much of this city claims to believe), then the person who calls Poor Penny Carson crazy is crazy, because if he believes such things he damn well better get out on the street corners with signs and bullhorns and go from city to city and state to state and tell everyone everywhere just what the hell the stakes are, because if he believes such things, then this is “know time” to be wasting time going to an office every day and giving eight to 10 hours to a corporation and watching TV and going to baseball games and mowing his lawn. This is “know time” for any moment that does not seek to reclaim one more soul from the Bottomless Pit and the Beast and Satan, if you call yourself a Christian. So who’s crazy? And where did Poor Penny Carson come from? And did it scare the hell out of him when that wooden dummy sat up on the bed?

Beach and Hodges Boulevards, lanes filled with cars going as fast as they can, which is often not very fast at all, since there are so many of them, since they’re all jammed up against each other, going nowhere.

“Know time.”

Second placard, stenciled, in all capital letters: “as a dummy i know for a fact that god love you let me repeat that again god love you why cause he made you in his likeness why he gave up his only son to die on a cross for your sins an as a dummy i know this to be true so why have you deny god love mercy and forgiveness through jesus christ i know you dont have that much time left to repent of your sins toward god jesus love you but the devil hate you an as a dummy i know it to be true”

Intersection of Blanding Boulevard and 103rd Street, a gas station on the corner and lanes and lanes of cars as though they had created their own landscape, gray asphalt streets, gray buildings, parking lots empty in front of enormous empty buildings that once housed chain stores.

When this vast glass and concrete building was Pic N’ Save, where a cashier told 20 year old newlyweds the store only sold condoms to upset the cashiers and to “Say a prayer over the grave of your baby,” where an anonymous stranger once attacked an old woman with a tire iron, two teenage girls walked through the store in 1984, the year Ronald Wilson Reagan was reelected the 40th president, and saw on the shelves a package of “fish cheeks,” which they instantly decided was the funniest thing either of them had ever heard. When they tried to say it, “fish cheeks,” they discovered it was hard to say, the transition between the palatal fricative of “sh” and the affricate of “ch,” obviously not that they knew those terms, but that botched transition made “fish cheeks” even funnier. They kept trying to say it. They kept wondering if fish had cheeks at all. They kept trying to picture it. They kept trying to say it. They walked around Pic N’ Save and giggled so hysterically they sometimes could hardly stand up.

Blanding Boulevard and 103rd Street, 1967. Blanding and 103rd, 1973. 1981: John Hinckley, Jr. tries to assassinate President Reagan, wounding and paralyzing White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who subsequently becomes one of the leading advocates of American gun control. Fish cheeks, 1984. Dairy Queen and Pic N’ Save, 1989. Teenage boys shooting each other with paint pellets inside the building that used to house Pic N’ Save, 1995. Poor Penny Carson, preacher puppeteer, with his camper and his dummy, Sweet Pea Johnson, in the hottest summer thus far recorded in Jacksonville’s history, 2010.

“Know time.”