There’s a great deal to be said for calling your own shots. It’s a very attractive aspect of professionally freelancing, not having to punch in and out at the
time clock. However, as Jackson Browne sang, “It ain’t bad work if you can get it. But, you gotta make it stick.”
Michael B. Johnson, self-styled man of multiple means, makes it stick. Like glue. Cobbling together a living out of a varied skill set is not what one customarily considers qualifying someone as a Renaissance Man, but Johnson does wear a few different hats as a handyman, as an electrical engineer, and as a drummer.
It’s not all cash and carry. Johnson can’t hand out business cards advertising that he does home repairs, can’t charge a fee because it’d get him in Dutch with the carpenters’ union over licensing. So, through networking among friends and associates, he does a brisk job of bartering.
If someone he knows has something he needs, he’ll come over and fix the floor or stairs in exchange for goods or services. “I’ll do [carpentry], painting, bathtubs — anything in general around the house that needs doing. This is not professionally, [but] strictly as a hustle.”
A hustle, for those to whom the term may be unfamiliar, is, as immortal novelist Ralph Ellison wrote, about applying one’s grit and mother-wit in order to maintain, keeping breath in body. “I help people out.” Yeah — over the last at least 20 years.
Most of Johnson’s life, he’s been professionally on the record “as an engineer. Project manager. Project engineering.” He graduated Tuskegee University and for 27 years plied the trade. “About two and half years ago, I was laid off,” Johnson says, preferring not to say from where.
The job, though, entailed “interfacing electrical systems for computers,” a fancy way of saying that, for instance, for a traffic light to work, someone has to make sure the internals synch up, that the wiring for light bulbs can talk to wiring under the asphalt and concrete.
“You have to have standards in design for plugs and receptacles when you go to install it. Being a project engineer means you’ve been in the industry long enough to know what you’re doing and can manage a team [of engineers].”
Presently, Johnson puts that knowledge to good use by tutoring high school students in math, chemistry and physics. “Engineering entails all that. They all sort of fall together.” Tutoring paydays, he says, are “up and down. It’s not steady. I do it day by day.”
These days, along with tutoring and being Mr. Fixit, Johnson mainly sticks to drumming, hiring himself out for club gigs and studio sessions. And works in the backup band for rising acoustic soul star Chastity Brown.
He played on Brown’s breakthrough album High Noon Teeth and currently gigs with her, most recently for a packed house headlining at Cedar Cultural Center. “Been doing that since a teenager.” Around 22-23 he started doing so professionally. “I’ve been with Chastity about the past six years.”
Suffice to say, he manages to pay his bills, keep a roof overhead and feed himself in these tough economic times. “When you talk about that, compared to what I was making before [as an engineer], you gotta change your habits. You’re not making the same income, nowhere near [it]. So you have to drastically adjust.”
Keeping up with the proverbial Joneses is out of the question. “Some people expect things of you. But, you can’t worry what other people think, because you’ve got to take care of yourself.”
Drastic adjustment includes, hardly a surprise, such practical measures as hitting the food shelves, clothes closets and thrift shops. “A lot. Dollars stores. Anywhere you get a decent price. Or Goodwill.
“Every once in a while I might go to [a] department store, but not often. It’s not necessary. Also, there’s more sharing. People come over to your house. You go to theirs. You just can’t do the same things the same way.”
Johnson is a great believer in not going by the all-American credit-card habit of being in debt. “I’m just not going to do that. You go in debt, it costs you more just to be in debt. On top of what you owe, banks charge a great deal of interest. When you think about things you bought on credit because you wanted them, not because you needed them, you pay an exorbitant amount of money.”
It’s stringent, but he reflects, “I know what I’m made of when times are easy. But, what am I made of when times are tough? That’s important.”
How is Obama doing with the economic crisis in Michael B. Johnson’s opinion? “I don’t know. A lot of things go on behind closed doors, impacting decisions, that we the public don’t know about. He’s doing a good job, considering what he inherited.
“For that matter so are we. Everybody else. You and me.”
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.