Morgan Johnstone Jr. is a fixture on the Truckee River trail in downtown Reno. His shoulder-length white hair and skill with a lightly amplified acoustic guitar make memorable impressions on anyone who passes by. Despite his lack of material wealth, the 60-year-old homeless artist finds sustenance in sharing the “beautiful, wonderful place” that is his music.
Typically, Johnstone sets up his performance space just off the trail across Riverside Drive from Hub Coffee but he has played regularly at several locations on the trial that parallels the Truckee River though downtown. Hand-written signs adorn his space on a wide-ranging palette of subjects to include Johnstone’s claim that Planned Parenthood “emasculated” him as a young person for which he wants $100 million dollar settlement.
Maribel Cuervo asked Johnstone how long he’s been homeless.
“My first experience with true homelessness began early in 2001, maybe around April or May, March or April or May of 2001,” Johnstone said. “I’m estimating significantly over half that time, I have been without a residence. I haven’t rented an apartment or anything like that, so I’m well experienced with it. I know the dangers of it. I know. I’ve grown accustomed to the stigma of it. I’ve grown accustomed to the hazards of it.”
Morgan is from Texas but left there in 2001. He lived in Alaska for 10 years and then moved to Reno in 2011.
“I’m a homeless man. I’m not a professional man. I’m a homeless man. I’m over 60 years of age. Far as I know, I’ll be able to draw social security at 62 unless something changes. I’ve failed a lot of life goals that I intended to have for myself. One of them was to have owned property. Another one was to find a wife and raise my own children.”
Again, Johnstone mentions being wrongly “emasculated” by Planned Parenthood. He said he’s come to terms with being homeless, but it has taken time to overcome significant anxieties.
“The distress of the thought of it,” Johnstone said of initially being homeless. “The distress … I felt ashamed … I felt betrayed, cheated. Everything that you see.”
Johnstone said he plays primarily classical guitar and doesn’t use a pick. Instead he uses all the fingers of his right hand.
“There’s this thing called escapism. I have my religion and I have my vocation, quasi-profession of instrumental music. That was something I knew I could become extremely good at when I was a kid. But I was not really allowed to pursue that. I guarantee you I picked up a musical instrument, and somebody come along real quick to say, well, you’ll have to rehearse later. You’ll have to do that later.”
Johnstone said both his parents were opposed to his playing the guitar.
“They (his mom and dad) both said it exactly the same way. Just the same. They just plain said, ‘I want you to stop playing the guitar.’ If I was practicing the guitar, he said one time to me, ‘Son, I want you to stop playing the guitar,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘well, even if you’re any good, it will expose you to lots of queers and dopers.’ Wow.”
Johnstone said he’s been inaccurately labeled a homosexual and a pedophile. Playing music is the only activity that has ever born fruit for him.
“I get up in the morning with the mindset, well, I’m a musical beggar and I got to go play my guitar. Now every day is just sometimes an eternal rehearsal. I am to spend the rest of my life till I fall over dead rehearsing beautiful music because nothing else has panned out the way it’s supposed to. So I feel very spiritually comfortable with that. For Christian sorts of people that have studied the Bible such as me, my gift of the Holy Spirit is instrumental string music. So if I rationalized that as the truth, then I’m using my God given skill.
“Look at the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, chapter 23, verse 1, it says, men who have been emasculated by crushing or cutting, and some of both happened to me I’m pretty sure, they are forbidden to be in the assembly. That’s why I won’t go to a church and become a member anymore. It’s like, okay, that really bad stuff really did happen to me. Based on that, I have to be something like a monk religiously. In spite of that, even though it doesn’t take away my sainthood, I was baptized into Christ when I was like 12. It wouldn’t prevent me from having a wife. I could do a lot of things, but I’m not to go assemble with the rest of the saints on Sunday. But it doesn’t deny me the privilege to use my God given gift of the Holy Spirit, which is to work that musical instrument, whichever, whatever I can get my hands on.”
Playing music in public has a transcendent power for Johnstone.
“I consider music a very beautiful thing. No matter what cruelty weighs down upon my mind or my thoughts, if I begin rehearsing, this beautiful thing happens. If all of a sudden I struggle with that music and all of a sudden the music starts coming out good and beautiful and correct, my soul goes to a high, comfortable plane, and it relieves me of the cruelty of the thoughts that are the failures of my temporal existence.”
Johnstone’s solution to homelessness is a piece of land near a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
When asked about how to reduce the numbers of homeless people, Johnstone said officials must first identify those who can and cannot take care of themselves. He said he is not mentally or physically disabled and has a “primitive Boy Scout mindset,” and if those who are largely self-sufficient were given land, those people would not feel homeless.
“I won’t think of myself as homeless. I’ll put my possessions in a Conex Box. It’s like a big metal shipping container. My possessions are covered and out of the weather. I believe that’s all it would take. I always thought, if I get a property, say minimum a quarter acre, that way you can put a fence around it, and then let’s say I’m no more than a 20 minute walk away from the nearest Walmart Super store. I would be able to exist comfortably. You can get anything you want. Water, drinks, food, propane for the stove.”
But for Johnstone no one is offering him a plot of land near a Wal-Mart, and “the big question” is always looming.
“I don’t have any power to do anything else,” Johnstone said when asked if he’s considered moving from Reno. “I just don’t have any familial attachments anymore so I feel very isolated in that regard. I haven’t been a successful professional person, even though I’ve done a lot of different things. I know a lot. First, what am I gonna do? Where am I gonna go? You know, the big question. I still always have the big question.”