Mr. Johnson appears to be the human embodiment of simple kindnesses and patience. Readers meet him when he is leaving his home in the morning in a pleasant mood, wearing his bright tie and comfortable shoes, with his pockets full of candy and peanuts. He then proceeds to wend his way uptown, taking time to help the people he passes in small ways: he watches a woman's young son as she supervises their move, and he gives the pair a contact in their new town whose wife makes "the best donuts in town." He also plays matchmaker between a young man and woman in a hurry, giving them a day's wages each to spend time together. All day he gives peanuts to animals and people alike and candy to children; he also pays for a homeless man's lunch after eating very well himself. Finally, he convinces a taxi driver not to spent ten dollars on a horse called Vulcan that Mr. Johnson is convinced will lose (" 'Vulcan?' said Mr. Johnson, horrified, 'A fire sign on a Wednesday?' ").
"Peanuts" are generally a metaphor for little, cheap things: variations of "It wasn't worth peanuts" or "It'll cost peanuts" are common expressions in the language. Here, we have Mr. Johnson handing out literal peanuts, thereby brightening peoples' (and animals') days, and figurative peanuts, by assisting those he passes with little tasks and gifts and facilitating positive interactions. Through the character of Mr. Johnson, Jackson is saying that being kind "costs peanuts"—that is, it costs very little—and the positive impact of one's kindness can span a city.
We don't encounter Mrs. Johnson until the very end of the story, when Mr. Johnson comes home from "work." We discover that she is the exact opposite of her husband, his foil in a sense: the human embodiment of pettiness, mean-spiritedness, and impatience. With nonchalance she talks about her day: she "had a nap" and "took it easy most of the day," but she also had a woman fired from a department store after accusing her of stealing, and she "sent three dogs to the pound." She also says she likely got a bus driver fired by filing a complaint. She, like Mr. Johnson, is a symbol of human capriciousness and mood, for Mr. Johnson offers to switch places with her the next day—she who one day was unhappy and quarrelsome will the next day be spreading kindness.
Here, we see that it also costs little to ourselves to be mean, but it can cost much for those around us; by presenting Mrs. Johnson only at the end of the story, Jackson has set us up to be on Mr. Johnson's side—the reader has seen what human kindness can do, and seeing the opposite in Mrs. Johnson's actions is a shock, and not a good one. In addition, the couple has a very common surname, a symbol of the everyman, indicating that all ordinary people on earth are subject to the same caprices of mood.
The Woman and Her Son Moving House
The first people Mr. Johnson encounters that day are "a harassed woman" and her young son. Mr. Johnson offers to watch the boy so his mother can "devote herself wholeheartedly" to ensuring the movers handle her furniture carefully. Mr. Johnson shares his peanuts with the son, and he talks positively about Vermont, where the family is going. He gives them a contact in their new town before he leaves.
Mildred Kent and Arthur Adams
Mildred knocks Mr. Johnson over in her hurry...
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