‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts’’ opens with a cheerful Mr. John Philip Johnson, leaving home on a beautiful day wearing comfortable, newly soled shoes. Although he lives in a big city— probably New York, based on the street references in the story—he freely greets the people he passes, handing out candies, peanuts, and even the flower from his lapel. Many of the adults he encounters are initially wary, suspecting that his generosity is some sort of ruse, but most soon realize that he is just being friendly and smile back. The children in this story are perhaps more willing than the adults to trust and accept his gestures at face value.
Working his way uptown, Mr. Johnson wanders down a random side street, where he comes upon a mother and her son in the process of moving out of their apartment. The mother tries to keep an eye on her possessions, her child, and the movers simultaneously. Many strangers stand about watching, which only adds to her stress.
Mr. Johnson offers to sit on the front steps and entertain her son for a while. The mother is suspicious but has little choice, given her situation, and agrees. Mr. Johnson shares his peanuts with the little boy, who tells him they are moving to Vermont to live with his grandparents on a farm. Before leaving, Mr. Johnson gives the mother a card with the name of a friend who lives in the town to which she is moving. He tells her this friend will help her with anything she needs.
Mr. Johnson wanders farther uptown. When he stops to pet a kitten on a busy street, a young woman bumps into him. She is late for work and tries to brush past him, but Mr. Johnson insists on offering her money for her lost time. The young woman cannot fathom why a respectable-looking man would want to pay her to be late for work. Inexplicably, he asks her to wait for him while he wades into the crowd on the sidewalk and stops a harried young man. He is also late for work and is irritated with Mr. Johnson for stopping him. Mr. Johnson gives a day’s pay to each of them and introduces the woman, whose name is Mildred Kent, to the man, Arthur Adams. He gives them each spending money and implores them to enjoy themselves rather than show up for work. They start to ask him questions, whereupon Mr. Johnson bids them good-bye and dashes off.
He continues his ramble, helping a woman put her packages into a taxi, feeding a peanut to a seagull, giving money and a peanut to a panhandler, and a peanut to a bus driver who has stuck his head out of the window to get some air. Mr. Johnson comes across a couple who remind him of Mildred and Arthur. They are looking for an apartment in the classifieds. He tells them about the apartment vacated this morning by the mother and little boy. Grateful, they rush off to check out his lead.
Mr. Johnson eats lunch alone, then gives money to a beggar panhandling outside the restaurant so he can order a similar meal. After lunch, he goes to a park to rest. There he watches over two children whose mother has fallen asleep, referees a few checker games, and feeds the rest of his peanuts to the pigeons. It is getting late, so he decides to head back home. He gives up the first several taxis to seemingly more desperate people. When he finally catches a taxi, the driver confesses that he didn’t really want to stop—he had just been given ten dollars and a hot tip on a racehorse by his previous fare—but figured that Mr. Johnson was an omen not to place the bet. The horse’s name is Vulcan and Mr. Johnson says that it would have been an unlucky bet and he was wise to keep the money. Mr. Johnson’s reasoning is cryptic but firm: the name Vulcan indicates a fire sign, which isn’t a good bet for a Wednesday. He tells the cab driver he can bet on Vulcan on a Monday or a Saturday or even a Sunday. The cab driver says the horse will not run on Sunday, so Mr. Johnson gives him another ten dollars and a new tip to wait until Thursday to bet on any horse with a name connected with grain. The cab driver comes up with a horse named Tall Corn and Mr. Johnson agrees that this is a good choice, whereupon the cab driver thanks him.
Back at home, Mr. Johnson greets his wife. He tells her he has had a decent day, having helped a few young people. She has also had a fine day, but her achievements are very different from his. Mrs. Johnson tells her husband that she accused a woman of shoplifting, sent some dogs to the pound, and quarreled with a bus driver, possibly costing him his job. Seeing how tired she looks, Mr. Johnson offers to switch with her the next day and she agrees. He asks what is for dinner and she tells him she made veal cutlets. Mr. Johnson informs her that he had the same for lunch, which can be interpreted as his slipping into the role of wicked person and telling his wife he does not want to eat the same thing for dinner.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale Group, 2010