“He was just a friend”: Denver Voice vendor on meeting Johnny Cash

Meeting music legends Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley might have left your average American teenager starstruck. But not Denver VOICE vendor Penny, who jammed with some of the country’s most iconic musicians when she was a teen in Nashville. She recalls meeting Cash, and also explains how she later became homeless after settling down in Colorado’s ‘Mile High City’ – and how her street paper is helping her turn things around.

By Linette Hidalgo, Denver VOICE

Denver VOICE vendor Penny Sandoval. Photo courtesy of Denver VOICE

Standing at just less than five feet tall with a petite frame, you’d be hard pressed to find a person as sweet and naturally pleasant as Denver VOICE vendor Penny Sandoval.

Though she was born in Colorado, Penny was raised by her grandmother in Nashville. When Penny was 12, her grandmother passed away. After that, Penny stayed with a series of relatives.

At 17, Penny decided she would rather work than finish high school. She found work serving in a local Nashville restaurant next to The Grand Ole Opry. She fell in love with the electrifying musical atmosphere filled with aspiring entertainers and up-and-coming performers.

Penny thrived on meeting new people, and here she encountered people from every corner of the world. Even then, Penny’s sweet demeanour earned her friends and the favour of people who would take her under their wings and treat her as family.

During this time, Penny had the good fortune of meeting a host of famous faces, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Clinton and Elvis Presley, who was “just a young punk back then.”

“He was just a friend,” she reflects while looking at an old photo of her teenage self, posing with Cash one night at her house.

Penny was a bit of a musician herself; she played steel guitar while her roommate played bass. “See where I lived, we used to get a lot of musicians. They’d come over and jam,” she adds.

In that pre-social media era, after people returned to Nashville from being out on the road it was typical to just drop in at the house of someone in the local music scene.

“Not just my place, there were other places too. They’d go find out where everybody was at,” says Penny. There were a bunch of folks at Penny’s house that night, though she doesn’t remember if anyone else famous was at that particular party.

Penny with Johnny Cash

She even went to the movies with a well-known singer of the day, Paul Anka. But Penny earned some local fame of her own during her Grand Ole Opry days thanks to her resemblance to famous singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn. Customers often mistook her for the singer, and Penny would sometimes claim Loretta as a sister just to enthral patrons.

Mingling with the stars, however, didn’t leave Penny starstruck. “I saw them as customers, not celebrities, just human beings,” she says.

At 22, Penny and her best friend Deedee decided to leave Nashville and explore the country. The pair moved from state to state, working in bars to make ends meet until the next state called. In all, Penny travelled to 38 states and four countries. After several years of journeying through the U.S., Penny and Deedee returned to Nashville, where Penny continued bartending.

She relocated to Denver in the ’80s, once again with her best friend, and stayed because Deedee loved the Mile High City. Over the next several years Penny continued bartending, married, had children, and eventually divorced.

Penny’s unfailing work ethic kept her employed in restaurant bars until 2010, when she fell and broke her hip. The injury put an end to her decades-long career as bartender and advice dealer. The lack of income eventually left Penny homeless. She remained homeless for a year and half before she was able to secure housing with assistance from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“I like being around people. All my customers know me by name and they are all so nice. They care.”

“You never know what is going to happen,” says Penny. “I wanted to work until I reached 100. I worked my entire life and never thought I’d be homeless. People take things for granted, but you never know what is ahead.”

Fortunately, Penny is able to receive Social Security, and in 2013 she began selling her local street paper Denver VOICE to earn needed additional income. Initially, Penny was hesitant to become a vendor because she didn’t see herself selling a paper. However, once she began, she realised selling the paper allowed her to build customer relationships similar to those she had in her bartending days, and created opportunities to meet a variety of interesting people.

Penny likes to stay busy and explains that selling Denver VOICE keeps her active and engaged with the community, adding, “I like being around people. It took a while to build a customer base, but now all my customers know me by name and they are all so nice. They care.”

The income Penny earns from selling the Denver VOICE also allows her to pay for her life insurance policy and other necessities. Penny describes herself as happy and grateful.

Her advice? “Never worry, because you can only do your best.”

Read more stories about street paper vendors around the world here.