NYC Vignette

By Johna Till Johnson

DSC_0408 cropped smallFriday night in autumn.

It’s about 8:15 PM on a Friday night. We’re finally kicking back, at the end of yet another 60-hour workweek. It’s been intense, and we’re both looking forward to the weekend.

We’ve decided that I will get groceries. Vlad will prep and cook. But we’re switching from “94” (the apartment at 94th Street and 3rd Avenue) to “92” (the apartment at 92nd Street and Madison).  We are both going over, but separately— Vlad to carry over some packages, and I to get the groceries.

I head out first.

As I walk down the gentle slope of 3rd Avenue, I notice something odd: police barricades. And not just barricades, but police—every few yards, there’s a police officer, or an empty squad car.

 There are more as I turn up 96th Street and begin to go up the hill.

I pass a man smoking a cigar on his front stoop, eyes bright in his weathered dark skin. “What’s this all about?”

“President Obama is in town. It’s the exit to the FDR,” he says.

“Way up here?” I ask?

“He was over on the Upper West Side…” We exchange a glance. “Doing what?” I ask. He shrugs. “Upper-West-Sidey things, I guess,” I say. He smiles.

I continue up 96th Street.

I’m alert enough to notice the barricades, but too obtuse to realize that the density of police is increasing.

By the time I’ve reached my destination—the Gourmet Garage at 96th and Park—there are cops along all the streets, and flashing lights everywhere, with barricades lining the intersection and extending as far as the eye can see.

I stop at the southeastern corner of 96th and Park, confused. How am I going to get to the grocery store across the street?

This is ridiculous, I decide. I pick up one of the barricades, move it aside, and slip through. I’m just going to cut across 96th Street…

… a slim female cop appears in front of me. She’s about 5’ 3” and maybe 120 pounds, with all her gear.

“Sorry, ma’am, you can’t go through here,” she says.

“I’m going to the grocery store,“ I explain.

“No, ma’am, you aren’t going through here,” she says again, somewhat more forcefully. She steps in front of me, blocking my path.

“But the store closes at 9,” I say somewhat frantically. “I have to go through.”

Her eyes narrow. Large brown eyes, with eyeliner.

I look at her more closely, weighing the prospect of a confrontation.  I’m tired and hungry. It’s been a long week. She’s standing between me and the grocery store. But she’s not very big…

Then I look up.

Dozens of eyes are fixed on me, dozens of uniformed bodies in a state of nervous tension.

Suddenly my perspective shifts. It’s late on a Friday evening. Nobody wants trouble. The one thing all of us want is the peaceful start of a peaceful weekend.

I step back, and the officer closes the barricade. Unsure what do to, I start walking down Park Avenue, only to discover that 95th Street is also blocked off.  I’m trapped.

There is a small crowd of civilians gathered on the corner, along with the police officers.

I put down my backpack and call Vlad. “I think we’ll need to order takeout tonight,” I say. “All the streets are closed. The President is in town. I can’t get to the grocery store.”

We discuss what to do. Vlad thinks it’s time to make contingency plans. I’m not so sure. Something in the weird state of tension tells me this will all be over soon.

Just then, I notice my backpack, which is leaning against one of the police barricades. At the same moment, one of the police officers sees it, and glances up at me.

He’s young, with close-cropped hair, and the same air of nervous tension that the female officer had.

He eyes the backpack warily. I can tell instantly what he’s thinking.

“It’s not black, “ I say. “See, it’s got little pink skulls on it.”

“Just keep it with you,” he says.

I pick it up and put it on my back.

Suddenly there’s action: Police motorcycles start down the hill on Park Avenue, with a satisfying roar and flashing lights. Half a dozen go by. A dozen.

“Are they ours?” I ask the cop.

It’s an odd question, and I realize what I’m asking is whether they’re NYPD: “Ours” meaning “New York”.

For a second he doesn’t answer, and I’m wondering why I even thought the question would make sense to him. Then he looks over at me and says, “Yes.”

After the motorcycles, a handful of black SUVs, and one white van. Then more motorcycles.

Then, with a suddenness that takes me by surprise, the cops are removing the barricades, and crowds of pedestrians begin crossing the street.

I look down at my watch: 8:43 PM. Plenty of time to get to the grocery store.

A few minutes later, shopping expedition complete, I’m coming back up the hill, shopping bag in hand.

I spot the young female cop who stopped me from crossing the street. I catch her eye, hold up my grocery bag, and smile. Her mouth remains unsmiling.

But her eyes crinkle.

32 responses to “NYC Vignette


    Impressive that they brought the neighborhood to a complete halt. Inconvenient for everyone but the President. I guess this is the way things must be now.


  2. When the president is in town, it always brings everything to a complete halt. If we’d stop shooting at them, it wouldn’t be this way. It wasn’t this way until Kennedy, then Reagan and the gazillion death threats against Obama.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Very true! But it’s not the only thing that brings things to a halt. I have another story about an antiwar protest in about 2003….. :-)


  3. Glad you were able to pick up dinner. It is complete chaos when the president is in Los Angeles.. everyone is in their car and everyone is stuck. A complete nightmare!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Yes, I was amazed at how quickly they tore down everything right afterwards. And not being in a car helped, too–I could just scot in and pick up the steak, no worries about parking!


  4. Ahh, the joys of living in NYC! Tired, hungry and dare I say a bit cranky you handled it well. Just like your Kayak adventures and your blog title.


  5. nutsfortreasure

    lol Damn and all you wanted was supper. He seems to cause a lot of trouble whereever he shows up and he should pay for all those police but sadly the city’s and towns he pops in on are left to foot his bill! :( Nice story.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thank you! It’s not just the President, truly…. every fall, as Vlad says, they shut down the East River because of the UN dignitaries.

      One thing I love about NYC is the attitude the police take about all this: “Hey, we didn’t ask for this, but since we’re called to step up…. we’ll show ya what we’re made of!”


      • nutsfortreasure

        I love their tenacity as well :) When I used to bring my 80′ + big rig through the city and pull over to ask questions they were more than happy to point me in the right direction and out of their prescient :)


  6. Well written vignette, Johna! Manhattan is so close to impossible that it doesn’t take much to bring it(or parts of it) to a dead stop. The President’s visit was more than enough to do that. What with your backpack and insistence on getting dinner fixings its fortunate your weren’t detained. But you acted well — as a true Manhattanite: “This is ridiculous, I decide. I pick up one of the barricades, move it aside, and slip through. I’m just going to cut across 96th Street…” Yep those barricades must be for the tourists!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      LOL, Frank! You nailed it. I really did think (for about 10 seconds) that the barricades couldn’t possibly be meant for *me*….


  7. I myself am a bit more brazen with film shoots, completely ignoring some hapless PAs in my neighborhood during a recent Liam Neeson shoot. When it comes to NYPD though I don’t argue, not for the past twelve years or so at least.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Obviously you live in a cooler nabe than we do. :-) Nobody wants to shoot films on the UES.

      Although, did I tell you about the time Adam Grenier (star of “Entourage”) showed up at Pier 40? Now THAT was fun…


  8. I don’t know if you are on twitter, but it has occurred to me that if you are you might enjoy @MPSinthe water @MPSinthesky and @TowerRNLI


  9. I had a friend who lived next to the area where the president came to speak. She said how unnerving it was to see all the extra security and extra guns. I laughed and told her in my daily life it would be odd not to see all that as we live around military bases. All in what you get used to….

    You have a great writing style. I’m glad I have come across your blog!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thank you! I do worry about the increasing “militarization” of America. I remember being in Europe when I was younger and being totally unnerved by police walking around public spaces bearing submachine guns. That really wasn’t a sight you say in the US until the last decade. Understandable, but not a happy development.

      And like you, I’ve lived most of my life on military bases—I just found there was a clear distinction between “civilian” and military environs…. not so much any more….


  10. I hear the same thing happens when they shoot movies in NYC too. There’s a funny episode of Friends on that subject. :-)


    • Yes, and we have quite a few movie shoots in our neighborhood in the summer. Fortunately movie shoots shut down just a block (and are a nightmare for car-owners who park on that block), not half of Manhattan plus the airspace and the waterways around…


  11. One thing this illustrates is how incredibly efficient NY police have gotten over the years – they are really so good at doing this – just imagine how long the street might have been closed off in another town. There was one day I couldn’t get to work downtown…but that was a 9/11 anniversary and my office was next to the site, so it was OK, I understood. Police in Seattle seem way less competent. Glad you got your groceries!


    • Well, yes and no :-)

      They are very efficient afterward, but beforehand they are not, or rather are efficient in their own way. They often block off half the town hours before—they have to, I guess, since they don’t know don’t which streets the VIPs might choose to travel, and exactly when… and of course they don’t let anyone know in advance, because that would be insecure ;-)


  12. Great vignette!

    Jeanie and I chuckled over it having morning coffee. “Little pink skulls”. “It isn’t black”, “Are they ours?” I would enjoy hearing the cops side of the story.

    Peace and love,



  13. I think the cop took the grocery bag and smile as a provocation. A bit… Careful, there :)


  14. Great story!


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