Category Archives: Nature

Rebirth: Amaryllis


By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad had an amaryllis that he loved.

It was a constant source of surprise and delight to him. He chronicled its astonishing growth. And he often used it as a photographic subject.  He loved its extravagant color and brilliance, strange voluptuous shape, and the way it always chose its own time to surprise us.

After he died, I treasured and cared for it, along with all the other plants we’d shared.

Then came the Great Fungus Gnat Plague.

If you don’t know about fungus gnats… you’re lucky. True to the name, they’re little gnats whose larvae can damage or kill houseplants by attacking their roots.

Every plant got infested. I spent a couple of weekends treating soil (one way to kill fungus gnats is to bake the soil; another is to spray with toxic chemicals) and repotting plants. When the dust settled, every plant was safely repotted in dry, gnat-free soil—except one.

For whatever reason, the amaryllis had gotten the brunt of the attack.

The outer layers of its bulb had rotted, and the bulb itself seemed dead. I mourned, and prepared to throw it out.

But a friend advised cleaning it off and putting it in the refrigerator.  She told me the cool darkness sometimes helped them to recover.

I took her advice and promptly forgot about it. Well, not entirely: occasionally I would notice it as I reached down for something-or-other, and think, “I’ve got to do something about the amaryllis.” But it made me too sad to think about, so I did nothing.

Then one day I reached down… and saw the amaryllis had grown a stalk!

It was pale, like albino asparagus, and bent, forced sideways by the refrigerator shelving.

But it was recognizably a flower stalk, and…

… was that a tiny bulb at the tip?

Barely able to contain my excitement, I repotted the amaryllis in clean, dry soil, watered it thoroughly, and placed it in the sun.

I didn’t have long to wait.

Within a couple of days the stalk had turned a vibrant green, and the bulb began to open. And here she is, back to her full glory, with two brilliant flowers glowing crimson in the early-autumn sun!

 

 

The Red Herring Rides Again!

Ron Ripple in the Red Herring

By Johna Till Johnson
Photographs by Ron Ripple

It was a cold rainy day last May when I bid farewell to Vlad’s beloved folding kayak,  the Feathercraft Red Heron, which we called “Red Herring”.

Brian and I had spent two futile weekends attempting to dismantle the boat, but unfortunately the aluminum skeleton had fused, and the boat would no longer come apart. And it had to be moved—New York Kayak Company was shutting its doors at the end of the month after a quarter-century of operations at Pier 40.

So as Brian began to hacksaw the aluminum poles, I cried silently, my tears mingling with the rain. It seemed like the end of everything.

Not just Vlad, but the Red Herring, Feathercraft itself (which went out of business the month Vlad died) and New York Kayak Company were vanishing into history.

Except Red Herring wasn’t vanishing.

It was headed to Oklahoma, where its new owner, a professor named Ron Ripple, wanted it for a trip to Alaska. (He needed a folding boat to take on the plane from Oklahoma.) I’d also sold him the tiny K-Light, Vlad’s first-ever boat, which I had paddled for our first Florida Everglades Challenge shakedown trip.  It fit Ron’s wife Ellen perfectly, and I was glad my “Baby Vulcan” had  found a happy home in Oklahoma.

Red Heron on Esther Island

I’d kept Ron apprised of the Herring’s state, including that we’d hoped to dismantle it, but if not, we’d ship it as best we could. He hoped he’d be able to machine the missing parts.

That didn’t happen. Ron wasn’t able to get the boat fixed in time for the Alaska trip. But he went anyway, with another boat, and was particularly happy to be able to re-connect with one of his oldest paddling partners.

We stayed in touch sporadically, glad to have found kindred kayaking spirits. I vaguely remembered he’d made plans to paddle with his friend again this year, in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  He also said something about having been able to repair the Red Heron.

Earl Cove on Inian Island

And then I got these photos, along with a note from Ron:

“Here are a few photos from the trip with the Heron.

The first one is the beach of my first camp site on Esther Island at the mouth of Lisianski Strait while I was solo.

The second is at our camp site in Earl Cove on Inian Island, which sits between Cross Sound and Icy Strait.

And the third is setting out into the fog on our last paddling day heading across Icy Strait from Pt. Adolphus to Gustavus.

While the water appears very calm, there were very dynamic eddies, boils, and swirls that moved our kayaks substantially; about 2/3 of the crossing was in the fog using GPS and deck compasses.

It was a great trip, and the Heron performed exceptionally. I am very happy with the Heron, and we are already planning next year’s trip.”

Red Heron in fog on Icy Strait

I cried again, but this time with happiness.

The Heron has found an owner worthy of it—and together they will go on many more exciting adventures.

Adventures In Glacier Bay (Red pointer marks approximate location of photos)

 

The Cat that Found Me

Mully and Spider Plants

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

“You don’t go out and get a cat, ” Vlad would say. “The cat will find you!”

He’d had three cats that he loved dearly: Sergei, April, and Clara. They were memories of happier times, when he’d lived in the first throes of romance with his then-wife in a New York apartment. I don’t think I ever knew how Sergei found him, but April and Clara were abandoned kittens that his wife discovered crying in the street, and which adopted her on the spot.

That marriage ended, and one by one the cats grew old and died. He buried each of them in Central Park (which of course is highly illegal.)

He told the story hilariously: “There I was, in a black leather jacket and skullcap, carrying a shovel and a dead cat in a duffel bag. Its feet were sticking out, already stiff with rigor mortis. It was the middle of the night–I don’t know why the cops never stopped me!”

But it was laughter tinged with sadness, as the last vestiges of his once-happy existence ended and he remained alone in the apartment that had once been vibrant with life. Not coincidentally, that was when he began to take ever-longer kayak excursions, and ultimately met me.

So it was natural that we discussed getting a cat together. I’d had cats for most of my life (despite being allergic), and we both thought a cat would be the perfect addition to our household.

Just one problem: Vlad’s adamant stance that you don’t get a cat. The cat gets you.

And unsurprisingly, given the amount of time we spent on the water, no cat managed to find us.

After Vlad died, I sometimes thought about getting a cat. But I live in a high floor in an apartment building with a doorman: how was a cat going to find me?

Online, as it turned out, just like so many things in this world.

Despite Vlad’s death, I’ve stayed engaged in the Facebook cancer forums that were so helpful to us while he was alive–in no small part because people dealing with cancer are some of the funniest, most honest, and best people around. Cancer has a way of stripping the superficial and extraneous out of people’s souls. If it doesn’t destroy you, it leaves you with a greater appreciation of the world’s beauty–and a much lower tolerance for daily B.S.

One of my forum friends had been keeping us all entertained with her online saga about a feral black cat that appeared on her deck one day this spring.

She promptly named him “Mully”, after a nearby brewpub, Mully’s Brewery.  Over time, Mully went from showing up to be fed to sleeping in a crate that she put out for him.  He allowed himself to be petted, gingerly at first, then with full enthusiasm (and a throaty purr).

In short, he adopted her.

Mully on Bed

Just one problem: The family already had five dogs and another cat, and my friend’s husband, not unreasonably, put his foot down when it came to a seventh animal.  Mully could  be a “porch cat”, nothing more.

My friend started looking for a permanent home for him, with no luck. For several weeks he continued living on the porch.

Then one day he disappeared.

Mully reappeared days later, sick and bleeding. He had puncture wounds in three of his paws and was running a fever. He’d come back to the only place of safety and care that he’d ever known, begging for help. (The puncture wounds, we found out later, were from some kind of attack. Whatever creature had gone after him, Mully had fought back fiercely.)

My friend took him to the vet, where they treated his wounds and infection, dewormed him, and vaccinated him. When he came home, she put him in the guest room, against her husband’s wishes.

“Porch cat” had become “guest room cat”.

But the situation couldn’t last. Mully had to go. The husband was adamant.

My friend posted again on Facebook, asking for any takers for an “indoor-only cat”. She explained that he’d already exhausted several of his nine lives, and needed to spend the rest of them indoors.

Indoor-only? I could do that, I thought, as I read her post.

The only problem: how to go get him? She lived 200 miles away, in southern Maryland. Moreover, I’d be out of town for several weeks, and not able to pick him up.

We made tentative plans for me to drive down on my first free Saturday. Then I ended up unexpectedly spending that weekend in Los Angeles, and we missed the date.

The husband wouldn’t budge. My friend couldn’t keep Mully any longer. He had to be out of the house that week, no more extensions.

She made plans to send him to a foster  home. “Unless,” she wrote, “You could pick him up Friday?”

I couldn’t, but by this time neither of us were willing to give up. She came up with a plan: She’d bring the cat up to her daughter’s on Friday, and I’d pick him up from there on Saturday.

That’s how I found myself on a sunny summer morning, driving down the familiar stretch of I-95 once more, this time in pursuit of the cat that found me.

I realize I’d fallen in love with him long before that day. “How is our Mully?” I’d written, earlier that spring. And “I think I love this cat,” another time. Not only was he adorable, but his feistiness and spunk were undeniable.

And with everything that he’d survived, his sunny and loving disposition was still intact. When I met him for the first time, he crawled into my lap and began to purr, nestling his face into my arm.

Vlad was right: The cat finds you.

Sergei (RIP) Photo by Vladimir Brezina

 

Tampa Bay Crossing

Jenn and cargo ship on Tampa Bay


By Johna Till Johnson; music and video by Jennifer W. Call

It was Jennifer’s first open water crossing.

We were heading across Tampa Bay on a sunny spring Sunday. Our nominal destination was Cockroach Bay to the southwest, around eight nautical miles away. But really, the goal was to paddle in some open water, spend time together, and see how we functioned as a team.

I glanced to the left.

Jenn was slightly farther away than I’d like, but otherwise she seemed fine, cresting a wave with confidence. We’d been in open water for about half an hour, and conditions had picked up a bit. The current was coming from the southwest with the flood, as anticipated, but it didn’t seem to be too strong. The wind, predicted from the same direction, was inexplicably coming from the east. (Florida rules: Expect the unexpected!)

The route

But I was happy about that, because it generated some nice bouncy wind-against-current waves for Jenn to try her skill on.

The prediction had been for “light chop”, but the waves were a bit more than that. Maybe two feet, with the occasional swell to three. Before we’d left I’d reminded Jenn to brace into the waves if she felt unsteady. The reminder seemed almost unnecessary. Although a relatively novice paddler, Jenn seemed to know exactly what she was doing, and she’d completed the Sweetwater symposium training in February with flying colors.

That’s where we met, in fact. Some of the Sweetwater folks had suggested to her that she meet me: “You two think a lot alike,” they’d told her.

We did. From the moment our two Subarus parked next to each other and she leapt out with an infectious smile, I knew we’d be friends. Another single woman, with a Subaru and a Valley boat on top, and a passion for endurance athletics? Yes!

So it made perfect sense for me to fly down to Tampa, where Jennifer lived, two months later for a kayak-camping trip. The grand plan was to complete the Everglades Challenge in 2019 together. But before we did that, we’d have to see if we could get along, and paddle together.

So far things were looking good. Jennifer had accepted my ever-changing work schedule with good grace, even when it cut into our plans. And the night before, we’d had an absolute blast.

Jenn had suggested we camp on the grounds of MacDill Airforce Base, where she worked. She was currently in a civilian role, but was a retired Naval officer, like my father.  So we had that in common.

Meals ready to eat: Complete with candy!

The night before, we’d arrived just before sunset (in time for the mosquitos to come out in full force). We set up our tents (or rather, her tent and my bivvy sack) and broke out dinner: Military “ready to eat” meals (MREs). Jennifer had been curious about them: “In the Navy we didn’t have MREs, we had C-Rations,” she explained.

The difference? MREs come with a self-heating pack: Just add water, and a chemical reaction causes the pack to heat up and warm the food inside. (Clearly a very bad idea in a ship to have devices that explosively heat up upon contact with water, as Jenn pointed out).

So with eager curiosity, we extracted the all the little packets, and took a close look at the very detailed instructions.

What was this? Step #5 was just a diagram of the MRE packet propped up against… “A rock or something.”

Honest-to-god, that’s what it said! I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Rock or something”? Ooookay!

The MREs turned out to be delicious, and we soon trundled off to bed (another point of commonality: We both like to go to bed early, and wake up early).

The next morning, we drove the short distance to the boat ramp and began loading up. A young couple drove up with a trailer and a fishing boat; we exchanged pleasantries.

When they asked, I mentioned we’d be crossing Tampa Bay in our kayaks. They gaped, and asked: “You can do that?”

I pointed out that the original kayakers went out in far bigger seas, in freezing weather. Still, it made me feel a tad more adventurous.

Jenn getting ready to launch

We launched, and I made another pleasant discovery: Jenn’s knowledge of marine navigation was rock-solid, as befitting a former Naval officer. We were using her boats (she had two Valley Etains) and they both had compasses, which she’d installed herself. We’d picked 180 degrees as our point of navigation, to account for the current, which would tend to push us east.

We paused to let a giant cago ship pass, then set into the channel. And here we were out in the middle of the channel, with choppy, occasionally cresting waves.

I glanced over at her again. She looked fine, but just in case.. I mentally calculated how long it would take me to get to her if she capsized. Longer than optimal, but I’d be paddling with the current, and in warm water, the danger of hypothermia is remote.

We paddled through the chop, and kept going. Ahead of us, the shoreline began to grow larger. We’d made it across the bay!

The chop slowly eased, and I drew closer to Jenn. “How’d it go?” I asked, expecting her to be exuberant. She certainly hadn’t seemed to have had a care in the world.

Instead, she smiled warily. “I was a bit… concerned!”

Concerned? This was a woman who’d guest-piloted an F-18 at near-supersonic speeds? Who had first picked up a paddle a few months ago, and was now cresting waves with confidence?

Then I thought back to my first open-water crossing, across New York harbor. By then I had already been paddling for a couple of years. But still when the swell picked up, I, too, was a bit… concerned.

Jenn had acquitted herself spectacularly well. 

Jenn voguing at our lunch spot

The rest of the day ran like an advertisement for Florida paddling. The wind quieted down, and the water shimmered like molten metal. It was cool enough to be comfortable, but the sun behind the peek-a-boo clouds scattered light everywhere. We stopped on an inviting beach for lunch and a photo shoot.

After lunch, we explored the mangroves behind our beach, then turned our bows for home.

A skirt, but not exactly a high-fashion one!

The crossing back was as calm as the crossing over had been choppy; the only excitement was when we had to decide whether to cross in front of the cargo ship that appeared suddenly in the distance. We decided to wait—good thing, as it turned out.

Jenn on mercury water

We reached our campsite later that afternoon, tired but happy. Jenn had her first paddling blisters—first of many, I warned her—and they made an interesting contrast to the calluses she had from rock climbing.

We took a walk to shake out the stiffness, and treated ourselves to ice cream at the camp store. Then we rigged up a three-way clothesline in a cluster of trees—a “triline”, as Jenn pointed out. (I was delighted by the quirkiness and practicality).

The “triline”

There was just one catch. Even though we’d carefully rinsed out our clothing in the showers, it looked like it was due for a second rinse: Clouds loomed ominously, and off in the distance, thunder growled.

We puttered around the campsite getting ready to prepare dinner. And sure enough, as we were ready to start, the skies opened in a torrential downpour.

What to do?

Jenn’s apartment was just five minutes away. But we were here to camp!

We decided to stick it out, but cook under the eaves of the shower/laundry room, where there were benches.

So we chatted and ate our MREs, listening to the rain drumming on the roof overhead and trying not to think about what it would be like in our tents under the thundering waterfall. Would we be in for a wet, uncomfortable night?

The rain refused to let up, so we walked back to tents in the downpour.

As luck would have it, at the exact moment we said goodnight to each other and unzipped our shelters… the rain stopped.

Snug inside the bivvy sack, I enjoyed the luxury of looking up at the slowly-clearing sky, the fresh night air cool against my face.

The next morning we were up before dawn.

“Look!” Jenn whispered suddenly, pointing.

There, in a space perfectly framed by palmettos and trees, was an osprey nest against the rising sun, was an osprey nest, with both parents inside.

We took photos and smiled at each other. It was a hopeful omen.

And it had been a wonderful couple of days.

Ospreys at dawn; photo composition by Jenn W. Call

Jenn likes to make videos of her adventures! So this short clip will give you a sense of the trip. (Special bonus: Yours truly dissolving in giggles over the “rock or something”). Turn the sound up so you can hear Jenn’s original musical composition.

 

Circumnavigating Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel sunrise

By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad and I used to joke that in Florida, the wind and current are always against you: the “Florida rules” of kayaking.

So when I planned a circumnavigation of Sanibel Island (13 nautical miles, give or take), I knew better than to apply “New York rules”. In favorable conditions you can complete a circumnavigation of Manhattan (26 miles) in 6 to 7 leisurely hours (averaging around 4 knots). So in theory, you could zip around Sanibel in four hours, plus stops.

Clockwise around Sanibel Island

But in Florida, you’re lucky if you can average much more than two to three knots, unless you’re doing a one-way run with wind and current consistently in your favor. Even then, Florida conditions have a way of confounding the best-made plans—as I was about to re-discover.

To get around Sanibel Island, I figured a conservative 7 hours, maybe 8, just to be on the safe side. I had picked a perfect day: Not only was the air temp in the 80s,  and water temp in the 70s, but the winds were predicted to be a modest 7 mph (6 knots). If I timed things correctly, I should be able to travel up-coast on the flood and down-coast on the ebb.

The first inkling that Florida planned otherwise came the day before my trip, when I was checking the tides to decide which direction to go (clockwise or counterclockwise) to catch the flood and the ebb as I’d planned.

What was this? The mid-day low tide was missing entirely (see tide chart below). That meant no matter what I did, I’d be paddling against the current for at least half the trip. Still, I figured if I launched by 10 AM with the predicted light breeze, I’d make it home by dark.

Where did the midday low tide go?

Just to be sure, though, I packed a headlamp… and a backup headlamp… and a GPS… and boat lights. Good thing, as it turned out!

That morning, there was a lively dumping surf on the beach; not big waves, but strong ones. So I was pleased to make a successful surf launch, and set off a few minutes after 10. The sun sparkled off the waves, the moderate breeze was behind me, and I was flying up the Gulf towards Captiva Island, propelled by the rising tide.

In what seemed like no time I reached the bridge separating Sanibel from Captiva. I briefly entertained the notion of continuing on toward the next inlet, but it would add miles to the trip, and if my calculations were correct, I’d be traveling against both the wind and the current soon. So I regretfully decided to turn in as originally planned. (Good thing!)

Idle speed, no wake…

As I passed under the bridge, the environment made the usual shift from “outside” to “inside”. Outside—on the Gulf coast—are rolling swells crashing onto long sandy beaches. Inside, the water is placid and peaceful, gently lapping the roots of mangroves.

I paddled past a cormorant blinking lazily on the sun atop an “idle speed” sign. Up ahead… was that a tiny island made up of gray boulders? No, it was a tightly packed flock of pelicans roosting together on a sand bar.

Passel of pelicans

A little further on, I tried to take a photo of some white birds in trees (either ibises or egrets, I couldn’t tell from the distance).  But characteristically, though they tolerated my approach without fear, the sight of the camera sent them flapping away.

I rounded the western point of Sanibel Island and began heading east down the coast. Up ahead I saw a fin lazily slicing through the water. Was that a shark? Dolphins typically arc up and down, disappearing for long moments, then reappearing with somewhere else. But this fin was moving in a level horizontal motion…

It wasn’t until I saw a fine spray and heard the characteristic gasp that I was confident the fin belonged to a dolphin.   I paddled up close and got a shot, then continued on my way.

Not a shark

True to my prediction, I was paddling against both the current and what seemed to be a light, but stronger-than-predicted, breeze. I was now moving quite a bit more slowly, and having to work harder at it. Seemingly endless mangrove swamps and keys unspooled to my right. My mind spun free, and for long stretches of time, all I thought about was the next stroke.

Slowly, a line of electrical poles appeared in front of me, linking Sanibel with the mainland. I remembered with a jolt when I’d seen them last: In the middle of the night during the Everglades Challenge. The first traces of the hallucinations that would dog both me and Vlad at night had just begun; I had begun hallucinating a giant George Washington bridge overhead. (Vlad was seeing pop-up decoy ducks on the waves).

Things looked very different in the bright light of early afternoon, but one thing that hadn’t changed was the frustrating slowness of my pace. I recalled how the Ding Darling preserve seemed to go on forever, the mangroves dark against the starry sky. Now they were dark green against bright blue, but it still seemed as though I was inching along.

And there was something else: The wind was picking up. There were small whitecaps everywhere, and the placid water had become choppy. When I caught sight of a flag on a boat, it was usually straight out and flapping crisply. The predicted 6 knot wind had become more like 16 knots.

It was coming from the south, which meant I could shelter from it by staying close to the mangroves—except where there were shoals. As I drew closer to the embayment right before Tarpon Bay, I realized I had to make a choice: Either cut straight across the embayment (and deal with the full force of the wind), or go a couple miles out of my way to keep out of the wind.

Lighthouse in late afternoon

I decided to cut across.

After a few minutes, maybe half an hour, a boat pulled up to me. “Are you okay?” the captain asked. “It’s pretty windy out!”

I explained that I was fine. (Note to concerned boaters: if a paddler is making steady progress with regular strokes,  not attempting to attract your attention, the chances are extremely good that she is fine. Even if she’s alone. Even if she’s a woman!)

Still, it was good of him to check—and he was right, the wind had picked up. Nearly every swell sported a wind-against-current whitecap. It was definitely bouncy!

Slowly, slowly, I pulled across the embayment, and once again approached land. Thankful for the shelter, I set my sights on the next milestone: The Sanibel causeway. Once again, my mind flashed back to the last time I’d seen it from the water: In the middle of the night, surrounded by bioluminescence. Four years ago.

It seemed like another lifetime.

I passed under the bridge without incident, and began pulling towards the lighthouse. The sun was low in the sky by this time, but I was still fairly confident I’d make it home by dark. How far could it be? An hour, tops?

I stopped to take pictures of the lighthouse, where people and pelicans clustered in a happy riot. Then I rounded the tip of the island, skirting the predictable chop at the point.

Home stretch!  It would be a straight shot up the beach from here. The only challenge would be locating which, among the seemingly identical condos, was the place I was staying.

The wind had died down slightly, and the current was at last with me once more, but I was still riding swell after swell. Trees, houses, and white sandy beach unspooled to my right. And the sun sank slowly in the sky.

I stopped to take a photo as it sank behind Knapps Point. Lovely, but it meant that for sure,  I’d be paddling home in the dark.

Sanibel sunset

I put on the headlamp and kept going, as the sky faded into purplish dusk. Before long  stars began to appear. The moon was waning,  last quarter, so I knew better than to expect the help of moonlight.

Slowly the buildings blurred into the night sky. Where was the condo? Even with the headlamp, the silhouettes of the condos seemed frustratingly similar. Which one was mine?

Finally I picked a location that I thought looked good, and did a surf landing.

I dragged the boat up the beach and looked around. There was a sign: Hurricane House.  I remembered the location: just a bit short of where I was staying.

Could I walk there, pulling  the boat along in the water behind me using the tow rope, as I’d done in the past?

Nope.

The surf was too strong; the first incoming wave swamped the boat. Damn it! Now I had to drag the boat back up the beach and empty it.

After doing that,  I launched again and paddled further up the beach. I glimpsed down at my deck, and realized that the wave that had swamped the boat had also washed away my chart. Double-damn it! (Note to self: When making surf landings in the dark, stow chart inside deck bag.)

Oh well. I could always order another one. I kept paddling, into the deepening night.

After about fifteen minutes, I pulled into shore again. Once again, I dragged the boat up the beach. Once again, I looked around.

This time I saw the silhouette of someone—a woman—on the balcony. I asked her for the street address, which she gave me. Figures! This time I’d overshot.

By now it was pitch dark. I got back into the boat and paddled back in the direction from which I’d come. Suddenly the silhouettes to my left began looking familiar: Two palm trees… a big space… and a cluster of palm trees.

This was it! Third time’s a charm. Sure enough, that was the silhouette of my condo.

I checked my watch after dragging the boat up the beach. 7:45 PM. It had taken me nearly 10 hours to travel a dozen nautical miles (including about 45 minutes of going back and forth in the dark).

I could feel the sunburn on my cheeks, and my hands were blistered.  And of course, I’d lost a chart.

But I was home. And it had been a splendid paddle, “Florida rules” and all!

Berries In the Snow

Berries against the snow, Connecticut

By Johna Till Johnson

Berries in the snow
Bright hopeful against the cold
How long will they last?

Urban Garden Center NYC

Urban Garden Center

By Johna Till Johnson

When it’s cold and snowy out, where does a New Yorker in search of lush greenery go? The Urban Garden Center, of course!

It’s a whimsical wonderland hidden under Park Ave at 116th St., and one of the many crown jewels of Spanish Harlem.  In summer, there are live chickens (because what’s a garden center without chickens?). Children love to come and visit, and feed the chickens.

In winter the fauna are more limited: Teddy bears and mermaids.

Fairyland (with teddy bears!)

And speaking of fairyland, the center’s owner, intrigued by my picture-taking, regaled me with stories of New York “back in the day” (we are pretty much the same age).

My favorite was the time when he, as an 18-year-old from Long Island City, Queens, drove his brand-new Honda CRX right into the middle of a gang war in Spanish Harlem.

As he drove into a narrow alley, the two sides stopped fighting each other and attacked him. They lobbed a Molotov cocktail at his car, lighting the hood on fire.  There was nowhere for him to turn, so he threw the car into reverse and burned rubber backing out of the alleyway, flaming hood and all.

Ah, New York… those were the days!

Fairyland fauna: Mermaid