Category Archives: New York City

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

 

Mosque at Sunset: Manhattan

Mosque at sunset

By Johna Till Johnson

Sometimes beauty just hits you like a punch in the stomach.

I was running late for dinner when I saw sunset-tinged clouds behind the neighborhood mosque. I just had to stop and take the picture.

On Fridays the haunting tones of the jumu’ah call to prayer at 1 PM reminds me the week is almost over.

This time, it was a reminder that the day was almost over.

Another summer day drawing to a close…

Mitsuwa…And More

Sunset at Pier 84

By Johna Till Johnson

Maybe this isn’t such a great idea.

I’m sitting on the dock at Pier 84 on a sunny—but cold—Sunday afternoon in early spring.

I’m wearing a drysuit, and my feet are in the seat of my kayak, which is bobbing up and down with the wake-driven waves.

The dock is around18 inches above the waterline, and I’ve just remembered that I’ve never been able to get into my boat from the dock unaided before.

It’s a tricky launch. The boat has a habit of getting caught under the dock’s overhang and slammed into it by the waves (there’s a nasty crack on the hull that I think resulted from such a crunch). Between the height and the waves, there’s a good risk of unbalancing and landing in the water. Every other time there’s been someone around to steady the boat for me—and I’ve needed it.

A further thought occurs to me: I’ve never actually paddled solo in winter weather before.

I’ve done an 8-day solo kayak camping trip in Florida’s 10,000 islands. I’ve solo-circumnavigated Manhattan. But it’s always been in warm water.

Right now, despite the wetsuit and several layers of insulation, I have maybe an hour or two of survival after capsizing in the 40-degree water.

More importantly, my hands, which are uncovered, will go numb after about four minutes—which makes getting back into the boat a challenge unless I manage a flawless roll.

And climbing back up onto the dock could be a nonstarter if I happen to fall in while getting into the boat.

To Mitsuwa and back (est 9 nautical miles)

Yeah. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

But at the back of my mind the knowledge gnaws at me: If I don’t launch now, I will probably give up on solo winter launches from this pier. It’s too easy to find excuses for what you’re afraid of.

And that’s not something I’m willing to give up on. Not just yet.

So I’m sitting with my feet in the boat, feeling it bob up and down, waiting for my heart rate to drop and my hands to stop sweating. I have time. All the time in the world. I just need to relax and think things through.

After a bit, I realize: Why do I never have trouble getting out of the boat onto the dock?

Instantaneously, the answer comes: Because I keep my weight low and throw my body belly-down on the dock. I look ridiculous and ungainly, like seal flopping up onto land, but it works.

And if it works for getting out… it should work for getting in!

I roll the idea around in my head.

Yeah.  Yeah. I can do this!

So I flip over onto my stomach and slide my feet into the cockpit, keeping as balanced as possible, with my weight on my hands on the dock. When I feel my center of gravity move out over the water, I slide into the boat, as neatly as a knife going into its sheath. The boat barely wobbles.

Elation. I did it!

I push off from the dock and begin tucking my storm cag over the coaming.

Just then, my radio crackles to life, announcing the Norwegian Breakaway, the cruise ship that usually launches from Pier 88 on Sunday afternoons.

At Pier 84, right next to the Intrepid, I’m going to be in a prime location to watch it go by. I paddle slowly forward in the embayment, and take several pictures as the Breakaway slowly appears, colorful and majestic, flanked by a NYPD vessel. To complete the photo opportunity, a NY Waterways taxi arrives on the scene.

The Norwegian Breakaway… and companions!

An auspicious sendoff, I decide, and paddle out into the Hudson.

Earlier, I’d encountered a group of hardy kayakers and paddleboarders, who warned there was tug-and-barge activity just north of me on the Manhattan side. So I decide to cross over to the New Jersey side and paddle north.

My notional destination is Mitsuwa, the Japanese grocery store located a few miles up on the Jersey shore. It has a convenient beach and is known to be paddler-friendly, with spacious restrooms and a plethora of tasty groceries and restaurant options.

But I’m not sure I’ll make it that far, and I’m not sure I’ll even bother to get out if I do. The goal today is simply to launch, paddle for a bit, and get back onto the pier in one piece. If I accomplish that, I’ll have proven to myself that I’m able to solo paddle in winter.

I’m traveling with the current, but the flood is never strong in the spring—the snowmelt from upstate overpowers it. There’s also a strong and steady northern wind—about 15 knots, I calculate. Enough to create a little wind-against-current chop, and to slow down my progress.

Bicycles and blooming forsythia

I slowly wend my way up the New Jersey shore, mourning a bit for the wreck of the Binghamton,  which left this world just after Vlad did. It’s strange how attached you can get to an inanimate object with which you have no direct connection. And it’s hard to escape the sense of loss as I think of the many things that now live on only in my memory…

But it’s a new spring day, and the sunlight sparkles cheerfully on the waves. The forsythia’s out, I realize, and stop to snap a photo of a bush in bloom, appearing to lead a parade of bicycles. Across the river, the buildings are awash with light.

After a couple of hours of paddling, I arrive at Mitsuwa. Bobbing just off the little beach, I think to myself that there’s no reason to disembark. I’m not particularly hungry, and getting in and out of the boat just seems a bother.

But curiosity nibbles at my mind. It’s been years since I stopped here.

The last time might have been with Vlad, who refused to get out (the beach can be muddy). We had a small spat, and I left him floating in the river while I went inside for a pit stop and supplies. When I returned, we ate sushi and drank sake in the boats while the current carried us downstream. I remember how we laughed, the argument forgotten.

That was years ago, four or five at least. Was it still the same? And… I have a vague memory of tempura. My stomach rumbles. I’m decided. I paddle the boat up on the beach, threading gingerly between the pilings. I pull off my spray skirt, tuck it into the cockpit, and climb over the fence into the parking lot.

Small boat, big city

Inside, the supermarket is as clean and spacious as I remember, filled with (mostly) Japanese shoppers. But something’s different… I finally realize a row of food stalls has replaced what used to be the restroom area (temporary bathrooms are port-o-potties out front while construction finishes).

And one of the food stalls features… tempura! I place my order and wait patiently in line, making faces with the baby and his young parents in front of me. Finally it arrives, hot and fragrant.

Tempura!

I take my order outside where there are low stone tables and chairs. From here I can see the beach where my boat rests, and look at the steak house that sits out over the water. It’s not paddler-friendly, I’ve been told: Too upscale to tolerate muddy boots and smelly drysuits.

The food is delicious. As I eat, I notice the buds are out on the trees. The steakhouse has flowers in its flowerbeds. Spring is really going to arrive!

Lunch (or rather “linner”, as Vlad called that late-afternoon meal that’s neither lunch nor dinner) complete, I pack up and launch. As anticipated, the current has turned, and I’m traveling with the wind and current. I cross over to the Manhattan side and watch the shoreline ripple by. It takes me less than half the time to return that it did paddling out—about 45 minutes, compared with two hours on the trip up.

Japanese flowers

Just as I get close to Pier 84, I remember the tugs and barges the other paddlers warned me about. I assume they’ve called off work by now—it’s late on a Sunday afternoon. But what’s that ahead?

Sure enough, two turquoise tugs appear, each maneuvering a barge. They look like the Megan Ann and one of her sisters (see some footage of the Megan Ann in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkBjlRkwMP8)

One steams north upriver, but the other appears to be turning. Towards me? Yikes!

Fortunately it’s not—it’s heading into the embayment just in front of me.
I pull up, and wait for the tug to pull her barge out of the way.

I peek out cautiously. The tug-and-barge seem to be anchored. So I cross the embayment and continue on towards home.

I  turn into Pier 84 just under the bow of the anchored Intrepid (which never fails to thrill me—how many paddlers come home to a famous air craft carrier?). I pull up to the dock.

There’s no one in sight as I start to clamber out of the kayak. I’ve got this—getting out of the boat is easy, right?

Not so fast. I lose my balance and nearly capsize. The boat rights itself, but it’s carrying water—several inches at least, making it less stable. Slowly, cautiously, I pull myself forward onto my stomach on the dock. My heart pounds. Close call.

I’m up… but can I get the boat up, full of water as it is, without breaking it?

I pump some water out, then give up. There’s just too much. I grab the bow, and give it a pull. The boat slides up on the dock, in one piece. I flip it over and watch as it drains.

I’ve done it. Launched and landed, and made it up the river and back. In winter conditions.

I will do this again, I realize.

I stand up and look out over the water… just in time to capture a photo of the setting sun.

This turned out to be a great idea!

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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

 

 

Welcome to Spanish Harlem

Welcome to Spanish Harlem!


By Johna Till Johnson

They say old New York is dead.

The city’s hot lifeblood has gone thick and sluggish. Starbucks and suburbanization have driven a stake through its  heart.

They’re wrong.

The beating heart of New York never dies. You just need to know where to find it.  The pulse is particularly alive in Spanish Harlem, which shimmers with dynamic energy. It’s bright with color, even on a dark snowy day.

Spanish Harlem street corner

Like much of old New York, Spanish Harlem (also known as East Harlem or El Barrio) is known for many things: Poverty. Addiction. Gang violence (the area is home to the most dangerous block in the city, according to police statistics).

But Spanish Harlem is not defined by those things, or not defined only by them.

It’s diverse: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Asians, and a remnant of the original Italians who settled there in the early 1900s mingle with displaced WASP Upper East Siders and the influx of international staffers working at Mt. Sinai, the steadily-growing medical complex that dominates the southern part of the neighborhood.

There’s also a spirit of pride, and neighborliness. You’re more likely to be greeted with a nod and a smile here than anywhere else in the city.  “We’re all in this together,” is the unspoken sentiment.

Helping each other

More than that, Spanish Harlem is characterized by hope. It boasts one of the best high schools in all of New York state,  Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, which regularly sends local students to top-ranked universities.

There are a number of community gardens, decorated with whimsy and offering bright spots in the urban landscape.

And a surprising number of artists, poets, and musicians hail from Spanish Harlem. A notable one is Marc Anthony,  the top-selling salsa artist (and Jennifer Lopez’ ex-husband).

Above all, Spanish Harlem is the land of dreams.

Hall of Fame

I am not certain, but I suspect that the graffiti in this mural refers to the song Hall of Fame, which celebrates setting high goals and working to achieve them.

Yeah, you could be the greatest
You can be the best…
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself…

Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
‘Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame…

Do it for your people
Do it for your pride
How you ever gonna know if you never even try?

Harlem: Do it for your people

Different

One of these is not like the others…

By Johna Till Johnson

On a cold winter’s day, I sip my morning coffee, scan my eyes idly across the rows of identical windows in the apartment building across the street… and squint a bit. What’s that? Apparently one of the apartment dwellers  hasn’t gotten the memo.

Some people just have to be different…and I’m glad!

Watch Out For a Man With a Hot Grill!

He doesn’t LOOK that dangerous…

By Johna Till Johnson

Two years ago, a new falafel shop, Gyro 96, opened up on my street. It focused primarily on lunch, so I investigated immediately—there are few good lunch options near me, and I was looking for something fast, cheap, tasty and reasonably healthy.

It was a tiny hole in the wall, no seating, just a grill/kitchen behind a serving window. But the way the crowd of construction workers, hospital employees, and assorted denizens of the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem gathered around told me the food had to be good.

Aside from serving up the best chicken gyro salad I’ve ever had (and introducing me to hibiscus iced tea),  the shop did something better: it made me laugh.

I don’t know whether the sign behind chef/owner Waled Harady’s head is intended to be humorous. But the way he and his partner Inna Sobel laughed when they saw me taking the photo makes me suspect it is.

Harady seems to be the kind of guy who’s well aware of gender roles—and doesn’t mind upending them a bit. He’s a former aeronautical engineer who ended up running a falafel restaurant in Harlem, then after a few iterations ended up at the current location with his partner.  There’s a great piece about the story in the New York Times.

Harady’s recipes are all authentic. They come from his mother and his grandmother, and he makes them the old-fashioned way. And that hibiscus iced tea? It’s not only a lovely drink on a hot summer day, but may be a wonderful natural way to lower blood pressure.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by. But watch out for those men cooking!