Tag Archives: New York City

Blown Away

Vlad as a child

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s 11:30 on a sweltering summer weekday. I’m on my way to a client meeting downtown. I step into the subway car, grateful there’s a seat and working air conditioning. The people in the car are the usual mix of ages, races, genders. We avoid eye contact.

At the next stop, a heavyset young man gets in, with a little boy, about three, in a stroller. The man settles into a seat across from me, and I glance at the little boy.

He’s adorable. There’s something hauntingly familiar about his expression: placid yet worried, with his brows drawn up in a look of concern. I smile at him and try to get his attention. Out of shyness or embarrassment he looks away, towards his father. Or maybe he’s put off by my unnatural hair color and the giant, bug-eyed sunglasses covering half my face.

“Can you wave hello?” the father asks, but the boy won’t turn towards me. “It’s ok,” I say, smiling, to the father. “He doesn’t have to wave at the strange lady.”

Then I suddenly realize, with a pang, why the child’s expression is so familiar.

I turn to the woman next to me, a kind-looking middle-aged Hispanic woman. She’s also smiling at the little boy.

“My husband has a photo of himself at about that age, with that same expression,” I say to her. “So sweet!” I notice I’m speaking of Vlad in the present tense, but don’t bother to correct myself.

“So sweet,” the lady agrees, and tries to get the boy to look at her, but he won’t.

The familiar wave of grief washes over me. I feel my eyes watering, and I’m grateful for the sunglasses hiding my face. To distract myself, I look at the people across from me. There’s a couple, sitting close together. Both are looking down at their phones, oblivious. The only way I know they’re a couple is how close they’re sitting. A couple. Another pang.

A few moments later, my stop is approaching. In preparation, I get up and head towards the door. As I do, I hear the people around me start to stir and murmur, but I’m not paying attention. Then the man who was across from me says, “Ma’am, look!”

I turn, and the boy is reaching out for me, his hand a starfish, his body straining against the stroller straps. He says nothing, but the beseeching look on his face is clear, and clearly directed at me.

“He doesn’t want you to leave!” the woman gasps in surprise. We all exchange looks of wonder.

The subway doors open. I step off the train, glad once again for the oversized sunglasses.

Window Box

By Johna Till Johnson

NYC Flowers 042017 Edited

Window box on the Upper East Side, Spring 2017

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Ah yes, “Dull roots with spring rain”!

Every spring, it’s the same surprise. We spend the winter yearning for sunshine and warmth. Yet when spring arrives, it’s usually wrapped in a cloak of dark clouds and cold rain.

It’s become a cliché: “April showers bring May flowers”—even though in New York, the flowers usually bloom in April (until they’re washed away by rain), and May is the month of green leaves.

But every now and then, even in the dank days of mid-April, a burst of sunshine appears. In this case, a window box, seen on the way home from the gym, with a riotous profusion of plants and flowers. A promise of brightness to come!

The Easter Bunny

By Johna Till Johnson

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The Easter Bunny appears in the wine store!

Friday night I saw something I haven’t seen since I was five or six years old: The Easter Bunny! Who, apparently, buys wine for Easter dinner just like the rest of us.

Actually, I didn’t quite see the Easter Bunny back then, either. So technically this was my first actual sighting.

We were living in Naples, Italy, at the time. I’d awakened early Easter morning, excitedly anticipating the basket and associated goodies, only to find… nothing.

Nada. Zilch. The Easter bunny, apparently, hadn’t arrived.

Maybe he just hadn’t arrived yet, my parents suggested optimistically. Maybe he’d show up later on. There was still time! So, like the good Catholic family that we were, we headed off to Easter Mass.

Upon our return, I pushed through our creaky garden gate. My father was holding my hand. “Look!” he shouted suddenly. “It’s the Easter bunny! I saw his fluffy white tail!” And the two of us dashed off around the house in mad pursuit. I didn’t see anything, but I wasn’t as tall as my dad. And maybe, if we ran fast enough, I’d actually see the Easter bunny!

You know how this story ends: when we came in the front door, panting and puffing, we discovered a giant, green-and-yellow Easter basket on the kitchen table. We hadn’t succeeded in seeing him, but evidently the Easter bunny had arrived.

Even as young as I was, I put the pieces together pretty quickly. I never found out what happened to delay the Easter basket, or at what point my parents hatched the scheme.

And I don’t remember why I figured it out. Maybe it was the fact that my father, who hadn’t the slightest bit of whimsy, didn’t pull off his acting job quite credibly. All I know is that was the end of my believing in the Easter bunny.

Until now.

Happy Easter!

By Johna Till Johnson

Amaryllis blooms

Yes, I know it’s just good Friday. But the new amaryllis (gift from a friend) decided to bloom today. And for some reason, every year Good Friday is sunny and warm, and Easter Sunday is cold and gray.

So I’ll take my cue from the amaryllis and wish everyone a happy Easter, even if it’s early.

Here’s to resurrection and life!

And—if Easter isn’t your thing, or even if it is—here’s to bunnies and robins and flowers and springtime and the promise of summer ahead.

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By Johna Till Johnson

This is why I love NYC…

Excelsior

By Johna Till Johnson

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72nd St Subway Station-Q Line

What makes photography interesting is the eye invested with feelings. That was the advice I’d gotten on finding my own photographic style. Strive not for esthetic perfection, but for conveying the emotions and narrative of the moment.

Tall order for someone still figuring out how to keep the camera steady enough to focus!

I was game for the challenge, though I suspected it would be an upwards struggle. One problem presented itself when I ventured out on a recent weekend: the world outside didn’t seem to match my feelings. It was a grey day in midwinter, but I was feeling… buoyant.

How—and where—would I find something that would convey my mood?

I took several shots outdoors before I stumbled across the perfect subject: the brand-new 72nd street subway station. Readers of the blog already know that I love subways. And I’m particularly in love with the 72nd Street station, with its high, gleaming arches, still-pristine walls, and glittering, realistic, slightly larger-than-life mosaic portraits.

Yes, I decided, the subway station would be perfect. Especially since I was taking the subway anyway to run my errands.

I had just about finished up a series of  photos when I noticed someone else doing the same thing: A young man in a puffy black jacket carrying a serious camera—with a long, impressive lens—was across the way, apparently preparing for a close-up of one of the mosaic portraits.

He had long hair and a distracted, somewhat hostile, expression. When he caught me looking at him, his eyes narrowed a bit, in that classic New York scowl. I could almost hear him thinking, “Whaddaya looking at?”

I leaned over the railing towards him. “We’re doing the same thing—only you’re a real photographer!” The scowl disappeared and his face lit up with an almost bashful smile. “I’m trying!” he said.

I smiled back and turned to leave.

Then it hit me: That was my shot. I turned around and steadied myself, hoping he wasn’t looking at me. No danger of that: he was leaning backwards against the railing,  carefully studying his subject. Carefully, quickly, I took the picture, then stepped back to frame it again.

It wasn’t until I’d taken a couple different shots that I noticed something I hadn’t previously seen: the word Excelsior in raised lettering on a concrete bar above the staircase. It’s Latin for “ever upward”, and it’s the New York State motto. I hadn’t even known it was there until I examined my photo.

Whoever elected to put it over a staircase obviously had a sense of humor. But I was delighted to discover something new in my favorite subway station—and struck by the appropriateness of the message.

Ever upward, indeed!

Pipes at Grand Central Station

By Johna Till Johnson

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Pipes at Grand Central Station

Friday morning, midwinter.

O-dark-hundred, as they say in the military: early in the pre-dawn darkness. I’m at Grand Central Station, traveling north for a business event.

I pass by the track where my train is supposed to arrive in 20 minutes. The track is dark, deserted, with no sign indicating an imminent arrival. Plus the track is filled with what looks like junk. In some places there’s barely a walkway for the passengers. Could there be some mistake?

Buying my ticket I ask the booth agent: “Is this really the correct track?” He checks the monitor, nods. So I take my ticket down to the track. Still no sign, but there are now a few guys driving carts up and down, past the piles of junk.

I walk towards the end of the track, my mind and eye trying to make sense of what I’m seeing. Banks of carts. Wire containers. And is that an old office chair standing by itself? Where did it come from, and what is it doing here?

I pass by a brick building with a sign:  Grand Central Station Mailroom. A mailroom, improbably located on a train track?  Who knew?

The building is lit indoors, but empty. The sign on the door says it opens at 7 AM, but it’s not yet seven.  I peer inside. Tables, printers, bins for sorting.

I keep going, towards the darkness of the tunnel at the far end of the track.  The piles of junk thin out, replaced by banks of cables and pipes, soaring into the cavernous darkness overhead.

There’s a conductor at the far end, standing by himself. He’s a young man, trim, with a tired look on his face. I approach him, wonder in my eyes, excitement in my voice. “This is amazing! Is it always like this?”

“Like what?” he asks.

“All this… ” I gesture to the clutter, the pipes, the darkness.

He laughs. “Every day!”

“There’s so much to look at!”

“Yeah… I guess there is…” His voice takes on a wistful tone. “You don’t really notice it when you see it every day.”

I nod, understanding what he means. Then my attention is captured by a perfect arch of pipes, rising into the overhead darkness.

I reach into my backpack for the camera.