NYC A Lab of Modern Life Assignment 1: Johnson

July 1, 2009

I met Johnson in McCarren Park on a lovely Sunday afternoon. I was reading Jung's Man and His Symbols when he sat on the bench and began talking. He couldn't believe how content people seemed in the park -- the softball players screaming happily, young girls laying out unabashedly in bikinis, drunken bums passed out without cause for concern. The cops were kinder here than in his neighborhood, Johnson observed. And people weren't this happy.

Johnson grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, having lived in New York for all of his 48 years. He graduated high school, but soon after got involved in selling drugs, mostly crack, for some Dominican and Puerto Rican drug dealers. He claimed to have been selling $100,000 worth of drugs a month, making a couple grand a day for himself. During the 80s, he had several cars and a few houses, wealthy by any standard, but rather than saving he spent a lot of money on drugs for himself. He got arrested and did a couple years time, battled drug addiction, and finally turned himself around after a stint at a shelter. He now has an apartment and works for the Parks Department.

He only had a few minutes to talk because his boss was watching. But Johnson was happy to be out working on such a lovely day; all he requires is enough advance notice to go to work. In prison, Johnson said, it was all about who you had on the outside. People in prison watched to see if you had people call you and visit. If not, they preyed on you because they knew that nobody cared about you. Prison, in general, makes you feel like that. It's psychological. The idea is to make you feel like no one cares.