Who: Carolita Johnson
Location: Kingston, NY
Where you may know her from: Cartoons in The New Yorker, illustrations and writing in The Hairpin, including a great tale “The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson,” and a new series of illustrated essays for Longreads.
Carolita was kind enough to do an email interview way back in April, right before I moved, and I’m finally getting settled in enough to focus on “The Middle Ages” again. You’ve been warned!
Krista: You mentioned that you were living upstate. Is this a new(ish) thing for you? I ask, because I know so many people who have lived in NYC for years and then started dispersing when they crossed into their 40s. I remembered that your Manhattan apartment was featured in The New York Times and thought that was just a few years ago… but I guess that was way back in 2009?
Carolita: Yes, the article was in 2009, not long after my late husband and I had moved in together. We moved upstate in 2015, chasing cheaper rent and more modest living expenses, and I’ve lived upstate ever since. I’m actually from Queens, lived in Paris during my 20s and 30s, moved back to NYC for my 40s, and ended up in the Hudson Valley for my 50s.
Krista: In which neighborhood did you grow up in Queens? Do you ever go back or are you not inclined in the least? I’m curious because I just moved back to my home town (Portland, Oregon) and in my 20 years of NYC life I avoided Portland like the plague.
Carolita: For the first half of my childhood I grew up in Flushing, which was amazingly multicultural at the time, and I loved it there. Then we moved to Long Island, which I hated. No, I don’t really believe in going back. Besides, Queens has become so expensive I couldn’t possibly afford it now! But who knows what the future will bring. I have a feeling I’ll be in upstate New York for at least a couple more years. Funnily enough, Portland is one of the places I’ve considered moving to someday.
Krista: You are a cartoonist for The New Yorker, which for many would be a dream job. Do you feel like you’ve “made it?” Do you still have to make income in other ways? Does self-employment worry you as you age or is it more freeing? (I’m scared of it.)
Carolita: I don’t believe in dreams! I believe in throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. Cartooning stuck and, yes, I was thrilled. Yes, I feel like I’ve “made it” as far as making it into the perfect place to be as a cartoonist. The New Yorker offers the best working conditions for artists out of all the magazines out there. They pay well, and they let us retain our copyright after a short period of exclusivity. These are two things that are hard to find these days, and while I may sometimes do a side job for someone else, I feel like being a cartoonist at TNY almost exclusively is my way of paying homage to a very high bar that we artists must hold ourselves to whenever possible. Without that, we’d all sell ourselves shorter and shorter till we’re worth nothing to anyone.
You know what makes me feel like I’ve “made it,” actually? As a cartoonist? My editor. She’s amazing to work with and, if you want to talk about dreams, she’s the editor I always dreamed of. There was a time when I wondered if I even cared about cartooning anymore, a couple years ago. You know how you read books where someone has a great editor and wistfully think, wow, wouldn’t that be nice? She’s that editor. She cares, she’s funny, she’s whip-sharp and charming as hell, and I love her to pieces and I want to continually earn the right to be edited by her.
And yes, I have to make a living in various ways. I’m writing some illustrated essays for Longreads (taking a break from drawing stuff for one as I type). For a while I was even a cartoon editor at a local publication. I do gigs for the “events” department at the magazine whenever possible, I take commissions, and I work a couple days a week at the local cafe. I constantly check the Google jobs (mostly for dystopian interest), and really want to end up teaching somewhere someday.
Here’s a fact: there isn’t much money in working in a cafe but it’s better than sitting around at home trying to pull ideas out of my ass. I talk to all kinds of people at the cafe, I work with people (not something you have to do when you’re just drawing alone at home), and above all, I interact with people much younger than me as teammates and work friends. When I’m lucky I make a real friend, too, but young people in a small town have to move on. In a way, it’s almost like being an expat in France again, where you or the expats always moved on or went back home just when you were getting cozy. I really think working in the service industry is something everyone who isn’t forced into it by utter poverty ought to do. The less you need a job, the more you should be obliged to do it for a year to get you off your high horse.
A customer at the cafe once divulged that he thought I worked at the cafe “on a lark.” I’m the oldest person there, and maybe he thought I was an eccentric? Or maybe that I was doing research for a book? Or maybe because a lot of people my age wouldn’t have the confidence to work in a job that strangers might think is below the pay grade of a 50+ person because it might make them look like a failure? I sometimes think, from the way they act, that some older women who don’t know anything about me see me as a loser. And the older men, of course they think I’m low-hanging fruit. Like, maybe I’m someone whose husband dumped her and I didn’t get a very good divorce settlement or something, and am looking to be saved. There was one woman who was obsessed with my age, and I figured she saw me as a cautionary tale – like this is what happens to women who don’t play their cards right: they serve others in their old age when they ought to be sitting pretty in a nice home with a paid mortgage and adorable grandchildren. Who knows. He definitely wasn’t asking at a time when I didn’t need every cent I made. I enjoy the job and sincerely love that particular cafe – got married there, even – maybe that’s why the the man thought it was a lark to me.
And yeah, if I stop to think about it, I’d worry about aging as a freelancer, but who has time to sit and worry? My husband died almost two years ago and left me holding the bag after I declared bankruptcy to take care of him, and I spent a year being completely useless in bereavement and exhaustion, and now, seriously, all I want is to do my work. I lost a lot of time being a good wife even before he got ill, and then once he was ill, my career investments and anything nurturing my creativity were put on hold. There was a half a year when my only form of expression was the beautiful meals I made to keep him healthy and his weight up and his meds working optimally during his treatment. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I look back on those days and think, yeah, over the course of the last two years of his life, every bit of my creative and practical energy funneled more and more into taking care of him. I don’t regret that, but when he died instead of surviving and helping me get back on track after his recovery (that was the plan), it means I now have a lot of clawing back to do.
Krista: Are you working on anything you’re particularly proud of right now?
Carolita: I’m proud of myself to be working on anything at all right now! I’m so behind schedule in everything, and just to begin something makes me proud at this point. I’m beginning a lot of things, there’s a lot of burners going, and some are on lower flames than others. But while I’m doing this, I’m really proud to be showing the younger women (and men, but especially women) who I know that I’m not afraid to fail. Growing up, I never met a writer or a cartoonist or any kind of artist. So it didn’t seem real to me. I never imagined I’d be doing what I do. That’s why it took me till I was 37 and met a cartoonist (my future and late husband). It was his job. He made it real for me. He said, just try it. And I did. No one had ever done that for me. So, I show my work to the people I work with, because I want them to see a working artist as a reality. I show them my submitted cartoons almost every week, and tell them later if I sold one or not because I want them to see the process, and see how not selling a cartoon every time doesn’t devastate me, and that I just keep working on it. I don’t know if they realize why I do it, or what it means to them yet, or if they’ll ever even think about it. If it helps even just one of them subliminally, I’ll be glad. I do it because someone did it for me and because I love it.
Krista: I had read that you had never heard of The New Yorker until you met Michael [her husband]. A. How did you meet him? B. Was that really true that you had never heard of it?
Carolita: I had actually not heard of TNY until 1998 when I got a job as studio manager for a photographer who did shoots for them. He introduced me to the photo department, and that’s all I knew about it. To me, they were just a client I had to trick into paying for lighting equipment they didn’t want to pay for, and then pursue for payment, like all magazines. I went back to France for two years after that and met Michael on a visit home, when I decided I needed to start drawing for a living, and asked the assistant photo editor at The New Yorker if she could procure me some “real” (ie, working, published, well-paid) artists’ portfolios to look at. I’d never seen one and needed to know what one at least looked like. She forgot I was coming, and also forgot that she was supposed to go play pool with her newly divorced buddy, Michael Crawford, a very successful cartoonist and illustrator in that he actually made a modest living solely by his art. She introduced us, told him to show me his portfolios, and sent us off to play pool while she stayed late at work.
Krista: What made you get married? As someone who has never been married (but was in a 14 year relationship) I am always fascinated by women’s reasons for marrying or not and especially marrying after 50 for the first time.
Carolita: Well, I’d always said I would never get married till I was 50, if ever. It was just one of those things I decided; more of a prediction than a desire. I do that a lot. Like when I was 10, I said I would leave home when I grew up and live in Europe for about ten years. I left home and lived in France for a little over 11 years. Anyway, because I’d always said that about not getting married till I’m 50, we were going to do it as a way to simultaneously celebrate my 50th birthday and our 13 years together. We never could resist an occasion to celebrate how much we enjoyed our lives and this was perfect. But we had to cancel because, not knowing we had plans, his son decided to get married on very short notice on Valentine’s Day that year, which was two weeks before my 50th birthday. So we planned a ceremony for the next year, on our 14th anniversary, April 1st.
By then, Michael had already been diagnosed with cancer, so, even though we’d originally wanted to do it just for fun, with no papers to sign, we decided it would be a good idea to make sure I was legally recognized as his wife in case of any problems regarding access to him at hospitals. I was really afraid I’d show up one day and they’d say, “No, you’re not related to him.” So, we proceeded with the fun wedding at the cafe on April 1st, and planned a small legal ceremony for June once his birth certificate arrived. But it ended up just being us and the witnesses at his soon-to-be deathbed in July.
He was way more romantic than I was, and by that time I really think he only wanted to stay alive long enough for us to be married. He thought I’d get his social security checks once we were married, which I knew wasn’t true, but at that point I couldn’t bear to tell him otherwise. I just wanted to let him die in peace thinking he’d done right by me. I was even ready to stage a marriage for that purpose. As it was, by a stroke of luck, a friend of mine from college was passing through town not knowing what was going down, and she picked me up and drove me to city hall to get the marriage license, then dropped me off at home with it and drove away after a hug. (Nope, I don’t have a driver’s license: city girl all my life.) Now that I look back on it, it seems very cinematic and wonderful, if not deeply sad. At the time, it was just panic and urgency. I was afraid he might die while I was out on what would have been a fool’s errand.
After he died a few days later, the friend of ours who pronounced us man and wife (he was ordained) was in Michael’s studio and he said “Look!” and pointed to one of Michael’s cut out cartoon captions taped to a file cabinet (Michael liked cutting and pasting old captions onto different cartoons to see the effect). It had been stuck there waiting to be placed on a new cartoon for months, I realized, been forgotten and had become part of the scenery. It said, “We weren’t married that long but it was the happiest three days of my life.” It was perfect. That’s how long we were legally married, even though we actually exchanged rings and called each other husband and wife when we moved in together in 2009.
Krista: I recently realized that all of the women I have interviewed so far don’t have children. This wasn’t intentional but maybe I’m just drawn to people I sense as like-minded. Did you ever want kids? (Hope that’s not too personal.)
Carolita: Not at all! Let me put it this way: even when I was a kid, myself, I hated kids. I hated being a kid. I lived only to grow up and not be a kid anymore, because being weak and stupid and inexperienced and small and dependent on others disgusted me. This was me talking to myself, throughout my entire childhood: “When I grow up I’ll […].” I just wanted to grow up, get out and never see a kid again. Learning about the whole impregnation, gestation, procreation, lactation thing was the nail in the coffin. Add to this that my own parents made parenting look like Hell on Earth, and there was no way I was ever going to want to be a parent. I was always very certain I’d never have kids. Zero desire, zero ambivalence.
Krista: The big question–do you consider yourself middle-aged?
Carolita: Oh, my age is no BFD to me yet. I am now 53 years old. So, I guess I’d be middle-aged if I was going live to be 106? I feel like to be truly middle-aged, you have to be at that point where you think you have nothing left to learn, and start thinking younger people are all idiots. You know, where you’re “too old” for this or that intellectual or professional risk anymore. That wouldn’t be me. First of all, I have little to lose. I have no shame and not much money. And second of all, most of the younger people I know are incredibly smart and I have a lot to learn from them. I tend to use the word “middle-aged” as a disparagement. I’m 53, that’s all. I’m post-menopausal, if you want to speak in forensic terms. I am witnessing my body’s aging process with curiosity and anticipating having to come up with a lot of clever ways to adapt to the changes to come. I sometimes like to call myself “old girl,” like the Brits do in black and white movies.