Ms. Johanna’s Hats

Ms. Johanna wore her gardening hat the first time I met her. It was made out of a brown paper bag with a wide undulating brim, the crown formed by gray duck and yellow caution tape. For the first fifteen minutes or so she didn’t look at me, answering my questions but continuing to weed the path between her beds. Then she told a little bit of a naughty joke.

“Never understand people who don’t laugh,” she said and we cackled together all the way through the rest of the afternoon.

This is where her hats come in. They’re meant to be worn with a graceful pride full of humor. Her garden hat is a good example. It’s also practical: Paper bags mop up sweating foreheads. You can also fashion one in an hour and still have time to get to work.

Ms. J didn’t allow a close up photo but you can get an idea of her paper bag hat.

She’s been telling me that the old straw hat I wear is too heavy to do any good in the sun (it does just fine). She said she needed to teach me how to make a real hat but we had to have some newspaper, specifically The New York Times. The spreads are just the right size for a tall crown and a wide brim. The color photographs and graphics make for colorful patterns.

Yesterday, I carried over a thick stack so we could get started.

We water the garden first. Last week’s storms soaked the beds but this week’s heat dried the dirt so much it crumples between our fingers. The beans unfurl up, down and around their trellis; the tomato stalks flex close to the ground, heavy with fruit. All twenty types of herbs are in danger of going to seed. For a good long while we haul two gallon watering cans around to quench their thirsts.

“Why don’t we turn on the hose,” I ask.

“Because you don’t see how the plants are doing if you’re spraying water up above. You have to look at them close or you’ll miss things.”

Ms. J demonstrates this by pointing to a bed crowded with squash and tomatoes. I kneel beside her and she points to what I think is a fine looking squash.

“See that big gnaw mark down at its base? That’s a boll weevil going at it. When you plant crops this close together it’s like ringing a dinner bell to them.”

The bed, of course, is not her’s. It’s one of Greg’s, the man who’s helping her restore her garden after the city mistakenly tore it apart last winter. Tension’s running high between them at the moment. Greg sees urban gardens as playing a crucial role in rectifying food inequalities in poor intercity neighborhoods. That’s why his beds are so jammed with vegetables. Ms. J clings to the original program idea that she signed up for 22 years ago. To her this plot of land is woven into Black culture, her herbs particular to African and Caribbean cooking, and that’s the way it should remain. It may take the rest of the growing season to sort things out between them.

We continue on for another hour with our water hauling until she decides we should get under the shade.

“Let me see what you brought,” she says and I spread the newspapers across a table. She sifts through them and pulls a couple of colorful spreads out.

“Okay. We’re going to forget a garden hat and make my other kind of hat.”

Her other hats are prize winners, the ones she sells at the farmer’s market on New Lots Avenue that people don’t mind spending some money for. These are hats to wear socially, fine enough for Sunday church if you’re so inclined.

Ms. J says, “I don’t go into that much. I try to be good but like my friend Adele said, my temper and mouth gets in the way.” Yes, it does and it’s one of her best traits. She wears her hats out on the town.

She prefers the Times’ Wednesday or Sunday editions because they’re the most colorful. She used to be able to get as much of the paper as she wanted when she volunteered at the Brooklyn Public Library. Now that her knees are arthritic and she’s 82 and has other things she better get done, Ms. J no longer has the time and her newspaper supply is down to a dribble. Plus, everyone is reading the Times online, including her.

She’s very pleased that I don’t and that there’s three weeks worth in the bag. We settle down together and she goes about teaching me how to make a hat.

Hat Recipe

6 full spreads of The New York Times that contain colorful photographs or graphics

craft glue

1 gallon paint can and plastic bag

tape (Ms. J prefers duck tape but you can use anything so long as it’s strong.)

decorations such as ribbons, flowers, scarves, holiday ornaments, whatever you like.

(It’s the day after recycling and I don’t have enough newspaper so I substituted 2 sheets of rice paper [the red below] I had hanging around. Proceed as if it’s all newspaper.

Decide what side of each newspaper spread you want visible. Lay that side face down on a table then run a thin line of glue around the edges. Do the same with the rest of the sheets. Be sure to smooth out any wrinkles. Place the glued sheet to the side to dry and repeat with the other spreads to make a total of 3 layers.

Choose which sheet you want to use as the top and the bottom. These will be the most visible layers. Lay your top spread on the table then take your middle spread and lay it somewhat crooked over it. Lay your bottom layer over that, angling it as well.

Fold each spread about 2/3 back and smear glue across the middle. Smooth out each layer.

Now take the paint can and wrap it in the plastic bag. Carefully lift the 3 spreads together and place the center in the middle of the can. Gently fold the layers over the can. Stop folding when you’ve reached the height of the crown you want. Ms. J likes a tall crown and stops at about 2/3 of the way down. Begin to gather the sheets tightly around the can then secure it with a ribbon or scarf while you wrap the tape around. Pull as tight as you can to make sure the crown is secure an the folds will stay. Once you have the tape in place, remove the ribbon or scarf then begin to form dips and curls along the brim, very much the way you would do for a pie crust. Fold the edges back and over one another to reveal more of the paper’s colors. Once the brim looks the way you want it, carefully slip the hat off the can and place it upside down somewhere to dry.

Hat formed over the can.

As it dries, and even afterwards, you can manipulate the brim to make more folds and ripples.

Decorate to your liking.

Viola! You have yourself a hat!