April 20, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
In the fall of 1958, things weren’t going well for eighteen-year-old Tommy Johns. He had graduated from Croton-Harmon High School that year and was working as a janitor, while living with his mother, stepfather, and four younger siblings in an unheated, drafty wood house about two hundred yards from the river and railroad tracks. His parents had money for beer, cheap liquor, and little else. One morning, Tommy got up, put on his secondhand Swedish army coat, told his family he was going to the corner store for cigarettes, and hitchhiked the fifty miles to Manhattan.
Let out of the car in Greenwich Village, he started wandering up Sixth Avenue, choosing that route for no particular reason—maybe just because the cars were going that way. When he crossed the intersection at Twenty-eighth Street, he was surprised to see the familiar figure of W. Eugene Smith standing on the curb next to a tractor-trailer.
Tommy had gone to school with Smith’s son, Pat, and daughter, Marissa, in Croton. He had been over to their spacious, stone home in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on the other side of town. Tommy knew that Mr. Smith had been a famous photographer for Life magazine, covering World War II and other important subjects, yet here he was, standing on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette and looking forlorn.
Smith saw the kid approaching:
Tommy, what the hell are you doing here?
TOMMY: I left home this morning. I just ran away.
SMITH: Well, we have something in common. I just left my wife and family. I got this truck with tons of stuff. I need somebody to help me move it into my loft here. I need somebody to build shelves and cabinets and organize everything. You need a job?
Tommy stayed in Smith’s loft for two years.
JOHNS JOINED A ROSTER of anonymous outcasts—jazz junkies, derelicts, hustlers, thieves, struggling dreamers —who found their way up the stairwell at 821 Sixth Avenue and into Smith’s myriad photographs and tapes. Smith scratched Tommy Johns or T. Johns on the labels of about twenty of his eventual 1,740 reels of tape, but the identity of Johns remained one of the lasting mysteries of the Jazz Loft Project. My colleague Dan Partridge, who has been listening to Smith’s tapes full time since 2003, learned to recognize Tommy’s occasional voice. There is no telling how many tapes we’ve heard in which Tommy is relaxing ten feet from the recorder, smoking a joint and drinking a Rheingold, silent, just taking in the scene.
The Social Security Death Index provided no indication that Tommy Johns was dead. We found several dozen people named Thomas or Tom or Tommy Johns that would have been about the right age, and we called them. None of them was the right guy. The words Tommy Johns became a euphemism for the various unanswerable questions and bizarre unknowns we carried forward in the project over the past decade.
Then, in October 2009, Pat Smith sent me an e-mail: “I found him.” Pat had connected with Tommy on Classmates.com. He was living in the Dominican Republic under the name Tamas Janda. I began corresponding with him immediately. He told me that the unidentified man getting a haircut on page 211 of the Jazz Loft Project book was him. He also told me Tamas Janda was his birth name, a fact he had learned from his mother’s official papers after she died in 1967.
Janda ended up in Florida working construction in the seventies. Then he hopped islands in the Caribbean, opening a few bars and restaurants. His No Bones Café in St. Croix was featured in Caribbean Travel & Leisure. Early last year, a friend offered cheap rent in a vacant mobile home in Orange City, Florida. So at age seventy, he moved again.
Last spring I drove down from North Carolina to visit Janda. He was waiting for me in his driveway when I pulled up. His white hair, mustache, and glasses set off his dark, suntanned skin and wrestler’s physique. The rain was about to start, so we shook hands and went inside. We sat down at the kitchen table, and over several beers and plates of spicy chicken and rice he told me his story, with thunder rumbling into my digital tape recorder and rain pelting the trailer.
I was born in 1940 three days after my parents passed through Ellis Island from Romania or Hungary or somewhere like that. They were gypsies running from Hitler, and, you know, true gypsies aren’t sure exactly where they're from. My mother was Bertha Lillian Klimko Janda. My father was Joseph Janda. They divorced when I was a baby, and my mother married Lee Roger Johns. He adopted me in 1944, and they changed my legal name to Thomas Michael Johns. That’s still my legal name, but I’ve been going by my birth name since 1967.
My mother drank too much, and she got into Terpin hydrate cough medicine with codeine. My stepfather was worse: he made eighty bucks a week and spent forty at bars and on cases of beer. They would fight all the time, sometimes with broken bottles and knives. The cops would come over. We had a coal stove, and that was our only heat; there was no insulation. You couldn’t have a glass of water beside the bed at night because it would freeze.
I had a lot of problems in high school because we were poor, my parents were drunks, and I wore thick glasses. I got bullied a lot. I was called “bookworm” and “four eyes.” I still have scars on my hands where bullies would burn me with cigarettes. When I was around fourteen I decided I wasn’t going to take any more shit. I started lifting weights and taking martial-arts classes. I went back and kicked the shit out of everybody who had ever bullied me or made fun of my family. Sometimes I didn’t win the first fight, so I had to go back a second or third time. But eventually I kicked the shit out of everybody.
When I was about ten years old my mother got into really bad shape. She was barely making it. I was the oldest of five kids, and I learned to cook on the coal stove. When I was a senior in high school, they let me go half a day, so I could work and feed my brothers and sisters.
After high school I knew I had to get out of there, but it was painful. I realized that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how hard I tried, there was really nothing I could do for my younger brothers and sisters, not with my parents there. It was a sad situation. So I took off.
I asked him why Smith let him stay in the loft for two years. Janda’s eyes watered. He took off his glasses, wiped his face, and took a sip of beer. “I was a hard ass motherfucker most of my life, but I’m really a softie.”
You have to remember that I was a real poor kid growing up in an environment that wasn’t particularly nice, and Gene knew that. He was a tremendously sensitive man. But he was also dead honest, honest to the point of pure pain. One thing he was honest about is that he was a poor husband and father—he didn’t fake it. But he was sincerely compassionate and empathetic. It’s almost as if there was an eye inside Gene that had to be filled. I don’t know how to explain it. Not many people are truly able to understand beauty and pain and ugliness. Most people don’t want to be reminded of their humanity, which is inherently painful and ugly. Gene sought that out.
He had a studio couch and a reclining chair, and that’s where I would crash. For my nineteenth birthday he gave me a Mamiya 35mm camera with a 55mm lens and a detachable magazine. I took pictures with it, and one day I took one of Gene standing in the loft—he had a Leica in his hand and his head was tilted. In the background you could see all the corkboards and foam boards with his work prints tacked to them. Gene’s cat, Pending, was in the background, too. He was an alley cat who took up living with Gene. People would ask, “What’s your cat’s name?” Gene would say, “His name is pending; I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
One day Gene said to me, “Tomorrow Eddie and Grace are coming by.” I didn’t know who he was talking about, but it was Edward Steichen and Grace Mayer from the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art. I think it was Steichen’s last year there before [John] Szarkowski took over. Gene encouraged me to show them some of my work. I’m a nineteen-year-old runaway nobody with only the clothes on my back and a camera Gene gave me, and here come these important folks from MoMA. I showed them some pictures and they wanted prints of my portrait of Gene. It might still be in the MoMA collection somewhere, but my prints and negatives are long gone.
Gene had a tremendous influence on me that I didn’t recognize at the time. He taught me honesty and integrity. If you believe in something, don’t let anybody turn you aside, and never feel bad about it. There’s no such thing as a mistake, and life’s not a dress rehearsal. I haven’t always been the perfect gentleman, but no one was ever able to tell me what to do.