If you’ve noticed the staff at Cafe Gitane on Mott Street over the past few years, Justyna is THAT girl. Yeah, the one you are thinking of. Beautiful, bright eyed, friendly in a sweet but strong kind of way. While her face is disarming, it’s the sharp look in her eye that hints at who she truly is. Originally from Poland, Justyna came to work in the US at 19 knowing little-to-no english. The girl is driven—big on taking responsibility for yourself, being disciplined (her word not ours), and paying her own way. So what happens when a fiercely independent young woman marries—no less to a public figure? Justyna married Albert Hammond, Jr. from The Strokes in 2014. In marriage it is easy to fear that your sense of self will become diluted; that two will really become one, just like the Spice Girls threatened. In Justyna’s case, it’s just the opposite.
“After graduating high school in Poland I wanted to do something different, so I came to America to be an au pair on Long Island. It was the most horrible year of my life. My english was really bad. My answer to everything was yes—part of the reason why I hated it so much. After returning to Poland I came back to NY a second time to study. I knew more english which helped. I met a guy, started living with him on Elizabeth St, and walked by this cafe on Mott St that looked busy. That was the start of my time at Gitane, which eventually became my second home—everyone there was like family. I started waitressing and hosting mornings and nights (in between school) to pay for bills, tuition, rent. My boyfriend at the time didn’t have money, so I paid for everything. Even so, I still managed to save and invest.
I’ve always been really good at saving money, and never understood the concept of living paycheck to paycheck.
If I couldn’t go out for dinner, or if I couldn’t buy this, or couldn’t do that—I just wouldn’t. I was very strict with myself and still am.
In December 2013, a friend of mine who knew Albert said there was a guy in the window who thought I was cute. I wasn’t interested. She said, he’s in this band you might have heard of. That’s a double no. A guy in a band who wants to sleep around with girls? No thanks. For the next month he continued to come by Gitane, but I wouldn’t give him my number. A month or so later we had a mutual friend’s birthday, and ended up talking for 3 hours straight. We met up the next night, and he was waiting for me with a book on eating for your blood type (page folded on mine), something we had talked about the night before. The next day he came by Gitane with an iPod that had a playlist of all his favorite songs. We made a date to meet again, but I had to text him and cancel. He replied saying it was the best day of his life, that he finally had my number! Ha. After a few months of seeing each other, it was either in or out. We were living together within a year, and he proposed over the phone while on tour. I thought he was just talking shit so I changed the subject.
The whole thing still scares me. I didn’t think I would marry, and neither did he. It happened fast, but this is the first relationship where I can truly be myself. He helps me see things in a completely new way, and I can feel myself growing as a person with him around. He’s helped me open up and talk about my feelings which I thought was a sign of weakness before—I’m usually very closed and guarded.
I’ve found that taking things day by day is the best
way to go.
I’m future oriented so this can be hard for me, but we balance each other out. For instance, Albert will want to spend a bunch of money on something random and I’ll be like, why don’t we save that money for something important? He doesn’t worry about things like I do. Sometimes he’ll make fun of me, and be like “thanks mom”. Which makes me mad, because he’ll end up thanking me a month later. Marriage doesn’t change the fact that you’re a human being—I still get approached by guys, and girls throw themselves at Albert right in front of me. It’s easy to get insecure and think that one day a beautiful young girl might come along… but you can’t think that way. We’re both really focused on enjoying each other in the here and now. We talk about starting a family, and all of the things we want to do, but we also make sure we’re having fun the moment—see how we’re feeling each day, you know?
After leaving Gitane I worked as the Operations Manager at Juice Press, but Albert suggested that I start to help manage his solo work. It’s been fascinating to learn all about his world. When we first met I wasn’t familiar with The Strokes, I only knew a few of their songs. They had a live show last summer which was so exciting for me—to see them all on stage, it was like hey they’re my friends! That’s my husband! I now do the lighting for all of Albert’s solo shows, and pick up tricks from Tobias, the lighting engineer for The Strokes. I’m a super curious person, and jumped into this whole scene wanting to help in any way I could. I was so used to the 7—7 work shift, the discipline needed for a creative lifestyle has been a real adjustment. I feel like now I have time to discover myself. Don’t get me wrong, there was a time when I wondered if I was becoming his extension. But I thought, you know what?
I’m young, and maybe this will lead to a new passion, a new skill, a new direction.
There are some people out there who can make you feel better about yourself. They have this energy that excites you, they make you feel happy and great, like you’re the best. And I feel like Albert has that ability. So sure, his thing is the main thing, but I’m learning and doing so much that I’ve never done before. It comes down to how you perceive your situation—it’s really dictated by how you feel inside. It’s a close game because it works both ways, and often it’s a lot easier to feel down on yourself, and you project that. But if you decide: I’m beautiful, smart, on top of the world, I can do whatever I want—that’s what everyone around you will see and think. Isn’t it amazing to have that opportunity?”
Photographed by Amy Woodside
As told to Amy Woodside, November 2014