Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 32297 views | 0 0 comments | 164 164 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Comeback Kid
by Nruhling
Dec 10, 2019 | 75 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Greg behind the wheel.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling



Greg Kritikos is pedaling his bicycle on 30th Avenue near 42nd Street.

This is the place he grew up in, and everything – the good and the bad, the things he can’t forget and the things he doesn’t want to remember – happened to him in this neighborhood, which he’s called home for most of the past half century.

Greg, a producer, stand-up comic and actor who has been compared to Jackie Gleason, is a larger-than-life lovable tough guy with slicked-back black hair and a diamond pinkie ring. His New York accent is as thick as cement shoes.

 If you are not acquainted with his work, you soon will be: He’s the co-writer, producer and star of the feature-length film Charlie Boy, which was shot on the streets of Astoria and will be playing in local theatres around Christmas time.

The movie, about a retired gangster who becomes a comedian to work through his grief over the killing of his son, is largely and loosely based on events in Greg’s life.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

You can see him in the film “Charlie Boy.”

Greg, who was born in Athens, Greece, arrived in Astoria with his parents and older sister when he was 7 years old.

“We came for the American dream, but it was more like the American nightmare,” he says.

Things went sideways right from the start.

 

Greg’s father, a professional soccer player, ended up opening a shoe-repair shop, and Greg, who didn’t know any English (“I once mixed up the word ‘beach’ with ‘bitch,’ as in ‘I went to the bitch’”) was ridiculed because his mother dressed him in the European style.

“With my sandals, white tube socks and shaved head, I stuck out,” he says, adding that his was the only Greek family in the Irish-Italian neighborhood. “It was the early 1970s when boys wore their hair long. I got picked on a lot, and I had a lot of fear. Kids started calling me Hamburger, a word I didn’t pronounce properly, but in my mind I wanted to tell them that someday I would be the Burger King.”

The family determined to stick it out for five years, but right before that self-imposed time limit was reached, Greg’s mother was hit by a drunken driver. Her leg was amputated above the knee.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Greg’s tough-guy face.

“The driver didn’t have insurance,” Greg says. “The medical bills were high, and we didn’t have the money to pay them.”

Greg became a member of The Steinway Street Boys, which was more of an association  than a gang although one of the members was deported and became the John Gotti of Greece.

He pulls up a photo of the boys on his smartphone; all are ominously clad in black leather.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Greg was born in Athens.

“Hey, it was the Eighties – everyone was wearing leather,” he says.

By the time he was 17, Greg had dropped out of high school to work in his brother-in-law’s Manhattan deli. He started drinking at 18 and began using coke at 23.

The drug trade was his main occupation, and by the time he was 25, Greg was doing six months in Rikers for assault and narcotics trafficking, charges lodged during a sting operation he got caught up in.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Greg’s an actor, comedian and movie producer.

While he was on the inside, he was attacked by three inmates whose intent was murder.

“One had an ice pick, one had a razor and one had a Master Lock tied up in a tube sock,” he says. “They sliced my ear, and I lost one tooth.”

Greg dramatically pulls back his left ear to reveal the wound.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s a happy fella.

“I never told my mom I was in prison,” he says. “She thought I was working with the Merchant Marines.”

At any rate, when Greg was released, he didn’t change his habits, he escalated them, hustling and using coke and pot and drinking a lot.

“Prison enhanced my reputation in the neighborhood,” he says. “The people who picked on me, let’s just say I returned the favor, and I hurt a couple of people’s ‘feelings.’”

 

Eventually, he got a job as the director of security for a Greek developer, got married and had a son, who is now 24.

By 2000, Greg’s life, by his own admission and fault, was pretty much a mess.

“I hit rock bottom,” he says. “I was like a boat with broken sails. My wife and I separated (we are happily divorced now), I blew up to 385 pounds. I was drinking a bottle of Dewar’s every night and smoking coke and cigarettes. I developed a lot of problems – I was depressed, I had sleep apnea, high cholesterol and diabetes, but God kept me alive.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Greg spent six months in Rikers.

It took him nearly a decade to get his life back in order. After spending seven days detoxing in a hospital plus nearly four months at Phoenix House, Greg was ready to face the world head-on and head-clear again.

“I make it a point to give back – I give anti-addiction speeches at detox and rehab centers and prisons,” he says, adding that he was proud to recently give a talk to students at Lake Erie College in Ohio.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Greg’s been sober for eight years.

Ironically, he found his new life while sitting on a barstool.

“I met a bartender at Cronin’s who thought I was a funny guy,” he says, adding that he continued to frequent drinking establishments after his recovery but didn’t imbibe alcohol. “She got me booked at the New York Comedy Club.”

Greg’s six-minute stint was a success.

“I wore a hat and sunglasses because I didn’t want anyone to recognize me,” he says. “I just said random things, and people laughed.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Greg pointing out his old haunts on 30th Avenue.

He ditched his disguise and became a punch-line factory.

“After I got sober, I briefly moved to Spokane, Washington, which is where my comedy career took off,” he says. “I wasn’t going to come back to New York, but a part in a movie, plus free air fare to the city, lured me.”

Today, Greg’s a regular on the comedy circuit – his third one-man show, Sober Is the New High, typically sells out.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s working on his next film, “The Shoemaker’s Son.”

The Witless Protection Program, an animated series he developed with former Marvel Comics editor Mike Rockwitz, will be released next year.

Greg says Charlie Boy has opened new doors for him. He’s already writing another feature film, The Shoemaker’s Son, which is a semi-autobiographical account of immigrant life in Queens that he’ll have a cameo role in.

As part of his research, Greg made a mammoth 42-day trip to Greece for the first time since he came to America.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

How Greg’s feeling right now.

“I did a lot of soul searching, and it wasn’t easy,” he says. “I wasn’t with family, and I was all alone. It was an incredible experience, and the people in the islands were very genuine.”

Conceding that his real life reads like the improbable plot of a B movie, Greg says that he hopes his experiences help others make positive changes.

“Everybody has an opportunity,” he says. “I’m 56, but I have so much energy that I feel like I’m 15. I’ve been through so many things. I’m grateful every day that I’m alive.”

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Driver of the Bright Blue Bus
by Nruhling
Dec 03, 2019 | 265 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annalisa is the founder of The Blue Bus Project.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


The bright blue school bus lumbers down Ditmars Boulevard like an old elephant, treading slow and steady.

When it reaches Astoria Park, it eases itself into an ample parking place by the water.

The doors open, and the unconventional driver of this unconventional vehicle steps into the sunlight, smiling.

Annalisa Iadicicco is an artist, and the bus is what she calls her “living and breathing mobile art gallery.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The blue bus is an art-mobile.

The Blue Bus Project, which brings art to New York City’s underprivileged communities, is her biggest and most public production.

Annalisa, who is from Italy, spent the first decade of her life in the village of Bellona outside Naples. When her father moved to New York City for work, her mother moved Annalisa and her older sister to the city of Anzio, which is near Rome.

Up until that moment, Annalisa thought she was going to be a dancer.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The blue bus — closed, come right in.

“I was a little ballerina, but I stopped when we relocated,” says Annalisa. “I had to restart my life – it was difficult.”

Although she had always been creative and clever – she made her own outfits – it wasn’t until she moved to New York City, a decade later, that she honed her artistic talent.

“My parents had a lot of friends who were artists, and they collected their paintings,” she says. “So I was exposed to art even though I wasn’t doing it.”

After high school, she joined her father in Greenwich Village.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annalisa, an artist, is from Italy.

“I fell in love with it at first sight,” she says.

She focused her newly eager eyes on photography, taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the International Center of Photography.

“I was attracted to pieces of rusted metal I found in the street,” she says. “I felt they described who I was. I also went back to my roots – to Bellona, where I took photos of farms and animals. I combined my photos with the metals and found objects.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Legs that have lost their way.

For several years, she worked in the film industry as a location scout but shortly after 9/11 decided to focus exclusively on her art. She does freelance photography projects and has a steady job teaching art in after-school classes.

“I can’t just do one thing,” she says. “I get bored.”

In 2016, as part of her quest never to be bored, Annalisa decided she wanted to make her art more accessible to people.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The bus had been parked on Annalisa’s block.

She didn’t know how she was going to do that, but when she saw the blue bus parked by her house, she couldn’t get it out of her mind.

As she biked by it day after day, she realized that it would be a wonderful vehicle for carrying out her plan.

So she put a note on its windshield that said, “If you are selling the bus, give me a call.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The art happens inside and outside the blue bus.

Nine months and $2,500 later, The Blue Bus Project was born.

The 1997 blue bus, which is painted red inside and has beaded bamboo curtains at its windows, is funky, fun and politically on pointe.

The side stop sign on the exterior, an Annalisa art piece, is encircled by images of black revolvers. The other signs – “Come In, We’re Closed” and “No Under-Standing Any Time” — also throw conventional wisdom under the bus.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The bus is a venue for artful political statements.

When it’s parked, a sunglasses-wearing mannequin steps into the driver’s seat; she may or may  not be the owner of the jeans-clad legs lounging in the back.

There’s a fabric and feathered rooster roosting on the front windshield, and a paper fish is swimming over the driver’s shoulder.

The blue bus is a cranky contraption; it has introduced Annalisa to numerous mechanics. Up until recently, it had been plagued with massive rust spots.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annalisa’s other driver.

Its latest difficulty: The heater caught a cold the minute the weather got chill.

Annalisa, whose venture is financed by grants and commissions, has driven the bus to a variety of venues, including the Museum of the Moving Image and Socrates Sculpture Park, holding free public participatory programs and workshops ranging from dance performances to art exhibitions.

Working with other artists, she’s taught people the value of recycling by having them decorate a papier-mâché tree with flowers they created from found objects. And she has deepened the appreciation of music by having people create sounds using everyday objects then turning them into recorded tunes.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annalisa is hoping to get a fleet of art buses.

“Every time I do these projects and see how joyful they make people, it brings tears to my eyes,” she says.

Annalisa sees the blue bus as a driver of art and community engagement.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Read the sign!

“It has the power to bring people – the public, artists and educators — together,” she says.

Someday, Annalisa would like to have a fleet of blue buses if not all over the country then at least all over New York City.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

On her way …

“I’ll keep driving until it happens,” she says.

She positions herself behind the steering wheel and holds her breath as she turns the key in the ignition.

Will it start up this time?

After several seconds of silence, the engine leaps to life.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at NRuhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Guys Who Press for Success
by Nruhling
Nov 26, 2019 | 423 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Whiz French Cleaners is at 37-02 31st Ave.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


A guy in a baseball cap, oversized eyeglasses and a perfectly trimmed red beard drops a dozen dress shirts on the counter of Whiz French Cleaners on 31stAvenue.

He’s a regular customer, and when Peter Tummolo steps up to help him, the bearded guy asks him about his SUV, which is parked outside the shop.

“You and your brother have the same car,” he says as a looks at the grey Chevy Equinox. “You must really like it.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Peter started at Whiz when he was a kid.

Peter says that it’s new and that he and his older brother, Salvatore, who drives a blue one, are indeed pleased with the performance of their purchases.

When the bearded guy says he’s interested in buying one soon, Peter offers to put him in touch with the dealer he and Salvatore worked with.

“When you pick up the shirts, I’ll give you his info,” Peter says as he bundles up the garments and places them in the clothes hamper.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s spent his entire career in the family business.

Peter and Salvatore are the owners of Whiz, which has a cleaning plant on 30th Avenue and a drop-off branch nearby on 31st Avenue.

They switch off between stores every other day, pulling six-day stints, which is why the bearded guy with the shirts is so knowledgeable about them and their SUVs.

Whiz was started in 1956, before Peter was born and around the time Salvatore was in diapers.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Whiz does everything in-house.

Their father, Michael, bought it in 1967, and the brothers started working there full time as soon as they graduated from high school.

Michael came to America from Potenza, Italy. A machinist, he worked in a restaurant on the weekends.

“He saw that you could make a lot of money from restaurants, so he bought one when he was 25,” Peter says, adding that he served as the chef there for eight years.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Every other day, Peter works at the plant at 32-10 30th Ave.

Michael got the idea to open a dry cleaners from his mother, who was a talented tailor.

“He went to get a haircut at an Italian barber and saw an ad in an Italian paper saying the dry cleaners was for sale,” Peter said. “He had settled in Lynbrook, Long Island, which is where Salvatore and I grew up.”



Michael had no connection to Astoria and didn’t know anything about the area but figured the shop, at 32-10 30th Ave., would be profitable because it was close to a subway stop and there was a lot of foot traffic.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael bought the business in 1967 and brought his sons in.

Besides which, his mother would help out – she was to be the tailor. So he invested his $15,000 and got to work making Whiz a success.

Michael worked many hours, probably far too many, and introduced his sons to the business when they were in elementary school.

“I couldn’t wait for Saturdays to come around so I could spend time with my father at the store,” Peter says. “I used to take care of the customers.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sometimes, Peter contemplates retiring.

When Salvatore, who is four years older than Peter, started working at Whiz full time, Michael opened a second store in 1976.

When Peter joined the team, Michael added store No. 3, at 37-02 31st Ave.

“My father wanted each of us to have one,” Peter says, adding that he and Salvatore completed courses at a dry cleaning school.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Peter chatting with a customer.

In 1990, when Michael died – far too young at age 56 – Peter and Salvatore sold the store he had been manning.

“Salvatore and I always knew we would be working here,” Peter says. “We’ve never worked for anyone else. I can’t imagine what that would be like.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The hampers waiting to be filled.

The industry has undergone numerous changes through the decades, and Whiz has always kept ahead of the cleaning curve. Next year, it will become an organic operation.

“With our set-up, we do everything on-site ourselves,” Peter says, adding that the business will be rechristened Whiz Organic Cleaners. “We do it the right way – we inspect everything, and our machines are up to date.”

Sometimes, Peter, who is 58, and Salvatore, who is 62, think about retiring, but they really don’t know how they’d fill their time if they stayed away from Whiz.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

In the beginning, Peter’s grandmother was Whiz’s tailor.

Peter mentions that he recently bought a house in Jupiter, Florida. He thinks he may start splitting his time between the two states, but he hasn’t set a date for such a major move.

“Our children have their own careers, and none of them want to take Whiz over, so we’d have to sell it,” Peter says. “All we know is that when we leave, we will leave together.”

The idea of Whiz changing hands doesn’t really bother him.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Tummolos have been cleaning clothes for 52 years.

“Everything in life has a beginning and an end,” he says and shrugs, adding that “we want to sell it to the right person so it keeps going.”

A customer comes in to pick up a jacket. She inspects its sleeve and exclaims, “Oh, you were able to get the stain out!”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The stain is gone!

Peter, as satisfied as she, smiles.



“My father would be very proud that we kept the business alive all these years,” he says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Yes, it is!

On the wall by the cash register, there’s a laminated newspaper ad the family took out to memorialize Michael’s 86th birthday. Peter and Salvatore see it every time they ring up a sale.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Brothers at Sac's Place
by Nruhling
Nov 19, 2019 | 351 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Domenico co-owns Sac’s Place.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


At Sac’s Place, Domenico Sacramoneis sipping a cup of coffee at the bar and going through last night’s receipts when his brother, Anthony, comes in.

Anthony, who is older by a decade and shorter by a half foot, didn’t leave the Italian restaurant/bar they’ve owned for three decades until nearly 2 in the morning. It’s barely 10 a.m., which means that he’s only had a couple hours sleep.

But it doesn’t matter. He’s glad to be here.

Up until September, when Sac’s Place moved to its new location at Kaufman Astoria Studios, Domenico and Anthony pretty much had their routines down pat.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony left a career in finance to open Sac’s Place.

Which means that they are used to working hard. But during the months-long transition, they have been going non-stop, their 10- to 12-hour days tumbling one into the other like clothes in a dryer.

“We haven’t had a day off yet,” Anthony says, not a trace of weariness in his voice.

Domenico, a tall man whose bright blue eyes remain undimmed by exhaustion, adds that “it’s been rough.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sac’s Place’s new place is at Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Sac’s Place is an old-school Italian restaurant. Its homemade, farm-to-table, cook-to-order dishes range from pasta and pizza to Veal Domenico and Veal Antonio (named, of course, for the brothers). Its fresh vegetables come from a farm in Pennsylvania that Domenico and Anthony visit once or twice a week.

Sac’s Place is famous for, among other things, its fried Italian artichokes and its annual outdoor pig roasts (2019’s final one is Nov. 21).

“In Abruzzo, the little-known region of Italy where our family is from, the pig roasts celebrate the bounty of the harvest,” Anthony says. “I do the roasting under a tent while people mingle and eat antipasto and mini-sausages. Then we move inside for the feast.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

What do you want to order?

Sac’s Place’s recipes are from Domenico’s and Anthony’s mother, Maddalena, who worked with them every day up until her death in April at age 94 and a half.

“She came here to make sure we didn’t screw up,” Anthony says.

To hear Anthony and Domenico tell it, Maddalena, who arrived in America in 1955 and gave birth to her three sons in Astoria, was one of the best cooks in the tiny town of Orsogna.

“I have a distinct memory of her teaching me to cook when I was 5 or 6,” Domenico says. “I had been playing outside and came in early. She was making meatballs and tomato sauce and a lamb shoulder. I watched her and picked up everything.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony is in charge of roasting the pigs.

She taught him to make pasta – the secret is in how the dough feels in your fingers – and told him to trust his tongue.

“Her cooking was not an exact science,” he says. “On tomato sauce, she told me to make it any way I wanted the first time and then figure out how it should be changed to taste perfect.”

Anthony, too, learned his way around the kitchen at an early age.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

They started Sac’s Place 30 years ago.

“I always wanted to open a restaurant, and I dragged this poor guy into it with me,” he says, pointing to Domenico. “Every time I ate at restaurants, the food was so-so, and I kept saying that I could do it better.”

He had, in fact, said it so many times that the woman who became his wife got so fed up with his boasts that she made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“She told me to quit my career in finance and open a restaurant and she would support me for six months,” he says.

So he and Domenico made the plunge, opening a pizzeria in a small space at 29th Street and Broadway in 1989.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony’s mother taught him to cook.

“We spent a lot of time experimenting with the sauce recipe,” Domenico says. “And Anthony and I did everything – we were cooks, electricians, plumbers, handymen, pizza makers and bookkeepers.”

Their efforts won them a lot of customers, many of whom have been devoted diners for 30 years.

So it was quite a shock when Sac’s Place lost its lease and closed for three months to complete its move. (Just in case things didn’t work out, they opened a Sac’s Place pizzeria in Jackson Heights; it’s run by Anthony’s oldest son, Rocco.)



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Domenico was 5 or 6 when his mother invited him into the kitchen.

“We had one customer who was dying and came knocking on the door to buy one final slice of pizza,” Anthony says. “It was very sad – we were in the middle of moving; I had to tell him we couldn’t serve him.”

Sac’s Place has set up its new shop in the old Paramount Pictures commissary at Kaufman Astoria Studios.

In the olden golden days of the silver screen, stars like Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Bebe Daniels and the Marx Brothers dined there between takes.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

How about a slice?

Anthony points out a poster-size vintage black-and-white photo over one of the tables in the private dining room that shows them, frozen in time, at lunch.

He sets a hot-from-the-oven Mama’s Old Fashioned pizza on the table.

As the slices disappear, he notes that the true test of a great pie lies with the temperature.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Domenico and Anthony invite you to dine at Sac’s Place.

“You should want to eat it cold the next morning,” he says.

Domenico and Anthony are looking forward to welcoming all of their old and new customers to Sac’s Place.

“It gives me great pleasure watching people eat dishes my mother taught us to make,” Anthony says.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Happy Household
by Nruhling
Nov 12, 2019 | 457 views | 0 0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Katrina, Homer and Tiffany.


Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


At the entrance to the basement apartment, there’s a sign that proclaims, in all-capital letters, “LOVE LIVES HERE.”

And so do Tiffany Hopkins and Katrina Olson and their cats, 9-year-old Homer and 13-year-old Thursday.

In this happy house, homemade biscuits are baking as Tiffany and Katrina set the breakfast table.

Their careers keep them busy and sometimes apart, so they do everything together, including the cooking and baking.

Homer, who, when he feels like it also answers to the nickname Bear, wanders into the living room for a treat. He’s been blind since the women rescued him from the street when he was a kitten.

It’s a lively household. The women chat – about big and small things. Tiffany possesses an infectious laugh that she lets loose liberally. It always makes Katrina crack up, too.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tiffany has lived in a lot of places.

Tiffany and Katrina, who celebrated their love with a formal wedding in 2011, have been together since they met as college students nearly two decades ago.

Their won their complimentary ceremony in a contest that marked the passage of New York State’s Marriage Equality Act and were one of 24 couples who exchanged vows as a group in Central Park courtesy of The Knot.

“I had signed up, so they notified me that we won,” Katrina says. “I called up Tiffany and asked her whether she wanted to get married in two weeks.”

And Tiffany said: “Oh my God, are you proposing?”

They both said yes, a fact commemorated in their bedroom by a pair of pillows, each of which proudly bears the honorific “Mrs.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Katrina lived in Budapest as a child.

It was their Texas ties and love of theater, among other commonalities, that made Tiffany and Katrina fall for each other even though they are separated by eight years.

Tiffany, who was born in Hillsboro, Texas, moved around a lot because her father had a career in the Army. She lived in Germany for a few years, returning to Hillsboro to attend the same community college her parents had gone to.

She chose to major in theater because the school offered her a scholarship in honor of her parents who had been in the program. After graduating, she transferred to Texas A&M University. She stopped her studies when she was offered a full-time job as a props runner at Yale Repertory Theatre.

After eight years there, she decided to return to school, subsequently earning a bachelor’s degree in media production and a master’s in journalism from Quinnipiac University.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tiffany has an infectious laugh.

Katrina, meanwhile, was pursuing a path that also would lead her to Yale.

Born in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is 170 miles north of Tiffany’s birthplace, Katrina lived in Budapest, Hungary for five years of her childhood when her parents worked for the U.S. Embassy there.

She fell in love with the stage when, at age 6, she saw a community theater production of “Annie.”

“I also saw a lot of plays in Budapest,” she says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Katrina has a master’s degree from Yale.

She studied theater at the University of North Texas and spent a study-abroad year in Glasgow, Scotland. She landed a stage management job with the Houston Grand Opera, where she worked until she went to the Yale School of Drama to earn her master’s degree.

By the time Katrina arrived there, Tiffany had already left to complete her own degrees and was producing videos for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven.

“But all my friends were still at Yale, so I kept going back to see them,” Tiffany says, adding that Katrina soon became one of them.

After dating for a while, Tiffany and Katrina moved in together.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Katrina works for the Pop Culture Collaborative.

When Katrina finished her studies, she took a job with the Public Theater, and as Tiffany says with a big smile, “dragged us to New York City.”

For a year, they commuted between cities then moved to Astoria in 2008.

Katrina recently became the senior events manager for the Pop Culture Collaborative in Manhattan, while Tiffany remains the multi-media producer for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven.

Sometimes, they work remotely.

They’ve spent a lot of time turning their apartment into a cozy home. From the mason-jar pendant light over the living room table to the cube-shaped dresser in the bedroom, which includes a ground-level cat door, virtually everything is hand-made.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tiffany’s with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

“Tiffany is super-handy,” Katrina says.

And every item has personal significance.

Right above the “LOVE LIVES HERE” sign, there are two oil paintings whose fancy gold frames kiss like lovers. One is of Tiffany’s childhood home; the other is the house Katrina grew up in.

Below it, there is a wooden sign that adds “always & forever.”

Tiffany and Katrina love their lives together. They enjoy each other’s company so much that they can’t complete a conversation without smiling and laughing.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Katrina and Tiffany: So happy together.

It would be nice, they decide, to make jam to spread on their homemade biscuits.

“I’ve always wanted to try to do it,” Tiffany says.

“We should go berry picking,” Katrina says.

“We could pick blueberries in New Haven,” Tiffany says.

“We should put it on the calendar for the next weekend,” Katrina says.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by NancyA. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Canine Crew
by Nruhling
Nov 05, 2019 | 519 views | 0 0 comments | 57 57 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Bandit, Miro and Raffi greet each other.


Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s play time!

Miro, a 2-year-old Australian Shepherd/hound mix who has a dash of blue in one eye, can’t wait for his pals to arrive at the new dog run.

He keeps looking up at his human: “Where are they? Are they here yet? Can I have a treat — or two or three — until they get here? Please, please, please?”

Before many treat-less dog seconds pass, Bandit, a 2-year-old Siberian Husky with big blue eyes, barges in with his human in tow.



Straining against his leash, he’s like a bull in a China shop – he wants to run, run, run and have lots of fun.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The dogs supervising their humans.

He’s followed by Bruce, a 1-and-a-half-year-old coffee-colored dog whose pedigree is that he’s a non-pedigree, what his human calls a mutt.

Technically, Bruce is a retriever mix, but judging by his exuberant Jack Russell-style jumping, it’s quite possible that he may have some terrier relatives.

Raffi, a mellow 6-year-old Golden Retriever with a smile and swishing tall, completes the Saturday-morning canine quartet.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Bandit and Bruce go full throttle.

These four have been meeting each other since the spring, when the dog run at Triborough Bridge Playground C, on Hoyt Avenue South between 23rd and 24th Streets, finally opened after significant delays.

The concrete run, which is under the bridge overpass, is enclosed, prison-like, by a 6-foot-high black chain-link fence and is divided into spaces for large and small breeds.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Bruce and Raffi play ball.

The noise of the cars on Hoyt and the vehicles overhead fail to drown out the barks and bow-wows that amplify and echo through the run’s overhead arches.

Unlike its puppy patrons, the run doesn’t have a designated name.

It’s shaped like a dog bone, a design that was designed to impress humans, not the pups who play in it.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s mine!

The run, which covers a half acre, cost $1 million, which none of the dogs in this story wanted to be quoted about, at least not for publication.

They do, however, have decided opinions about the bright-blue fire hydrants and the drinking fountains.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Xena, the warrior princess.

Their most common comment: They are convenient.

Before the day’s play commences, sniffs are exchanged.

Then balls are rolled, and the pack races around the run like thoroughbreds at Preakness.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Rocco plays it cool.

The dogs pair off. They wrestle. They play tag.

They get into friendly dog fights. (Bandit had to have a couple of time-outs, which didn’t seem to bother him.)



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Bandit is benched.

They scale the concrete embankments, they jump on and off the blue park benches where humans are supposed to sit, and they run around in circles as the cars on Hoyt Avenue South circle them.

While the pack is playing, the humans are otherwise engaged.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Bruce in the center of things.

They sip coffee, check smartphones and chat, mostly about their fur babies.

It’s unclear whether they even know the first names of their dog-run friends.

Here, they are mere props for their pups. Who they are and what they do are unimportant. Even if I told you, you wouldn’t remember.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The elegant Penny Lane.

But the dogs, ah, you’ll never forget their wagging tails and innocent eyes.

Penny Lane, the latest newcomer, is, fittingly, named after the Beatles song. She’s a King Charles Spaniel, the breed of British royalty since the 16th century.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Miro was one of the first to arrive.

At 6, she’s one of the older pups in the place.

She made her grand entrance with Rue, a 1-and-a-half-year-old Vizsla mix who looks a lot like Bruce.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Hugo Durand acts as dog toy.

Rocco, a 4-year-old black Labrador/boxer mix, decides to spend some quality time at the water bowl.

Like several of the others, he’s already been to Astoria Park, so he’s here to socialize rather than exercise.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A final sprint.

Xena, a little black dog named after TV’s warrior princess, is the next to join the pack.

“We recently started watching the series again, and I have to admit that it was a pretty silly show,” her human says somewhat sheepishly.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Pearl smiling.

She’s 4, and she’s a mix — of something, something, something. Oh, it doesn’t matter. She’s really, really, really cute.

There’s a stir as teeny-tiny Pearl, a black Pomeranian who looks like a powder puff, enters the run.

She spends her time vacuuming the ground for crumbs, a habit that has led to more than one trip to the ER.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The end of one party, the beginning of another.

After an hour or so, the dogs, tongues hanging to the ground, round up their humans.

The gate opens. One dog goes out. One dog comes in.

And the next party begins.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at NRuhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Kong-tastic Couple
by Nruhling
Oct 29, 2019 | 536 views | 0 0 comments | 46 46 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Surprise! It’s Ella.


Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

What a Kong-tastic day!

Powell  “Chuck E. Baby” Leonard and Ella “Miz E with a Z” Louise Smith are standing on the sidewalk goofing off.

They’re cracking each other up with funny, frightening and frightened faces. And throwing punch lines like boxers in a ring.

He’s wearing an orange hat and jacket; she’s clad in an electrifying orange and yellow Hawaiian-style shirt.

At the same time, they realize they are dressed in matching colors. That really tickles them.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Powell’s Ella’s other half — of the act.

It reminds them of the time they were each wearing the same T-shirt shirt; they didn’t even notice until a store clerk pointed it out.

This time is wasn’t planned either. They’ve been together a quarter-century. These sartorial syncs are spontaneous.

Suddenly, Powell and Ella break into dance with a sidewalk shuffle.

They move together until Powell moves in on Ella, planting a polite kiss on her ruby lips.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Being funny together.

Halloween’s just around the corner, but Powell and Ella, the producers of the web series The Kong Show on TV! and its live sister act, The Kong Show, don’t need any excuse to dress up in character or to clown around.

They created the series, whose episodes are mashups of King Kong horror flicks, The Gong Show and the old Muppets shows, so they could have fun being funny like this all the time.

Like The Gong Show, their productions feature real acts, but Powell and Ella’s TV version adds a fictional TV station and a subplot, creating a show within a show to keep the laugh lines flowing. (The next live show is Nov. 11.)



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Powell as Chuck E. Baby.

Powell tips his pumpkin-color fedora rakishly over his eyes and juts his thumbs toward the sky, becoming Chuck E. Baby, aka Gong Show creator Chuck Barris.

Ella, not to be outdone, throws her arms out to her sides as if embracing the world and pops her eyes wide.

Powell and Ella – put them together and – kaboom! – you get Powella, which is what they named their production company.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ella strikes a counterpose.

Powell, who has a long silver-gold ponytail, and Ella, who has a silky smooth voice and a smile as wide as the sun, started out as solo acts.

Powell, an only child, was born in Orlando, Florida a fairly long time ago.

After spending a short time in Germany, he and his family moved to Syracuse, New York, where Powell spent most of his time planted on the living room couch watching cartoons.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Kong Show on TV,’ a video series.

“I can still recite bits of dialogue from them,” he says.

After earning a degree in art from The College at Brockport, SUNY, he studied dance at Arizona State University.

“I came to New York to dance 40 years and 40 pounds ago,” he says, adding that he quickly discovered that he could get more work acting than dancing. “I can move, but I’m not Baryshnikov.”

 

Ella says that if you think he’s good on the sidewalk, you should be in his arms when he’s on the dance floor.

Powell did a lot of fun things – he picked up acting jobs, played in a jazz quartet and was the model for one of the founding fathers in Philadelphia’s Signers’ Hall.

“They cast my body in plaster,” he says. “Then they added the head of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. I don’t know which one.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Powell, the man with the rubber face.

After several years, Powell took a job with the city, fitting his creative life around his full-time work schedule.

On the other side of the country, Ella was perfecting her act in Denver, Colorado.  The fourth of five children, she spent her youth performing in her living room.

“My father was a poet,” she says. “We always stood up and read his poems to guests.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Powell in default mode.

She also did commercials and voiceovers for the Girls Scouts when she was in a troop.

Ella, who has done modeling, thought that perhaps she would be a chef – “but I was told women couldn’t do that” – or, like Powell, a dancer.

She came East to go to Hunter College, where she studied drama theory.

No, Powell reminds her, it was UCLA (the University on the Corner of Lexington Avenue).



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The ever-smiling Ella.

She giggles.

By the time Powell met Ella, she was a teacher and freelance writer, primarily helping nonprofits apply for grants.

Their initial encounter is one of Ella’s favorite stories.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Now, that’s really funny!

They each had been invited to the same birthday party. Paul was a blind-blind date for the celebrant.

“I had no idea I was a blind date for anyone,” he says.

Ella had no idea that Powell was a “party favor” who was supposed to fall for her friend; she still feels a little guilty – just a little – about how things turned out.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The sidewalk shuffle.

At any rate, Ella brought a bucket of fried chicken to the party not knowing that it was a really fancy bash where all the edibles were, as she recalls, “little things on crackers.”

When the host put her chicken out of sight in the kitchen (Ella confesses that it wasn’t even KFC – it was from McDonald’s), that’s where Ella went to eat it.

When Powell found out there was real food in the kitchen, that’s where he went to eat it.

It was, they recall, grinning, love at first bite.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The sidewalk smooch.

It was Powell’s “weird comedic streak” that Ella found so appetizing.

Powell claims that, for him and his stomach, the chicken sealed the deal.

At any rate, Powell and Ella dated for five years then moved in together.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Dancing in the streets.

For the record, Powell kept asking Ella to marry him, and for the record, she kept emphatically refusing.

“I was a modern woman,” she says somewhat defensively. “I was never going to be bound to any man.”

But years of nagging – and an attractive actress who tried to snatch Powell away – changed her mind.



“I fought her off,” Ella says proudly.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Powell wants to entertain you.

Powell adds, “The pastor at our church was rooting for me, and when Ella filled out the paperwork, he literally ran the three block to the mailbox – and he was overweight – so she couldn’t change her mind.”

Ella smiles; in 15 years, Powell’s never given her a single reason to change her mind.

They exchanged vows at City Hall and spent the reception at a Manhattan beer fest.

“We like to say that we had a wedding party of three and a reception for 500,” Powell says.  “I told all the vendors my wedding ring was brand new. I got lots of bottles of beer for free.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

So does Ella.

They came up with the live Kong Show 10 years ago and added the videos more recently.

All kidding aside, they hope their Kong shows are picked up by network TV or a streaming service.

Ella reminds Powell that they do, indeed, have a Kong-tastic lead.

They know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who might want to do it.

Oh, yeah, that guy, Powell says.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Immigrant's Daughter
by Nruhling
Oct 22, 2019 | 480 views | 0 0 comments | 61 61 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Catherine is the author of “Immigrant Daughter.”


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


When Catherine Kapphahnwas a little girl, she sensed that there were things her mother wasn’t telling her.

What she knew was that her mother was from the former Yugoslavia and that she did things that other mothers didn’t — she took dancing lessons, she took miles-long walks around the neighborhood and she felt her friends’ pain as intensely as if  it were her own.



And, sometimes, in the middle of the night, she sobbed.



“Every time I asked her about these crying episodes, she was never able to put it into words,” Catherine says.  “But she left me clues that finally, three decades after her death, I have been able to put together to put her story into words for her.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Radek is 13.

Catherine’s words are in her newly published memoir, Immigrant Daughter, which tells the story of how she uncovered her mother’s surprising past and in the process found out fundamental truths about her own life.

“It was a painful, wonderful journey,” Catherine says, adding that although her mother “wasn’t able to give me her past, she was able to support everything I wanted to be. I hope Immigrant Daughter helps people find resilience.”

The book, Catherine’s first, took more than 20 years to complete and another 13 years to get published.

Immigrant Daughter won The Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award and was shortlisted for the Del Sol Press Prize. Its cover features a photo Catherine’s father took of her and her mother when the trio made their only trip to the former Yugoslavia together. Catherine was about 7 at the time.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Immigrant Daughter” tells the story of Catherine’s mother.

Catherine started it when she was in her early 20s, right after her mother died, but its origins really begin with her own birth.

Catherine, an only child, came into this world when her parents were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For the most part, though, she grew up in Colorado.

The family moved a lot, putting down shallow roots not only in Colorado but also in Lima, Peru, Singapore, Jakarta and Alaska and a slew of other places Catherine barely remembers. They were an exceedingly close family perhaps in part because of all the relocations.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Radek reading “Immigrant Daughter.”

“I had been in 12 different schools by the time I graduated from high school,” she says.

No matter where Catherine was, though, she found school work hard.

“I couldn’t do math – I still can’t – and I always struggled to read and write,” she says, adding that despite her difficulties she majored in writing in college. “And I always worked twice as hard just to keep up with everyone else; to work so hard and not have it translate to the world is frustrating. It wasn’t until I was finishing graduate school when I was in my 30s that I was diagnosed with dyslexia.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Catherine with her younger son, Rafa.

When Catherine was 20, she moved to New York City to study dance and acting, and that’s very well what she might have been doing now had her mother not been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

She left her new life behind to care for her dying mother.

“My mother never talked about her life, and her death cut me off from her,” Catherine says. “I didn’t know her family or her history. I didn’t know my grandparents’ names or the village they were from, and I didn’t know how to speak Croatian, but my dad, who was not an immigrant, was able to fill in some of the gaps. Part of my grieving process was to resurrect those relatives I never knew.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Catherine spent 20 years writing “Immigrant Daughter.”

When Catherine returned to New York City, she enrolled in Hunter College, where she took a memoir-writing class while majoring in English. One of the key chapters in Immigrant Daughter was written as an assignment.

“This class was a profound experience,” she says. “My professor believed I had a story to tell. My writing opened a door to entering my mother’s history in a different kind of way.”

After earning a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, Catherine became an adjunct lecturer at Lehman College, where she teaches writing.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Catherine made research trips to the former Yugoslavia while writing the book.

She moved forward – with her life and with her book. She made trips to the former Yugoslavia, once with her father and once alone; got married; had two sons (Radek is 13, Rafa is 7, and they have long hair like their mother); and settled in Astoria in 2005.

“It took me 13 years to get it published,” she says, adding that she camped out at New York City Bagel & Coffee House on 23rd Avenue at 31st Street for her final text-revising sessions this year. “But I’m very grateful that it didn’t get published when I wanted it to because in the last five years, changes have happened in the book.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Catherine reads chapters aloud to Rafa.

Sometimes, Catherine still can’t believe Immigrant Daughteris being read by people around the world.

“I had no idea I could do this,” she says. “If you told me 20 years ago that I would write a book, I would have laughed. I may not be a traditional writer but because of my dyslexia, I have a very visual brain that makes interconnections. I don’t think anyone else could write this book but me.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Catherine teaches writing at Lehman.

She hopes it helps people understand the immigrant experience.

“Immigrating is traumatic and filled with loss,” she says. “It’s a huge step for any family or person. I hope the book makes people understand how complicated it is.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Rafa is 7.

Immigrant Daughter has resonated with readers.

“A few people have reached out to share their losses as young women whose mothers died of ovarian cancer,” she says. “Someone shared their experience in Germany in the early 1990s, meeting Bosnians and Croatians who were fleeing the war. Someone from London recognized the house in the cover photo. When I hear about people’s experiences and what the book makes them think about, it means a lot to me.”

The success has spurred Catherine to start a second book.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Catherine’s working on her second book.

“I don’t know whether it will be fiction or nonfiction or something in between,” she says. “But it will be something about my experience with dyslexia.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

With the past revealed, Catherine’s facing the future.

In the meantime, she’s been practicing reading the text aloud so she can record an audio version of Immigrant Daughter.

Radek and Rafa like to listen to her.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The One and Only Gildo
by Nruhling
Oct 15, 2019 | 605 views | 0 0 comments | 64 64 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the diversified artist.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


“I bet you can’t guess what this is,” says Gildo Spado.

He holds up a round metal object whose center pole is surrounded by rods of different lengths. Is it the frame for a fancy lampshade? Or could it be a funky cake pan?

Before I can answer, he brings out a violin bow and starts playing it, sending forth scary, swooping sounds.

He explains that it’s a waterphone, a musical instrument invented in the 1960s that caught his eye and his ear.

Before its eerie echoes end, Gildo starts picking out a tune on a banjo. He recently bought the instrument to cheer up a friend, but he ended up keeping it.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo’s a native-born Astoria Character.

A few minutes later, he’s in the hammock that divides the main living space from the kitchen.

But he’s not lying down – he’s using it as a serendipitous swing, grinning like a boy who successfully skipped school.

Gildo, a photographer and model who is equally at home behind and before the lens, is doing all these activities to court the camera’s omnipresent oculus.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo’s a photographer and a model.

With flair, he unfurls a blue scarf and artistically drapes it around his neck – it’s his signature, and no portrait of him is complete without it.

Another thing: He simply has to change his T-shirt – it won’t do to be seen wearing the same one in every single shot.

Gildo, who is 6-foot-2, wears his white hair and grizzled goatee with exuberant elegance. He bears an uncanny resemblance to The Most Interesting Man in the World of the Dos Equis beer ads.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo getting into the swing of things.

He’s a pro at posing.

He and his camera have captured Kodak moments in 35 countries.

“I’ve probably taken over a million shots,” he says. “And I still have almost all the negatives.”

Andy Warhol, Sophia Loren, Donald and Ivanka Trump, Reggie Jackson, Calvin Klein, Henry Kissinger, Jack Lemmon, Kathleen Turner, Richard Branson, Pavarotti and Ed Koch have all sat for him.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo and his camera have traveled to 35 countries.

“What was Andy Warhol like? Andy was Andy,” Gildo says cryptically. “Pavarotti – I was assigned to get a photo of him signing his book. He wouldn’t look at me. Finally, he said, ‘Go over there.’ As soon as I did, he looked up and gave me a big smile. He was a diva – he wanted me to get his best side.”

Gildo, who was born in Astoria, grew up five doors away from his grandmother’s house, which is now his. She came to this country from Istria, in Croatia’s city of Pula.

“I used to come here to watch horror films on her black-and-white TV,” he says. “She liked to keep the rooms dark. The shows scared me to death.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo owns the house his grandmother bought.

When Gildo took over the property, he tore down the walls and created an open-plan living space that’s filled with enough natural light to take professional photos. He painted the walls the color of ripe pomegranates and decorated them with souvenirs of his travels.

He kept her 1920s buffet, which serves as a TV stand, and the matching china cabinet in the front room. The set’s dining table is in his “man cave” in the basement.

Gildo’s proud to note that his father, who was from the former Yugoslavia, painted the Triboro Bridge in 1936 and the Kennedy Airport hangars in the 1960s and 1970s and that his mother, who was born in Astoria, worked for the Bulova Watch Co. and Steinway & Sons.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo striking a pose.

“She had a better Astoria accent than Christopher Walken,” he adds.

Gildo got his first 35-mm camera – a Nikon – when he was 13.

“I looked through the viewfinder and saw my canvas as an artist,” he says. “I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t draw, but my camera became my best friend. We would go on adventures together.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo in the garden.

After graduating from FIT, Gildo got steady work as a photographer’s assistant.

“I learned by the school of hard knocks,” he says.

He was working full time for a fashion catalog when, one day, he was called upon at the last minute to sub for a photographer who didn’t show up.

“For the next 12 years, I worked in three different studios,” he says. “I also did freelance shoots for press and publicity.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo wearing his signature scarf.

Soon, he was hanging out with models at hot spots such as Studio 54.

Freelancing is either feast or famine, and Gildo has experienced large portions of each.

“I’m a diversified artist,” he says. “In addition to photography, I do modeling and I’m a little landlord and a little investor. I do as much as I can to earn money except playing the piano or driving a cab.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the family portrait.

He is, among other things, the president and a board member of the Queens World Film Festival. A licensed citizen tree pruner, he worked with a Greening Western Queens crew to plant more than 60 trees around the Triboro Bridge.

In addition, Gildo leads photo tours for tourists from around the world.

“I help them get the essence of New York and take their photography up a notch,” he says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the profile.

Right now, Gildo’s working on another in his series of “memory projects.”

In 1951, four years before Gildo entered the world, his parents took a freighter to Cres, the Adriatic Sea island his father was from.

His mother brought along a box camera and took nearly 200 photos of every person they met.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the posed pause.

Gildo made the same trip in 1974 and is organizing a show of both sets of shots for the museum there.

Regardless of what he’s doing, Gildo stops to shoot one photo per day. He just bought an iPhone X, and it’s always in his pocket, ready to be his third eye.

He can’t think of a more interesting way to spend the rest of his life.

“I like what I’m doing now, and I will continue,” he says. “Artists don’t retire – they reinvent themselves. I plant seeds all over the universe. Some sprout and some don’t.”

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Pedaling Pedagogue
by Nruhling
Oct 08, 2019 | 1294 views | 0 0 comments | 67 67 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben works for the city’s Department of Education.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


Ben Sherman is standing outside his apartment building eager to hop on his bicycle.

A former high school principal who works for the city’s Department of Education, he rides to work in Downtown Manhattan virtually every day on his own two wheels.

Even when he takes the subway, he rides a Citibike to and from the Queensboro Plaza station.

For Ben, it always feels like the first day of school. He can’t wait to get to work so he can make a difference.

Big, bearded and bespectacled, Ben’s imposing but not very intimidating – his soft-as-feathers, even voice is calming, and his circular goggle-like glasses give him an eccentric, comic air.

Ben has been schooled in education his entire life. His father, Norm, was an elementary school principal before he retired a number of years ago.

Ben’s a skyscraper – in stocking feet, which is how he likes to pad around his apartment, he stands well over 6 foot 5.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben taught in China and Japan before heading to NYC classrooms.

Ben has been schooled in education his entire life. His father, Norm, was an elementary school principal before he retired a number of years ago.

The family moved to North Queensview Homes when Ben was 3. Norm and Ben live in the same building and frequently find themselves sharing the same elevator.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben rides his bike to work nearly every day.

Ben, however, had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps.

“He thought I would make a good teacher and told me I should go into teaching,” Ben says. “But I rebelled. I’m headstrong. I didn’t want to be what he wanted me to be.”

That’s why, after high school, Ben went to an upstate agricultural school to study farming.

“My original plan was to take a gap year before starting college and move to Israel and live on a kibbutz,” he says. “I lasted one year at the school. I learned that farming was hard work. I also learned that I was allergic to hay.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben’s the founding principal of East-West School in Flushing.

While he was recovering from a car accident, he took some education courses at Queens College, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in applied linguistics.

“I wanted to travel abroad for a year,” he says. “I taught English as a second language in China for a year then did the same thing in Japan. I thought I would be in Tokyo six months; I stayed for 11 years.”

During that time, he accomplished a lot: In addition to earning a master’s degree in education from Temple University in Tokyo, he started (and lost his shirt on) three businesses. Oh, yes, he also got married.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben proposed to his wife at their first meeting.

He and Chi met in Shanghi. “She was thinking of studying Japanese in Japan, and she wanted to get some advice,” he says. “I met her 11:30 the night before I was leaving; I thought we were going to talk 20 minutes.”

Their chat lasted until the sun came up, and as Chi was about to leave him forever, Ben realized that he wanted to spend his life with her.

“I told her that I thought we should get married,” he says. “She thought I was crazy, but she did agree to see me again.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He was raised in North Queensview, where he now lives.

Ben changed his plane ticket, and they dated every night for a week.

“I met her parents on our fourth date,” he says. “When I got back to Tokyo, I broke up with my girlfriend of three years. For a year, Chi and I traveled back and forth to see each other then got married.”

They have two daughters – one in college and one in high school.

When they returned to New York, Ben taught high school briefly then returned to school to learn to be a computer-network engineer in what was then an emerging field.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s training teachers and principals.

“I did it for three years and hated it,” he says, “because it was working with machines, not people, and my crawling under desks to fix computers wasn’t changing the world in any positive way.”

So he decided to return to the classroom. After teaching at a transfer school on the Lower East Side, Ben enrolled in the Leadership Academy to train to be a principal and in 2006 became the founding principal of the East-West School, a public school in Flushing for high-poverty students in grades six through 12.

In 2017, he took the helm at Forest Hills High.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

His work is about changing lives.

“I felt it was time for East-West to grow without me, and I wanted new challenges,” he says.

In his current leadership position with the city’s Department of Education, Ben professionally develops principals and teachers.

“I want to have an impact on the lives of a large number of children and teachers,” he says.  “If and when I retire, I hope to tutor students and mentor younger principals.”

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at NRuhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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