Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 6080 views | 0 0 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The High-Flying Acrobat
by Nruhling
Jan 16, 2018 | 105 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Bobby likes to keep things up in the air.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“Why walk when you can fly?”

Bobby Hedglin-Taylor answers his own question by starting to scale a giant London Plane tree in Ditmars Park.

This probably isn’t a good idea. Anything could happen. He could fall. He could reach the top.

He wonders, momentarily, whether it’s illegal to climb a park-property tree.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Bobby at home in a tree.

It’s too late to worry.

He jumps to the top of a park bench so he can grab the lower branches. He looks upward. It’s nice to say hi to the sky, but he’d rather be in motion.

Let’s go to the swings!

PHOTO BY NANCY A.. RUHLING
Bars are made for tightrope walking.

They remind him of the trapeze, his aerial apparatus of choice.

But before he gets to them, he climbs to the top of the junglegym’s tree house, hangs upside down from the rings (the metal is freezing cold on his bare hands so he doesn’t stay suspended long) and does a swift tightrope walk across a horizontal bar in his sneakers.

“I’m a conspicuous person,” he says. “I’m designed to stick out — I’m a redhead.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Swings remind Bobby of trapezes.

He’s stating the obvious, but it’s probably a safe bet that given the series of stunts he executed in his impromptu park performance, Bobby’s hair is not what watchers will remember.

About his hair – it’s clown curly and carrot color. His close-cropped cut keeps its playfulness in check.

Bobby, a mass of muscle who describes himself as a shy person, is an aerial sequence designer, an up-in-the-air teacher/trainer and sometime performer and actor. He’s also the director of STREB’s trapeze academy.

Creative types come to him for help doing everything from making fake nooses for haunted houses and music videos to safely planning stunts like hanging a little girl upside down from her ankles while she plays the violin.

“My favorite call ever went like this: ‘Bobby, we want you to dress as Austin Powers and climb down a 60-foot rope and introduce Sheena Easton,’” he says. “People come to me with the impossible, and I make things happen.”

During the summer, he teaches dance, gymnastics and circus arts at the all-girls Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. Twelve-year-old Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was one of his students. Now, she calls herself Lady Gaga.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Where Bobby feels at home.

You’ve seen his aerial work in Broadway’s 2012 revival of Pippin as well as in regional theatre productions. You’ve also seen his teaching at work in a variety of venues. He was, for instance, the tightrope trainer for the 2012 Broadway musical Chaplin.

As an actor, he has shared the stage with a number of stars, including Lauren Bacall, Bebe Neuwirth, Kathy Lee Gifford and Kirstie Alley.

And he was one of 17 acrobats who flew in harnesses 75 feet up to the roof of Madison Square Garden at an astounding 18 feet per second during the 2012 New Year’s Eve performance by the rock band Phish.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Bobby in a state of suspension.
 

“When I’m on the trapeze, my body is my paintbrush, and the air is my canvas,” he says. “It’s floating, it’s freedom, and it’s reminiscent of my childhood home, where we used to swing on tires tied to trees.”

The home he’s referring to was in Marshall’s Creek, Pennsylvania, an isolated area where Bobby and his extended family lived on the top of a hill.

“My great-grandfather bought land there,” he says. “And his 19 children and their children all lived there. I was surrounded by relatives. My grandmother lived across the street. We’re Sicilian, so we called it Macaroni Hill.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Bobby makes it look easy.

Bobby’s mother and father worked two jobs. The family grew its own food in the yard, which was populated by ducks, chickens, goats and turkeys.

“My older brother and I used to take a salt shaker outside and eat the tomatoes off the vine after school,” he says. “We left the remains on the vine; for the longest time, my mother thought groundhogs were doing it.”

The house was filled with music, and Bobby got hooked on musical theater after he saw West Side Story on TV. He was 3, so he didn’t really understand the plot, but his baby body grooved to the moves.

By the time he got to high school, entertainment was uppermost on his mind. He learned ballroom dancing as he started studies at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Bobby has lived in Astoria for 14 years.

“Male dancers were needed for this ballet theater in town,” he says. “I couldn’t dance, but they taught me, and they put me in musicals.”

It was a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy that brought Bobby to New York City.

The trapeze was not something Bobby ever considered, but when he had his first lesson – for a stage production that didn’t get off the ground – he never wanted to come down.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
He’s worked on Broadway productions.

“It was like a dance in the air,” he says. “And I continued to take lessons on my own.”

In addition to his conventional stage work, Bobby performed under big and not-so-big tops for 17 years.

“When I’m teaching, I tell my students that ‘the circus is inside you, but you have forgotten it. You just have to make yourself remember,’” he says.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Should I climb a second time?

This is also something he has said, more than once, to his husband, David Taylor, a former singer/dancer/actor who now is an accountant.

“He did try the trapeze one time,” Bobby says, astounded that his partner didn’t want to continue to play in the air.

Although injuries have turned the trapeze against him, Bobby has higher goals.

“I want to create a Broadway show based on flight,” he says.

Astoria Characters Day: The Second Annual Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling




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Astoria Characters: The Guy Sitting in the Court Square Diner
by Nruhling
Jan 09, 2018 | 256 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

 

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The Court Square Diner at 45-30 23rd St. in Long Island City.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stop by the Court Square Diner for breakfast or dinner, and you’re likely to see HughCarragher. He’s the tall, white-haired gentleman sitting at the corner counter seat closest to the subway.

Hugh has been eating at the diner twice a day ever since he moved to Long Island City at the end of 1961.

That’s, let’s see … 56 of his 81 years.

Hugh is surprised by the math; he had it in his mind that he’s been a regular customer for only 50 years.

“It’s amazing how quickly time goes,” he says. “I was never one to change. There used to be another diner close by, but this was my place.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Hugh has been eating at the diner twice a day for 56 years.

It strikes him that if he has been coming to the Court Square Diner for 56 years, then he’s been living in the same two-bedroom apartment near the eatery for 54 years.

Astounding!

Speaking of dates, the Court Square Diner was established 1946. The original was nothing more than a railroad-like car where the 7, G, E and M lines converge.

Its flashy retro exterior, in shiny steel and ketchup-red, was completed in 2010 by the current owners, brothers Steve and Nick Kanellos.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The original diner opened in a railroad-like car in 1946.

Hugh’s been living in New York City since 1959. The only reason he didn’t dine at the diner sooner was because he was living in Jamaica, Queens.

Hugh, who is one of 11 children, grew up on a 50-acre farm in Cootehill, Ireland.

His family raised flax, which the market town was famous for, and potatoes, corn, cabbage and turnips as well as hens, ducks, geese, cows and pigs.

“We were very fortunate because we owned the land,” he says. “We were not poor, and we always had enough to eat. We had a good life.”

Hugh started helping out on the farm before his fifth birthday.

When he graduated from technical school, he got a good job in the post office then briefly worked as a police officer.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Hugh in his favorite seat at the end of the counter.

He followed two of his older brothers to America.

“I was close to them, and I just made up my mind that I was going,” he says. “My dad had been born in New York City and lived there until he was 5, when the family went back to Ireland, so there was that fact also.”

Hugh got a job in the produce department of the Grand Union supermarket in Manhattan and later worked for Key Food.

“At Key Food, I did work in all the departments,” he says.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Court Square Diner is busy 24 hours a day.

His last job was running the mailroom at Elizabeth Arden.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “I retired at 58 when the company was sold and I was offered a buyout.”

Fairly quickly, Hugh settled into a routine centered around three meals.

For breakfast, it’s Raisin Bran, coffee and cranberry juice at Court Square. On Saturdays and Sundays, he has been known to break routine by ordering eggs.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The diner is a couple of blocks from Hugh’s apartment.

For lunch, he generally eats in Sunnyside while visiting friends in Woodside. He’s adventurous — he doesn’t have a particular place or plate.

For dinner, he’s back at Court Square.

Hugh spends holidays with his brother in Whitestone.

Although he’s a bachelor, he has a lot of nieces and nephews who live in the area.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Hugh came to New York City from Ireland in 1959.

One of them, an architect from Connecticut who works in Manhattan, spends a couple of nights a week with him.

“It’s convenient for him because the subway is here,” Hugh says.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The current owners took over in 1991.

And he goes home to Ireland twice a year.

“I’ve made 63 trips,” he says, adding that before he retired he only had enough vacation time for one visit per year.

Hugh says that the Court Square Diner always makes him feel at home.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The retro look is from a 2010 renovation.

“These guys look after me good,” he says.

Tonight, he’ll be back for dinner. Court Square has a lot of specials.

Hugh mentions the leg of lamb and the roast beef.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Introduce yourself to Hugh when you walk in.

“The whole menu’s good,” he says.

He’ll wait until he reads it before deciding which dish to order.

Astoria Characters Day: The Second Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Baker Who Makes Edible Art
by Nruhling
Jan 02, 2018 | 368 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Pink Canary Desserts is at 13-11 Jackson Ave.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“I always eat a cookie for breakfast,” says Amy Stack.

She sets a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie on a plate then adds a raspberry-blueberry-almond scone for good measure.

To compensate for all this sweetness, she takes her coffee black, sans sugar.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Amy grew up in a house full of bakers.

“I never eat the whole cookie,” she says. “All the calories are in the last bite, right?”

Amy, the co-owner of Pink Canary Desserts in Long Island City, laughs.

It’s such a sweet joke that she takes a big bite of the scone.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The shop specializes in custom cakes.

Homemade baked goods remind Amy of her childhood. She was born outside of San Francisco and lived in the Los Angeles area. When she was 8, the family moved to Seattle, Washington.

“Baking has always been part of my life,” she says. “My dad and my grandma were always baking bread and cookies. One of my first memories is of my grandma making crescent rolls.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
A three-tier Frida Kahlo cake.

Amy, a tall woman who pulls her hair back in a perky ponytail, is sorry to say that she and her three younger siblings took their treats for granted.

“We always had homemade cookies in our school lunches,” she says. “We felt deprived because we didn’t have Oreos and Ding Dongs like the other kids.”

Amy, a creative soul, carried on the family tradition.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Amy left a career in mental health to come to the bakery.

“In every professional job I had,” she says, “I was the one who brought homemade baked goods to the office for my co-workers.”

Given her love of baking, it’s somewhat surprising that Amy didn’t find herself standing in front a professional oven immediately.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. .RUHLING
A detail of a cake in full bloom.

At Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art, and at Springfield College in Massachusetts, she graduated with a master’s of science degree in art therapy.

“Baking was a hobby,” she says. “So were the other creative things I did —painting, knitting and crocheting.”

After working in the mental health field for several years and moving to the East Coast (“I came for a job and a boy,” she says. “I married him.”), Amy felt stymied.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The shop’s party room features a sweet mural.

“As an artist, I had gotten a little too far away from creating,” she says.

So when her sister entered TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off in 2010 and asked Amy to join the team, she couldn’t resist the challenge.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Pink Canary Desserts is designed to look like an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.


“I didn’t have professional baking experience like my sister,” she says. “And I said to her, ‘Are you sure you want me? You want to win, right?’”

The team’s 6-foot-6-inch-high Sweet Sixteen birthday cake, which was topped by a spinning globe crowned by a castle, took the cake and the $10,000 first prize.

“I did a lot of the sculpting and painting on it,” Amy says, adding that the team had only nine hours to make the cake.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
A cake with a taste for great literature.

The sweet victory made Amy rethink her career, and a couple years later, she quit her job to do a one-month internship in baking.

“My friends started asking me to make cakes and cookies,” she says. “I was really busy for a person without a job.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Let everyone eat CAKE!

For a short time, she worked for Sarah’s Cookies.

“I was decorating more than 1,000 cupcakes a day,” she says. “And I felt like a machine.”

She was contemplating a change when she walked by Pink Canary Desserts, which opened on Jackson Avenue in 2014 near MoMA PS 1, and saw a help wanted poster in the window. Eight months later, she was a partner.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Amy adds Oreo crumbs to the frosting of a chocolate cake.

Pink Canary, which originally only sold cupcakes, specializes in custom fondant cakes. In addition to these scrumptious sculptures, the shop also sells ice cream, cookies, cupcakes, cake slices, sweet breads and coffee.

The house favorites include Beer Me!, a chocolate cake with a vanilla core and beer ganache, and Dulce de Leche, a vanilla cupcake with a Dulce de Leche buttercream core and frosting and mini alfajores.

​“The recipes come from me, my dad, my mom and my grandma,” Amy says. “We bake everything from scratch in small batches.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Nutter Butter cookies decorate a peanut butter and fluff cake that is frosted in meringue.

Pink Canary is designed to be a small operation.

“I have some help,” Amy says. “But I don’t have elves. I’m my own elf.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Mini loaves of banana bread wait at the counter.

The shop, which is pretty in pink candy-cane stripes, has the ambience of an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Soothing tunes from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s play in the background.

“I want to become part of the community,” Amy says. “I want the people who come here to feel it’s their place as much as it is mine.”

A customer comes in to pick up a cake that’s a replica of a two-story Shingle Style house in the Hamptons.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Amy says her customers are like family.

“I spent the weekend being an architect,” Amy says as she carefully boxes the complex confection.

Then she clears her breakfast sweets from the table. She has to go back to the kitchen. There are cookies in the oven.

Astoria Characters Day: The Second Family Reunion, is Sept. 23, 2018. It is a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Portrait Photographer
by Nruhling
Dec 26, 2017 | 474 views | 0 0 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Fumi is from Osaka, Japan.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Fumi Sugino is a portrait photographer, so it makes sense that he sees things in scenes.

His images are artfully and carefully composed. The people in them are merely props meant to blend in with their surroundings.

“I tell the sitters to have no expression or feeling,” he says, with no expression or feeling. “I imagine the subject matching the background. It is as if they are in an old painting.”

Fumi demonstrates. He stands next to a graffiti-scrawled wall and stares straight ahead like a Secret Service agent guarding a president.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Fumi got his first professional camera at age 7.

He’s small and slim; only his owlish eyeglasses and his Canon 5DS R betray his presence when the sun glances off their lenses.

In Fumi’s own life, the most significant scene occurred at age 7. That’s when he got his first professional camera.

He had been making do with a cheap point-and-shoot, snapping away during the baseball games he was playing in.

But he couldn’t get the effect he desired, so he asked his grandmother for help.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
He’s lived in Astoria for more than two years.

Fumi’s family lived with her in an old house in Osaka, a large city on the Japanese island of Honshu.

“She bought me a Minolta 7000,” Fumi says. “It was a film camera. And it was used. I bought my own lens. It was about $500, I think. There’s a tradition in Japan of giving children money on the new year, so that’s what I used.”

The lens was long, and Fumi was little, so he stuck out in his crowd of kids.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
For several years, he was a photographer’s assistant.

That didn’t stop him from shooting everything he saw.

“When I was 10, I went with my father on a business trip to Thailand, and I took the Minolta with me,” he says.

He kept taking pictures through grade school but stopped when he was in junior high.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Fumi likes to blend into the background.

In high school, he put it around his neck again to take portraits of his friends.

“I bought myself a motorcycle with my new year’s money,” he says. “And I drove out to the countryside to shoot landscapes.”

Taking pictures, he thought, was nothing more than a hobby, which is why he majored in English language and culture instead of photography when he was at Eichi University.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
He came to America as a student.

When he wasn’t studying, he was working part time as a photographer’s assistant in Osaka.

“The photographer told me to go to Tokyo to learn technique if I wanted to get serious,” Fumi says. “And he introduced me to the people at a studio.”

The first month there, Fumi worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Getting set up.

For the rest of his time there – 1 year and one month – he only had to work six days a week.

“It was like going to school,” he says. “I learned everything.”

The round-the-clock work left him no time for a life without lenses.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Fumi shoots for Japanese magazines.

“I lived with 30 other people, and I worked so many hours that I only slept three hours a night,” he says. “We each had space for a bed, but there was no privacy because each room had a swinging door like in a Western saloon.”

Needless to say, Fumi was excited to get his first real job.

For one and a half years, he worked as a photographer’s assistant in Osaka.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
He also takes photos for private clients.

Then, in 2004, he came to New York City. He didn’t have a job lined up, but he figured his enthusiasm would carry him.

“I came as a student,” he says. “I was studying English as a Second Language, and some of the Japanese people I met in my class introduced me to photographers.”

For the next two years, Fumi worked as a photographer’s assistant.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
He’d like to take your portrait.

“It was an unpaid internship,” he says. “I lived on my savings.”

He started getting his own jobs, and in 2009, he began shooting for Japanese magazines, developing his shutter-signature art-portrait style.

“In the future, I want to keep doing my environmental portraits,” he says. “I want to do more groups and family events like weddings.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Portrait of Fumi.

Fumi, who is single, goes back to Japan for a couple of weeks each year.

“I miss my family and the food,” he says.

In between trips, the Minolta his grandmother gave him cheers him up.

“I don’t use it to shoot,” he says. “I keep it for the memories.”

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Young Man With the Broken Heart
by Nruhling
Dec 19, 2017 | 384 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Romaine is from Alabama.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Romaine Paige is sitting on his bed trying to figure out his future, which may or may not be written on the Whiteboard on his wall.

His wife – there has been no wedding ceremony or marriage license, but that’s how Romaine thinks of her – left him three days before Thanksgiving.

“She told me that separation makes the heart grow fonder,” he says, tears coming to his eyes, which register heartbreak even when they’re dry. “She said that she would come back but that I needed to re-define myself and find God and that going away was her gift to me so I could do this.”

Romaine, who cannot imagine life without her, made a list of Life Goals and wrote them on the Whiteboard:

Family (he drew stick figures of himself, her and two future children)

Money (you need to support)

Establishment (know thyself)

Peace (know God, know peace)

Home (something the family can share)

Purpose (serve and return God’s glory)

Wisdom (to understand God’s plan)

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Romaine’s Life Goals.

They are the first thing he sees in the morning when he wakes up alone and the last message he views at night when he sleeps solo.

Around the same time she left, Romaine, tall and thin and more teenager than grown-up man, lost his full-time IT job.

(Don’t worry: He had a part-time job as a set-up artist for events, and, thanks to God, he was able to convent it to a full-time position.)

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The woman he loves left him.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Romaine, who is 30. “All my life, I’ve never had a dream or a goal. I’m trying to change that.”

Romaine, a child of the South who always says yes ma’am and no ma’am and reads the Bible every day, was born in the small city of Anniston, Alabama, the second of six children.

His stepfather was in the army, so he didn’t stay there long. All in all, he attended 11 schools.

Aside from Alabama, he has lived in Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Hawaii and California.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Romaine’s rethinking his life.

He concedes that he may have forgotten a couple of states.

“I took the GED in seventh grade and passed it,” he says. “But they wouldn’t let me leave school until after 12th grade.”

Upon graduation, Romaine enrolled at Jacksonville State University and joined the ROTC, where he started as a mechanic and eventually became an instructor in an army task force unit.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
He’s trying to find happiness.

“I was training people to use weapons and equipment,” he says. “It bothered me that I was helping people defend themselves by destroying others.”

He left school and the military to help his uncle run an import business in Jacksonville, Florida. After his uncle died, he worked for a Volvo dealership.

“We overcharged a customer,” he says. “It was deliberate, and I told her. She persuaded me to leave and brought me to New York in 2010.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Romaine’s looking to God’s book for answers.

For a month, Romaine lived with her in Huntington while he worked for Home Depot in Woodhaven. Later, he stayed with an aunt.

“I was homeless for three or four months,” he says. “I had a job, but I was sleeping on a roof. The tenants found me and helped me rent a room with a family.”

Through the years, Romaine had a series of jobs and another short stint of homelessness.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Where does his future lie?

“I used to climb in a friend’s van to sleep,” he says. “I had access to the lot it was parked in.”

Then, two years ago, he met the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with.

It was in a bookstore in Forest Hills.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Everything in the apartment reminds Romaine of her.

Their story became a real-life romance novel, and they began sharing her Astoria apartment.

“Every day, I see something that reminds me of her,” he says, looking around the bedroom where her pairs of sunglasses are arranged alongside the window ledge next to a laminated line drawing of Jesus the Savior.

Would you like to see her?

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
He tries to find a smile a day.

He shows of photo of her on his smartphone.

She’s sitting in the Bel Aire Diner smiling at him.

“We went there every Sunday,” he says.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
What Romaine wants.

Romaine, who carries Bible verses in his pocket, knows that whatever happens will be God’s plan.

“I want what’s best for both of us, not just me,” he says.

They are going to get together around Christmas to talk things out.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Turning to God.

A while ago, they signed a lease on a new apartment in Astoria.

On Jan. 1, Romaine will move in.

He’s hoping his wife will come with him.

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Family at Home in the Kitchen
by Nruhling
Dec 12, 2017 | 505 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Ovelia is at 34-01 30th Ave.

 

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“Would you like me to make breakfast?”

Because the asker is Peter Giannakas, the chef at Ovelia, the answer is an enthusiastic YES.

“I’ll just fix something simple,” he says as he begins frying organic eggs in Greek olive oil. “A traditional Greek family-style breakfast.”

Within minutes, he brings the platter of eggs to the table.

Then he presents country-style pork sausage made with leeks and orange zest; grilled halloumi cheese from Cyprus; grilled pita bread seasoned with salt and pepper and oregano; a dish of deep-fried boiled potatoes, onions and red and green peppers; and tomatoes and cucumbers dressed in olive oil and oregano.

Simple?

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Peter with his parents, John and Litsa.

“This is how we usually eat,” he says, popping a potato into his mouth. “We share and mix and match everything.”

By “we” he means his family: his parents, John and Litsa, and his older brother, Chris.

Restaurants run in their family. John and Litsa owned an eatery in Athens, Greece, which is where they are from.

In 1974, John left to help his nephew open a restaurant in Manhattan.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The beginning of breakfast.

Litsa and Chris joined him a year later, and after Peter was born, Litsa became a stay-at-home cook while she raised the boys in Astoria.

“We were fortunate – and all a little pudgy,” says Peter, a muscular man with dark brown curls that can’t stop themselves from peeking out of his knit hat.

John worked in other people’s restaurants throughout his career.

Eleven years ago, when John was near retirement age, the family opened Ovelia, the Hellenic grill house and bar on 30th Avenue at 34th Street.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Peter thought he was going to have a career in medical research.

They named it for the ancient Greek ritual of roasting a lamb on a spit over an open flame, which Ovelia does out on the sidewalk on Greek Easter and Aug. 15, the Greek Orthodox feast day of Dekapentaugusto, which also happens to be Peter’s (Panagiotis’) name day.

“My father, who is 72, has been cooking for at least 40 years, and my mother, who is 66, has compiled recipes from both their moms,” Peter says.

In a neighborhood saturated with Greek restaurants, Ovelia has made a name for itself with its traditional Mediterranean menu.

It’s known for its feta cubes (deep fried, crusted with sesame seeds and drizzled with Greek honey); skirt steak marinated with Greek coffee; lamb tigania (pulled leg of lamb, warm and tossed with kefalograviera cheese and served with fries); and Monastiraki Bifteki (a kebab of ground beef, pork and lamb placed on a flat skewer and flame-broiled over a grill).

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
One platter ready to go.

“Monastiraki Bifteki, our signature dish, is not usually seen in Greek restaurants in America,” Peter says. “The name Monastriaki refers to an area in Athens where there’s a row of restaurants that serve it. It’s also a homage to the city my parents are from.”

Despite their culinary credentials, nobody in the family had planned to open a restaurant.

Ovelia came about because Peter and Chris were driving by and saw a “For Rent” sign in the window.

“It had been a café that wasn’t doing well,” Peter says. “Before that, it had been a hardware store that specialized in plumbing supplies. I remembered it from my childhood.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Litsa compiled traditional Greek recipes from her mother and mother-in-law.

In short order, the brothers had signed a lease, and after renovations, they opened it in 2006.

Although Chris gave up his career as a paralegal in a law firm to run the restaurant with his parents, Peter stayed on the sidelines.

He was working on a master’s degree and thought he was headed for a PhD and a career in medical research.

“I started helping out at Ovelia,” he says. “I took it upon myself to design the brunch menu. I wanted it to Greekify all my favorite foods. When it was introduced, it quadrupled our business. I was hooked.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Peter preparing the sausage.

Peter, who is 38, didn’t mind giving up his other career.

“I was getting tired of science,” he says. “The rewards were few and far between. I’m a very social person, and I had had enough of spending 10 hours a day in a lab.”

Peter, who grew up cooking with his mother, was no neophyte in the restaurant business.

He spent six years working part time for Taverna Kyclades on Ditmars Boulevard.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The pork sausage is country style.

He started as a busboy when he was 15 and eventually became the manager.

At Ovelia, he headed straight to the kitchen to begin learning from the gas burners up.

“I have an affinity for cooking,” he says. “Even when I was a kid, I could taste the flavors before I created a dish. Our goal at Ovelia is to be as different as possible and to create traditional and unique dishes.”

Working the kitchen, he says, is exciting.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Before Ovelia opened 11 years ago, John spent his career working in other people’s restaurants.

“I like the intensity,” he says. “When the orders pile up, I’m at my sharpest and most confident.”

Peter loves the fact that Ovelia is all in the family.

“Chris and I push each other,” he says, adding that they share a two-family house they recently bought in East Elmhurst. “We give each other a kick in the ass when we need it.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Peter’s ‘simple’ breakfast included grilled halloumi cheese from Cyprus.

Although Peter spends about 60 hours a week at Ovelia – “I’m lucky because I work only five days a week” – he doesn’t want to be known only as a restaurateur.

“When I have free time, I go fishing at Gantry Park on the East River or at Costco,” he says. “I also write poetry, which I have been doing since I was 13. It’s a way to communicate things I cannot say to people face to face.”

The down time gives him a chance to think of new ideas for Ovelia.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Peter, Ovelia’s chef, thrives on the excitement of working in the kitchen.

“We’re always evolving,” he says. “We’ve thought of opening more restaurants. But it has to be the right situation and right for the whole family just like Ovelia was.”

As brunch crowd arrives, Peter clears the plates from the table.

“Ovelia is a labor of love,” he says, heading toward the kitchen. “I love our neighborhood, and we hope to be a part of the community for at least another 20 years.”

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Pet Pamperer
by Nruhling
Dec 05, 2017 | 790 views | 0 0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Central Park Pet Spa is at 38-07 Ditmars Blvd.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ginger, a toy poodle whose name matches her fur color, prances into Central Park Pet Spa.

She has an appointment for a shampoo and haircut.

The grooming salon on Ditmars Boulevard at 38th Street is new, and she’s never been here so it’s unclear whether she knows about her upcoming beauty treatment.

She’s only a year old, so when her mommy walks out the door, she cries like a baby until Reda Elabd, the spa owner, scoops her up in his big hands and plies her with puppy kisses and treats.

By the time he trims her toenails, gives her a shower and styles her hair, she’s ready to move in with him (at least until Mommy shows up to retrieve her).

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Reda, who is from Egypt, learned grooming in New York City.

Reda, who has been a groomer for more than two decades and a pet-spa owner for a decade, has always had a way with animals.

His first pet was a beautiful white kitten who appeared as if by magic and adopted him for life when he was 2.

“I was sleeping with my mother and father,” he says. “I was afraid of the dark and didn’t want to get out of bed because I thought there was a beast in the closet. But I heard a meow, so I followed the sound until I was outside. I picked the kitten up and took it back to bed with me.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Ginger meets Reda.

Reda and the kitten were inseparable.

“She was huge, and I was tiny,” he says. “I used to carry her around, and she used to eat with me from my plate. She was my guardian angel. Ever since then, when one cat leaves me, another one comes into my life.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
I’m getting my nails done.

That’s what happened with Batata, a gray-and-white stray who recently found a home with Reda, his 18-year-old daughter, Yasmine, and 16-year-old son, Yusuf, in Jackson Heights.

“My other cat, Lola, is 12 and sick,” Reda says, adding that Batata is Spanish for sweet potatoes, which he loves nearly as much as he does the kitten. “So this will be her replacement. I’ve never had to buy a cat; they always find me.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Reda was adopted by his first cat at age 2.

That may be because Reda, who is from Damanhur, Egypt, began rescuing them from the streets and feeding them.

“I look into their faces, and I see beauty,” he says, adding that he also grew up with dogs.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Keep rubbing my paws!

Despite his affection for those of the canine and feline persuasions, Reda never dreamed he would end up working with animals.

Reda, who is sleek and chic, spent his youth playing roller hockey, becoming the goalie for Egypt’s national team and training others in the sport.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
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“They used to call me The Octopus because I was so talented,” he says.

When he was in college working on a physical education degree in 1994, he decided to come to America.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
I think I love you.

“I’m No. 5 of six boys,” he says. “All my brothers were traveling, and I felt lonely. I wanted to play for the Rangers and made up my mind to come here and contact them.”

While he was waiting for his big break, he went from shop to shop in Manhattan looking for work.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
I’m all cozy.

“I didn’t know any English, and nobody wanted to hire me,” he says. “I walked into a grooming shop. I didn’t know there was such a job.”

He got hired immediately because the owner saw how well he related to the pets, but he decided to keep looking.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
I could get used to this.

“I was 23 and had no money,” he says. “I needed to have a job where I could eat, so I took one with a deli. But I got fired after three days because I didn’t know anything about the business. So I ended up at the grooming shop.”

It was, he laughs, supposed to be temp work.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
I feel like Marilyn Monroe.

After a decade working for other groomers in the metro area and completing grooming school, Reda opened Central Park Pet Spa in Manhattan in 2008.

This year, he closed it temporarily because of a plumbing problem and opened a replacement in Astoria, which in addition to grooming and day care sells everything from ceramic food bowls (for pets) to diamond pet-themed jewelry (for pet parents).

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
It’s tough being so beautiful.

“This is my love, not a living,” he says, adding that he tried other jobs, including cab driving. “I don’t make much money off of this. I have several real estate investments in Egypt. That’s where my income comes from.”

When Reda opened Central Park Pet Spa in Manhattan, his goal was to have a shop on each corner of the park.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
My glam shot.

“It’s coming one day,” he says. “I don’t know when, but it’s coming.”

And so is Ginger’s mommy.

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Watch Doctor
by Nruhling
Nov 28, 2017 | 888 views | 0 0 comments | 55 55 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel’s the owner of Grand Jewelers.

Text and  Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“I am not a watchmaker,” Marcel Zalaznik says emphatically. “I am a watch repairer.”

A watchmaker, he explains as he sets a tray of gold rings in the window of Grand Jewelers, can build a timepiece from the center wheel up.

His father, Jack, who owned the shop before Marcel knew how to tell time, was trained to do that.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Grand Jewelers is at 34-05 30th Ave.

A repairer such as Marcel merely makes sure the watches keep running on time.

“It’s like being a doctor,” he says, a holding a Rolex that’s awaiting rehab. “You have to study the watch to find out what’s wrong with it before you can make a fix that lasts.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel’s tools.

There aren’t many watch repairers in Astoria.

In fact, Marcel is probably the only one left.

When you drop your watch off at a jewelry store in the neighborhood, it’s more than likely to end up at Marcel’s beat-up bench at Grand Jewelers on 30th Avenue at 34th Street.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel working on a watch.

“I don’t depend on walk-in traffic,” Marcel says, adding that he guesses he fixes about 3,000 watches a year, which comes out to about 60 a week. “I do a lot of wholesale repairs.”

Marcel, a trim man with a snow-white mustache, mutinous brows and a Bulova Accutron strapped on his left wrist, has worked in the shop for nearly a half century.

He and his twin sister were born in Paris and were 2 when their parents, who left Czechoslovakia after World War II, came to America.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The escapement, made by Marcel’s father, stands in the center of Grand Jewelers’ window.

They started out in Chicago, which Marcel’s father wasn’t fond of, and ended up settling in Bayside.

For the first five years, Jack worked on watches for Omega.

In 1957, he bought Grand Jewelers, when it was on the other side of the El on 30th Avenue.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel has been in the business nearly 50 years.

Marcel isn’t sure how old the business is, but he thinks it may have opened in the 1920s or the 1930s.

As far as he knows, it’s always been called Grand Jewelers.

At any rate, Marcel didn’t learn anything about watches or jewelry from his father.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The shop moved to its present location in 1984.

“I was an errand boy for the shop,” he says. “My father didn’t think it was a good idea for me to learn things at his knee.”

When Marcel graduated from the University of Maine – he majored in history – his father presented him with an Omega Chronograph, and he embarked upon a teaching career.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel’s workbench, scarred by time.

He quickly learned something that changed his life: He didn’t like teaching.

So it was easy for his father to persuade him to go to watch-repair school.

After 14 months at the Bulova center in Woodside, Marcel joined his father at Grand Jewelers full time.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The doors on the antique steel safe are a foot thick.

He was 23. He points to the Bulova Accutron that he wears on his wrist every day. He bought it for $71 when he graduated.

“It had a metal band,” he says. “But I took it off immediately and replaced it with a leather strap.”

Despite his profession, Marcel isn’t a watch collector. His Rolex DateJust, the only other watch he bought for himself, is almost never on his wrist.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel works in a bulletproof plastic cage.

“I don’t really like it,” he says. “And I cherish the Omega from my father too much, so I never wear it.”

Father and son manned the shop until 1997, when Jack died at 87 after 40 years behind the counter.

They never had hired help, and these days, Marcel’s is a solo act.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
The jewelry is mostly for show.

“My father never used his watchmaking skills in America,” Marcel says. “He loved the retail part of the job. He spent most of his time selling jewelry while I repaired the watches.”

After Marcel had been there 10 years, Grand Jewelers moved to its present place in 1984.

“The other building was sold, and we lost our lease,” he says. “I had bought this building as a security blanket, but I never intended to move Grand here.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel in the front window.

Grand is anything but grand, which is just fine with Marcel.

The space is half a storefront; a door divides it from the ramen noodle shop next door. There are apartments upstairs.

It’s so small and unassuming that it’s easy to miss the maroon awning and neon signs that mark its front window, which is filled with what Marcel calls “old jewelry.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Earrings with age.

“I really don’t work on selling jewelry,” he says. “This is just what’s left over from my father’s time.”

The shop, which has light-brown paneling on the walls and an ancient steel safe that is taller than Marcel, is divided down the middle by a floor-to-ceiling plastic bulletproof partition.

The passageway is so narrow that customers are forced to come in single file.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Watches waiting for Marcel’s magic touch.

Marcel, standing on the inside, opens a small door in the enclosed display cage to accept their watches.

“We moved here in the 1980s when things were different,” he says. “At the old location, we had been broken into a couple of times and once were held up at gunpoint at noon.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
A Rolex in need of rehab.

Marcel, who says he’s at “the twilight” of his career, has never tired of tinkering with timepieces.

“I kept at it because I’m good at it,” he says, adding that he mans the shop six days a week, commuting from his home in Roslyn.

Although he has two grown daughters and three grandchildren, Marcel knows that time is running out for Grand Jewelers.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Marcel starts his day.

He says it doesn’t bother him that nobody in his family is interested in taking his place.

“I never was one to eat, sleep and breathe watches,” he says. “I put in my time here and go home.”

Although he’s 67, he’s not ready to call it quits yet.

When it’s time to go, he won’t have to consult his Bulova Accutron.

His internal clock will let him know.

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Helps the Homeless
by Nruhling
Nov 21, 2017 | 933 views | 0 0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Jordana was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

 

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s really hard for Jordana Guimaraes to stay in the same place. Or keep doing the same thing.

“I call myself a modern-day gypsy,” says Jordana, a statuesque woman with Cleopatra hair and eyes of fire. “Moving around a lot – that’s how I learn the most.”

The proof is in her life, which, to her delight, has led her to Florida, New York and Minnesota and to a variety of jobs.

Jordana, a woman of winter who likes to keep her apartment as cold as snow, spent the first 12 years of her existence in the red-hot beach heat of Rio de Janeiro, which is where her parents, Egyptian refugees, ended up.

“In Brazil, there’s no middle class,” she says. “You’re either very wealthy or very poor. My three sisters and I led a sheltered life. We had drivers and nannies.”

And bulletproof cars.

“It was very dangerous,” she says. “My friends were getting kidnapped and then people started calling saying they were going to kidnap me and my sisters.”

When the threats escalated, Jordana’s family moved to Boca Raton, Florida and eventually settled in Glen Head, Long Island.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Jordana’s family moved to Florida when she was 12.

The move made Jordana feel safe, but it left her unsure of her future.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school,” she says. “Instead of going to college, I worked all kinds of different jobs – I was a bank teller, a real estate agent, a sales associate at Blockbuster, a payroll specialist at a hospital and a manager at a Cole Haan store.”

By the time she was 23, she still hadn’t found a way to make a living that she was passionate about. So she went to Barnes & Noble and bought a book that had a description of every career imaginable.

“I came across PR, which was something I had never heard of, and I thought, ‘This is me,’” she says. “I read PR for Dummies and found a job listing on Craigslist with an agency that paid $120,000.”

Despite her inexperience and possibly because of it, Jordana didn’t hesitate to apply.

“I was very honest about my lack of work history in the field,” she says. “I thought I’d never hear back from them. But they gave me an interview and said they liked my enthusiasm. They offered to let me work for free for three months with no training to see how I would do.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
She talked her way into a PR job.

Jordana figured things out quickly and was offered a paying job when her trial ended.

“But I decided to open my own PR firm instead,” she says. “I had gotten married, so I did it with my husband. It continued until we divorced five years later.”

She was used to traveling – “I would go wherever the PR projects led me” – so it was easy for her to leave her base in Minnesota, which is where her ex-husband was from.

She returned to New York and rebranded herself as ACL Marketing so she could focus on hosting events with a charitable cause.

“I’m a one-woman show,” she says.

Things stayed on track until she visited her ailing father in Brazil nearly three years ago.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
For The Nylon Project, she did a lot of cold calling to celebrities.

“My first night there, I went to a champagne bar and met a guy,” she says. “He was born and raised in Brazil. He asked me to move in with him. I did. I’m a hopeless romantic.”

Six months later, when Jordana was pregnant with her first child, the couple married and moved back to New York.

Daughter No. 2 is due in January.

It was while she was between children that Jordana got the idea for The Nylon Project, a campaign she started to bring awareness – and monetary aid – to the homeless.

“I want to put a face on the homeless,” she says. “I want to humanize them.”

The project, which debuted in February with a celebrity/influencer fashion show, has raised $10,000 – enough for 1,500 meals.

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
She wants The Nylon Project to put a face on homelessness.

“I cold called the celebrities,” she says. “I got a response from every single one, even those who didn’t participate.”

The next phase of The Nylon Project includes publishing a book that tells the stories of the homeless.

“I asked 75 celebrities to contribute,” she says. “Each tells a story about their own struggles and how they overcame them. I pair each of their stories with a story from a homeless person that has a similar theme. The idea is that it can be you, it can be me, it can be any of us who end up out on the street. It’s about creating a community of people helping people.”

PHOTO BY NANCY A. RUHLING
Jordana’s publishing a book that tells the stories of homeless people.

The Nylon Project has been so fulfilling that Jordana is trying to find a way to make it a full-time endeavor.

“I’ve always wanted to give back,” she says. “And when I was growing up in Brazil, I could not pass by a homeless person without giving them money. I really like giving. It makes me happy.”

Homelessness, in her mind, is a global issue that requires continuous attention.

“I want to make sure a difference is made,” she says.

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Charity Worker
by Nruhling
Nov 14, 2017 | 1143 views | 0 0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The CMMB Distribution Center is at 33-01 11th St. in Long Island City.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Although it takes up an entire tree-lined block of Long Island City, the CMMB Distribution Center is a remarkably unnoticeable building.

The only thing that announces the presence of the long and low cream-colored 33,000-square-foot structure is a grey blend-into-the-background metal front door with a small sign so far overhead that you have to crane your neck to read it.

It notes, in robin-blue lettering, that this is the home of the Catholic Medical Mission Board.

Ralph Barberio, the longtime manager of the CMMB, is similarly low-key.

Self-effacing and soft-spoken, Ralph, who is grandfatherly grey, doesn’t want to talk about himself.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ralph used to be a police officer.

He’d rather highlight the work CMMB, which this year shipped more than $500 million in donated medicines and medical supplies to people in 32 Third World countries.

“The doctors and nurses who give their free time to go on missions are the great ones,” he says. “We’re nothing without them.”

As Ralph walks around the distribution center, he looks at row after row of pallets set for shipment and sees not only black plastic shrink wrap and cardboard boxes but also hope.

Maybe it’s because he grew up with nothing. Or perhaps it’s because he’s an ex-cop. The reason he’s so willing to help others doesn’t really matter.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The distribution center’s staff of seven processed $500 million in medicine and medical supplies this year.

Ralph, whose grandparents came from Italy, was born in Queensbridge Houses.

His parents divorced when he was young – he can’t remember whether he was 5 or 7 – and he and his two older sisters lived with their mother and grandparents in Astoria.

“My mother had MS,” he says. “And we never had much money.”

To help out, Ralph started working at age 11. At first, he filled soda cases for a deli. When he was 14, he became a stock boy for a pharmacy.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Supplies are shipped to Third World countries.

It was his brother-in-law, a police officer, who persuaded him to take up that career.

For two years, Ralph was a police trainee. Then he entered the police academy.

“In those days, you had to be 21,” he says. “I started the day I turned 21.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ralph manning a workstation.

He worked a Harlem beat before transferring to Astoria’s 114th Precinct, where he was on foot patrol, radio-car patrol and finally worked in community relations.

When Ralph retired after 23 years, in 1991, his partner framed his police officer and detective shields as well as his unit citations and excellent-duty medals and presented them to him.

They hang above his desk, which is surrounded by Yankees mementoes and souvenirs from countries CMMB works with.

“I’m a die-hard Yankees fan,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The products are shrink wrapped.
 
 
 

He doesn’t have to mention that; it’s obvious.

A Yankees banner is unfurled on one wall, and another wall is covered with black-and-white photos of players.

After talking about baseball, Ralph points to a flock of hand-carved wooden birds, graduated in size, that are displayed on the bookcase.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ralph has been the center’s manager for nearly 20 years.

“They are from Nigeria,” he says. “I like to say I have my ducks all in a row.”

It’s not a joke, not exactly, but it’s probably the closest he ever comes to making one. He says it with a straight face.

For the first five years after he left the police force, Ralph was the mailroom manager for Time Warner in Manhattan.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
CMMB shipments are ‘packed with love.’

When he was laid off, he applied for a data-entry job at CMMB.

“A friend of mine knew someone who worked here,” he says. “We are all crossed trained because there are only seven people, including myself, on the staff. I can do all the jobs but just not as good.”

CMMB, which was founded in 1912, opened the distribution center in 1965.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
In a couple of years, Ralph plans to retire.

It has an office in Manhattan as well as ones in Peru, Kenya, Haiti, South Sudan and Zambia.

Ralph, who became the manager nearly 20 years ago, immediately took the private nonprofit’s mission to heart.

“When I went to Haiti, I came back and said that I’ve got to work harder to get life-saving medicine to the people who desperately need it,” he says. “I saw children ages one to five who were dying because they couldn’t get basic medicines like antibiotics.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Worn with work.

The “good work” the CMMB does is what motivates Ralph.

“Look at this,” he says, pointing to a group of boxes ready to go. “Each shipment is marked ‘packed with love’ and includes the name of the person who prepared it.”

Ralph likens the distribution process – products come in the door, are stored on shelves, put in cartons, readied for shipment and loaded into containers – to the circle of life.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ralph at the loading dock.

“I call it this because it goes in a physical circle at the distribution center,” he says. “It’s the circle of life that gets life-saving medicine all over the world.”

Speaking of life, things will soon be coming full circle for Ralph, too.

He’s 68, and in a couple of years, he hopes to hand off the management of the distribution center to someone else.

“I don’t want to work much past 70,” he says. “I get invited to go on missions with the doctors and nurses all the time, and I may actually do it after I retire.”

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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