|January 21, 2022||Astoria Characters: The Dessert Devotee||no comments|
|January 14, 2022||Astoria Characters: The Treasure Hunters||no comments|
|January 07, 2022||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Paints With Fire||no comments|
|December 31, 2021||Astoria Characters: The Ballet Pianist||no comments|
|December 24, 2021||Astoria Characters: The Ditmars Dawners||no comments|
|December 17, 2021||Astoria Characters: The New-Boutique Owner||no comments|
|December 10, 2021||Astoria Characters: The 90-Year-Old Songstress||no comments|
|December 03, 2021||Astoria Characters: The Balloon Sculptor||no comments|
|November 26, 2021||Astoria Characters: The Graffiti Guy||no comments|
|November 19, 2021||Astoria Characters: The Singer Who Calls Himself Sick Walt||no comments|
When she’s finished, she ices the za’atar buns with yogurt.
The cafe specializes in what Zaynab calls homey desserts, the kind of comfort food you nibble at while you’re waking up and sipping your morning coffee.
Buttermilk biscuits. Espresso. Cinnamon rolls. Cappuccino. Cherry Danish. Tea. Chocolate chip cookies.
Coffee Cake, a small-batch, micro-bakery and coffee café, is a post-Covid culinary creation.
Although it opened in January 2020, lockdowns sidelined it until June of that year, and it really didn’t find its sweet spot until 2021.
The concept, Zaynab says, is simple.
“It’s rare to find a café that serves delicious coffee and delicious desserts,” she says. “My goal was to have a place where you can buy both.”
At the counter, a guy and his dog await their treats.
The human gets a coffee and some cookies; the pit bull orders one of Zaynab’s bone-shaped homemade dog biscuits, which are made of peanut butter, oats and whole-wheat flour and are complimentary to each canine customer.
As the morning progresses, people and pets parade in and out, and Zaynab continues to complete her confections.
For Zaynab, who holds the title of best baker in her family, Coffee Cake is the culmination of a variety of interests and jobs.
She was born and raised in the Bronx, where she lives with her parents.
Her father is an immigrant from the West Bank; her mother is from Jordan.
“I’m an only child,” she says. “I feel a responsibility to them – you only get one pair. My father is ill, and I’m his primary caregiver.”
But because of her Middle Eastern roots, she’s always felt most at home in Astoria, where she has spent a lot of time.
After Zaynab, a Muslim, graduated from Preston, a private Roman Catholic high school for girls, she took some time off to find out what she wanted to do with her life.
“I’m a late bloomer,” she explains.
Four years later, she enrolled in Columbia University, where, in 2008, she earned a degree in Middle Eastern studies and political science.
“My mom went there at the same time,” she says. “We were the first mother-daughter pair to graduate together. She got a degree in political science, so our fields of study overlapped a little.”
Zaynab, who has made several trips to Jordan and the West Bank, chose her major because she wanted to learn more about her heritage.
But her first job, project manager at an IT company in Farmingdale, Long Island, was about as far from her major as you can get.
“I needed a job and grew to like it, then I grew to hate it,” she says. “I didn’t like being the one yelling at the team to get things done.”
After eight years, she quit and took a job as product developer for an ice cream company in Jordan. While she was there, she also completed culinary school.
Later, as operations director of the company, she oversaw the opening of a store in Los Angeles in one in New York City.
In the summer of 2019, she started working on Coffee Cake, figuring she could keep her corporate job while running it.
But things didn’t work out quite the way she planned.
The month after Coffee Cake opened, the pandemic forced the ice cream company to shut down its U.S. stores, and Zaynab lost her full-time job.
The next month, the lockdowns closed Coffee Cake, too.
“In the beginning, because of Covid, there were some really tough days,” Zaynab says. “It’s still hard – we’re open six days a week, and I’m here all six. It’s 10-hour days. It’s grueling because you are on your feet all the time.”
In 2021, there was an additional challenge: Zaynab missed a month of work because she had a kidney infection that required her to be hospitalized for two weeks.
Her staff –in addition to her, there’s a barista and a baker who helps out – kept the café open without interruption.
The cafe, which also makes pies and custom cakes as well as sandwiches, is not a job, Zaynab insists; it’s a joy.
“What I do puts a smile on people’s faces,” she says. “My reward is repeat customers who tell me how wonderful the café is.”
And creating a sense of community, that’s what Coffee Cake really is all about.
“It’s not just about business,” Zaynab says. “It’s about growing roots.”
She hands a free biscuit to one of her four-legged customers and gives him a pat on the head.
He – and she – know he’ll be back soon.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Virtually every inch of the tiny two-bedroom, fourth-floor walkup is covered with treasures they literally have unearthed while digging up the city’s past.
Actually, it’s really not totally accurate to say that there are two bedrooms, because the objects that live in the apartment have taken up so much room that there’s only one small space with a mattress on the floor that’s dedicated to sleeping.
In one room alone, there are a framed box devoted to children’s glass marbles; a shelf filled with antique ceramic bowls and mugs that runs from floor to ceiling; and plates and shards of pottery and ancient fragments of objects that Scott turns into art pieces and Belle transforms into jewelry.
In the living room, there’s a big, aged wooden crate stuffed with stuff they sell on Etsy and at flea markets; in the kitchen, the cabinets contain collectibles.
Scott notes that the apartment “is like a tight-packed ship with secret storage spots.”
There is a lot to see, but it’s the colored bottles that you notice first.
When the sunlight streams through the windows, they produce a rainbow that transcends time.
Each object in their collection comes not only with a history but also with a story.
Scott, aka The Bottle Guy, reaches for a small piece of amethyst glass and cradles it lovingly in his hand.
It is, he says, one of his favorite finds.
Belle walks to the other window and takes down an identical piece.
The two objects are significant not only because they are rare – they are the bases of 1890s oil lamps that were made for children – but also because they are the pieces that connect Scott and Belle as a couple.
Each is adorned with stars and the opening words to the 19th-century English lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Scott, a tall man with an old-fashioned silver mustache and beard, a vintage brown bowler and a neck scarf, found his little lamp in the 1990s in a Hoboken, New Jersey landfill; Belle dug hers up in a dump in the Bronx about six months after they became a couple.
“I had always admired his,” she says. “When I saw a little bit of purple three feet below the ground, my heart started beating fast.”
Fast, but not as fast as it did when she fell for Scott.
Scott and Belle, history lovers, are passionate about talking about the past, especially their own.
Belle, whose signature is a black top hat, was born in the Philippines and came to America when she was 13. She grew up in Jersey City.
At 18, she moved to Manhattan, where she got a job as a superintendent of a building.
After she befriended a woman on the street who was selling jewelry, she began making pieces and selling them at flea markets.
Scott, too, had moved around a bit. Born in Key West, Florida, he lived in Alaska and Connecticut then Governors Island, places his Coast Guard father was transferred to.
New York, at least in the beginning, was not his thing.
“I was used to playing in the Connecticut woods all day,” he says. “I knew I’d never be a city kid.”
He was, indeed, quite miserable until he met some teenagers who were digging up artifacts.
The things he found — old musket balls, coins and bottles — “made history explode for me. I started digging, and I’ve never really stopped,” he says.
Once he moved to Manhattan, he continued his excavations, mostly clandestinely at construction sites under the cover of darkness and the threat of arrest.
“When you break the earth open, you can smell the roots,” he says, adding that these days he digs at construction sites, landfills, cistern wells and privies, spots that he has asked permission to explore. “You are seeing time go back through the layers. It’s like a kid opening a Christmas present.”
Although Scott had a variety of jobs – he’s been a maintenance man for a building, a dishwasher, an apartment cleaner and a deli worker – he never stopped digging.
For decades, he has made his living selling his finds, some of which he has turned into art collages or arranged in shadow boxes.
Eventually, he became a regular at what is now called the Grand Bazaar NYC flea market on the Upper West Side.
Several years later, Belle took a booth at the same fair to sell her jewelry.
Immediately, they became friends.
“I always had a crush on her,” Scott confides. “I never told her because I was in another relationship, and she was married. I watched her daughter grow up. The hello hug I gave her each time I saw her had to last me the entire week.”
Adds Belle, “I considered him a friend; I don’t know why he never asked me to go digging with him.”
The answer, Scott says, is simple: “You had a husband.”
Oh, yeah, that.
Anyway, as Belle’s marriage ended, and Scott announced that he was quitting the flea market, their relationship changed.
“I wanted him to stay,” she says. “The Saturday night before he was leaving, I had a dream about him – it was romantic and sexy – and I had a debate with myself about whether to tell him.”
When she told him she dreamed of him but couldn’t divulge the contents because they were too personal, he asked her out to lunch.
“We discussed everything but the dream,” she says, adding that she did reveal the racy details, but it wasn’t until much later.Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Scott wasn’t surprised – “these were the thoughts I was sending her all those years.”
It turns out that Belle loves digging as much as Scott does.
“Growing up, I was a tomboy,” she says. “I used to climb trees, and my grandpa, who was a miner, taught me to sharpen a pencil with a machete.”
To which Scott dryly adds, “In America, we do that with a knife.”
Every Sunday, Scott and Belle share a booth at the flea market under the Things Found NYC banner.
They don’t own a car (Scott is not a fan of technology; although he does grudgingly use a smartphone, he refuses to touch a computer, claiming that his body chemistry messes with machines’ mechanisms) so they schlep their stuff on the subways to 77th and Columbus.
“We transport it in rolling suitcases and backpacks,” he says. “I carry the bulk, about 65 pounds, and Belle does about 35.”
Each item they sell comes with a handwritten tag that tells when it was made and where it was dug up.
Scott says that it’s nice to know that what he and Belle bring to light now will be cherished for centuries to come.
“We are historians, we’re passionate about the past,” he says. “It’s all about the sense of discovery and keeping the child in you alive.”
Adds Belle, “It’s also about getting dirty and digging up facts about the past and saving America’s history.”
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Exquisitely textured, it looks like a hollowed-out snowball, the kind Hostess, not God, makes.
It’s not perfect.
It didn’t turn out as she envisioned.
It took her a while to see its real beauty; today, she wouldn’t part with it for any amount of money.
She could say the same about her new life.
For nearly 30 years, until she was laid off during the pandemic, Tina earned her living as an interior designer working in the firms of architects.
If you didn’t know that about her, all you have to do is look at her shared studio in Long Island City’s Silks Building: It is artfully arranged by color and looks more like a living room than a place to paint.
But even the interior design part of her career wasn’t planned.
Tina, the middle of three sisters, was born in Woodside, which is where her parents settled and bought a two-family house after they immigrated from Croatia.
Her family lived in one apartment, her grandparents lived in another, and for a while, her three artistic uncles shared the finished basement.
“I always had a lot of babysitters,” she says, laughing. “When my uncles left, one of them left his drawing table with us until he got settled in his new place. He told me I could use it.”
He made the offer, most likely, because he had seen some of her drawings.
At that point in her life, Tina was interested in art and dance, specifically ballet, which she had started when she was 4.
“I was always torn between the two,” she says, adding that she spent her summers working for her father, a contractor, and helped design her own room when she was 15 and her family bought a house in Astoria.
By the time she was in high school, she started getting serious about modern dance, “but art was still my first passion,” she says.
That’s why she got a degree in graphic design from Parsons.
For a while, a very short while, that satisfied her creativity.
When she was laid off from her straight-from-college job and trying to navigate the freelance playing field, a friend persuaded her to take an interior design class.
She liked it so much that she earned a degree from the New York School of Interior Design, and for the last 15 years worked as a senior interior designer in a firm that specialized in luxury residential projects.
It wasn’t quite as creative as she envisioned – there is a lot of administrative paperwork in the trade – so she began making her own art on her own time.
In 2012, after visiting an exhibit at an art museum, she became fascinated with the ancient art of encaustics, which essentially is hot-wax painting, and decided to focus on it.
“What really caught me was the luminosity and different textures,” she says. “And it can be used in myriad ways.”
To create her works, which are executed on wooden panels, Tina, clad in a black Rosie the Riveter jumpsuit, melts beeswax with crystallized tree resin she has pulverized then adds powdered pigments, some of which she mixes herself.
She heats the mixture on a pancake griddle until it reaches it melting point — 160 to 200 degrees.
She then applies it to the wood panel with a brush and fuses it with a heat gun or a torch.
“The technique,” she explains, “can be one of unpredictability; you’re painting with fire and although you’re guiding the flame, it has a power of its own.”
Tina, solid, strong, silver-haired, follows the flame.
“The wax has a lot of movement; I kind of play with it,” she says. “I have fun with it.”
Since the pandemic, Tina has been working in her studio four to five times a week, generally in four- to five-hour stints.
Her work is time intensive – it can take up to two hours for the wax to melt.
“I was going to do painting as a hobby when I retired,” she says. “So I’m doing it now in my forced retirement.”
OK, she didn’t plan this transition, but like the wax in her works, she’s letting things flow.
“I’m so much happier now,” she says. “In life, we have to learn to make adjustments. I really want to make this work.”
She puts the white vessel back on the shelf.
It is a reminder, she says, of how things that go wrong can be so right.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling
“When I’m playing and I meet people for the first time, we may not speak the same language, but we know the same songs,” she says. “That’s really special.”
This is not to say that language usually is a barrier for Maria – she speaks English, Russian, French and Italian – but music always eases the introduction.
Maria, who has iridescent aquamarine eyes, slender fingers, precise pronunciation and the trace of a Canadian accent if you know to listen for it, has been communicating musically since she was 5.
That’s when she started taking lessons from a neighbor in Kovrov, the city in western Russia along the right bank of the Klyazma River where she was born.
“My dad always loved to play the piano, and I used to sing with him,” she says, adding that there was an upright piano in the family apartment. “He still plays every day. At that time in Russia, it was common to play the piano and the violin. The state-funded music schools were free.”
Maria, who is classically trained, continued her lessons and her enthusiasm for the ivories and ebonies when the family moved first to Israel and then to Toronto, Canada, where she spent most of her childhood.
After graduating from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, Maria began working as a pianist for the National Ballet of Canada, York University and for other schools and colleges in Toronto.
“It occurred to me that the dancers needed accompanists,” she says, adding that she got her initial job by making a cold call. “At first it was hard because I’ve never taken dance classes. It’s a very specialized career path that has opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve played for a lot of leading figures in the industry.”
Sitting in an outdoor booth of Astoria’s Queen’s Room drinking coffee, she ticks off the “who’s who” list: Yuri Fateev, acting head of the Mariinsky Ballet; Skylar Brandt, a principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre; Sascha Radetsky, artistic director of ABT Studio Company; and Heather Odgen, a principal dancer of the National Ballet of Canada.
Maria has also played with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive and was an accompanist in the final rounds of the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world’s largest and more important ballet competitions. Recently, she started working with dancers at The Juilliard School.
It’s always a treat, she says, to take command of a grand piano.
She’s also had a gig with jazz bassist Paul Gill and has performed in a duo with Conrad Korsch, who was the longtime bassist and music director/bandleader for pop star Rod Stewart.
In 2015, she moved to New York City to deepen her appreciation of jazz, her father’s favorite genre.
“Classical is a totally different language,” she says. “Jazz is more spontaneous. I love to combine pop with improvisation and approach it from a jazz perspective by improvising.”
By the time she moved her keyboards to Astoria, in 2018, she had established a harmonious way of making a living doing what she loves.
She plays for ballet dancers in the mornings, teaches private piano lessons in the afternoons and performs at establishments like Astoria’s Last Word and Sonbobs in the evenings.
“What I love about music is that you always learn new things, you always get better – there are different ways to play a song,” she says. “You can always go deeper.”
Maria, who hasn’t been to Toronto since the pandemic, is not sure where she will end up geographically or professionally.
She misses her family a lot, but she loves New York, too.
Being in the city has fulfilled her lifelong dream.
“For all the opportunities, it seems everything really is possible here if you’re willing to put yourself out there,” she says. “My end goal as long as I’m here is to find new places to play. I enjoy every moment.”
As she gets up to leave, the man sitting at the next table engages her in conversation.
As it turns out, he spent several years in St. Petersburg, Russia studying visual arts and would like to hear her play.
They exchange first names, and she hands him her card.
She tells him she’s playing at The Last Word later.
It’s right down the street.
Perhaps she will see him again at the show.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling
I get up at 5 in the morning all seven days of the week.
It’s a habit I established about a decade ago when I got a puppy who was endowed with an adorably tiny bladder, and I took an administrative job at a university that required me to be at my desk at 8 a.m.
The puppy grew up – Zora will be 10 on the 21st of January – and the job dissolved when my boss unexpectedly died.
But for no plausible reason that I can come up with, I have continued this radical routine.
Bleary-eyed, I stumble out of bed, put Zora on her leash and go out to greet the other people on Ditmars Boulevard who rise before the sun.
Ditmars Boulevard may not be Penny Lane, but it does a possess a gritty sort of charm that can’t be found anywhere else, which is probably a good thing.
As the metal gates of Ditmars Deli & Grocery close with a clang, the commuters, the joggers and the sleepless are joined by the straggling all-nighters who have reluctantly called it a day.
“You’re out really late,” says a guy who walks by.
“Actually, I’m out early.”
“I guess it depends on your point of view.”
At the bus stop across the street, the plumber who works in a Manhattan apartment building snuffs out his last cigarette before he boards, and the aging waitress whose hair is in a bleach-blond beehive rushes to join him, just making it inside before the doors close.
The young woman from Connecticut who is an aspiring actress is walking to the subway on her way to the Manhattan restaurant that’s her day job.
She’s in charge of the a.m. opening. She’s smiling. She has her backpack, which means she’s going home to visit her parents for the weekend.
The woman walking briskly to Starbucks – the one who never greets me when I say hello and who stops and waits at every red light even when there are no cars – looks away as she passes by.
A 27th Street, there’s a bearded bear of a guy passed out at the curb, his legs sprawled dangerously into the street.
Before I can stop her, Zora nudges him with her nose, and his eyes pop open like crocuses breaking through the snow.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been there – he had a couple of drinks, OK make it too many beers, at Rocky McBride’s on 23rd Avenue.
He just lives up the street, he can even remember the exact address. But he can’t make it home alone.
He’s too heavy for me to lift so I call 911, and two big EMTs in an ambulance arrive to help him up.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran,” he says to me as they examine him. “God bless you, you’re an angel.”
Early morning, I have discovered, either makes people hit the mute button or encourages them to spill their guts out to strangers.
At Astoria Bagel Shop, a gray-haired man in a Con Ed uniform is waiting for the doors to open.
He lives on a farm upstate near Albany in an area he calls New York’s Swiss Alps.
Even when there’s no traffic, it takes him hours to get to work.
He pets Zora; he misses his year-old chocolate lab puppy.
He admits he’d rather be baling hay than buying a bagel, but what can you do?
He’s biding his time until retirement – he’ll be free before the end of 2022.
As we get closer to Immaculate Conception, where, lately a homeless couple have been sleeping on the front steps, I see the tiny, senior woman with the giant collie.
It’s not her first dog. She used to keep company with an aged collie who was trained to walk leash-less by her side.
This replacement, now obedient, was one hell of a wild puppy; he used to drag her around the block.
I’m admiring the window display at Ditmars Flower Shop when John Hoey, the longtime proprietor of O’Shea-Hoey Funeral Home, parks his ghost-grey stow-and-go van out front.
As he wheels in a bagged body, he says hello and smiles.
The dead are silent; he probably doesn’t get to talk to many living souls at daybreak.
There’s a lot more early-morning commotion on 31st Street than there used to be only a couple of years ago before it became a bustling mecca for the big, bad box stores.
Now, there’s always lot of activity at TJ Maxx, where white trucks pull up and disgorge boxes and boxes of stuff – so much stuff it’s hard to believe that there are enough people in the world, let alone in Astoria, to buy it all up.
Next door, the lights at sugar-sweet Krispy Kreme spotlight the sidewalk; the shelves are empty. As I turn away, the doughnut delivery truck pulls up.
I check my iPhone; it’s nearly 5:30.
Time to turn around and head for home.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at NRuhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling
She apologizes because her display is not finished; she likes to have everything perfect at all times.
She didn’t close the shop until 11:30 last night because some customers came in at the last minute for party dresses. They bought two in the window.
She’s replacing them with a long, lacy black gown and a delicate, diaphanous beaded 1920s-meets-2020s dress whose glitter is made for the dance floor.
When she’s done, she steps back to survey her work with a critical eye.
Vanessa, who opened Anoria in April, runs the seven-day-a-week boutique all by herself.
“I do it with love,” the 24-year-old says. “And when you do it with love, it’s not a burden. I wake up eager to start each day.”
Even, she adds, when those days don’t end until 11:30 p.m.
Vanessa, who was born in Veracruz, Mexico, and came to Astoria with her older brother to join her mother when she was 6, is used to hard work.
She got her first job – busing tables at a local eatery – when she was 16.
“Mama’s a single mother,” she says. “We lived with my grandmother in Mexico until she had enough money to send for us. Because I was so young, I don’t remember anything about that country.”
After graduating from P.S. 85, I.S. 141 and the Academy for Careers in Television & Film, Vanessa enrolled at the University of Hawaii Maui College with the idea of pursuing a career in the hospitality industry.
It was a long way from home, but “I was DACA, and Hawaii was one of the few states that allowed Dreamers to pay the much-cheaper in-state tuition if they could prove they lived there,” she says.
Paying her way through school “was really hard. I worked two retail jobs – at Macy’s and at Guess,” she says.
Ultimately, she left the university after only two years and returned to Astoria, taking a retail job with the military aviation-inspired apparel brand Top Gun at Queens Center then with a shop in SoHo.
The goal, even at that time, was to open her own clothing store.
“I love to see how clothes make people feel good,” she says, taking a frilly and flamboyant orange gown from the rack and holding it up to the mirror. “This is particularly important as we come out of the pandemic; women can come in here and find a pretty dress and face the world again.”
Anoria – the word is a combination of her mother’s and her grandmother’s first names and just happens to sound like and rhyme with Astoria – is a pandemic baby.
“Like a lot of people, I lost my job during covid,” Vanessa says. “So I started selling clothing my family made. We also began making face masks, which were in short supply at the time.”
Later, she expanded her sales items to include clothing made by Mexican artisans working in traditional styles.
“I realized that these makers were selling the clothing they made for food,” she says. “It broke my heart.”
Vanessa decided to find a way to help them.
“The idea of opening a store seemed so out of reach, especially during covid,” she says. “But I figured that I’d already lost everything, what more could I have to lose?”
The space practically fell into her hands – she spotted a “for rent” sign in the window.
“I’m grateful that the landlord decided to take a chance on me,” she says, adding that her mother and brother have moved into the apartment upstairs.
Her original concept was to stock Anoria exclusively with one-of-a-kind handmade items, everything from beaded jewelry, handwoven dresses and painted shawls to dolls and ceramic vases, from Mexico.
“I believe in fair trade and sharing art,” she says. “But I don’t make a profit on the handmade items, so I’ve added brand-name items to the shop. Anoria is not about getting rich; it’s about connecting with people.”
Sourcing the items was simple: Her mother and grandmother, who are artisans, have an extensive network of peers who are seeking buyers.
“I’m also doing this because I want to keep the local traditions alive,” Vanessa says. “Many of these skills are being lost.”
Anoria isn’t the only big change in Vanessa’s life. Recently, she got engaged.
Her fiancé, Edwin DeJesus Jr., ran on the Green Party ticket in the District 22 City Council race.
“He was my best friend in high school,” she says, adding that they hope to marry next year. “We started dating after I came back from Hawaii.”
Anoria has proved more successful than Vanessa envisioned, and she’s so thankful for the neighborhood’s support that she wants to add works by local artists.
“I will, of course, always carry the handmade Mexican works because they represent my heritage,” she says.
She smiles and gets ready to greet the first customer of the day.
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling
When she's a block from the subway corner, she stops, adjusts her eyeglasses and starts crooning her anthem, “Where the Boys Are.”
The sweetheart song, from the award-winning 1960 teen rom-com of the same name, was sung in the film by the then-23-year-old Connie Francis.
In the six decades since, Miss Marie, who is 90, has made it her own.
Her son, Elvis impersonator Gregg Peters, is her greatest fan and most ardent promoter.
“She looks younger than I do,” he says as he listens, enthralled. “And her voice … Some of the greatest stars in the world, including Sinatra, have heard her sing.”
Miss Marie acknowledges his compliments with a slight nod, adding that “all my life, I’ve been singing constantly. I always wanted to be a singer.”
This prompts Elvis to remind her to mention that her repertoire also includes “At Last,” which was on Etta James’ 1960 debut album, and “When I Fall in Love,” which was a hit for Doris Day in 1952.
Miss Marie, who has long black hair, nails painted with purple-sparkle polish and a black and white checked suit jacket that is defined by flamboyant cherry-red buttons, and Elvis have been performing together for nearly a half century, racking up an astounding 7,000 shows.
“Before Gregg was born, I prayed that he would a singer,” says Miss Marie.
Elvis flashes her a grin.
Miss Marie, who was born in Manhattan, spent a brief stint in Brooklyn before moving to Astoria when she was 20.
She has lived in the same apartment building for the last 55 years.
She married Col. Gregory Lecakes, who was two years her junior; it was he who set out to make her a superstar.
“I worked in office jobs and made demo records for major labels until I had Gregg,” she says.
Gregg, she says, started his Elvis imitations before he was enrolled in kindergarten.
Elvis adds that he made his first record when he was 15.
She always knew, even long before he did, she tells him, that he was destined for fame.
When the colonel, who died in 1990, wasn’t promoting Miss Marie, he was making his living designing costumes and sets for major Hollywood films.
“He worked on all of Mel Brooks’ movies,” Elvis says. “All in all, it was over 40 films.”
He mentions The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), The Producers (1967) and Don’t Drink the Water (1969).
But Miss Marie, he adds, is far more than a singer. She’s also a songwriter.
She got so good at it that in the late 1970s, early in Gregg’s career as “The King,” she was asked to collaborate with none other than songwriter Otis Blackwell, whose string of Elvis hits included “Don’t’ Be Cruel,” “Return to Sender” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Blackwell had written a series of songs that he hoped would crown Gregg as "The New Elvis."
Gregg recorded the RCA album – eight of Miss Marie’s songs were on it – but, at the last minute, it was shelved so as not to anger Elvis.
Miss Marie, demure and dainty, wrote her first song, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” when she was 40.
“It was inspired by my father,” she says, adding that she completed the lyrics in a couple of hours. “He was a very handsome man, and one day he remarked that he was looking in the mirror and saw that he was aging.”
As he has for the other 59 songs Miss Marie has written, Elvis composed the music.
“But I knew how I wanted it to go,” Miss Marie interjects. “He was the instrument for me.”
Together, they recite the lyrics:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall
Don’t you know it’s getting late for me
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Please have a little sympathy
Use your magic, make me dream.”
It was this song that Elvis offered to Engelbert Humperdinck.
“We were on the same bill in Westchester,” he says. “He listened to it but said it wasn’t for him. I had sung it on a worldwide TV show where I was introduced by Milton Berle.”
The song was, Miss Marie adds, her greatest success.
But, she’s quick to note, it’s won’t be her last.
Up until the pandemic, she was performing with Elvis three to five nights a week, and things are finally starting to swing for them again.
“I don’t feel like 90,” she says. “It’s just a number in my head.”
Elvis reminds her to talk about their latest project: a documentary about them.
It’s in post-production; Netflix, he says, is interested.
“I just love to sing and be with Gregg all my life,” Miss Marie says, gazing adoringly at her son.
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling
There is an art to breathing life into a balloon.
Hampton Keith Bishop selects one of the 600,000 unblown balloons that are hanging on the wall in a rainbow of color.
It happens to be a pretty pearl lemon chiffon hue.
He attaches it to a precision air inflator, the black box that can be carefully calibrated to release .1 to 9.9 seconds of air in a single instance.
He sets the buttons — .5 of a second, 1 second, 1.5 seconds – stopping at each to show the results as he pumps up the balloon to the perfect size.
Size isn’t the only balloon attribute Hampton can change; he’s an expert at altering colors.
He deflates the pearl lemon chiffon balloon and stuffs it with a spring green balloon, inserting one inside the other on the top of a long stick.
The black box does its magic, and the balloon-within-the-balloon blossoms into a luminous green/gold watermelon.
“It is,” he says, “like mixing paint.”
Since he started HKBalloons NYC at the end of 2015, Hampton has literally blown up hundreds of thousands of balloons sans a single premature pop.
In 2018, for a satellite show by Maarkah at the Museum of the City of New York during New York Fashion Week, models wore gowns made of HKBalloons (Hampton didn’t have a dress form handy so he used a body-size inflatable Champagne bottle as a size guide for the expandable couture).
And in the depths of the pandemic Hampton created elaborate holiday balloon scenes outside his home office on Astoria Boulevard South facing Astoria Park.
“I didn’t have anything to do during the lockdowns,” he says. “I just needed to create something, so I designed them as messages of hope.”
Balloons, you see, represent happiness to Hampton, who is from Bowling Green, Kentucky.
(If you listen carefully, you can still hear a slight accent through his smooth stage voice.)
He twisted his first balloon in first grade after his babysitter gave him a book on the subject.
His neighbor, a Ringling Bros clown who owned a costume shop, allowed Hampton to work in the store, tutored him on balloon twisting and mentored him on the finer points of musical theater, which was Hampton’s major at Belmont University.
“I was always fascinated by balloons and hot-air balloons,” Hampton says, “and I used to build giant sculptures out of trash bags in my front yard when I was a child. I loved being able to create something out of nothing.”
After graduating from college and working at Dollywood, Hampton moved to Astoria to hit the New York City musical-theater audition circuit.
Like all performers, he took a variety of jobs to pay the rent.
His stints with the custom holiday design company American Christmas, the show producer RWS Entertainment Group and the party store Balloon Saloon proved pivotal to the formation of HKBalloons NYC.
The company (the HKB is Hampton’s monogram, and he’s delighted that it just so happens to end in B for balloon!) started out as nothing more than an imaginative idea.“I started in my apartment with three to four bags of balloons,” he says. “And I twisted balloons in Central Park for tips at the end of the month to make enough money to pay my rent. Suddenly, it just took off.”
Hampton, who is a solo show, runs the company out of his basement and lives in the apartment above the office.
Sometimes clients ask him to replicate their designs; other times, they commission him to come up with ideas and execute them.
Large projects are blown up in sections in Hampton’s office and assembled on site, a job he likens to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“Sometimes, they take up my entire apartment, too,” he says, adding that when there’s still not enough space, he rents a box truck to store and transport them.
In May 2019, for instance, when HKBalloons NYC created the SNL set for the Jonas Brothers, Hampton made the 5,000-balloon sculpture in sections and trucked it to the Manhattan studio.
“I actually created it twice,” he says. “I did one for the color check and one for the live show. I popped all the balloons of the first one with a scissors.”
That one really hurt, Hampton says, because nobody except the production crews got to see it.
That’s the thing about balloon sculptures – they are appealing, in large part, precisely because, like bouquets of live blooms, they aren’t supposed to last forever.
Speaking of forever, Hampton, who just turned 33, isn’t sure where his balloon business will lead him.
He’s at a point where he can pick and choose his projects; he’s just not sure what the next big thing will be.
He’s thought about expanding and hiring people to help him, but for now, he’ll just take things one balloon at a time.
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling
“It’s better than going to the gym,” he says, pausing only long enough to point out the art along the way.
In the entry, there are a pair of landscapes in gilded plaster frames that are original to the building, which was erected in the early 1900s.
On the first floor, there’s a bright mural of a polychrome toucan by the Mexico City-based artist Senu.
The second floor is defined by an eye-popping mesmerizing maze painted on the wall by Heart 1 of Jersey City.
Up until recently, the hallway walls of the eight-unit building were standard-issue apartment white, but they needed to be painted so Mike-171 is filling them, floor by floor, with street graffiti art he’s commissioning from around the world.
“I told the landlord I would paint the walls, but I didn’t tell him with what,” he says, grinning unapologetically. “The people who live here like them – they put people in a good mood, and they allow them to leave their troubles behind when they walk into the building.”
When he reaches his top-floor apartment, he ascends a final set of steps and flings open the black metal door.
Welcome to the Rooftop Graffititeria, Mike-171’s own personal 5Pointz.
“This is my office,” he says, waving his arm toward a space defined by a square of artificial turf, a bright blue kiddie pool where he and Charlie Brown cool their feet, a half-dozen folding chairs and tiny green twinkling lights shaped like cacti. “It’s a sanctuary where artists can express themselves without being harassed.”
The word got out, and the walls got tagged.
Mike-171 – that’s the graffiti tag he’s been using since he was 12 – was born Mike Hughes (“H-u-g-h-e-s like Howard Hughes, but I don’t have his money but I’m rich in my heart,” he says).
The 171 refers to the street in Washington Heights where he was born, bred and raised and where he picked up his first bottle of white shoe polish and used it to mark out his territory for all the city to see.
Later he switched to colored markers then traded them for cans of spray paint.
“My father had just died, and I had taken a job as a delivery boy for an A&P grocery store,” he says, adding that he had been hustling to make money since he was about 10, doing things like selling lemonade in the neighborhood.
Graffiti, he says, gave him an identity.
“It was by kids for kids; it was our own underground culture,” he says. “The streets became my family.”
It was a tumultuous time, even for children lucky enough to be raised by two parents.
The Vietnam War was in full swing, and the city was infamous the world over for drugs, gangs and cop corruption.
There was a lot to rebel against.
Mike-171 and his pioneering graffiti buddies “declared war on New York City Transit; we used to be in the subway tunnels from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. Our graffiti brought them to life – it was like a rolling gallery of art.”
After being expelled from George Washington High School, Mike-171 had a friend forge his birth certificate, adding a year to his age so he could join the Marines at 16.
“But they caught me – they literally grabbed me by the neck as I was about to get on the bus that was taking us to boot camp,” he says. “They told me I had to wait until I was 17.”
He and his tag waited, impatiently it should be noted.
A year later, he joined the Navy and was assigned to an aircraft carrier.
He never got to Vietnam, but he did tour Europe – “yes, I left my tag in several cities” – and after a series of hair-raising events, including one where shipmates tried to throw him overboard, he was honorably discharged, having served a year and a half.Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
When he came back home, he started painting.
But there’s nothing artistic about brushing colors on the interiors and exteriors of homes, so he searched for more engaging employment.
Ultimately, he settled on construction work as a career.
In 1993, he and his wife moved into the three-bedroom apartment they and 9-year-old Charlie Brown occupy.
Mike-171 temporarily retired his tag while he was busy working and raising his two children there but revived it after seeing his friends’ work at art galleries.
“We had the basement and the back yard,” he says. “So I had room to work. I’m now the super of my building and the two next to it, and the landlords allow me to put up the murals. I saw the rooftop as a blank canvas. The artists come from all over – Paris, London, Japan, Puerto Rico, Florida and even Queens.”
Aside from graffiti art, 9/11 was the other defining factor in Mike-171’s life.
A volunteer with the New York City Citizens Police Academy, a civilian training program, Mike-171 raced to Ground Zero right after the first tower fell.
“I was standing on the sidewalk outside the second tower when it was hit,” he says. “I was a first responder and a survivor.”
An associate producer of the 2016 documentary Wall Writers, Mike-171 is devoting himself to telling the story of the city’s graffiti artists, a task that will be much easier now that he has retired.
He’s also writing a book about the Washington Heights he knew during the 1950s through the 1970s.
It’s a project he started all the way back in 1996 and is based on the journals he has been keeping.
“We old-time graffiti artists still get together and do a lot of legal walls with landlords’ permission,” he says, adding that it’s imperative “to keep graffiti art alive because a lot of us are dying.”
Graffiti art got Mike-171 through some tough times, and he’d like to use it to help other troubled teens.
“I’m still that 12-year-old kid with fire burning in my heart,” he says as he sits sunning himself in his office. “I want to keep the flame burning and pass it along to the next generation.”
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling
The muscle man with the booming voice, shaved head and neon blue eyes who calls himself Sick Walt is pacing up and down the dining room of his apartment like a lion trying to break out of a zoo cage.
He doesn’t like sitting still, never has, that’s something all his high school teachers could have told you.
A big buy with an even bigger smile, Sick Walt has a no-holds-barred, rollicking laugh that makes you want to crack up, too.
He’s a nuclear bomb waiting to explode.
He’s a volcano spewing a kaleidoscope of feelings.
He’s a machine gun rapid-firing word after word after word.
Intense. Emotive. Gregarious.
There’s no way you can’t notice him; he even makes a football stadium look Lilliputian.
But just who is this Sick Walt?
That’s what he’s pondering.
Sick Walt is not a stage name.
Sick Walt is not a personality.
Sick Walt is not, heaven forbid, a brand.
“Sick Walt,” he finally declares, gesturing grandly with his hands, “is a way of being.”
He looks proud at this pronouncement.
But, OK, what exactly does that mean?
“It’s leading by expression, leading by example, talk is cheap, extreme passion, punk-minded, always fighting for the underdog,” he says.
Like a driver trying to avoid a crash, he suddenly stomps on the brakes.
He needs to think about this.
Give him a couple of minutes.
He steps out of the room and bounds back in seconds later.
Now he has it.
“Sick Walt is love of the dark and the light,” he says. “I’m a huge proponent of the importance of knowing who you are as well as who you aren’t. I come at peace, but I’m ready to fight.”
Sick Walt – he was christened Walter Novak but was called Walt until his high school buddies conferred the sick nickname upon him – is the singer in the band SickWalt (yes, it’s only one word to distinguish it from, you guessed it, Sick Walt).
Born in Hollis, Queens, Sick Walt frequently came to Astoria to visit his great-grandparents, who emigrated from Abruzzo, Italy.
Look out the front window.
That’s where they used to live.
“I’m of Italian, Armenian and German heritage,” Sick Walt says, adding that he identifies with his Italian roots because “Italian is big and full of love.”
Sick Walt, who is the oldest of three boys, hates to admit that he grew up in the staid historic village of Roslyn, Long Island.
He was lucky, though, because it just happened to be the home of My Father’s Place, the club that, in its heyday in the 1970s, attracted all the big rock-and-roll bands.
Sports, not music, was Sick Walt’s first love, and it took him a long time to find his voice.
“I never took music lessons,” he says. “I did play the trombone in seventh and eighth grade. And I sang in the shower.”
While he was at Chaminade, an all-boys private Roman Catholic high school, he played baseball and football, and at home he listened to the classical and opera records his father played.
“I was the smart class clown and the jock with an artistic mind,” he says. “I had a stack of 45s next to my bed and a Fisher-Price record player. The Beatles, the Bee Gees, Johnny Cash, Diana Ross – it was an eclectic mix of music. I trace my punk roots to the time I was 7 years old. I jumped up on my bed with a tennis racket and played and sang ‘Revolution’ with The Beatles.”
He acts out the singing scene, playing an air guitar instead of a tennis racket.
“I was a super-energetic kid,” he says. “I was always a ball and bundle of energy, and music kept me moving.”
After graduating from Fordham University with a degree in communications and a minor in German and singing in a cover band, Sick Walt set out on a traditional (he means boring!) career path, taking what he calls a corporate “suit job” in a financial institution.
“I have a good time wherever I am or whatever I do, but even though I was paid well, I hated it,” he says, trying to imagine why he ever signed up for such a position.
He wasn’t happy but had planned to stay because, well, that’s what adults do.
Until he took his younger brother to an acting class.
“It opened my eyes, and it dropped a bomb on me,” he says. “The moment is pivotal.”
Soon, he was taking classes and getting parts and rounding out his income by bartending in East Village music clubs.
In 2001, he went to Los Angeles for what he thought would be a short stay.
“It was the day before 9/11,” he says. “I knew that New York was going to be dead for a long time, so I started a new life in California.”
That new life revolved around music clubs and acting.
He stayed until 2008, when he got an offer to run a club in Manhattan.
“I came back like a cat thrown into a pool,” he says, shaking his head. “I was shattered – people in LA have no appreciation for the divinity of creativity.”
He settled in Astoria in 2010 and immediately got to work co-writing a couple of screenplays.
Since then, he’s done a variety of jobs, including hosting a radio show and teaching music to Rikers Island prisoners; he’s currently a location scout for the CBS-TV drama “FBI.”
In 2013, Sick Walt entered a different stage of life when he helped a friend book a band at the Bowery Ballroom.
“My friend asked me to sing with the band, so I did,” he says.
Sick Walt and SickWalt were killing it when the pandemic silenced them.
“We’re starting from scratch again,” he says, adding that the band’s second album will be released in February. “We’re taking things in baby steps.”
He hopes to get SickWalt on the road soon.
“I want to get out there and play,” he says. “We need to be heard – you can’t deny a creative flame that wants to come out like a phoenix.”
Sick Walt grins.
Whatever happens, he’s had a pretty good run in his first 49 years.
“I’ve done it, I’ve been there,” he says. “My life is unbelievable. I’m a millionaire inside.”
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling