Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 28550 views | 0 0 comments | 151 151 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

view as list
Astoria Characters: The One and Only Gildo
by Nruhling
Oct 15, 2019 | 63 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the diversified artist.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


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

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

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo’s a native-born Astoria Character.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo’s a photographer and a model.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo getting into the swing of things.

He’s a pro at posing.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo and his camera have traveled to 35 countries.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo owns the house his grandmother bought.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo striking a pose.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo in the garden.

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

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo wearing his signature scarf.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the family portrait.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the profile.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gildo, the posed pause.

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

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

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

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

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The Pedaling Pedagogue
by Nruhling
Oct 08, 2019 | 254 views | 0 0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben works for the city’s Department of Education.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben rides his bike to work nearly every day.

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

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

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

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben proposed to his wife at their first meeting.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

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

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

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s training teachers and principals.

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

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

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



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

His work is about changing lives.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: On the Street Where I Live -- 10 Years Later
by Nruhling
Oct 01, 2019 | 400 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Green Farmer

When I started writing Astoria Characters 10 years ago, I didn’t know how long I would continue it, and I didn’t know where it would lead.

The premise was simple: Every week, I would write a profile on a person who lived in our neighborhood.

I would tell the story of each person’s life – in pictures and words.

I was still new to Astoria, and I didn’t know any of you.

I saw all of us as supporting actors in a major motion picture, the characters, who in the credits, are described as “the guy in the coffee shop,” “the tall man wearing the shorts,” “the red-haired woman with the little black dog” and the “the celebrity chef.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Italian Fairy

My role in this home-grown production, as I saw it then, was “the new kid on the block.”

I thought writing Astoria Characters would be a good way to meet my neighbors and to get to know my neighborhood.

(It also gave me an excuse to take photos, something I love to do.)

The blog started out in the New York edition of the Huffington Post, which is now known as the HuffPost.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Yogi Who Has 5 College Degrees

I always tell people that I got the gig (which paid no money but supposedly rewarded me with immense prestige) because the editors couldn’t find any other writers for this new section.

At that time, the Huffington Post only posted political stories, and I was suggesting writing profiles of people nobody had ever heard of.

When I tell people that I’ve written 520 profiles, they are astounded by the number and are surprised that I could find so many interesting people in a single neighborhood.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Puppy and the Pepper

But I know that I’ve merely scratched the surface; every day, there are new people with new ideas moving to Astoria.

Through the years, I’ve covered everyone from chefs and clowns to cat rescuers and World War II veterans to veteran shopkeepers.

I’ve visited bakeries, restaurants, pharmacies, dance studios, jewelry stores, boutiques, artists’ ateliers and even a bagel factory, a cheese cave, a funeral parlor, a piano factory and an urban farmstead.

I’ve had a pizza named after me — it’s called the Nancy and it’s topped with home-grown Astoria figs.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The 92-Year-Old Vet Fighting for His Wife

I’ve met people of all ages – the oldest character had 101 candles on her birthday cake when her story ran, and the youngest, 11, started his first business when he was 3.

I’ve talked to hair stylists, financial advisers, actors, singers, champion ballroom dancers,  musicians and even a medium and the Italian Fairy.

I’ve been serenaded by a ukulele, a saw and a singing baker, whom I dubbed “the cookie crooner.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Senior Stunt Man

I’ve chanted with a yogi, watched a puppet show, taken a guitar lesson and eaten leaves from an organic garden.

I’ve petted cats and dogs and baby squirrels and watched pigeons wing it through a character’s living room.

I’ve seen chickens lay eggs on a character’s kitchen floor. I’ve peered back at a pet rat – it was, thankfully, in its cage.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Little Young Lady Driving the Hummer

And I’ve carefully, very carefully followed a beekeeper as he tended to his buzzing hives.

I have had the chance to visit, through each character’s eyes, virtually every state in the country and every nation in the world.

I never thought I would meet someone who grew up on a yak farm in Tibet and came to America to make ice cream, a delicacy she had never tasted.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Drag Queen

Or become acquainted with someone who switched sides from Italy to America in the middle of World War II by literally jumping ship.

We are all different people, of course, but most of all we are a community.

Astoria Characters, I’ve heard about your hopes and your dreams and your successes and your failures.

But most of all, you’ve told me how much you love this neighborhood, which is considered the globe’s most diverse.

I’m looking forward to the next decade – I can’t wait to meet the next 520 Astoria Characters.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The 99-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor
by Nruhling
Sep 24, 2019 | 429 views | 0 0 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Margot was born in Dresden.


Text and Photos by  Nancy A. Ruhling

After she settles herself into her favorite chair, Margot Karp puts on her spectacles.

The lenses, big and round, are rose-colored.

Margot, elegant in a black dress, stockings and dress shoes, lips a subtle shade of rose red, just turned 99.

She’s a sparrow of a woman.

When asked how tall she is, she deftly answers, “You mean how short am I; I’m 4 foot 11. In my heyday, I was five feet and one-half inch.”

Ninety-nine is a very long time to live, especially if you’ve been through what Margot has.

Margot doesn’t want to dwell on negative things – life is far too short for that – but she’s decided that at her age, there are things, important things, that must be said and recorded for posterity.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Margot survived the Holocaust.

Even so, she’s a reluctant interviewee. When she’s reminded that this profile has been 10 years in the making, she looks astounded. Surely she hasn’t put things off that long.

Margot is a Holocaust survivor. In 1998, she told her story to Steven Spielberg and his USC Shoah Foundation Institute. She figured that going through the horrific details of the war years once was enough and has retained a public silence until now.

Margot, her younger sister and parents were Jews living in Dresden, Germany when Hitler came to power and began exterminating the European Jewish population.

It was 1933. She was only 13.

Her father, a merchant, was a native of Warsaw, Poland; her mother, a master tailor with her own atelier, was, like her daughters, born in Germany.

“We immediately felt the effects of Nazi policies,” she says. “My mother wanted me to study in Heidelberg, but all of my dreams vanished.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She married a U.S. soldier.

By 1937, things were so bad that Margot’s mother killed herself.

“She was only 40,” Margot says. “She turned the gas on on the stove. This was not unusual; we knew many people who had committed suicide because of Hitler. The next year, my father took an overdose of pills, but I got him to the hospital in time.”

Shortly thereafter, the family, along with thousands of other Poles, was deported to Poland. Left on the Polish side of the border, they made their way to Warsaw to try to find members of her father’s family. They were unsuccessful.

 “My sister had a visa for Palestine, so she went there on the child rescue that was sponsored by Youth Aliyah,” Margot says. “I was too old to do that.”

Poland, however, had other ideas for Margot and her father.



Margot and her younger sister with their nanny.

“They held us at gunpoint and told us to go back to Germany,” she says. “The Germans didn’t know what to do with us, so they put us in prison for illegal entry.”

As an inmate, Margot was placed in a sewing pool.

“My job was to sew buttons on cardboard cards so they could be sold in shops,” she says. “I used  the scissors to try to open up my wrists.”

After three months, Margot and her father were released and returned to Dresden.

“Once there, we were told that we had two weeks to get out or we would go to a concentration camp,” she says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

In August, Margot turned 99.

A Jewish organization, Gemeinde, and Margot’s one-time fiance helped them get safe passage to Cambridge, England, where Margot worked as a cashier in a restaurant.

One of her customers provided her a reference for the U.S. Army, which she joined. Right after the war, she was deployed to Frankfurt.

“I censored the mail that was coming through,” she says. “They were looking for Nazis, specifically for letters to and from German scientists who were sent to New Mexico.”

She also served as a translator at the Nuremberg trials, poring over documents detailing atrocities from the death camps.

While she was in Frankfurt, she met her husband, Martin, at a USO club. They married in 1946; Martin passed away late last year.

They came to the United States in 1948, settling in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after living with his parents in Williamsburg. Later, they moved to Queensview, where Margot still lives.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She was a translator at the Nuremberg trials.

But they made one key step before their journey: They visited Eagle’s Nest, the Nazi Party’s outpost on the summit of the Kehlstein, a mountain near Berchtesgaden, Germany.

Margot brings out a leather-bound photo album. It’s filled with black and white prints. By one of the photos, she’s printed, in stark-white letters: “The view from Hitler’s house.”

“I was full of hate for him,” she says. “I wanted to see these things for myself – many people were going to these places for the same reason.”

The so-called nest is reached by a steep, winding road, which Hitler reportedly was terrified of.

“He was evil, but he also was a goddamned coward,” Margot says, adding that she and Martin ascended via Jeep without any anxiety or misadventure. “When I saw the barracks where the SS stayed, it made me realize that Hitler knew he was doing bad things because he knew he needed their protection.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Her story is archived in the Shoah Foundation.

Once they settled in New York, Martin worked in the garment district, and Margot got a job in the office of the Abraham & Straus department store in Manhattan.

When her daughter, Carol, was born, Margot became a stay-at-home mother. Later, she got a job as the central files manager for TIAA-CREF.

“I was there for 32 years,” she says proudly. “I was 80 when I retired; I just decided that I had had enough of working.”

Margot has graciously accepted the course her life has taken; she doesn’t think about what might have been.

But she does miss Germany. “I love it,” she says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Margot: ‘I lived it.’

As death thins the ranks of Holocaust survivors, Margot says it’s important to remember to never forget.

“It’s a part of history,” she says. “You will hear people talking about it, but I lived it.”

Margot, who is cared for part time by an aide, has hearing aids and uses a walker to get around, says that every second of life is precious.

“It’s incredible that I got away from Nazi Germany with my life,” she says.

She looks forward to the little things. Carol, who lives in the San Francisco area, calls her every day, and she eagerly follows the latest news of her granddaughter, who is 30.

“People always ask me how I have managed to live so long,” Margot says. “I don’t know that there’s any secret to it. But I do have a sense of humor.”

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The Paper Engineer
by Nruhling
Sep 17, 2019 | 663 views | 0 0 comments | 53 53 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gene is a paper engineer/graphic designer/illustrator.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


From the stack of books on his desk, Gene Vosoughbrings forth a gold-tooled tome that’s the color of red henna.

He opens it and tucks in a tab or two, transforming it into a six-sided sculpture that looks like a lantern-style lampshade.

The book, which served as a wedding invitation for a couple in India and took six months to complete, is one of the many carefully choreographed cutouts that Gene spends his time creating.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gene’s pop-up wedding invitation.

Gene, a paper engineer/graphic designer/illustrator, began his artistic endeavors at an early age.

His father, an artist/teacher and industrial designer who also acted as the architect of the family’s home in Baltimore, and his mother, a violinist who earned her living giving lessons, made him their prime pupil. He’s an only child, so they had much time to devote to him.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A detail of the wedding invitation.

Under their tutelage, Gene completed his first painting – in oil – when he was 3 and started trying to figure out the violin when he was 4.

“I quickly discovered that I’m not musically inclined,” he says sans regret. “I still have the instrument – it’s 1/16th size, which is the second tiniest you can get. My lessons ended long before my fifth birthday.”

Gene’s interest in the other arts, however, soared and by age 10, he was learning carpentry in his father’s at-home woodworking shop.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gene grew up in Baltimore.

“It just clicked with me,” he says.

Throughout high school, Gene continued to paint and putter in the workshop, but he never seriously considered fine art as a career. In fact, he embarked upon the study of architecture.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

One of Gene’s illustrations.

“I was fascinated by all the templates and equipment that architects used and that I always saw around our house,” he says.

By his second year at the University of Maryland, however, Gene started to rethink his goals.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gene designs children’s books.

“I didn’t have the concentration for architecture,” he says. “I still liked art and thought about it, but my father reminded me that if I decided to pursue it, I would have a hard, hard life financially.”

So he did the sensible thing and got his degree in advertising and design. Straight from school, he was hired by a Washington, D.C. ad agency.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

An anime-inspired illustration.

When he got laid off, a year and a half later, he wasn’t too upset.

“I realized it wasn’t for me, so I went back to Baltimore and freelanced, taking any work I could get,” he says.

He got his next job, as a senior designer of children’s books, by answering an ad in the newspaper. Eventually, he became the art director for another publishing house.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A greeting card with Gene’s pop-up hearts.

While he was in that job, Gene got to visit New York City frequently and stay in the company apartment.

When a friend moved to Manhattan, he asked Gene whether he wanted to share an apartment.

“He was getting married in six months so the deal was that I could live with him until the wedding,” Gene says. “He didn’t charge me much rent. I didn’t look too hard for a job; I spent my time running all over town.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gene spent seven years caring for his parents.

Gene, affable and easygoing, fell in love with the art scene and the energy of the city and decided to relocate. He stayed in the publishing industry, working full time and taking on freelance projects.

“I got really burnt out working so much,” he says. “I was making a good living, but I wasn’t having fun any more.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A detail of a pop-up Gene created for a book on birds.

In 2007, he became a full-time freelancer, designing children’s books for publishers and creating projects such as pop-up wedding invitations for private clients, which include Sonbobs, the bakery near his apartment.

He converted the bedroom in his apartment into his office, partitioning the living room to create a small sleeping space.

“I survived the recession of 2008-09,” he says. “And other ups and downs, but I always landed on my feet.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Celestial circles.

Gene also spent much time caring for his parents in the last years of their lives.

“Being an only child and dealing with two parents passing takes a lot out of you,” he says. “I was on a raft by myself.”

Now, after seven years of back-and-forth commuting for care-giving, Gene is restarting his life.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gene’s working on a project that features mini oil paintings.

“I’ve had to put off a lot of things because of their health issues,” he says. “But for the last three months since they’re both gone, I’ve made trips to the family home in Baltimore, and I’ve started to enjoy being there again.”

One of his latest projects is a series of oil paintings on wood. He found the scraps in the Baltimore workshop and built a tiny easel to work on them.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A robot greeting card.

“I like to think outside my comfort zone,” he says as he assembles the easel and places it on his desk. “I started making the tiny paintings – some are only 2 inches by 2 inches – because I used the wood that I had.”

Gene has been so busy for such a long time that he hasn’t thought about what his next venture will be.

He has a couple of ideas for children’s books and sometimes wishes he could spend all his time in the Baltimore woodworking shop, where things are peaceful and quiet.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gene at home in his office.

In the next five years, he’d like to retire yet still do passion projects.

“Life’s good again,” he says. “I’m starting to enjoy life again for the first time in a long time. It’s new for me.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Saved the Cat That Fell From the Sky
by Nruhling
Sep 10, 2019 | 662 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

By now, most of you probably have heard the story.

Phil Cappadora was on his bicycle making a Postmates food delivery at noon on July 25 on 27th Street and Hoyt Avenue when he heard about an injured cat lying on the sidewalk nearby.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Phil’s an actor: His role on July 25 was saving Ava.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

By now, most of you probably have heard the story.

Phil Cappadora was on his bicycle making a Postmates food delivery at noon on July 25 on 27th Street and Hoyt Avenue when he heard about an injured cat lying on the sidewalk nearby.

When Phil arrived at the scene, people were standing around and staring at the unfortunate feline, discussing whether it had been thrown from the roof of the four-story building that was under renovation or whether it had killed off a number of its nine lives by doing a daredevil dive from it.

Phil, mustached and muscled, grabbed a box from a nearby pharmacy, scooped the orange ball of fur into his arms and pedaled to the nearest veterinarian.

The cat wasn’t the only one in trouble. Phil, who has two part-time jobs, is trying to make his living as an actor.

The vet said the cat, which Phil named Avalanche because she came tumbling down from the sky, had a concussion and needed lots of tender loving care that could cost a couple thousand dollars.

Phil didn’t have the money, so he posted about his plight on social media, begging the community to come to his and Ava’s rescue.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ava is now part of Phil’s family.

Within hours of sharing the photo of the bloodied beast, he had collected $2,800, more than enough to give Avalanche, or Ava as he calls her for short, a start at a new life.



“I still get emotional talking about what happened,” Phil says.

Ava, who is recuperating from spay surgery, is sitting on the sofa with a clear cone around her neck, looking lovingly up at Phil, the big, brave guy who rescued her.

Lilly, Phil’s other cat, is prancing around the apartment. The felines are still getting used to each other. Sometimes, they get into cat spats.

While much has been made of the 2-year-old Ava, her pre-Phil life remains a mystery.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Phil works two part-time jobs to support his acting career.

Ava’s owners, it there are any, have not come forward to claim her, and since she’s not chipped, Phil has adopted her.

Being in the right place at the right time – that happens a lot in Phil’s life.

Phil, who was born in hard-working Canarsie, Brooklyn, was raised in the tiny upstate pastoral village of Goshen, where his parents moved when he was 6.

 

“I found stray cats and dogs when I was a kid and brought them home,” he says, hugging Ava.

More recently, a kitten, meowing its fluffy little head off, appeared on his front doorstep; Phil, of course, took it in. A friend adopted it.

After Phil graduated from high school, he became an ironworker; his first project was The New York Times building. He was all set to go to college – he had hopes to get on the football team — when an accident sidelined him.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ava recovering from spay surgery.

“I was playing basketball and slipped on some water on the court,” he says. “Among other things, I broke my ankle and hurt my shoulder. My right side was so banged up it took me a year and a half to recover fully.”

After his last surgery, in 2008, Phil enrolled in Orange County Community College in Middletown, New York, working 45 hours per weekend as a bartender and a pizza deliverer to earn enough to cover his weekly bills.

“I slept on the bus on the way to school,” he says.

He had thought about going into business, so he signed up for a theatre course to improve his public-speaking skills.

“I know this sounds dramatic, but it was a turning point in my life,” he says. “It was different from anything I had ever done, and it felt so easy.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Phil grew up in Goshen.

He continued his acting education in New York City, first at The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts then at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.

For four years, he had steady acting work, mostly in theatrical roles in productions that were being staged upstate.

“I didn’t really have a permanent place,” he says, adding that the was going back and forth between Goshen and New York City. “I was couch surfing.”

Five years ago, another unexpected event occurred in Phil’s life. He met his wife, Claudia, on Tinder. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Phil got into acting by accident.

Claudia, a native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, had come to New York City on vacation; time constraints prevented them from going on a date, but they got to know each other via video chats.

They married in 2016, and in 2017, they moved to Astoria.

“The closest thing to my big break came the week following my honeymoon in Brazil,” Phil says. “I got to arrest Robert Pattinson in the feature film Good Time. It was the 15th time in my career that I had played a cop.”

Phil has continued to act – he has a really long resume, which included a steady gig as a standardized patient at the Middletown campus of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, a role that required him to act out symptoms of diseases to help train medical students.

 

These days, Phil’s doing the deliveries that led him to Ava and working part time in the produce department at Costco.

“Five years ago, I thought I was going to make it as an actor,” he says and shrugs, adding that yes, sometimes he does get a little depressed about his prospects.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Fated to be together.

But he figures that he’s only 32; he still has time to make his mark as an actor, producer and director. In fact, he’s just finished a screenplay, which is under consideration.

What’s his goal? Instead of instantly answering, Phil walks into the other room and comes out confidently holding two faux Oscars in front of him.

“I want the gold,” he says and smiles.

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 15. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The Green-Juice Gardener
by Nruhling
Sep 03, 2019 | 829 views | 0 0 comments | 204 204 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Robert is the founder of the juice business The Highest Good.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“Try this.”

Robert Urban plucks a little leaf off the sorrel next to his feet.

The herb tastes tantalizingly tart. Like a lemon.

Next, he offers a stevia leaf, a sweet counterpoint.

Nearly everything in Robert’s 2,000-square-foot garden, which has 100 varieties of vegetables and herbs, is edible.

Much of what Robert grows, in a rented plot behind an attached row house and in a smaller space that are right by his apartment, is used to produce his line of organic, cold-pressed green-leaf juices that he calls The Highest Good.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Robert’s backyard garden.

(He gives the excess cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and other vegetables to what he calls his extended family, which, as it turns out, is everyone in the neighborhood who asks him for produce.)

Robert harvests the leaves, – and sometimes adds store-bought greens like kale – extracts their juices, pours them into glass bottles and personally delivers them via bicycle to some three dozen health-conscious customers in Manhattan. Any excess juice is fed to the plants.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kissing peppers.

“Green-leaf vegetables are the most nutritious nature provides,” he says. “There is no one else making a juice that is made primarily from green leaves because of the economic hurdles.”

The Highest Good, which is named for the expression coined by the Roman philosopher Cicero, also has another distinction: At $13 to $18 per 17-ounce jar, the custom concoctions are the most expensive juices in the city.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Dill, in bloom.

Although Robert, aka Rob the Gardener, started cultivating his business over a decade ago when he moved to Astoria, he’s had a lifelong interest in health, medicine and nutrition.

“Everyone in my family is an MD,” he says, adding that neither he nor his sister carried on the tradition. “I was frowned upon for not taking that route, but in a sense, I’m doing something similar to medicine in a preventative sense – food will be thy medicine.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Robert was born in the Czech Republic.

Robert’s family left Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, to escape communism after he graduated from first grade. They settled in Chicago, where Robert’s grandfather, who, of course, was a doctor, lived and where Robert stayed until he went to college.

He had ambitions to be a lawyer, so he majored in political science and philosophy at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He also played a lot of tennis.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Robert’s garden has some 100 varieties of vegetables and herbs.

“It was a small school – nobody else was studying philosophy, so there were eight kids per class,” he says. “It was 180 miles from Chicago – not too far from home and not too close.”

Upon graduation, Robert decided to move to Manhattan with no particular plan in mind other than to see where destiny would lead him.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Robert started his garden 11 years ago.

Robert, who has chiseled features, shoulder-length undulating locks, sparkling white teeth and magnificent muscles, made his living (barely) by modeling. He also toyed with the idea of acting.

After three years, he left for Los Angeles.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nearly everything in the garden, including the sunflowers, is edible.

“I wanted to try another big American city while I was young,” he says.

It was there that he became conscious of the vegan culture.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Finished.

He made his living as a personal trainer and started making healthy shakes.

“People kept telling me that I should go into the health-food business,” he says.

When he moved back to New York three years later and his modeling career ended with the 2007-09 recession, he decided to concentrate on cultivating not only his garden but also his mind and body, which means lifting weights and running several miles a day in addition to biking over the Triborough to Manhattan to make deliveries.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sometimes Robert works in the garden from dawn to dusk.

“I have a strong inner need to be active,” he says. “Healthy food provides me with the fuel to do this.”

Robert, who has only one employee, a bottle washer, sometimes works from dawn to dusk.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The harvest.

It is crucial, he says, that the juices be delivered fresh.

“Although they will keep up to five days because of the proprietary process I use, I deliver them four hours after the ingredients are harvested,” he says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He has plans to expand the juicing business.

At one time, Robert’s juice business was much larger, complete with a commercial kitchen, but he has deliberately scaled back. He’s writing a new, more ambitious business plan.

“I believe in pacing myself,” he says, adding that he wants continuous rather than casual customers.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The ripening.

“It’s not a race,” he says. “I will launch with the help of others.”

Robert, who punctuates his pronouncements with quotes from Plato and Aristotle, sees his juices as a way to get people to like eating fresh vegetables.

As bees dance around the sunflowers, he talks about building a community of growers in the metro area and founding a movement to promote the use of glass bottles and healthy eating and living. And he wants to create products that, unlike his current ones, have practical price points.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Robert’s healthy sweet spot.

It is, he knows, a tall order. One man, one company, he says, can get the ball rolling.

He spies a ripened cucumber and seizes the opportunity to pick it.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The Family-Food Chef
by Nruhling
Aug 27, 2019 | 912 views | 0 0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kim’s the founder of The Connected Chef.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


Oh boy! It’s breakfast time! Lucas, who is 7, and Thiago, who is 4, are practically jumping up and down at the prospect of pancakes.

They sit —  not so still – on the living room sofa watching TV before they come to the table to gobble up the sweet circles. Rocky, their 13-year-old dog, a pug-beagle mix, eyes them enviously.

Their mother, Kim Calichio is a former chef who has made it her mission to make food a positive experience for not only her family but also for yours.

She and her husband, Chef Omar Bravo-Pavia, have opposite work schedules, and the one meal they all get to share is breakfast.

“It’s always a hot meal,” says Kim. “Lucas and Thiago have never had cold cereal as an option. At dinner, Omar can’t be with us, but the rest of us always sit down at the table to eat.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Thiago is 4.

Kim, who grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, has had an affinity for healthy food since childhood.

“I used to watch my Irish grandmother cook for my Italian grandfather, and I started making my own snacks and salads,” she says, adding that she didn’t think anything of spending a half hour making a tomato salad with fresh mozzarella.

This occurred in large part because she had to fend for herself. Her parents, who she says are recovering alcoholics, divorced and started to sober up when she was 6.

“I had to be an adult really fast,” she says. “I was the oldest, and I separated myself and did my own thing.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

How the boys feel about their mom.

That happened to be eating really good meals.

“We didn’t have fancy food,” she says, “because we didn’t have a ton of money. My mother didn’t do a lot of cooking – she worked full time. So I learned to cook for myself because I wanted to eat well.”

Betty Crocker proved to be an adept teacher. Soon, Kim was making jelly rolls and German chocolate cakes.

Kim got her first job, a weekend shift at a bagel shop, when she was 14.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lucas is 7.

“It was the energy and the environment of food service that I connected with,” she says.

Given her taste for the culinary arts, it was surprising that Kim didn’t pursue the subject in college. Instead, she earned a degree in psychology from Stony Brook University.

She did, however, cook her way through her courses. She found time for meal preparation even though she was working and going to school full time.

“It was the first time I made full meals, and it was the first time I had lived away from my parents,” she says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Thiago looks up to his mom.

When Kim graduated, she decided to take a year off but only from school. She continued in her full-time position as the manager of a medical office that had five clinics.

She thought she would go back to school, but she got all fired up about cooking while she was reading Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.”

“I wanted to be there – I was attracted to the chaos and grunge,” she says.

She went to a waterfront seafood restaurant on Long Island and practically begged for a job in the kitchen.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kim was a sous-chef at David Burke Fishtail.

“When the chef left, it was just me,” she says. “I bought a textbook from the culinary institute and experimented with the recipes. I made my own specials, and people really liked my food.”

She still sounds surprised when she says this.

A year and a half later, she landed a trial run at David Burke & Donatella on the Upper East Side.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The two reasons Kim left the restaurant world.

“They offered me a job that was 60 hours a week for $600,” she says, smiling. “I was OK with that. For a time, I was commuting from Lindenhurst, which was two and a half hours each way. All I was doing was sleeping and working.”

And falling in love – Omar was a sous-chef there.

She advanced rapidly in the nearly five years she worked there, becoming the only woman to work on the hot line.

“The first night I was on the fish line, hot oil splattered all over my hand,” she says. “It was very busy, so I kept working and didn’t tell anyone. I had to prove myself. I ended up going to the hospital.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Rocky is a pancake fan.

When she and her healed hand returned a couple weeks later, she was offered a sous-chef position at David Burke Fishtail.

“Omar and I ran the restaurant as executive sous-chefs,” she says, adding that that’s when they started dating. “It was an amazing time.”

Kim worked until she was eight and a half months pregnant with Lucas.

“I kept telling everybody that I was coming back after the birth,” she says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lucas makes his own salads.

But things didn’t quite work out as the expectant mother expected.

When she returned after a six-month leave, there was a new chef and a new team.

“I was at the bottom,” she says. “I had left at the top. To get back to my previous status, I would have had to prove myself all over again.”

A year later, she left the restaurant business.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

They place a priority on eating together.

“But after two years of staying home and playing trains, I was going crazy,” she says. “And money was really tight with only one paycheck – we had been on public assistance for a time. But the cost of child care was too high for me to work.”

So she started conducting cooking classes and in 2015 founded The Connected Chef, whose goal, she says, is “to ensure that parents and kids have the opportunity to develop a positive and joyful relationship with food.”

Kim says that The Connected Chef, which offers classes for children and adults, is “bigger than just cooking. It’s about some difficult lifestyle changes and going against the messages we get from society. It’s about learning to connect with our family and our environment through food.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kim wants to help you connect with food and with the environment.

Her work began with Lucas and Thiago. Lucas, who has proved himself competent with a chef’s knife, has started to make salads. One of his favorites is cucumbers with lime and salt.

Thiago, who still uses a child’s knife, helps Kim with stovetop stirring.

When it comes to pancakes, though, what they really like to do is eat them.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The Renaissance Man
by Nruhling
Aug 20, 2019 | 908 views | 0 0 comments | 257 257 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

The sunlight, streaming into the studio like a spotlight, focuses its beam upon a bright red chair. Empty, it’s sitting next to a couple of lutes and an electric guitar.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman is from Kiev, Ukraine.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


The sunlight, streaming into the studio like a spotlight, focuses its beam upon a bright red chair. Empty, it’s sitting next to a couple of lutes and an electric guitar.

Into this eclectic still life walks Roman Turovsky, carrying one painting. Then another. And another and another.

The works are as dark and brooding as storm clouds. Melancholy, that’s what Roman calls them as he takes his seat to sit for his portrait.

Where should we start? Perhaps with a tune?



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman’s written over 1,100 compositions for the lute.

Roman picks up a lute and begins playing some of his own Medieval/Renaissance/Baroque/classical Ukraine-infused compositions, which number over 1,100 and have been recorded and performed by myriad musicians, including Christopher Wilke and Robert Barto.

Roman left Kiev, Ukraine a lifetime ago; yet 40 years later, it still won’t let him go.

Roman, the son of artist Mikhail Turovsky and the brother of poet Genya Turovskaya, is a solid man with steely grey eyes, a shaved head and a grizzly goatee who works hard to affect a perpetual stern look.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s completed hundreds of paintings.

When Roman came to America, in 1979, the Soviet-Afghan war had just begun. He was 18 – draft age.

“The shadow of World War II had cast itself across generations of my family,” Roman says. “One of my grandfathers was killed in battle, and my great-grandmother was killed in Kiev in the wartime massacre of Babi Yar.”

The family – the parents, the two children and two grandmothers – decided to come to New York, originally settling in the Bronx. New immigration laws were an incentive.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The art of paint-splattered khakis.

“Still, we had to give up our citizenship, and each of us was only allowed to bring $100 in cash with us,” Roman says, adding that his father could not even take any of his own artworks. “We chose New York because my father is an artist, and it’s the center of the art world.”

Influenced and encouraged by his father’s work, Roman had begun drawing at a young age.

“I was born to it,” he says. “I liked to make pictures.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman’s collection of lutes.

He became interested in music at the same time.

Roman, who had learned English from a family friend in Kiev, attended high school for a year in the Bronx before enrolling at Parsons, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.

It was in college that he became serious about the lute; the guitar, he adds, is a recent obsession.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A detail of one of Roman’s oil paintings.

“I like to wear as many hats as possible,” he says, adding that he also is a photographer and video installation artist. “My ego is quite big. It’s commensurate with all my interests.”

After graduation, he got a job as an art director for an advertising agency. When he was let go in the industry’s massive layoffs of 1988, he became a social worker at a refugee resettlement agency, a position that perfectly suited him given that he speaks Russian, Ukrainian, English and Italian.

From there, he transitioned to the TV and film industry, where he is a freelance scenic artist. He’s worked on a number of projects, including Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog,” Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” and the Netflix TV series “Narcos.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman’s a scenic artist for films and TV shows.

Right now, he’s working on “Emergence,” an ABC TV series that debuts in September, and the soon-to-be released film “After the Wedding.”

In between jobs, Roman works on his art and composition. His 400-square-foot studio is in the apartment next door to the one where he lives with his wife and twin 19-year-old sons.

“I’ve never had a shortage of ideas,” he says, sorting through the hundreds of paintings stacked in his studio.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Still life: A red chair, a pair of paintings and an artist’s knees.

Typically, he sketches ideas for his paintings, which are figural works with elements of expressionism and abstraction. He works in strict silence.

“I’ve always believed that real art is based on a sense of loss,” Roman says. “And that can be the loss of youth, of health, of life, of innocence.”

Roman strives to impart a “poetic quality” to his works. One of his long-term projects, “Captive Audience,” is comprised of some 800 photographic portraits of colorful characters he has encountered around the world.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman say he never runs out of ideas.

“I’ve been working on it for more than 20 years,” he says.

In black-and-white, the photos are blurred and softened to look like 19th-century daguerreotypes.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman’s works are dark and brooding.

He’s also writing his memoir, which will include a lot of Astoria stories.

Despite the dark themes of his works – or perhaps because of them – Roman is a cheerful man.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman’s studio is next door to the apartment he lives in.

“I really am very happy,” he says, with feeling.

So happy in fact that he’s content to keep doing everything he’s doing, which is quite a lot.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Roman’s signature says it all.

“I function best in a structured environment,” he says. “And I love working in film because I get to see a lot of parts of New York that others don’t see. I want to keep doing more of the same as long as I can.”

He stacks the paintings back in their shelves, closes the studio door and opens the door to his apartment.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

Astoria Characters: The Master of the Art of Business
by Nruhling
Aug 13, 2019 | 611 views | 0 0 comments | 138 138 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Barbara is the owner of York Industrial.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling
 
In Barbara Papantoniou’s office, there’s a domed stained-glass skylight in the center of the ceiling.

She designed and fabricated it during her recent renovation of York Industrial, the family commercial/industrial painting business she joined nearly 30 years ago.

Three decades is a long time to work for one company, and after that much service, many people would have their minds on retirement.

But not Barbara. She’s only 38.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The mural wall in Barbara’s workshop.

“When I was nine, this was my playground,” she says as she gives a tour of the downstairs warehouse. “By 13, I was reading blueprints, and by 16 I was doing office work. My goal was to be the boss.”

She’s not only the boss but also the owner of the company.

York Industrial was started some 45 years ago by Barbara’s father, Elias, who is from the Greek island of Kos.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Barbara started helping out when she was 9.

He’s an artist, and the company’s first offices were in his van. Eventually, he was successful enough to buy the Steinway Street building that is York Industrial’s home.

It was only natural that Barbara, the middle of three children, started helping him.

She’s always been a creative person and hands-on learner, and he was more than happy to teach her everything he knew, which was quite a lot.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Barbara has a degree in geology.

“I started out painting the wooden clocks he made,” she says. “I also learned carpentry and welding and gold leafing and glass blowing and construction – I can build a house from the foundation up.”

It didn’t matter that many of the skills Barbara was mastering were generally considered the province of the opposite gender.

“People did question why a woman was doing this,” she says. “When I drive the forklift to move things in the warehouse, people still stare. But I never let anything hold me back, and I have no trouble giving orders or hiring and firing.”

She says her confidence comes from her father, who opened up opportunities – and doors – for her.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A detail of one of Barbara’s art projects that features rusty nails.

The fact that she and York Industrial came of age together facilitated her transition to leadership.

“I grew up with a lot of the employees,” she says. “They are like family. They have never had an issue with my being boss.”

Despite Barbara’s myriad talents, she didn’t have any interest in formally studying art, opting instead to earn a bachelor’s degree in geology from Queens College.

“I love Mother Nature,” she says. “God and my father are my favorite artists.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Barbara’s tools include the blowtorch.

She worked her way through school by working full time for York Industrial; she took classes at night.

When she graduated, she never thought of applying to any other companies and has no intention of ever leaving.

Barbara, who is pretty and petite and perfectly at home around power tools, says it is challenging working in a male-dominated profession.

“I’ve gotten kicked out of construction trailers by men because they didn’t think I was the contractor,” she says. “I’ve attended conventions of 300 where I was the only woman.  And I did get sexually harassed by one of my own employees.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Putting the finishing touches on a table top.

Earlier in her career, Barbara did work in the field, but these days much of her time is spent bringing in new contracts and doing the administrative tasks that keep the company running.

The company, which is certified as a Woman and Minority Owned Business Enterprise, has 10 employees; Barbara and her assistant are the only women.

To clear her mind, she pedals on the exercise bike next to her expansive desk for five-minute intervals.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Barbara’s painting — a peacock feather with a Greek eye.

Or she goes upstairs to the art workshop that she and her father share.

It’s a compact space, but there’s a door that opens to the roof.

On one of the walls, there’s a spontaneous mural where Barbara and her father wipe their brushes and write what’s on their minds.

In the center, in black paint, there are the words “God Is Good.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Working on a new art project.

Barbara and her father often collaborate on projects; right now, they’re working on a round table top that has wood inlays.

“Sometimes I sketch my ideas, and sometimes I dream them,” she says. “Or I think about them. A thought can turn into something physically. But the more I think about them, the less they come out.”

Barbara embraces change; that’s why she renovated her office and installed the skylight.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Barbara wants to open an art school.

And for York Industrial and Barbara, the next 30 years are only the beginning.

Someday, she'd like to convert part of the warehouse into a community-style art school.

Of course, she’d continue to run the company.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.

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

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

comments (0)
view/post comments
no comments yet

page
2 3 .. 17