Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 25698 views | 0 0 comments | 137 137 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Master of the Art of Business
by Nruhling
Aug 13, 2019 | 162 views | 0 0 comments | 49 49 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

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Astoria Characters: The Self-Made Woman
by Nruhling
Aug 06, 2019 | 271 views | 0 0 comments | 82 82 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita’s from Orsogna, Italy.


Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


Standing solidly with her hands on her hips, Anita Del Grecosurveys her garden.

She notes the ripening fruit of the fig and peach trees, the big blooms of the hibiscus and the steady progress of the oregano, parsley and rosemary.

Her little piece of paradise fills the empty lot next to the three-family house she owns. She bought the properties for $73,000, which, in 1976, was a considerable sum, especially for an unmarried working woman.

The garden’s prosperity – and Anita’s – are as entwined as the gargantuan grapevines climbing her arbor.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita owns a three-family house and the empty lot next door.

Anita’s a small and self-sufficient woman with a smoky voice, ruby-red nails and a practical cap of grey hair.

She’s never minded doing everything herself; she’s made her life work very well that way.

Born in the tiny Italian town of Orsogna right after World War II, Anita has always been an independent person, what she likes to call “extremely ambitious.”

She really had no choice. (Although if she did, she concedes that she probably wouldn’t have done anything differently. OK, perhaps she would have worked even harder.)



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita’s garden has flowers, fruits and vegetables.

When Anita arrived, her parents had just returned to the town, which is in the province of Chieti. The family had been forced to flee north to Parma during the fighting.

They came back to nothing.

“They had owned vineyards and a house and had been quite well off,” Anita says. “But the town was destroyed in the war.  There was not a house standing.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita spends at least an hour a day tending the garden.

They built a one-room structure to house them, Anita and her older brother and sister.

“We were lucky because we always had food,” Anita says. “There were people who were worse off.”

As a child growing up in these dire circumstances, Anita decided that she was going to make a better life for herself. Education, she felt, would be her salvation.

“My parents didn’t want me to go to school,” she says. “They were old-fashioned – they didn’t think girls needed an education.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita has three college degrees.

It just so happened that Anita was such an astounding student that they had no choice but to let her continue going to classes.

“My teacher told me that I was the best in class, and I placed first in my school on the state exam to get into junior high school,” she says. “Everybody in the town knew about this honor.”

By the time Anita was 16, she was taking teacher training courses, with the hopes of going to college.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A hibiscus in bloom.

She was pretty much on her own. Her sister, who was living in Astoria, died and her parents came to New York to help take care of her children.

Anita’s brother had left for Germany – to avoid the draft and look for work.

“I was living in a boarding house,” she says. “I had scholarships, and my brother sent me money.”

Three years later, Anita and her brother joined her parents in Astoria, and Anita set her sights on even higher goals.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita is a self-sufficient woman.

“I started working the second day I came here,” Anita says, adding that she changed jobs frequently to get better wages. “I didn’t know any English, so I had to learn real fast. I took lessons and started going to City College. My first two years in America, I only slept two hours every night.”

Her hard work paid off: She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Romance languages and literature from City College and a master’s in school administration from Long Island University.

Through the years, Anita had teaching jobs at various schools, including I.S. 141 in Astoria.

“I wanted my own place, but my parents didn’t want me to have an apartment of my own because I wasn’t married,” she says. “So I bought this house and the empty lot, and we all moved in together.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

There’s always something to do in the garden.

In 1976, that was a gutsy thing for a single woman to do. In fact, as Anita discovered, it was an impossible thing to do.

“I could not get a mortgage from the bank, it had to also be in my parents’ names,” she says. “They had to become co-owners even though they were not making the payments.”

In the beginning, Anita and her parents lived together. When one of the tenants left, Anita’s mother and father moved into that apartment.

Her father immediately began clearing the lot, which was a jungle of weeds.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita retired at 55.

“It was his domain,” Anita says. “He wouldn’t let me help him.”

Anita devoted herself to her job.

“I was too busy working to get married and have children,” she says.

Anita and the garden grew stronger together.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita’s urban Eden in Astoria.

When her parents became ill, Anita took care of them, and in 2002, a couple of years after they died, Anita retired from her teaching job at Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn.

“I was only 55, but I was ready,” she says. “I was OK financially for the first time in my life, and I wanted to enjoy the fruits of my labor.”

She tends her garden for an hour each morning, cooking and freezing its prodigious produce. She has more than enough, so she gives a lot away to neighbors.

“I’m very popular,” she says and grins.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anita taking a well deserved rest.

Retiring also has given Anita more time to travel, sometimes solo. In addition to Europe, she’s seen China, India, Vietnam and Cambodia.

“I don’t know what boredom is,” she says. “I’m content.”

Slowing down hasn’t slowed her down.

“I’m enjoying relaxing for the first time in my life,” says Anita, who is 72. “I did things in reverse — I was born old, and I’m dying young.”

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

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Working Her Way Through Life
by Nruhling
Jul 30, 2019 | 466 views | 0 0 comments | 120 120 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kara grew up in Ohio.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


If you add up all the hours Kara McCurdyworks each week, you hit the big 8-0.

There are the 40 she puts in Mondays through Fridays as a New York City nanny, and there are the 40 she logs in while working on her weekend wedding photography business.

Kara, an upbeat woman with baby-bouncy curls who was up until 2 a.m. editing photos of a happy couple, says her schedule isn’t as suicidal as it sounds.

“The 2-year-old I’m a nanny for still takes three-hour naps every day,” she says. “I get a lot of emailing and photo editing done while she’s sleeping.”

Kara, who is 26, doesn’t mind hard work; in fact, if you have more, bring it on.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The love of art defined her childhood.

“I grew up in poverty,” she says. “Going to college and working hard are how I got out of poverty.”

Kara, who spent the first 14 years of her life in the tiny farm town of Celina, Ohio, and her high school years in the not-noticeably larger Norwalk, Ohio, is one of five children.

While the rest of the family was showing off hogs and horses trying to win ribbons at the county fair, Kara was drawing. Her sketchpad and pencil were her constant companions.

Her parents, who are ultra-conservative, were running a non-profit nondenominational Christian ministry out of their house.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She started working at age 9.

“We were not even allowed to watch Disney cartoons,” she said. “But my parents put me into creative programs when they saw I was keen on arts and crafts.”

Kara got her first job at 9. It was a part-time position helping her brother with his paper route.

“Nobody asked me to,” she says. “I could just feel that my family didn’t have money. My parents made $25,000, and there were five kids. I was in public school from grades two through five and was getting free lunches. When they raised it to 25 cents a day, my parents told me I would have to figure out how to earn the money because they didn’t have it.”

So she did. By 11, she had her own paper route, which increased the family income by $110 a month.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She worked her way out of poverty.

At 12, she traded it for full-time babysitting, a job that paid a higher salary — $120 per month.

It was easy to work 40 hours a week, Kara says, because by then she was being home-schooled, which continued through eighth grade.

 “I really missed socializing when I was being home-schooled,” she says, adding that she was always in honors classes. “I used to lie on my bed and cry because I didn’t have any friends.”

She was devastated, not to mention furious, when her parents decided to move the family to Norwalk.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kara has a degree in fine-art photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“I Googled and printed out emancipation papers,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave.”

Kara told them she would go with them only if she could attend a public high school.

After the relocation, she took a short break from working full time. It was not by choice.

“I only knew how to baby-sit, and nobody in our new town would hire me because they didn’t know me or my family,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She has a full-time job as a nanny.

During her newfound free time, she concentrated on her artwork.

“I knew I wanted to make it my career,” she says. “But my art teacher didn’t think I was good enough. She changed her mind when she saw a photo I took and told me to focus on photography instead of drawing.”

Kara next found employment at the Cedar Point amusement park. She was 15.

Working summers, sometimes as much as 55 hours a week, and weekends, Kara earned the money to buy her first camera (it was a Canon T2i that cost $1,000) and to take her family on a tour of the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

“My parents didn’t go to college,” she says. “I had saved $800, so I drove them, a brother and my boyfriend there for a weekend. When I saw the palm-tree-lined streets, I said, ‘This is it.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She also works full time on her wedding-photography business.

There was a slight problem: It was spring break of Kara’s senior year, and she had missed the application deadline not only for the Savannah school but also for every other college on the planet.

Somehow things worked out and Kara, armed with scholarships and loans, became a full-time student.

As was her custom, she worked her way through college, taking on a variety of jobs that included being a resident assistant in the dorm and working in a bed and breakfast.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kara’s driven to succeed.

Living in the dorm changed Kara’s life. It was there that she met her husband, Zach McCurdy, who would become creative director for Astoria-based Bareburger.

It just so happened that he was friends with the “noisy, stupid people” down the hall from Kara’s room.

“When I looked into his eyes, they looked like galaxies,” she says. “He was so handsome that I thought, ‘I’m going to have to start hanging out with them,’ and I wiggled my way into the group.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

In 2015, she graduated from college, got married and moved to Bushwick.

They became friends – they each had broken up with their significant others and successfully plotted together to get them back only to discover that they’d rather spend the rest of their lives with each other.

In 2015, when they graduated, they got married and moved to New York City. The Big Apple had not been in their plans. In fact, they were considering Denver, where one of Kara’s sisters lived.

“Some friends who were living in Bushwick called and asked us whether we wanted to be roommates,” Kara says. “We wrote down the pros and cons for each city and chose New York because by sharing an apartment, the rent here was cheaper.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She likes to do what makes her happy.

They arrived the day before Kara’s 22nd birthday.

Kara, who had over $100,000 in students loans to pay off and only 14 cents left in her bank account, scrambled to find a job. She managed to secure a nanny position within two weeks of her arrival.

“In school, where I studied fine art, I had done some heavy projects, including ones on poverty, and I decided I never wanted to pick up a camera again,” she says, adding that she also knew that she would never make a living looking through the lens.

Being a nanny pays the bills, but Kara missed the creative side of her life. At Zach’s urging, she went back to photography, focusing this time on a happier theme: weddings.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kara says she has the perfect life.

“I love being the hype-girl on wedding days and lifting everyone up,” she says.

In the last year, Kara has created what she feels is the perfect life. “I love the balance I have,” she says. “It took me a long time to get there.”

As soon as it’s financially feasible – Kara is ever practical – she will make photography her full-time business.

“I believe in doing things that make you happy,” she says. “The minute it doesn’t give me joy, I’ll move on to something else.”

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

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Astoria Characters: The Pawfect Pet Pal
by Nruhling
Jul 23, 2019 | 443 views | 0 0 comments | 118 118 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jacqueline’s the owner of Pawfect Day.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


Eddie is eager to go for a walk. Jacqueline Riveraputs on his collar and grabs his leash.

They’re off. Eddie bounds down the polished granite stairs of the fourth-floor walkup, allowing Jacqueline to follow him at a discrete distance.

Eddie, a little dog with a big underbite, is from South Carolina. Seven and a half years ago, he was in a kill shelter when Jacqueline found him online and volunteered to foster him.

She succumbed to the canine and his canines in only two days: It seemed fated to be that hers would be his forever home.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eddie was in a kill shelter when Jacqueline rescued him.

Jacqueline, who owns the dog-walking and pet-sitting service Pawfect Day, doesn’t know how old Eddie is or even who he is – a DNA test confirmed only that he’s more mixed than the toppings on an everything bagel.

When they come back, Piglet, the 2-and-a-half-year-old guinea pig, is stirring in his corner cage, waiting for Eddie to give him a kiss.

Eddie, however, climbs the two-step stool placed specifically for his petite paws and curls up on the couch.

Piglet, too, has a story and like Eddie, an Instagram account.

“His mom is a math teacher who works long hours and could no longer keep him,” Jacqueline says. “She had two of them but had to separate them since they did not get along.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jacqueline has always loved dogs.

Eddie, who like Jacqueline has black hair and brown eyes, isn’t the first animal that has come into her life.

“I don’t have to search them out,” she says. “They just seem to find me.”

Jacqueline, who grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, was not allowed to have a dog when she was a child.

“My mother wouldn’t let me,” she says. “She’d say, ‘Here’s a guinea pig instead.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eddie has lived with Jacqueline for 7 and a half years.

It wasn’t a satisfying solution.

“I was obsessed with dogs and felt connected with them,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of friends, and there’s a large age gap between my two older sisters and me. And I was shy.”

Which may explain why, when she was 8 years old, she came home with a chicken. It wasn’t a dog; how could her mother object?

“It was dark and rainy and there he was, wandering,” she says. “I brought it home, bathed it and put it in a fish tank. My mother made me put it back on the street the next day.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Getting ready for a walk.

Undeterred, Jacqueline brought home a Siberian Husky puppy.

It was while she was on summer break from classes at the University of Buffalo, where she was studying Spanish, a language she grew up speaking but not grammatically correctly, and marketing.

She was in Chinatown looking for a TV when she crossed paths with a woman carrying a puppy and stopped to pet it.

“She saw the stars in my eyes,” Jacqueline says. “She asked me if I wanted the dog, and I said yes.”

Jacqueline’s mother also saw stars, but of a vastly different kind.  

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eddie, look what I see over there!

“She thought he was too big a responsibility for me and would not let me keep him,” Jacqueline says. “I had him a week and trained him before she made me re-home him.”

During another college summer, Jacqueline found three abandoned kittens and a guinea pig in an apartment complex where she was thinking of renting. (She kept the guinea pig and named him Fluffy.)

She also has had adventures with a family of ducks, a squirrel and a kitten who wandered in from the street and hid under a friend’s couch.

“I named the kitten Lucky and was going to take him back to college with me, but he grew on my mother and she asked me to leave him behind,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jacqueline wants to expand Pawfect Day to Astoria.

After graduation, Jacqueline returned to Washington Heights, petless.

For the first four years, she was a leasing agent for Columbia University. Then she became a freelance copywriter and translator.

In 2008, she decided to open her own business, and given her passion for pets, it was inevitable that it would revolve around them.

Pawfect Day proved the purrfect fit.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

For pup and person, a successful stroll.

Around the same time, Jacqueline finally got her first dog. Odie, a rescue pug pup, was Eddie’s predecessor.

“He lived with a family who had a cat,” she says. “The cat scratched his cornea and could no longer keep him, so I took him in.”

Eddie, who’s one chill dude, is a large part of Jacqueline’s life.

“He’s my baby,” she says.

He also was the dog of honor at her 2013 wedding.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eddie making a funny face.

“He wore a tux,” she says. “He was pretty much the star. He fell asleep on the train of my dress.”

Two years ago, Jacqueline, her husband and her fur babies moved to Astoria.

She’s hoping to expand Pawfect Day, which has a staff of 11 and mostly works with clients on the Upper East Side.

Right now, though, she has to attend to a client closer to home.

She goes downstairs to her neighbors’ apartment to pick up Sparky. The year-old Yorkie/Maltese mix is going to spend the day with Eddie while his humans are attending a wedding.

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

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Astoria Characters: The Singer and the Guitar Player
by Nruhling
Jul 16, 2019 | 780 views | 0 0 comments | 158 158 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Micah’s a guitarist.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


She’s a singer, and he’s a guitarist. They met while he was playing a gig, but it was a cord instead of a chord that brought them together.

Jane Burgess was a junior in high school when her brother, a pianist studying at West Virginia University, invited the family to one of his performances.

He told her to arrive early, saying that he thought she would like the guitar player, a high school senior named Micah Burgess.

She met him, she liked him, and she went back home with her parents.

On her brother’s next visit home, he gave Jane a cheap, orange extension cord, explaining that Micah had left it behind.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jane’s a singer.

Since she was going to enroll at Micah’s college, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, he told her to track him down and return it.

Micah, you see, had borrowed it from his parents, who wanted it back. They told him to retrieve it. He called Jane at least once, asking for it.

At least that’s the story he tells.

Anyway, when Jane arrived at Duquesne some two years later, she did bring the extension cord with her and stored it in her locker. It’s a small school; she figured she’d eventually run into Micah.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He met Jane at a gig.

She did, but she didn’t return the cord.

“When I saw him, I thought, ‘I don’t really like this guy,’” she says and laughs.

Micah laughs, too.

Even if he had known how she felt, it wouldn’t have bothered him much. He already had a girlfriend. Plus, Jane had a boyfriend. Other than the cord, he didn’t see a connection between them.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jane had something Micah wanted — his extension cord.

Anyway, Jane and Micah ended up at the same school Christmas party with their dates.

“Jane swears we were making eyes at each other,” Micah says.

He’s not so sure about this; too much wine and time dim memories.

“Jane broke up with her boyfriend that night,” he says. “And then she broke up with him again the next day because she couldn’t remember doing it the night before.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Peter is 3.

Jane’s definitely not so sure about this, but after some mild denials, she lets his version stand.

Jane and Micah have a lot in common.

Micah, who was raised in Saint Albans then Bridgeport, West Virginia, started taking piano lessons at 8 and persuaded his parents to let him buy an electric guitar when he was 10 so he could play rock tunes.

“I also got an amp,” he says, adding that it took his entire savings, $75, to make the purchase. “I used to turn it up really loud, jump off the bed with my guitar and do windmills.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Micah had his first professional gig at 15.

Jane was one of the nearly 2,000 residents of Romney, a tiny town in West Virginia whose claims to fame remain being the county’s biggest town and having its only stoplight.

By age 6, she was taking piano lessons, and when she turned 10, she had her first voice lessons.

“I always liked to perform,” she says. “I have two older brothers so I needed to compete with them. Singing was a way to make myself heard.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s had his 1976 Gibson Les Paul Cherry Sunburst since he was 15.

While Micah was playing gigs – he did his first professional performance at 15, around the same time he got his 1976 Gibson Les Paul Cherry Sunburst – and mowing lawns, Jane was studying classical voice and opera.

“My teenage job was not nearly as exciting as Micah’s,” she says. “I was a lifeguard.”

Once they started dating at Duquesne, they were inseparable. After Jane graduated, in 2000, they married.

Micah taught private lessons while Jane worked on her master’s degree. In 2004, they moved to New York City so Micah could work on a master’s degree at New York University.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Charlie plays baseball and piano.

“We knew we had to go somewhere else besides Pittsburgh,” Micah says. “We didn’t want to keep playing the same clubs – we wanted more.”

After teaching music and doing gigs for several years, they opened Art House Astoria in 2009 to offer affordable art and music education classes.

“We had been teaching in a nonprofit conservatory in Flushing, and we loved the community,” Jane says. “When it closed, we wanted to recreate the same spirit here.”

At this moment, their older son, 8-year-old Charlie, is recreating that spirit by entertaining his 3-year-old brother, Pete, with a boisterous and exuberant rendition of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” on the grand piano in the auditorium.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Micah’s a sub in Broadway shows.

Jane, who is a community liaison with the Astoria First Presbyterian Church that shares space with Art House Astoria, teaches piano and voice at the nonprofit.

Micah, who is a sub for the Broadway productions Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Be More Chill, teaches music programs at several schools, including P.S. 85, P.S. 166 and Q300, and performs at a variety of gigs.

Micah and Jane see Art House Astoria, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, as a way to give back to the community.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jane’s a community liaison for the church that shares Art House Astoria’s space.

 “It’s an opportunity to grow something bigger than ourselves, something that’s meaningful to the people in the community,” he says.

Speaking of giving back, Jane did finally return that extension cord to Micah.

And Micah gave it back to his parents.

“It’s in their garage,” he says. “They still use 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 Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Red-Headed Woman With the Little Black Dog
by Nruhling
Jul 09, 2019 | 1381 views | 0 0 comments | 148 148 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Susan’s originally from California.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling


It’s time for a walk. In addition to a leash, Susan Joy Rippbergergrabs a canvas travel case. She puts her little black dog inside it and heads out the door.

Tiburcia, or Tibu for short, is Susan’s constant companion. The 7-year-old-dog, a Yorkie/ Chihuahua mix, is the size of the squirrels she chases.

Tibu, whose Spanish name means “the place of the pleasures,” goes to work with Susan (up until recently, she had a position with a school in Brooklyn).

Tibu goes to yoga (she’s better at downward-facing dog and puppy pose than the humans she’s copying).

Tibu flies to Mexico several times a year to visit family (she sits on Susan’s lap).

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tibu is Susan’s emotional-support buddy.

And Tibu takes Susan for walks every day.

“She’s my emotional-support dog,” Susan says, “but sometimes I think I’m her emotional-support animal.”

Tibu gazes at her without contradicting her.

Soft-voiced Susan, sweet and serene as the first day of spring, is Tibu’s adopted mother.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tibu fits in a travel bag; they go everywhere together.

She originally belonged to Susan’s daughter, Sara.

It’s unclear whether Tibu knows her true parentage or whether she has questioned why her hair is black and Susan’s is red. But it doesn’t matter because she loves Susan and Sara, if not equally then separately.

It’s only recently that Susan has lived in New York. She was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, a city she knows nothing about and doesn’t identify with.

That’s because when she was a year old, her parents moved to Santa Barbara, California.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Susan and Tibu discussing their daily schedule.

By the time Susan was in kindergarten, her father was at UCLA earning his doctorate. The family of seven was crammed into a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. (The sixth and final child was born there.)

When Susan entered third grade, the family was back in Santa Barbara.

And Susan was used to moving.

“I remember a friend, someone I didn’t know that well, asking me, ‘Have you always been a gypsy,’ and after some thought, I said, ‘I think so.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Susan has four college degrees.

At any rate, when Susan was 17, she was in San Luis Obispo, attending California Polytechnic State University.

She earned her first degree – in sociology and dance – from UCLA.

“I had wanted to be an art major, but the art school enrollment was closed,” she says. “I would have had to wait a year to get in.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A work-in-progress collage by Susan.

A teaching job at an elementary school took her to Indio, California, and wanderlust landed her in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a summer destination that would play a large role in her future.

“I met a woman in the Christian Science church,” Susan says. “She had a very handsome son who lived in Mexico City who visited her all the time.”

After a month-long courtship, Susan married him.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Susan takes Tibu to her yoga classes.

“I liked his spirit,” she says, adding, once again, “and he was handsome.”

She concedes, though, that he never was much of a dancer.

They settled in Santa Barbara. They divorced a year later, shortly after Sara was born.

“But I stayed married to his family,” Susan says. “I visit them several times a year.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Susan’s always serene.

Susan continued to teach, and in her free time, she earned degree No. 2 – a master’s in international education and administration — from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Seven years later, Susan took Sara to Pittsburgh and earned a doctorate in international and development education and policy studies with a certificate in Latin America studies from the University of Pittsburgh.

After a short stint of teaching in Ohio, Susan ended up in El Paso, Texas, where she taught for a decade.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Susan moved to New York to concentrate on her art.

“Sara went to Barnard College in Manhattan, and I was getting a little bored,” Susan says. “I always wanted to be an artist.”

She opened her art studio after she earned a master’s in fine art from the San Francisco Art Institute.

“I was 55,” she says, “and I had spent my entire life doing things for everyone else in my family. This was just for me.”

To finance her passion, she lived off the retirement money from her teaching career.

 

She made a name for herself creating interactive performance art, which includes the ongoing series “Night Angel” that Susan imbues with light and movement using a hand-crocheted rebozo fashioned from extension cords.

To further her art career, Susan moved to Brooklyn in 2014, taking over Sara’s old apartment.

In 2018, mother and daughter and dog moved into an apartment in Astoria. Susan’s bedroom doubles as her art studio.

Ever the gypsy, Susan’s ready to start something new. Recently, she resigned from the Brooklyn school.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Susan wants to open an art center in Queens.

“I couldn’t do the four-hour commute any more,” she says.

She’s looking forward to freelance work and is applying to teach online courses. She’s also circulating her resume to local shops.

“I’d like to devote all my time to art and prayer,” she says. “Those are my two lifelines.”

She talks about opening an art center in Queens that would have a gallery space, a coffee shop and studios for working artists like herself.

“The center would also help immigrants and teach them to speak English,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tibu is all set for Susan’s next adventure.

She and a group of like-minded friends are applying for grants. There’s no guarantee, and even if the money does come in, it could take a while to get things going.

That’s OK with Susan. The laundry around the corner is hiring. She saw a sign in the window.

She wouldn’t mind folding clothes for four hours a day. It would be a meditation.

And Tibu would be right there with her.

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

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Astoria Characters: The Anthropomorphic Artist
by Nruhling
Jul 02, 2019 | 1216 views | 0 0 comments | 303 303 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Violet, in her signature shades, won’t eat her waffle but will clown around.

Four-year-old Violet won’t eat her waffle. She’s sitting at the kitchen table staring at it like it’s going to bite her first.

She escapes to the living room, searching for the remote, which as it turns out, was right next to that dreaded waffle all the time.

Sixteen-month-old Ezra, who has finished his breakfast, thank you very much, is blowing big-boy kisses from his highchair. A baby-second later, his face crumples, and he’s crying like a crocodile.

Jake Genen, their father, steps out of the shower and into another Saturday morning. He trades places with his wife, Tara, as she gets dressed.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ezra in his highchair.

He entices Violet back to the table – nope, she absolutely, positively won’t eat that waffle – and gets Ezra to giggle – yup, that was easy.

Jake, who is big, bearded and barefoot, pads around the apartment, which also serves as his art studio.

His works, posed photographic portraits that replace human bodies with animals’, are produced on his computer, which is virtually hidden in a corner of the living room.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jake started making anthropomorphic art 16 years ago.

He searches through a pile of images. Ah, here’s what he’s looking for – a pig posing in a police officer’s uniform, a buffalo outfitted in a headdress for a Wild West hunt and a cat clad in a blue gown and a Mona Lisa smile.

“It all started as a joke 16 years ago,” he says, as he walks to his unruly rustic-city backyard and makes himself comfortable in a patio chair. “I began taking Victorian images from the web and putting animal faces on them.”

The first in the series was a photo of President Abraham Lincoln (with a bird’s body) meeting Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee (with a crawfish’s body) during the Civil War.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

‘Froggy Goes A-Courtin” was inspired by Jake’s own wedding.

Soon, Jake was buying Victorian tintypes and 19th-century cabinet cards, scanning them and altering them with Photoshop.

“I try to match the patina of the old photo,” he says. “I morph in the animal image to match the tintype head-on in everything, even roughness and scratches. I’m a glorified digital collage artist.”

As he’s speaking, a cat, white with orange patches, streaks by the silver chain-link fence. A couple of birds chirp.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He sees himself as a sea otter.

Jake, who is from the small upstate village of Washingtonville that’s an hour and a half north of the city, started drawing practically before he could say that word.

His mother, an artist and art teacher, encouraged and required him to create.

“She was an arts and crafts counselor in the summers, which meant that I got to go to camp for free,” Jake says. “But she also made me make all the demo projects to show as examples to the other kids.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Getting Ezra to giggle.

After earning an associate’s degree in advertising and design and a bachelor’s degree in animation from FIT, Jake worked as an animator for several companies, freelancing between jobs. He produced his anthropomorphic art in his spare time.

In 2010, he took a full-time job as an animator with ABC News; the next year, he married Tara Klurman, who’s a freelance graphic designer.

“We met on an online dating site,” he says, almost apologetically.

He commemorated their wedding with a photo of the bride and groom as a mouse and a frog based on the Scottish nursery rhyme and song “Froggy Went A-Courtin.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jake’s an animator for ABC News.

Which begs the question: Does he see himself as a frog?

“I’m a sea otter,” he answers immediately. “I like wearing shorts and sitting in the sun.”

If he’s a sea otter, what does that make Tara?

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jake uses vintage photos as the starting point for his art.

He thinks about this a long time, probably too long, before carefully replying.

“I think she’s a bird,” he says slowly. “Yes, a bird. Tropical.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jake’s buffalo hunter.

He may be right – her diaphanous peacock blue and white over-blouse matches the sapphire-color rhinestones on her silver moccasins.

Violet, who likes to chatter, reminds Jake of a little squirrel. No, make that a chipmunk; she’s definitely a chipmunk.

And Ezra, well, it’s too early to tell which animal spirit he is.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The family portrait: Which animal forms will Jake add?

Working full time and parenting full time keep Jake busy, but “I always make time for my art.”

Right now, though, he’s making time for Tara, Violet and Ezra.

“If I could figure out how to parlay my art into a full-time job, I would do that in a heartbeat,” he says. “But I’m happy to be creating for the sake of creating for my own enjoyment.”



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

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Astoria Characters: The Pilates Pro
by Nruhling
Jun 25, 2019 | 1792 views | 0 0 comments | 432 432 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gina’s the owner of Zend Avesta Pilates.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

The first time Gina Vaccaro drove to the gym, she didn’t get out of her car.

“I felt intimidated,” she says.

She had just had her first baby, and what with breastfeeding and trying to take care of him instead of herself, she was still carrying around 50 extra pounds on her small frame.

“I knew I had to get moving,” she says. “And I knew I really wanted to take spinning and Pilates.”

Sometime later, she did manage to find the courage to work out her insecurities. Her first foray – at a different gym – left her exhausted yet excited.

“I was wearing baggy sweatpants and after spinning, my face stayed as red as a tomato for a day,” she says. “But I loved it and mat Pilates.”

Gina kept working out “like an animal” five times a week and started eating healthy. She lost most of those 50 pounds within a year.

She also gained something she never bargained for — a new career.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gina didn’t go to the gym until her first son was born.

Gina, who has beautiful biceps and cascading curls, is strong of mind and muscle. She grew up in Wantagh, Long Island, a middle child framed by two brothers.

She most decidedly was not an athletic youngster.

“I never played competitive sports,” she says.

Nor was she a scholar. “I really was interested in art,” she says. “College was not an option.”

So when she got her high school diploma, she got her first job, doing clerical work.

“It wasn’t enough for me,” she says. “I needed to get a real job.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Her first career was in interior design.

Instead, at 23, she went back to school, earning a degree in fine arts from Nassau Community College then a bachelor’s degree in interior design from New York Institute of Technology.

She built her career and family during the same time period, working on interior design projects and giving birth to her two sons.

In 2004, Gina, newly divorced, made a new home for herself and her young sons in Astoria.

“I had a family member living here,” she says. “But my sons and I lived by ourselves.”

She had every intention of continuing with her interior design work, and she even started adding residential projects to her portfolio, which primarily was commercial.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gina’s two studios are serene.

It soon became apparent that she needed to find work that was closer to home.

“My objectives were fitness and taking care of my kids,” she says.

She continued to work out while she was working out the details of her new life as a single mom.

“Everybody at the gym kept telling me that I should teach,” she says, adding that she got certified in spinning and Pilates. “This was an appealing idea because I could take my sons with me while I was giving classes.”

After developing the Pilates program at Astoria’s Club Fitness New York and renting training space on the Upper East Side, Gina opened Zend Avesta Pilates on 27th Street in the garage of her apartment.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gina grew up on Long Island.

“The name is the translation of ancient Persian scriptures,” she says. “I liked it because it contains the word ‘zen.’”

Gina’s zen caught on, and in 2014, she opened a second studio, this time in the basement of her apartment, so she could hold group classes in contemporary Pilates.

The studios, where tranquility and training run in tandem, are intimate and infused with positivity and a sense of spirituality. In the main studio, where four to eight people can work out simultaneously, there’s a Buddha by the door.

“Pilates is an insurance policy for your body,” she says. “People come to my classes because they want to change their lives. They want to strengthen their mental and physical muscles.”

Gina helps them do that, training people, in groups and individually, from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. six days a week.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She makes minds and bodies fit.

“I make myself stop at 8:30,” she says. “I jump on the bike for workouts four to five times a week. When I do Pilates, I concentrate only on one area of my body.”

Soon, Gina will expand Zend Avesta Pilates; she’ hoping to open another location in Scarsdale. That  studio will focus on The Mastermind Cycling & Pilates program, which, she says, creates a “positive mindset that will bring a favorable outcome to the uncomfortable situation you are experiencing.”

And that’s just the beginning. Gina envisions a time when the Zend Avesta Pilates brand is a household name.

“I feel I was destined to do this healing work,” she says as people start coming in for the first class of the day. “I love helping people feel better.”

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

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Astoria Characters: The Upbeat Drummer
by Nruhling
Jun 19, 2019 | 1503 views | 0 0 comments | 241 241 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stacy’s the founder of Fogo Azul NYC.


Text and Photos by  Nancy A. Ruhling



Throughout her life, Stacy Kovacshas marched to the steady beat of a drum.

Listening to its staccato sound soothes her.

“It’s a physical and emotional release,” says Stacy, who started banging out beats on the instrument when she was 8. “Playing in a marching band is about music and movement, choreography and camaraderie.”

As she’s pondering the power of the percussive, she’s petting her 6-year-old cats, Louie and Libby, rescues who may or may not be brother and sister. Louie, who weighs 23 pounds, launched himself like a missile onto her lap; Libby fearlessly followed his lead and leapt.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Louie lounging.

As Stacy talks, her funny felines find other things to do – Louie cuddles up to Stacy’s drum, a Brazilian-style repique, and Libby crawls into the C section of her C A T house.

A bit rude, perhaps, but Libby and Louie have heard this story before and know how it plays out.

For them, Stacy’s collections – she has 42 plastic Mr. Potato Head toys, including one dressed as a doctor and one decked out as Indiana Jones, hanging on the living room walls, plus myriad Muppet memorabilia and vast numbers of vintage video games like Pac-Man — are tail-twitching tantalizers.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Libby in the C A T house.

Although the drum was the first instrument she seriously studied, Stacy discarded it for the trombone when she was in high school.

She didn’t need much incentive – the band teacher told the class there were no trombone players and encouraged everyone to try out.

“He told us that whoever learned to play ‘Georgia on My Mind’ the best would get to perform it as a solo in the show,” she says, adding that this was in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo that is not nearly as exciting as New York City, so this was a pretty big deal. “My brother had played it, so I had the instrument. I taught myself, and yes, I played the solo.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stacy’s from a suburb of Buffalo.

She became so good at it, in fact, that she enrolled at Michigan State University simply because she wanted to be in its noted marching band.

“I got a partial scholarship,” she says.

While she and her trombone were marching in the band, Stacy majored in physiology as a prelude to entering medical school.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Louie in his favorite spot.

To her surprise, she didn’t follow through and when she graduated, she returned to Orchard Park and worked as a paramedic.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says.

A couple of years later, she enrolled at Northeastern University in Boston, where she earned two master’s degrees – one in cardiopulmonary perfusion and one in the physician assistant program.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stacy’s repique.

“I wanted to come to New York City,” she says. “I had only been here once, but I knew I wanted to move here.”

Since 2005, when she arrived for a surgical residency at Montefiore Medical Center, she has worked as a physician assistant for several hospitals, including Mount Sinai, Lenox Hill, St. Vincent’s, Methodist and New York University. This year, she took a job with New York-Presbyterian.

Her band schedule was always full. She joined the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps marching band as a trombonist and then learned samba drumming and joined Samba New York! At one point, she was playing in five bands.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stacy takes her drumming seriously.

“I played trombone in two and drums in three,” she says. “I was rehearsing for hours every night.”

And, she adds, loving every note of it.

She saw a drumming performance by Batala, a global arts project, that got her so fired up that she started a branch of her own in 2011.

 

“Batala reminded me of my college marching band,” she says. “I believe in the magic of performing as a group.”

She had so much fun leading Batala NYC that in 2016 she founded the all-women Brazilian samba reggae drum line Fogo Azul NYC.

She named it Blue Fire because “blue flames burn the hottest and are the rarest.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Libby exploring.

Fogo Azul NYC, which has 100 members, performs at public and private events, including the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, the Halloween Parade, the Women’s March and St. Pat’s for All Parade.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The tail end.

“There’s no experience necessary,” Stacy says, adding that Fogo Azul’s youngest member is 14 and its oldest is 84. “The music is not written down – it’s in my head and on videos. It’s not reading notes; it’s muscle memory and choreography.”

As conductor and composer, Stacy’s the heartbeat of the group.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stacy the conductor.

Fogo Azul NYC is Stacy’s hobby, one that she takes so seriously that she rehearses several times a week and recently set up a nonprofit to extend the band’s reach.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Read her hands.

“I want to do workshops in schools,” she says. “I dream of buying a building or of someone buying us a building that would be a community center for music. Believe it or not, New York doesn’t have a world percussion center – I want to open the first one.”

For Stacy, the beat goes on steady and strong.

After telling Louie and Libby good-bye, Stacy dons her drum majorette’s hat, a tall, white confection with a flamboyant finial that makes her look like a Beefeater on guard at Buckingham Palace, and hangs her faux-flower-festooned repique from her waist.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stacy’s all set.

“The goal is to have fun,” she says as she marches out the door. “Once you put the drum on, you’re hooked.”

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

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Keeping Her Son's Memory Alive
by Nruhling
Jun 11, 2019 | 823 views | 0 0 comments | 134 134 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Christine founded The AJ Project.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

AJ can’t be with us today, so his mother, Christine Perrelli, is going to speak for him.

She promised him she would.

He was her first-born. He was imaginative and intelligent. He was a dancer and an actor. He lit up a stage even when the lights were down. He had a big heart.

You would have loved him. Everyone did.

Which is why his death six years ago, at age 26, was so tragic.

AJ had so much going for him.



AJ toured with Disney.

He had toured the world performing in “Disney Live! Three Classic Fairy Tales” and had started taking acting lessons.

“From the time he was a boy, he wanted to be on Broadway,” says Christine.

And he was eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child. Luca, who is 5, never got the chance to meet AJ.

“He looks just like his dad,” Christine says, showing a photo of the little boy.



As Christine is telling AJ’s story, she’s helping her 4-year-old granddaughter, Mia, get ready for her dancing class.

 

Christine’s an upbeat woman who wears a ready smile and loves to hug.

She pours syrup on Mia’s pancakes and reminds her to put on her little black tutu and brush her teeth.

On Oct. 10, 2013, when Christine was on a trip to Baltimore, AJ went outside his Astoria apartment to smoke a cigarette.

When he hadn’t returned 20 minutes later, the two friends who were staying with him went to look for him.

The found him, bleeding and crawling on the ground.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Christine is the mother of four.

Doctors discovered he had a brain bleed, and by the time Christine arrived at his side, he was non-responsive in the ICU.

“I felt like I was in a movie or a TV set,” she says. “I used to put my hand on his chest and my head on his chest as a way to get through to him.”

Six days later, AJ was declared dead. His heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas and corneas are keeping five people alive.

Everyone grieves in a different way, and Christine chose to create a nonprofit to honor AJ’s memory.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Her nonprofit promotes organ donation.

“While I was saying good-bye to him, I told him that the world will know who you are and people will hear your story and through you, the world will change,” she says.

The AJ Project was not something Christine planned. AJ’s friends donated money to pay his funeral expenses, and she was determined to use the leftover money to set up a fund in AJ’s name that would benefit the arts.

“It was like divine intervention,” she says. “I was laid off six months after AJ died, so I had time to figure out how to do this.”

The AJ Project creates performance events that promote organ donation education, something Christine says is sorely needed because New York ranks 50th among the states.

 

She also sees The AJ Project as a way to promote local performers.

“I looked at AJ struggling to be an artist in New York,” she says. “Everyone always asks people to perform for free, and that’s not right. I pay the artists who participate and use my sources to help other nonprofits connect artistic people with projects.”

Christine, who is a native of Hollywood, Florida, is a lifetime lover of the arts. Her father is a jazz musician, and at an early age, she learned to play the flute, piccolo and saxophone. She also sang and taught herself to dance.

“I’m one of four,” she says. “We didn’t have money to take lessons.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She’s committed to helping people like AJ who are in the performing arts.

When she was 13, she met Anthony, her future husband, in a swimming pool at a hotel.

“We were on a staycation because we didn’t have any money to go anywhere,” she says. “He had come to Florida from New York for a real vacation.”

They become periodic pen pals and later started a long-distance phone relationship. By the time Christine was at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, they had lost touch.

“When he was moving, he found my number in a drawer he was cleaning out,” she says. “He called, and we have not stopped talking since.”

Christine, four credits shy of graduation, dropped out of school to come to New York to be with him.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She wishes she knew what happened to AJ.

“New York is expensive, but living here was cheaper than paying for all the phone calls,” she says. “I don’t know what I was thinking – if that had been my kid, I’ve have killed her.”

Fortunately, things worked out – Christine and Anthony have four children and have been married 32 years.

For a time, the couple ran their own video company. As the business took off, they moved to Florida, where they did a variety of things before moving back to Astoria in 2009 to take care of Anthony’s father.

Around the same time, Christine was battling breast cancer and AJ was ending his dancing and singing tours for Disney.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Christine thanks you for listening to AJ’s story.

She’s come to terms with AJ’s death, but it bothers her that she’ll never know what really happened to her son.

“We all have our theories about how he hit his head,” she says. “It’s like not being able to find your real parents if you were adopted.”

This month, for the first time, Christine is going to meet two of the people who received AJ’s organs. She doesn’t know how it will make her feel.

She pulls out her iPhone and plays a recording of AJ’s heartbeat that was made as he lay dying in his hospital bed.

Up until a year ago, she listened to it every night.

Mia twirls in her tutu; it’s time for Christine to take her to dance class.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 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

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