|November 28, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Guy Behind Rosario's||no comments|
|November 21, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Wants It All||no comments|
|November 14, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Tamale Team||no comments|
|November 07, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Actress Livin' on a Prairie||no comments|
|October 31, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Earnest Educator||no comments|
|October 24, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Master of the Art of Domesticity||no comments|
|October 17, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Space Shuttle Cafe and the Guy with the Spiderweb Tattoo||no comments|
|October 10, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Doggie Den Mother||no comments|
|October 03, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Energy Healer||no comments|
|September 26, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Scout Who Set Up the Little Free Pantry||no comments|
One reassuring thing we know for sure is that six days a week, Rosario DiMarco will be sitting at the deli counter at Rosario’s and that his 97-year-old father, Santo, will be there with him.
Rosario, who is wide of shoulder, short of stature and long of chatty conversation, opened the old-fashioned Italian deli and pizzeria on 31st Street under the shadow of the El’s Ditmars stop in 1986 and moved it a couple of storefronts down the street in 2001.
“I like meeting the people who come here,” he says, as he sits at the cash register and receives a bread delivery.
Homemade Italian food has always been a large part of Rosario’s life.
The family is from Sicily, and Rosario was 12 when his parents brought him, his brother and his sister to Astoria.
Santo got a job at the old Ronzoni pasta factory in Long Island City and stayed until he retired many years ago.
Rosario, the oldest of the three children, didn’t know any English, and that may or may not be why he wasn’t so fond of school.
He doesn’t go into specifics, saying only that he and school “didn’t get along.”
But work was another matter.
When he was 13, he got a part-time job cleaning tables in an Astoria pizzeria.
He quit school after 9th grade and at 16 had earned a full-time job at the pizzeria.
“My father said, ‘If you don’t go to school, you have to go to work,’” Rosario says, turning to Santo for corroboration.
That suited Rosario just fine, and he proceeded on his path to success.
At 20, he opened a pizzeria in Astoria. When he sold it five years later, he set up shop in Manhattan.
In 1986, he bought the deli on 31st Street and reopened it under his own name.
In 2001, he moved it to its current, uber-convenient location: You can get a slice steps from the subway or pick up a pack of cheese and meats without breaking stride.
“Some of my customers have been with me since I opened the first pizzeria,” Rosario says as he brings wedges of Moliterno, Sicilian truffle cheese made from sheep’s milk, and prosciutto to the counter. “I’ve served generations of the same families.”
The customers come not only for the cheeses and prosciutto but also for the pizza, the fresh mozzarella, the homemade sausages and beef meatballs and an abundance of Italian-imported products that range from tomato sauce to pastas.
And to shoot the breeze, in the language of their homeland, with Rosario.
Some of the recipes come from Rosario’s family. He learned to cook at home and then from his bosses at the pizzeria.
Oh, the olive oil.
Rosario brings a bottle down from the shelf.
The brand name is DiMarco.
Rosario’s brother, who lives in Italy, makes it.
Although Rosario moved to Long Island’s East Hills long ago, Santo still lives in Astoria.
“He’s stubborn,” Rosario says. “He lives by himself, but I take him to my house every Sunday.”
Rosario’s 63 and his daughters – 21-year-old triplets – are not interested in taking over the business if and when he ever decides to retire.
His hair is grey, and his beard is grizzled.
He knows he’ll have to throw in the pasta at some point, but it’s not something he’s prepared to think about right this minute.
The old-timers as well as the newcomers who consider themselves foodies depend on Rosario’s; these days, they line up, six feet apart, at the counter, waiting to greet Rosario and Santo.
It’s a ritual that satisfies all.
It’s only 8:30 in the morning, and things in the deli are already hopping.
Rosario’s just getting into his groove.
He’s been here since 7, and he won’t go home until after the 7:30 closing.
Rosario glances over at Santo.
They both know they’re not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.
“Coming here keeps my dad going,” Rosario says.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
DeeAnne, poet/vocalist/place enthusiast/activist/history buff/animal adopter/and a whole bunch of other things, is on the roof of her apartment building, sitting in a beach chair soaking up the sun.
There’s a little chill in the autumn air so she’s wrapped her aunt’s floral-patterned coat – it looks, she notes, like the outfits Julie Andrews made from frumpy floral draperies for the captain’s kids in The Sound of Music – around her prison-orange Astoria T-shirt.
“Everything” is a very big topic.
It’s well, everything, and for DeeAnne, who is board president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, it starts with the recent pandemic past.
As she’s bringing out a series of CDs she recorded earlier in her life, she tells a story about renting a car to visit her mother in Florida; it involves a pup tent and a portable potty and scads of sightseeing.
And that’s important because DeeAnne’s passion for what she calls “poking around” in the universe of things can be traced back not only to her mother but also to her father.
DeeAnne, who has auburn hair and still calls herself a Southern belle despite her current address and New York accent, was born in Athens, Georgia, and spent her childhood in Richmond, Va.
Her mother taught piano, and her father, who died when she was 9, was a veterinarian.
“My parents were interested in everything,” she says. “We used to go on Sunday drives to look around and find stuff.”
From an early age, DeeAnne took dance and music lessons and developed an affinity for animals. At one point in her life, she even considered following in her father’s footsteps.
She found herself on the stage instead.
“I had horrible stage fright, I would get sick to my stomach,” she says. “I could not do solos; I could only do bit parts in school plays.”
DeeAnne went to college to try to find a single, suitable subject to devote her life to.
It didn’t work.
After graduating from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. with a degree in liberal arts and a minor in French, she worked for the school for a year and continued taking courses that interested her.
Then she began trying on new locations.
She temped her way through Orange County, California and Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Greenwich Village and the East Village before setting her sights on Paris.
A certificate from The New School to teach English as a second language to adults was her ticket there.
As so often happens, she fell in love not only with Paris but also with a guy.
“He was a student of mine,” she says. “We had a long-distance relationship for a couple of years then married and came to New York.”
Twenty years ago, they settled in the Astoria apartment DeeAnne still lives in.
For a variety of reasons, things didn’t work out as planned, and they divorced after a couple of years.
“During the divorce, I soothed myself by getting back into music and poetry,” she says. “I got smitten by jazz – I was hanging out in Harlem and the Village and absorbing everything.”
Her pay-the-bills daytime temp job turned into a full-time position – she’s still with the same company as an administrative assistant – and she continued to pick up singing gigs.
When the music side of her life dwindled – “most of the clubs I performed in are gone, and as you age, it’s not always easy to live a double life, going to bed at 2 a.m. and going to work at 8 a.m.” – DeeAnne pursued some of her other interests.
Ah, her other interests … she mentions embossed bricks, historic walking tours of the city, adopting a 13-year-old cat during the pandemic (she died, but DeeAnne is going to get another one) and working for Amnesty International.
Oh, she almost forgot. She loves to get into costume.
You may have seen her at The Idiotarod shopping cart race, the Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival on Fifth Avenue, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the Pride Parade, the Halloween Harvest Festival at Socrates Sculpture Park and the Village Halloween Parade.
“During the pandemic, I’ve started walking around the city for hours,” she says, adding that at one point she had been a member of a historical society in each borough. “I’m fascinated by history and what’s happened to the places we are in now. New York City is like an onion because there are so many layers.”
Like many New Yorkers these days, DeeAnne is evaluating and re-evaluating her life and her goals.
She always thought she would stay here, but now she’s not so sure.
She had a bunch of ideas for new projects, such as opening a bookstore that provides live entertainment and cinema screenings. She, of course, would be one of the singing acts.
And she wants to adopt a lot of animals, which isn’t really feasible for an apartment dweller.
“I love it here, but I wonder what it’s going to look like when this is over,” she says. “Upstate is starting to look nice.”
She stares directly into the bright sun, as if searching for guidance.
“It’s hard to choose among all my interests,” she says. “I’ll just wait for things to unfold.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
As she does every weekend, she’s making tamales, a humble task she has performed for the better part of her 62 years.
The recipe, which she brought with her from Tochilmilco, Mexico three decades ago, is based on one her mother taught her.
“I added my own touches,” she says in Spanish, as her daughter Teresita translates.
There’s no secret ingredient – at least not one that you can buy at any store.
“It’s hard to make good tamales,” she admits. “But when you make them with love, and you love doing it, it’s not hard any more.”
Concepción, a small, short woman with a soft voice and a ton of determination, was pregnant with her first child when she arrived in New York City on a plane with one of her five brothers.
It took her soon-to-be-husband a little longer: He had to cross the border.
“We came for the American dream and a better life,” she says. “But I had to leave my mother behind.”
Her eyes start tearing up; she stops to compose herself. It was, she says, the saddest moment in her life, one she’ll never recover from.
Concepción’s sister already lived here, and for a couple of months Concepción made money babysitting.
In short order, Concepción and her husband moved to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which is where they raised their three children – Luis, Teresita and Carolina – and began selling Concepcion’s homemade tamales.
“We sold them out of a shopping cart,” Concepción says. “We worked six days a week, and on the seventh, we did a lot of prep work for them. The money provided for all of our necessities.”
For six years, Concepción cooked out of her kitchen; the kids pitched in.
“I used to do things like shred the chicken and take the stems off the jalapeños,” says Teresita, who works as a cook and attends LaGuardia Community College, where she is majoring in nutrition and culinary management. “That’s how I got my love of cooking.”
Concepción’s tamales were such a success that in 2001 she and her husband opened a restaurant in Sunset Park.
In 2018, when Concepción and her husband separated and Alimentos Saludablesclosed, Concepción started selling small batches of tamales out of her home kitchen.
By that time, Teresita had moved to Astoria, where her fiancé, Pedro Vazquez, a kitchen manager in Manhattan, lives.
In September 2020, Concepción joined them and her son, Luis, a banker who is working on his master’s degree in international finance at Fordham University.
Typically, Concepción starts preparing the tamales at 1 a.m., and depending on when customers want them delivered, finishes cooking at 4:30 a.m.
As in the old days, everyone pitches in. Luis and Pedro handle deliveries, and Teresita helps with the cooking.
Concepción’s other daughter, Carolina, lives in Brooklyn and lends a hand when she visits.
On most weekends, the orders are for 15 to 55 tamales, not enough to sustain a business but enough to make Concepción feel as though she’s making a contribution not only to the family but also to the community.
“It’s keeping her sane,” Teresita says. “It’s hard for someone her age to find work.”
Concepción nods in agreement.
Luis adds that “it makes her happy.”
The future of the family tamale enterprise is, he says, up to his mom.
“She has to give the green light,” he says. “She’s the CEO, the board of directors, we’re just the minions.”
She beams at her son.
“I don’t want to retire,” she says. “I want to continue working so I can eat.”
Luis pats her on the shoulder.
“It’s the cycle of life,” he says. “She took care of me, and now it’s my turn.”
To which everyone gathered around the kitchen table says, “Si.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
The actress, who has had roles on Broadway, was tucking her son, Henry, in for the night.
As she was snuggling with him, in the state somewhere between waking and dreaming, the idea just popped into her mind.
“It was like an electric bolt going through my body,” she says. “It made me sit straight up in bed.”
The idea – to create a comedy series about a socially awkward woman obsessed with the long-running TV show Little House on the Prairie — was no stretch.
Pamela, who is 43, watched the show when she was a child and became a life-long fan.
“I used to have Little House parties in college,” she confides.
When you meet Pamela, who has hair the color of copper and neon green eyes the size of saucers, don’t ever admit that you’ve never seen the show, a drama based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of Little House books that was on NBC from 1974 to 1983.
Here’s why – or at least part of the reason why she’s so keen on it:
“I don’t know any other show that gets to the psyche of a person as this one does,” she says. “It’s a very serious show – it’s incredibly deep and has some dark and serious episodes. It affects people at a very deep level, and it affects how they look at the world. It has affected me in ways I’m not even aware of. I know its other fans feel this way, and they’re in the closet because the show’s not cool.”
Pamela’s Livin’ on a Prairie, an award-winning six-part series whose episodes run about 3 to 6 minutes each, became a pandemic hit, leading her career in a different direction.
“I wanted to be an actor,” she says. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer and a producer, too. It was a eureka moment – I was able to use all my tools.”
There was never a doubt that Pamela, who was born in New York City and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, would be an entertainer.
“My mom was an actor, and my dad was a writer,” she says, adding that her older sister’s a pianist. “I came out of the womb knowing what I was going to be.”
Although Pamela did perform in the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus, she had a panic attack at an early audition in front of an agent.
“They wanted me to sing, and I just froze,” she says. “I didn’t audition again until after I was in college.”
Indeed, after earning a degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Pamela began picking up parts in regional theater and television shows as well as Off-Broadway and Broadway productions.
You may have seen her as a sub in the Broadway play Hand to God (she understudied the parts of both women in the cast) or the Broadway musical comedy A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (she understudied six parts and was featured in more than 300 performances).
Pamela, who describes herself as an actor who sings and dances (she was a serious ballet student until an injury sidelined her) has a number of side jobs that keep her finances flush when she’s not on the stage.
“But I had just finished six years of back-to-back shows, and I was burned out and frustrated because I thought that more doors would open for me,” she says. “I knew I had more to offer.”
Little House was all about family and community, and as she’s talking, she’s sitting on her front porch, waving and calling out hellos to neighbors as they pass by.
Hal Fraser, her husband, is doing the laundry. Henry, who is 10, is off to visit a friend, and 2-year-old Margot runs to sit in mommy’s lap.
Just like the TV show, Livin’ on a Prairie became an obsession for Pamela. She worked on the series for six months, releasing it in 2018.
She’s proud to note that two of the TV series’ original cast members – Charlotte Stewart, who played Miss Beadle, the schoolteacher, and Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson – appear in Livin’ on the Prairie.
Once the series was released, big things started happening, and before Pamela knew it, she was working with a Los Angeles producer to create a half-hour series based on it.
But by the end of 2019, everything was put on hold, and before Pamela could regroup and resume work on it, the pandemic arrived.
So did another idea.
Pamela released Livin’ on a Prairie online and produced a Zoom reunion of the cast of the original series to accompany it.
“I was working 20-hour days,” she says. “It gave me a purpose.”
It also gave her a platform to re-present Livin’ on a Prairie: She’s found another producer for the half-hour series.
And if the Livin’ on a Prairie series doesn’t work out – or even if it does – Pamela already is working on another idea.
“It’s about a jaded children’s music star,” she says. “It’s a cross between Veep and Spinal Tap. I’m dying to make it.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Wrapping a white shawl around her shoulders, Sara Angel Guerrero-Mostafa heads to the backyard garden.
She surveys her work: She’s just finished planting tomatoes, okra, eggplant, beets, spinach, sugar peas and squash.
Look, here’s a chili pepper that’s perfect for picking. She plucks it with panache.
Sara’s vegetable garden used to be potted on the balcony of her apartment, so she’s glad to give the plants more room to grow in this her new, larger space that fits her new, larger life.
A lifelong learner and earnest educator, Sara has lived many places and has pursued myriad opportunities, so unlike her vegetables, she doesn’t need deep roots to grow.
This move has been especially exciting because she got married last year, and this will be the first proper place she and her husband, an artist and teacher, have chosen together.
Sara, who is the Museum of the Moving Image’s deputy director of education and community engagement, has lived in New York off and on since 1995 when she came to study at Barnard College.
After spending the first dozen years of her life in Santa Barbara, California, Sara started her odyssey by moving to Pittsburg, where her single mother got a teaching job.
“I’ve always been involved in art and academic environments,” she says, adding that her mother has devoted herself to art for the last several years. “I went to museums all the time and took classes there. I come from a family of teachers and academics; if you go back in my family history, there probably are about 50 teachers.”
After graduating from Barnard with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and women’s studies, Sara, through the nonprofit Teach For America, became a middle-school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona.
It was, to say the least, a learning experience.
At night, Sara became a student again, earning a master’s degree in education from Arizona State University.
“I’ve always loved teaching because it’s a service,” she says. “I like the idea of having intellectual conversations and sharing skills.”
Her next teaching job was in Mexico City, where her father, who died at a young age, was from.
“I visited my grandmother every weekend,” she says, adding that she learned a lot of things, including film editing and advanced Spanish, while there.
Two years later, she headed back to The Big Apple, this time to teach Teach For America applicants. At the same time, she was a consultant to a sociologist at Barnard.
Her next position – what she calls her dream job – was at the Queens Museum, where she became the founding manager of the New New Yorkers Program, which teaches immigrants life skills through the arts.
Then, she was off to the University of the Arts London, where she studied from 2009 to 2012, working on a doctorate in art theory.
“I didn’t stay in the city all that time,” she says. “I traveled through the Middle East and Central America as part of my research.”
She came back to Queens, where, among other things, she continued her consulting and became a freelance curator and a dealer in Latin American art.
In 2015, she landed the job as director of education and public engagement for No Longer Empty, a nonprofit that turns unoccupied storefronts into public art exhibitions.
Her love of art and all of her academic and professional work led to the job at the Museum of the Moving Image. The position was created in 2017, the same year Sara earned her doctorate.
In addition to figuring out how to engage the community via online classes and activities in the wake of the pandemic, Sara is working on creating a game lab for children of all ages.
Although Sara has taken many art classes and loves to draw, paint and sculpt, her real passion is “being an arts worker to help people interact with art. I love the intersection of art and education.”
She sees art as a way to bring the world together.
“Art is the true language of love,” she says, “because you communicate with your heart, and it breaks down boundaries. The synergy, the magic happens when people create art together.”
Sara intends to keep making that magic happen at the Museum of the Moving Image for years to come.
“I love working there,” she says, adding that someday she hopes to establish a community arts center.
If not in Astoria, then wherever she and her moving boxes end up.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
“Do you know the story of the Bundt pan?”
Emily Bicht is sitting on her back balcony, her cascading Boticelli Venus red ringlets flowing in the breeze like waves frolicking on the beach.
She’s talking about the inspiration for her “Bundt Life,” an art installation that features a 2.5-foot-high sculpture of a Bundt cake, painted sports-car-shiny hot pink and sprinkled with glitter.
“Hot pink,” she says as she points to a photo of the work on her website, “was the only option.”
The cake’s set atop a homemade table, painted a frothy sea-foam green, in a room covered with Emily’s flocked wallpaper punctuated, with her paintings of her and her partner, in costume, in wrestling poses.
See Emily. She’s lounging in one of the ice-cream-parlor chairs, clad in a long, puritanical frock of her own fabric and design.
It is a scene of sensual domesticity: Emily, eyes closed in ecstasy, is caressing the cake.
The whole thing looks like something Judy Chicago would have served up at her famous feminist “Dinner Party.”
“Why a Bundt cake?” Emily asks. “I like the sexual shape.”
The story of the Bundt pan – Emily apologizes, because she may not be remembering every single one of these details correctly, but that’s OK because this isn’t so much about dates and data as it is about her artistic impressions – goes something like this.
Some 70 years ago, a group of Jewish women in Minnesota wanted to make traditional kugelhopf cakes, but they didn’t have any ring-shaped pans to bake them in.
They persuaded the owner of the kitchenware company Nordic Ware to create an aluminum pan for their purpose.
It was christened Bund, which is German for “bond” or “alliance.” The final t was added to the name later, but no one really knows exactly why.
Anyway, the pan wasn’t a big seller until 1966 when the Tunnel of Fudge Cake, baked in a Bundt, placed second in the 17th annual Pillsbury Bake-Off, and every woman in America started baking it.
“I like the story,” Emily says, “because it starts out with Nordic Ware just wanting to help somebody.”
Emily, a wife and a mother of two young boys who knows how to bake and build things, has long used her family life as the starting point for her sculptures, drawings, paintings and ceramics.
Her “Dream Homes” series, whose mixed-media images are taken from Sears kit homes and advertising catalogs, is, she says, about “housing insecurity, inflated real estate and the inability to achieve the American dream and my own personal desire for a home.”
The more than 50 watercolor drawings in Emily’s series “Mother’s Encyclopedia,” which come from a 1961 book of that name, started as a warm-up exercise in the studio.
Her latest series, of ornate wedding-white ceramic cakes and cake stands that will be on exhibit at LIC’s Local Project in December, is, she says, “about inaccessibility and expectations.”
“If there’s a theme to my work, especially the ceramic pieces that are made to be used, it’s about finding meaning in everyday life,” Emily says. “Yes, my work is about domesticity, but there’s also a subversive theme. I use the domestic space to stage a question and subvert sociopolitical issues.”
One of her early series of paintings, completed around the time she got married, explored the role of the housewife.
“I was curious about it,” she says, “because I was never a housewife; I always worked. None of the women in my family have had the luxury of being a housewife.”
Her work, she says, reflects her point of view that “everybody, however they identify, should be able to do whatever they want, take on whatever they want and feel empowered doing it.”
Born in Hemel Hempstead, England to American parents and raised in Baltimore and Bel Air, Maryland, and Philadelphia, Emily always knew that art would be the driving force in her life.
“I did my first self-portrait when I was 6,” she says and smiles.
After graduating from Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, Emily stayed in the city and took on a series of jobs in the nonprofit sector. She continued producing art in her living room.
After a couple of years, she came to New York City, which she had visited numerous times.
“Philly was starting to feel too small,” she says.
Besides which, she was dating the New Yorker who would ultimately become her husband.
Time went by quickly: Emily got married, got a master’s degree in art from Brooklyn College and got pregnant with her first son then her second.
But she never stopped working a full-time job or creating art.
“You have to holler for a dollar,” she says, adding that she’s done everything from cleaning houses to painting them to earn a living.
Last year, she left her longtime job as director of operations of a small software company so she could pursue art full time.
OK, that’s that quite accurate: She still does freelance work like accounting and bookkeeping when it comes up.
Recently, Emily’s 10-year-old son asked her what she had wanted to be when she was a child.
An artist, she told him.
“You’re really lucky, Mom,” he said. “Not everybody gets to do what they want to do.”
Emily couldn’t agree more.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
The shiny black and white shuttle-shaped UPO, which like an ostrich looks as though it can fly but cannot, is patriotically decked out with peeling decals of the Stars and Stripes.
Big, bold black letters bellow: “Space Shuttle Café United States.”
The intruding shuttle cafe is no small matter – the brazen vehicle takes up a whopping 39 feet of parking space on the corner of the peaceful residential street.
Since its surprise landing, it has brought its share of stares, selfies and significant head scratching.
WTF is it? Where did it come from? Who parked it there? How long is it going to be here?
Omar Elbroody, the shuttle café’s current owner, is the only man who has the answers.
Omar, as it turns out, is as much a mystery as the shuttle café itself: Despite two telephone calls to confirm our meeting at the UPO and a third cellular conversation, unlike the shuttle, he fails to land.
He did, however, impart some pertinent information about the UPO during those casual calls.
Omar, who says he has homes in Astoria and on Long Island, bought the shuttle in 2015.
Made from parts of an old Douglas DC-3 airplane, which was in production from 1936 to 1942, the Space Shuttle Cafe was so quirky that Omar couldn’t stop looking at it and dreaming of its income potential.
He saw himself finding a spot for the food truck, perhaps in a city park, and trying his hand at flipping burgers.
His first sighting came at a most opportune time: He thought he was going to lose the lease on his longtime Manhattan auto-body business.
He promptly plunked down $87,000 and proceeded to spend $140,000 to renovate the interior, which has a cockpit and kitchen accoutrements that include a stove, a freezer, an oven, a refrigerator, a freezer and a grill.
The shuttle café, which boasts boosters on its red-white-and-blue rear end, travels on wheels.
Entry is via an ordinary-looking accordion door at the back of each side.
But things didn’t turn out as Omar expected, and he’s never had the chance to server a single customer.
A couple of years ago, he decided to sell the shuttle. He listed it on some Internet sites and got a lot of interest.
But at $230,000, which is pretty much how much he has invested in it, he never did find a buyer.
Omar didn’t explain why the Space Shuttle Café suddenly landed on 48th Street this year.
As I wait for him, a white Mack truck pulls up to the shuttle café and parks parallel to it.
The two beasts are nose to nose.
All I can see is a massive elbow hanging out the passenger side of the cab window.
It has a tattoo of a spider spinning a web that radiates all the way around the muscle-bound arm.
Two beefy guys wearing neon vests and hard hats saunter out and give me, my camera and the shuttle café the once over.
Spiderweb Elbow Tattoo asks me what’s the story behind the shuttle cafe.
Before I can answer, he tells me that he and his pal are in construction and stop here every morning to get breakfast at Sergio’s Pizza and Deli.
They like to sit in the side yard at the concrete tables that are in full sight of the shuttle cafe.
Spiderweb Elbow Tattoo says the shuttle café has been parked in the same spot for three months.
I tell him I’m writing a story on the shuttle café, and if he hangs around, he can meet the owner.
Wow! He’s pumped.
He hurries into the deli to place his order.
When Omar still hasn’t arrived 15 minutes after the appointed time, I reach for my cellphone, only to discover that I’ve left it in my office.
When Spiderweb Elbow Tattoo returns with his eats, I ask him to call Omar to see what’s up.
He dials the number with the fingers of his right hand, making the spider shimmy.
He tells Omar he’s with me waiting for him at the shuttle cafe.
He listens intently and looks crestfallen – Omar, as it turns out, is not coming after all.
“Do you want to talk to him?” he asks, starting to pass the phone to me.
No, no, Covid-19, no, I don’t want to touch it, thank you very much.
Spiderweb Elbow Tattoo takes matters into his own hands.
“That’s too bad,” he tells Omar loudly and rather indignantly. “She was going to write a really great story about you. You blew it.”
He smiles at me as he hangs up.
I tell him that he should take a good look at the Space Shuttle Cafe while he’s here because Omar says he’s going to move it soon to Long Island for the winter.
One of the back tires is flat.
We look at each other and shrug.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Thus far, in her 56 years, her steps – some small, some large and several that were admittedly sideways – have landed her right where she wants to be.
Which is standing in a pack of playful pups who are wagging their tails like flags and jumping up, her mask be damned, to give her wet, sloppy kisses.
Viviane, who grew up on a farm in São Paulo, Brazil with dogs, cats, cows and horses, opened Vivi Pet Care a little over a year ago.
The shop, which offers grooming, boarding, dog walking and day care, announces itself on 21st Avenue at 31st Street with love – its awning is Valentine-heart red – and with the boisterous barks and happy howls of its contented canine clients.
“I designed every part of it myself,” says Viviane, adding that “I treat every pet as if it were mine.”
As she says this, Jubilee, her own pooch, leans in for a caress. A Swiss Hound-Beagle mix, he has long floppy ears that fly like kite tails when he runs.
Viviane – red nails, red lipstick, red uniform jacket; excited, expressive, enthusiastic – sees every dog-food bowl as half full and every opportunity as golden.
“I’m grateful for everything I have,” she says. “I have a positive attitude; I know that everything happens for a reason. I’m happy no matter what.”
Ironically, Viviane’s new beginning started with an ending.
She had married at 18 – which probably was far too young – and after 19 years and two children decided that she wanted a divorce.
She emerged with some money – “we had a company that made racing-car parts,” she confides – and an enormous amount of determination to change her life.
She had a friend in New York City, which is why she decided to come here in 2002.
“I didn’t know the language at all,” she says, adding, in perfect English, that she’s still not flawlessly fluent. “I took whatever jobs I could because I knew I had to survive.”
Her first job, as a coat checker in a restaurant, allowed her enough time to take classes in English, and after she saved some money, she took a job as a live-in housekeeper on Long Island.
Next, Viviane went to bartender school and worked as a bartender, where, she says, she became much more proficient in English.
“People in bars like to talk,” she explains.
Although she liked the work, she was set to take the next step.
“I decided to go to grooming school,” she says.
By 2007, she was, indeed, working in a pet shop.
“But I had always planned to open my own store,” she says.
In 2019, Vivi Pet Care was born.
Viviane’s quick to point out that although Vivi Pet Care bears her name, it’s very much a family business. Her daughter, Vivian Fernandes, works there, and her grandson, 6-year-old Giovanny, is a frequent helper.
“It’s a team effort,” she says.
She breaks away from the pack long enough to pet Toby, a boxer-pitbull mix.
“He was my first customer,” she says proudly.
Vivi Pet Care, which is open six days a week, takes up most of Viviane’s time. She can’t think of anywhere else she’d rather be.
“I know everybody,” she says as people taking their pooches out for a spin wave to her in the shop window.
But this, she says, is only the beginning. She hopes to open a second shop in Westchester, where her business partner lives.
“I had always dreamed of being a veterinarian, but it’s too late,” she says. “I’ll do that in my next life.”
With Vivi Pet Care up and running, Viviane, who shares an apartment in Astoria with Vivian, Giovanny and Jubilee, wants to devote a little more time to her personal life.
“I want to get married again,” she says as she gives Toby a hug. “I’m looking for a husband.”
She’s in no particular hurry; she knows that it will happen as long as she takes things one step at a time.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Sometimes, in the middle of things, you just need to stop and take a break.
Nilcee Kitani Schneider walks to the courtyard of her apartment building and unfurls her bright-pink yoga mat on the concrete pathway.
Nilcee, who is wearing a diamond-shaped crystal around her neck, kicks off her sandals, takes a deep breath and settles into a cross-legged position.
She raises her eyes to the sky, then gently closes them, leaving the world behind.
Opening her arms to the heavens in welcome, she declares that the energy is very good in this space.
“I can feel it pulling, it’s circling me, pushing back and forth like a wave,” she says, a celestial smile on her face. “I’m vibrating, and I can feel my hands tingle.”
It took Nilcee a long time — most of her life, in fact – to discover the power of positive energy and the value of thoughtful meditation.
“I follow the universe, and these coincidences kept happening to me that led me down this path,” she says.
To understand how she came to live in the present moment, one must examine her past.
Like her Japanese parents, Nilcee is from Brazil. She was born in a small town and was raised in São Paulo.
When she graduated from high school, she didn’t follow a conventional path. Instead of heading straight to college, she went to London.
“I wanted to become proficient in English,” she says. “My plan was to spend six months there and then six months in France learning French.”
After returning to Brazil for a visit, her next stop was New York City.
“I wanted an American accent,” she says. “I watched a lot of American movies in Brazil, and that’s what I wanted to sound like.”
(For the record, her American accent is, as the Brits would say, brilliant.)
She was only going to stay for a year, but the universe had other plans for her.
She got a job, the first of a series in the corporate world, and got married to the boyfriend who followed her from London.
Seven years later, she got divorced, and a couple of years later, she remarried.
Her first life-changing epiphany came after the birth of her twins, Josh (his Japanese name is Yoshi) and Kyllie (her Japanese name it Toshimi).
The twins, who are 11, made their way into the world at seven instead of nine months, and for no determinate reason, were colicky and spent much of their first years on earth crying.
Nilcee was, to say the least, overwhelmed all the time, so much so that she gave up her career to become a full-time, stay-at-home mother.
“I can remember the day things changed,” she says as Kyllie runs up to say hello. “They were two years old. I had them both on the floor, and they were crying. Up until this time, they always took turns crying, but this time they were crying together, and I couldn’t get them to stop.”
Nilcee was just about to give up when she looked up at the sky.
“It was clear and blue, and I took a deep breath,” she says. “I felt peace and calm surrounding my body. And I said, ‘God, show me a sign.’”
At that precise moment, Nilcee heard an airplane.
“I had the windows closed and the air conditioning on, so it was as miracle I heard anything,” she says. “I screamed ‘Ahhhhh!’ And then ‘Shhhh! Hear the airplane.’”
Her words worked: Not only did Josh and Kyllie stop crying, but they also started laughing.
“My calm calmed me and helped me calm them,” she says. “So I used this technique and others like it more and more.”
Nilcee was familiar with reiki – her mother and sister are reiki practitioners – and meditation, but she never really thought about incorporating them into her daily life until a couple of years after the twins’ twin crying marathon.
She was attending a workshop that featured Dr. Brian L. Weiss, author of the past-life therapy book, “Many Lives, Many Masters.”
So moved was Nilcee by the doctor’s presentation that when she lined up for an autograph, she told him that she needed to speak with him.
She took his advice – “meditate, meditate, meditate” — to heart and soul.
By 2013, Nilcee decided that she wanted to become a healer who focused on reiki, eventually graduating from the New York International Reiki Center.
For the last couple of years, she’s been holding meditation, reiki and wellness sessions for private clients. She recently began booking online appointments.
Nilcee says that’s she a prime example of the benefits of reiki and meditation.
“I have a lot of nervous energy,” she says. “People who know me can’t believe that I’m such a calm person now.”
She smiles serenely.
“If I can do it, so can everyone else,” she says.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s glad he stopped by today, because there’s not much in there — just a couple of cans of carrots and soup and a box of cereal.
He opens his shopping bag and pulls out packages of pasta, arranging them artfully on the shelves.
Lucas, a member of Boy Scouts of America Troop 65 and earner of 30 merit badges, opened the pantry on the grounds of his church, Grace Lutheran, on Aug. 30.
He’s aiming to be an Eagle Scout, and the pantry project was part of his application.
“I think that people want to help, but they don’t know where to do it,” he says. “The Little Free Pantry is a way to see that your donations make an impact because you can donate a box of pasta and come back the next day and see that it’s gone. It’s almost an intimate experience.”
Lucas, a freshman at Stuyvesant High School who has serious eyes and silver braces, got the idea for the pantry a couple of years ago when it was mentioned at church.
“I thought it was a cool way to support the community,” he says. “And now, with the pandemic, even more people need it.”
In July, when school was out and everyone was sheltering in place, Lucas began building the pantry and community support for the project.
First, he enlisted his family: his parents, front-line doctors Melissa Lee and Scott McGarvey, and his 13-year-old brother, William, and 12-year-old sister, Calla, who are enrolled at P.S. 122.
“Because of the pandemic, they were the only people I could safely work with,” he says.
He collaborated with his troop and got help from church members.
In addition, he tapped the business community: City Lumber in Long Island City provided the wood, and All Weather Roofing & Waterproofing in Woodside donated the shingles for the structure.
“We stitched it all together,” Lucas says.
The unassuming pantry, which is painted barn red, was built outdoors at the church by Lucas and his team.
It has two doors. Over one, there’s a hand-painted sign that says “Help Yourself;” over the other it says “Help Another.”
“I’m really, really happy to see people donating and receiving aid,” Lucas says, adding that he was worried that he would have to create fliers and post them on telephone poles to get a response. “Now that the church’s school is in session, we are encouraging the school kids to bring a weekly offering.”
Lucas, whose troop is chartered by the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens, joined Scouting because of the camaraderie.
“I’ve developed friends with people from different schools,” he says.
Through Scouting, Lucas has learned a lot of skills, including first aid and knot tying, that city kids like him typically aren’t taught.
He decided to become an Eagle Scout because “a Scout’s journey is never finished; it’s learning to be an active member of the community and learning to lead people. These values carry over into everyday life.”Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
In addition to Scouting, Lucas is involved in a variety of activities ranging from baseball to ballet.
“I play the violin but not very well,” he concedes. “And I learned the ukulele for school.”
Although Lucas, who sees the world as a bright, shiny penny, isn’t sure which career path he wants to pursue, he knows he wants to remain involved in the community because “we, as young people, can make the world a better place.”
That’s why he is encouraging others to build more pantries, as an immediate – not a permanent — solution to halting hunger.
“One pantry isn’t going to solve the problem,” he says. “I want people to realize that anybody can do it, and everybody can make an impact.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling