Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 51871 views | 0 0 comments | 230 230 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Creator of the Christmas Village
by Nruhling
Dec 20, 2016 | 3207 views | 0 0 comments | 98 98 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose with his Christmas village.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

The lights and stars are twinkling in tandem. The women are shopping in the outdoor farmers’ market, and the men are sawing logs and stomping on grapes to make wine.

A crowned king on a camel approaches, bearing gifts for Mary and Joseph’s newborn babe in the stable.

It’s Christmas time in Jose Leon‘s village.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The nativity is the shining star.

Every time Jose looks at it, he thinks of home. Nativity scenes such as this are a tradition in Cabra, the rural town in Spain where he comes from.

Most people buy them, but Jose has been making his own for nearly three decades.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Cecilia met Jose in a Yahoo chat room.

Jose, a quiet man with tinsel-shiny golden-silver hair, isn’t sure why he crafted his first one when he was 20, but he has continued the custom every year since.

The ritual has become particularly important since 2008, when he settled in Astoria with Cecilia, his sweet, soft-spoken bride.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The Styrofoam structures are Spanish in style.

Unlike Joseph and Jesus, Jose’s not a carpenter by trade. He’s spent most of his career as an electrician. He taught himself to use a hammer and nails, skills that have proved useful in the construction of his miniature municipality.

Cecilia, who was born and raised in the house they live in in Astoria, and Jose met in a Spanish-language Yahoo chat room in 2005.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose did most of the renovations in his house.

Cecilia’s dad was from Calatayud, and her mother was a native of El Tiemblo. They met and married in New York. Cecilia is their only child.

Cecilia had been married, briefly, before and had spent nearly a quarter century in Tucson. In 2001, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she returned to Astoria.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A soldier stands guard.

Jose and Cecilia pretty much fell for each other right away, probably because they had a lot of things in common, including their love of the Christmas celebration.

It’s not unusual for them to leave the house decorated from Thanksgiving to April.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The delight lies in the details.

“We never want to let it go,” Cecilia says. “It’s so festive it lifts my spirits. For us, it’s not about religion, it’s about peace on earth and good will toward men.”

Jose, who is still learning English and relies upon Cecilia to be his translator, spends 500 to 600 hours every year creating the village, which is modeled after the traditional stucco and terra-cotta architecture of Cabra.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jose in the kitchen he created.

The village, which includes a mill, a bridge, a flowing fountain, houses, a castle and the manger, is made of carved and painted Styrofoam. The roofs are terra-cotta tiles; the fences, windows and flower pots are copper wire dipped in glue; and the tree leaves are sisal that is cut and painted green.

“There are 3,000 tiles on the roofs,” Jose says. “Cecilia and I worked on them together.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A king comes bearing gifts.

She smiles, remembering how much fun they had doing it.

It is populated with figures Jose buys from Christmas shops in Spain.

Right now, the village is located in Cecilia and Jose’s finished basement, where it rests on a 13-foot by 5.5-foot table. Some seasons, they display it upstairs, carrying it up piece by piece.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The village features 3,000 handmade terra-cotta tiles.

“Making it is entertaining for me to do,” says Jose. “I like to see the things in my imagination come alive.”

When Jose finishes a village, he gives or throws it away and starts another. He considers each one a creative challenge.

He’s also become quite handy in his regular-size house, where he designed and constructed a kitchen and bathroom, restored the enclosed front porch, repaired the ceilings and made wooden radiator covers and moldings for the baseboards, doors and windows.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
All decked out for the holidays.

He says he doesn’t miss Spain. That’s probably because he and Cecilia visit his family there twice a year. Recently, they bought a 65,000-square-foot property in Cabra that has a chalet and a 40-tree olive grove.

When Cecilia retires in a couple of years from her job as an administrative assistant for the National Labor Relations Board in Brooklyn, they plan to spend more time there.

They will leave the Christmas village here.

It will be a good excuse for Jose to start another one.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; nruhling on Instagram; Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Kick-Ass Trainer
by Nruhling
Dec 13, 2016 | 4055 views | 0 0 comments | 104 104 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nick is a personal trainer.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s early in the morning when Nick Robyn sprints up the stairs of his three-floor walkup.

He’s headed to the roof.

He can tell you what he does for fun and for a living, but it’s easier if he shows you.

He puts on his boxing gloves and strikes a fierce pose, his Game of Thrones locks, the color of caramelized carrots, cascading down his back.

He tosses the mitts aside kicks his leg into the air, scowling as a sign to all to beware.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He started gymnastics at age 4.

If these moves seem natural, it’s because Nick, a personal trainer, took his first gymnastics class at the tender age of 4 and added martial arts when he was 5.

Nick, who stands tall and supremely serene, was born in Brampton, Canada, but it was in the USA that he learned the hand backspring and hook and hammerfist.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He picked up martial arts at 5.

His mother was single – Nick never met his biological dad until he was 11 — and when she married around Nick’s third birthday, the new family moved to the outskirts of Detroit.

“I was diagnosed with ADHD,” he says. “I was running circles around the other kids. She thought these sports would help me.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nick was born in Canada.

Soon, Nick was competing in 40 martial-arts tournaments a year, which didn’t leave him much time for gymnastics.

When he had to choose, he gave up the somersaults at 8 because “I decided I would rather punch instead.”

When he got burned out at 16, he switched to fencing for three years.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Let the fight begin.

“I brought a martial-arts rhythm to it,” he says, adding that he took up boxing and kickboxing at 22.

Nick was used to competing, but he just couldn’t make college work out.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Don’t let the smile fool you.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I went to a community college,” he says. “I studied culinary arts, but it wasn’t for me.”

He dropped out and took a job at The Home Depot while he considered his future.

“I was young and dumb and got involved with the wrong crowd,” he says. “I got into a bad fight outside a club. These guys came at me with 2x4s and played Ping-Pong with my head. This was my epiphany moment; I knew I had to get my life together.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Go ahead, make my day.

When his broken nose and other injuries healed, Nick re-connected with his high school friends. They were into music, and he started managing them.

“I liked it because I was helping people,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ready to strike.

He thought it would be a good business to get into, so he enrolled at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, where he earned an associate’s degree in recording arts and a bachelor’s in business and business management.

After graduation, he spent 3 1/2 months backpacking around Europe.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Take that!

“I went alone, and I learned more from traveling than I ever did in school,” he says. “I discovered myself. I got in touch with all the things I enjoyed as a kid, including martial arts.”

It was an unpaid internship in New York City in the music industry that brought everything together.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Are you talking to me?

Nick took a side job at The Rock to pay the bills and adopted a year-old black and white shelter cat, whom he named Po after the Kung Fu Panda, to keep him company.

He also earned this personal trainer and CrossFit certificates.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Back off, buddy.

“There came a point when I woke up and didn’t want to do the internship any more because I was sitting in front of a computer all the time and wasn’t helping people,” he says.

In his spare time, he started fighting at the Ray Longo Mixed Martial Arts gym in Garden City but was forced to quit after he tore his ACL.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Right where it hurts.

These days, he’s teaching at CrossFit Dynamix and Pure Hart Training Center.

He works seven days a week, but he says it’s no sweat. The on-site work is four to six hours a day, but that doesn’t count all the extra time he puts in.

Last night, for instance, he traveled to and from Philadelphia off the clock to “corner” a fighter during a six-minute MMA match. In the tangle of backed-up traffic, the round trip took seven hours.

“I love what I do, but it doesn’t give me much time for my own training,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Wasn’t this fun?

But he does have time to think of the future and hopes that will involve going back to school and opening his own business.

“I’m into the health aspect of everything,” he says. “Maybe I’ll have a health center that focuses on holistic medicine, or maybe I’ll own a fitness center or gym. By doing what I’m doing now, I’m training myself to run a business. Whatever it turns out to be.”

He looks at the clock. It’s 9:13 a.m. He packs his gear in the car. He has a class to teach.

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

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Seamstress Who Brings Daddies and Daughters Together
by Nruhling
Dec 06, 2016 | 3848 views | 0 0 comments | 101 101 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Evgeniya is from Russia.

Text and Photos by Nancy Ruhling

In a corner of the bedroom, on a tiny table, Evgeniya Bavaeva sets up her portable Brother sewing machine.

It’s always at night, usually at 10, after her 3-year-old daughter, Celine, is in bed and while her husband, Serafim Ferdeklis, is working at his restaurant, BZ Grill.

She listens to Ludovico Einaudi on her headphones to drown out the rhythmic sound of the needle marching through the fabric.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A MiniCelini dress made from a man’s old shirt.

“This is my time,” she says. “Serafim comes home around midnight. I keep working until 4 a.m., and then I get up at 7 or 8.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Although Evgeniya has been sewing all her life, it is only in the last year that she set up her own business.

MiniCelini, which is named after Celine whose nickname is Celini, began when Serafim got a spot of oil on his brand-new blue-and-white checked Ralph Lauren button-down dress shirt.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Celine wearing MiniCelini.

Reluctant to throw it away, Evgeniya, who is tall and trim and elegantly at ease, fashioned a dress for Celine from it and showed off the results on Facebook.

People were charmed by the idea of daddy-daughter outfits, and friends started sending her old shirts to redesign into dresses.

“These dresses, made from fathers’ and even grandfathers’ old shirts, create memories,” says Evgeniya, a lifelong recycler. “It’s like the daddy is hugging his daughter.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Evgeniya sews in her bedroom.

Each bespoke design is dictated by the style of the shirt the client supplies.

“I look at the details on the shirt and get a feel for the fabric,” she says, adding that each takes four to six hours to complete. “I don’t use a pattern. I create as I work. I sew the lace on by hand. And I turn over the edges of the seams and sew them by hand so they feel good against the child’s body.”

Celine, who is wearing a light blue MiniCelini dress with giant puffy white ruffles around the hem, and Serafim, who is sporting a blue-and-white striped Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, are playing on the couch.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The line includes ties and hair bows.

He’s teaching her magic tricks and watching while she fills in her coloring books.

Serafim, who was born in Baltimore and lived on the Greek island of Rhodes from age 5 until 2002, met Evgeniya, who was born and raised in Russia, through friends.

They speak to Celine in Russian, Greek and English.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Celine having a play date with daddy.

“I understand Greek well because I took lessons, but there is still more to learn,” Evgeniya says. “Now that we have Celine, Serafim is trying to learn some Russian.”

MiniCelini, which also makes boys’ vests and bow ties and girls’ hair bows, is a natural outgrowth of Evgeniya’s career in the fashion industry and of her upbringing in Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia.

“My mother was a seamstress,” she says. “I was always playing with the leftover fabrics. I started out making doll clothes and eventually designed outfits for myself.”

In 2004, after earning a bachelor’s degree in social work from Moscow University, Evgeniya came to New York City to study psychology at Baruch College.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The first shirt-dress Evgeniya made.

It was the fashion scene, however, that turned her head.

“I used to walk around the garment district,” she says. “I kept asking myself how I could be a part of it.”

She rounded out her Baruch schedule by taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, eventually earning degrees from each institution.

After internships at Carolina Herrera and Eileen Fisher, Evgeniya took a job at designer-brand wholesaler Fleet Street, where, among other things, she worked on the Ivanka Trump label.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The back pocket covers a tear in the shirt.

After Celine was born, she tried to work full time but found the balancing act too difficult to maintain, given that both sets of grandparents live out of the country.

She began making mother-daughter outfits.

“We like to dress the same, and I didn’t like to throw away the leftover fabric,” she says, pulling out a pair of dark brown skirts they recently wore for a special occasion.

Now that Celine is 3 (but likes to think she is 5) and attends Greek and Montessori school, Evgeniya has begun taking freelance fashion assignments.

“MiniCelini was a hobby, a pleasure, but now it’s taking a new turn,” she says, adding that someday she would like to open a boutique.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s teaching Celine to sew.

She’d also like to teach children how to sew.

“My mother was too busy to teach me,” she says. “But I was always around when she worked and learned from observing.”

Celine is her first pupil. She already knows how to turn on the sewing machine.

Sometimes, she sits on her mommy’s lap and watches in wonder as the needle bobs up and down.

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

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Hip-Sip Guy
by Nruhling
Nov 29, 2016 | 4154 views | 0 0 comments | 105 105 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling Bar & Grill is at 19-23 Ditmars Blvd.

It’s early in the morning, and the first order of the day at is super simple.

Zsolt “George” Csonka cuts a green apple, a peach and pineapple into chunks and pops them into the blender with some coconut water.

He takes the ice-cold smoothie, hip-health in every sip, to the woman making herself at home in the window seat. On his way back, he serves herbal tea and a warm croissant to customer No. 2.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
George is from Budapest, Hungary.

Before he opened the bar and grill in March 2016, George spent his restaurant career traveling the world, but these days he’s content to go back and forth continuously between counter and communal table in a space that’s the size of a ship’s cabin.

George, who is easy-going and effusively efficient, was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, but circumstances sent him far beyond its borders long before he reached adulthood.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The place is small, but the positive energy is huge.

His mother died when he was only 14, and his father followed her when George was 20.

“I finished high school, and that was it,” he says. “I didn’t have money to go any further. I couldn’t find myself at home. I needed to travel, to have a change of scene.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A customer starts the day with a smoothie.

He got a job at a restaurant in Budapest then worked in the kitchens of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines and the five-star Madison Hotel in Morristown, New Jersey.

“I worked my way up to a top management position in food-quality control,” he says. “I saw a lot of the world – the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The fruits are fresh, the drinks are refreshing.

He came to the United States in 2000 and became a citizen in 2008. For five years, he lived in Hawaii.

“I decided I wanted to continue my education, so I applied to the University of Las Vegas,” he says. “But I never went; I got there, but I didn’t like the city.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Alejandro Perez is all set for the breakfast crowd.

In 2009, he came to New York and enrolled in John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, with a minor in political science, in 2015.

“I never stopped working when I was in school,” he says. “I opened a restaurant consulting firm in 2010, and I still have it. I help people set up restaurants, doing everything from pre-opening inspections to licensing. I also defend restaurant owners in court when they get low-letter grades from inspectors.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The decor is living-room casual.

It was the experience of working with some 3,000 restaurants that prompted George to create, whose cute name is a play on “juice me.”

“I chose this location because this end of Ditmars Boulevard is still relatively untouched and will be developed in the next three years,” he says. “It’s right on the way to Astoria Park, and there are a lot of people who live in the apartments here. Why should they have to walk all the way up to 31st Street to get coffee?”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A reminder of home.

From its smiley-face name and pumpkin-orange awning to its inventive menu (where else can you imbibe elderflower fizzes, lingonberry mojitos and butternut-squash/mango concoctions called Rumchatas?), was designed to be different.

“We are the first restaurant in New York City with healthy choices of food and hand-crafted cocktails that pair natural vegetables and fruits with top-shelf hard liquor,” George says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s looking to open No. 2.

If you’re not in the mood for alcohol, you can toast the day or night with smoothies like the Funky Monkey (mango, banana, peach, Greek yogurt and coconut milk) while noshing on granola French toast, Paris ham and Gruyère cheese paninis, steak burgers, crepes and croissants.

George, who runs with a staff of three, plans to open a Soho branch in 2018.

But that’s in the future; brunch is right now.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;;

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Artist Who's a Work in Progress
by Nruhling
Nov 22, 2016 | 3409 views | 0 0 comments | 98 98 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

The small studio is hidden, behind a hollow-core wooden door, in a corner of the basement apartment.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Portrait of an emerging artist.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

The small studio is hidden, behind a hollow-core wooden door, in a corner of the basement apartment.

Its scant space is squandered by a plastic shower curtain that separates it from the mechanical machinery that runs the four-family house.

It is here, in the shallow night light of a single ceiling bulb, that Angelo Giokas retreats to create the pseudo-urban mixed-media hodge-podge collages that define his artistic life.

“My working process is akin to a dance or a song,” he says. “I respond to texture, color and space. I put a lot of things on the canvas, and I take a lot of things off until I get it right.”

Angelo, a 26-year-old shod in laceless Pollock-paint-spotted sneakers that once were white, hasn’t been an artist for a significant amount of time.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Angelo in his basement art studio.

This has nothing to do with his age or lack thereof.

It’s just that he didn’t find his muse – or his paintbrushes – until after he left college.

Angelo, who was born in Astoria and raised in Little Neck, had always been drawn to music and poetry.

He spent his childhood filling in coloring books and building things, great things, with Lego blocks.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
One of Angelo’s works in progress.

After he earned a degree in creative arts from Siena College, his wanderlust landed him at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose appeal was more about location than education.

“I thought it would be romantic to study abroad,” he says. “I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do with my life.”

It was while taking courses in playwriting, filmmaking, performance art and everything but painting that Angelo first put brush to canvas.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A mini-gallery of Angelo’s works.

“I liked it so much that I didn’t want to quit,” he says. “When I came home, I brought seven or eight finished canvases on the plane with me.”

He set up a studio in a wooden shed in his parents’ back yard and took a job as a data analyst for an advertising technology firm in Midtown Manhattan.

He painted when he felt like it, which was pretty much whenever he had free time.

Two years ago, he moved into his grandparents’ basement apartment in Astoria.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Angelo has never taken a painting class.

“A couple of times a week I drive to Little Neck after work,” he says. “That’s where I do the bigger work. I’m more at home and freer in the bigger space because I don’t have to be as careful about cleaning up the paint, but the space in the apartment allows me to be more meditative and reflective.”

Angelo thrives on the day/night flow of commerce and art; it’s the difference between the two that sparks his creativity.

“I like the hustle and grind of my current state,” he says. “That’s what produces the magic of it.”

He points to a large canvas on his living room wall titled The Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home, a tactile work that features fist-size pieces of green paint chips.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Angelo’s process is spontaneous.

“I got those at the Astoria Boulevard subway stop,” he says. “The paint was peeling, so I scraped it off. I have a whole bag of chips.”

His Midtown office is another source of cast-off found objects.

“We work with a lot of print pieces and discard them when we are finished with them,” he says. “I’ve become quite a Dumpster diver.”

Angelo’s visceral images form in his mind’s eye and take shape spontaneously.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A detail of The Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home.

“I don’t do sketches or drawings or have an end goal,” he says. “But I do have a vision. I work until I no longer have an affinity for the work. I just know when it’s time to stop. The end product doesn’t matter. It’s the story of the making, it’s my story that I want to share. I’d like to think that people dig my story and my art.”

Although he’s passionate about painting, Angelo isn’t so sure he wants to take it up full time – at least for now.

“Even if I quit my job tomorrow,” he says, “I’d still need to find balance.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s waiting for life to fill things in.

Angelo is well aware that his art is a work in progress, and that’s what excites him.

“I’d like to believe that my best work has not been conceived yet,” he says.

He switches off the studio light. In the blackness, he cannot see his future.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;;

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Baker Who's Found Her Sweet Spot
by Nruhling
Nov 15, 2016 | 3149 views | 0 0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Anastasia’s an entrepreneur.

Text and Photos by  Nancy A. Ruhling

There are eight fresh-baked cupcakes on the metal stand. Anastasia Cunningham is crowning each with a snowflake star smothered in shiny sugar sprinkles.

Like a jeweler setting a diamond, she centers each star and gently eases it into the swirl of soft icing, where it must lie not too low or too high but just right to make its aesthetic presence known.

For Anastasia, the cupcakes are simple fare. Her Aloria Cakes and Gourmet Sweets is known for complicated custom orders that are as much decorative dessert as they are edible art.

She’s made celebratory cakes with everything from fondant-icing baby dinosaurs prancing on top to dove-white feathers floating dreamily down their tiers.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Anastasia’s Aloria Cakes is on Astoria Boulevard.

Anastasia, a spirited woman who believes ‘”no” means “go for it,” has never taken a cooking class, but she has been baking ever since she was a child.

She was born in Astoria, but her parents, Greek immigrants, moved to Athens when she was 3.

It was there that, at age 7, she learned to make the traditional deep-fried honey rolls called thiples.

“You don’t see them here,” she says. “The word means ‘folded dough’ in Greek. Maybe I should start making them.”

By the time the family returned to Astoria, Anastasia was 10 and quite accomplished in the kitchen.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Even adding the star tops is an act of art.

“I was young enough to be excited to move back,” she says. “I’ve gone back to visit Greece only twice – when I was 17 and at 21 when my dad died.”

When she was ready for college, Anastasia was more interested in Broadway than baking.

“My father was a singer, and I wanted to do it, too,” she says. “He didn’t want me to live that life and when I told him my plans, he said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Anastasia listened and instead got a degree in communications arts from St. John’s University.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Her baked goods have all-natural ingredients.

“I left college nine credits short when my dad died,” she says. “I took a job in marketing, and I didn’t finish my degree until five years ago. I took out a $10,000 loan to do it. I always tell people it’s never too late.”

After she got married at 25, to a man she met through a friend when she was at St. John’s, she took a job at Crate & Barrel.

“I have three children, and I stayed there seven years until the birth of my second one,” she says. “I don’t define myself by motherhood, but I didn’t mind staying at home. I love to cook and clean.”

Photo by Nancy A. .Ruhling
She started out baking birthday cakes for her children.

Each year, she marked the birthdays of her children – 11-year-old Alexander, 7-year-old Sofia and 4-year-old Victoria — with creative cakes.

“A couple of years ago, I started doing fondant icing, and each cake got more intricate,” she says. “Family and friends began encouraging me, so I posted some pictures on Facebook.”

Aloria opened on Astoria Boulevard at 14th Street in June 2015.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She wants to keep her business small.

“I named it after my children,” she says. “I took the letters of their names and jumbled them until I got a word that worked. I thought it was appropriate since they inspired me to start the business.”

The space, which at various times had been a souvlaki shop, a bank, a massage parlor and an apartment, is as utilitarian as Aloria’s cakes are opulent.

There’s a Dumpster outside the prison-grey wooden door, and there’s no sign to announce it. Inside, there are one commercial oven and two mixers.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Her cakes take six to 18 hours to create.

“I’m not a pastry chef,” Anastasia says emphatically. “I’m a baker. I make things by hand in small batches, and I use real butter, eggs, chocolate and sugar. Each cake takes six to 18 hours to make.”

In addition to the cakes, which are made to order, Anastasia makes cupcakes, muffins and biscotti as well as energy balls, date bars and granola.

The sweets are sold at 60 Beans on Ditmars Boulevard, and the healthy treats are available at Simply Fit on Astoria Boulevard.

“I use my own recipes, including the Greek ones I learned as a child,” she says. “I make the same things for my family.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She supplies local shops with cupcakes, muffins and biscotti.

The cookbooks stacked on the counter are for reference.

“Mostly, I use them as weights for my cakes after I have cut and filled them,” she says. “The expansion and contraction of the sponge creates air bubbles that will show through the fondant, so I wrap the cakes in plastic and use the books to weigh them down in the refrigerator for a few hours.”

Generally, Anastasia is at the shop when the children are at school. (Last year, she brought Victoria with her and created a playroom for her in the loft.)

But there have been times when she’s worked past midnight or even through the night.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She bakes three to four cakes a week.

Right now, Anastasia’s a one-woman show, doing everything from designing the cakes to delivering them in her 2007 black Kia Sedona minivan.

“I make three to four cakes a week,” she says. “My goal is five. I’d like to hire someone to help, especially with the cleaning.”

She rearranges the cupcakes on the tray until she deems they are in perfect order.

“I want to remain a specialty bakery,” she says. “I have no interest in becoming a gigantic business.”

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

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The WWII Veteran With the Purple Heart
by Nruhling
Nov 08, 2016 | 2884 views | 0 0 comments | 94 94 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb’s a WWII veteran.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When the Battle of the Bulge bomb went off, Herb Greenberg flew up in the air. He landed on his back.

Separated from this event by the passage of seven decades, Herb, sitting in his big easy chair, inserts a metal leg brace into his left shoe and deftly ties the thin black laces.

He’s itching to take his walker out so he can sit on the park bench. From there, he can watch the children play and the flag on the pole wave in the wind.

He’s 95; it’s a pleasant way to pass the time.

The bomb that re-wrote Herb’s future was part of a mammoth sneak attack, a last and futile attempt by Hitler’s Nazis to change the outcome of World War II.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb was drafted when he was in college.

Herb, Technician Grade Five, Company B, 13th Infantry, 8th Division, was one of 600,000 GIs who beat them back and was one of an estimated 40,000 who were wounded in the 40-day European Theatre battle that commenced on Dec. 16, 1944 and carried its crimson tide into the new year.

“My job was to look for bombs,” he says, unfolding a map and tracing his journey across the Atlantic Ocean with his finger. “I got hit in France. I saw a lot of my buddies die. Did I think I was going to die? Everybody thinks they’re going to die, and as long as you don’t, you’re happy.”

Herb — 5-foot-71/2, brown hair, hazel eyes, 184 pounds — emerged from the war in August 1945 with two Bronze Stars, a Good Conduct Medal, a Purple Heart and arm, leg and back injuries that he has never let deter him.

He was a 21-year-old college student when Uncle Sam interrupted his studies at Long Island University and sent him into the U.S. Army for what turned out to be a three-year hitch.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb’s job was to search for bombs.

He had planned to be a medical doctor.

“When I came back from the war, I was really far behind and older than everyone else in class,” he says. “It would have taken me too long to go to medical school.”

Instead, he got a degree in accounting, an action that altered his fate.

It was while he was crunching numbers for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union that he met Pearl, the pretty girl who would become his beloved wife and mother to his two daughters.

“We used to pass each other in the office every day,” he says. “I would smile at her, and she would smile back. On our first date, I wined her and dined her and took her to an opera.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The leg brace is a result of his war injuries.

Herb and Pearl (he always called her Pearlie May) settled in Brooklyn with their widowed mothers. In 1958, they moved to the newly opened Queensview North co-ops and never left.

Herb took an interest in the co-op board, serving as president in its early years and setting its course.

After several decades, he changed careers, becoming a special-education teacher at a time when this was a new field. He chose to work in New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb and Pearl were married 62 years.

“The kids were not paying attention in class,” he says. “And I realized that it was because they were hungry, so I used to bring them ham and cheese sandwiches and taught while they ate. There was no money allocated for this, so I paid for it myself.”

Later, he did administrative work for the Department of Education, retiring at 70.

He and Pearl immersed themselves in the social activities of Queensview North and devoted themselves to their four grandchildren.

For a nonagenarian who survived one of World War II’s more catastrophic battles, Herb has relatively few health issues.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb speeds in his walker.

He didn’t start wearing the leg brace until he had back surgery 1977. The doctor also prescribed a cane, but Herb threw it away.

In 2000, after he suffered a stroke, he had to learn to walk again and give up driving. He wears a pair of hearing aids.

“My right one needs to be repaired,” he says. “So I’m having a little trouble now.”

The walker’s new, and Herb likes it because he can travel faster.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb is one of the original residents of Queensview North.

When Pearl died in 2012, Herb set out to reinvent and reinvigorate himself.

“It’s been hard,” he says. “We were married 62 years.”

He inherited her caregiver. Millie Robinson stays with him 24/7 four days a week. Another woman fills in for her the other three days.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb and Millie in their favorite spot.

Last year, Herb took up bridge and plays with a group of Queensview North old-timers every Friday afternoon.

“The game is amazing,” he says. “The rule book is about three inches thick.”

He claims he’s not a very good player.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Herb’s counting to 100.

“I’m new,” he says. “But there’s this old guy who’s 101 who has been playing forever. He’s impossible to beat.”

Herb has no intention of leaving this planet any time soon, but just in case, he likes to keep busy, going to bed at 2 or even 3 a.m.

“Life is very simple for me now,” he says. “My life is in its last stages. I’ve really lived a full life, but I expect to live some more. I’m planning on making it to 100 or more.”

He pushes his walker out the front door. He’s going to sit on the park bench.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;;

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Tree Tender
by Nruhling
Nov 01, 2016 | 3057 views | 0 0 comments | 89 89 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nancy is her block’s tree keeper.

Text and Photos by Nancy Ruhling

Along the stretch of 27th Street that slouches toward Con Ed, there are 22 new honey locust trees.

Nancy Perez knows this because it is she who spearheaded the effort to get them planted through Greening Western Queens when she and her husband, Rob Rodriguez, moved into their house in 2011.

“There were no trees on the entire block,” she says, strolling in the sidewalk shade. “There was only sun.”

Nancy knows first-hand the sear of the sun. She has been up since 6 a.m. tending not only to the two trees outside her front door but also several others on the block.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nancy’s leafy block, 27th Street at 20th Avenue.

This pair, which are spreading their branches to the sky in an effusive embrace, have special meaning for Nancy.

She grew up on 27th Street, on the section between 23rd and 24th Avenues.

Her parents, who were born in Cuba and left when Castro seized power, never could afford a house of their own, and Nancy lived with them in their rental well into adulthood. She left only when they moved to Florida in their retirement years.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nancy’s community-building message.

Hers is the house her parents never had but that they always dreamed of owning.

“My father never got to see it,” she says. “He began getting sick at that time and died in 2011, so I named the tree Andy in his memory. The one right next to it, in front of my house, is named Anna in honor of my mother who died this year.”

The trees are watched over by the flag flying over Nancy’s big front window. It’s the one Andy hung out their window when she was a kid, and it’s the one he unfurled in The Sunshine State.

“After 47 years, I brought it back,” Nancy says. “So, at last, the flag returns to 27th Street.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nancy with her tree Anna.

Early on, Nancy established roots in the community, attending P.S. 85, Immaculate Conception and St. John’s Prep and worshipping at Immaculate Conception.

Her fealty continued through her years at Hunter College and her behind-the-camera work in broadcasting at ABC, Fox and NBC.

“After working several years, I decided I wanted to do something different,” she says. “So I called everyone I knew.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The flag is the same one that flew at Nancy’s childhood home on 27th Street.

She landed an interview at New York City’s official TV station.

She was intrigued by the young man who interviewed her. He didn’t hire her, but he did something more long-lasting: He married her.

Eventually, she got a job as an office manager at a company in Westchester.

“That’s when my life began,” she says. “It opened my world to the idea of community.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nancy had the block’s doggie-bag box installed.

Eight years later, when she was laid off, she and Rob invested in Freeze Peach, a pioneering community café that was on 29th Street at Ditmars Boulevard.

When it closed, Nancy concentrated on renovating the 27th Street house.

“In essence, I became the general contractor,” she says. “It took us two years of work before we were able to move in.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s bringing the block together.

In the following years, she became a lay minister, a Parks Department steward and a volunteer certified citizen tree pruner.

“At the same time, I was taking care of my parents in Florida,” she says. “I could not commit to a full-time job because they were ill, and I had to keep going back and forth.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s looking for a full-time community-centric job.

In addition to getting the trees planted, she established an informal block association whose members keep in touch about neighborhood issues via text.

“I wanted to meet and connect with my neighbors,” she says. “I wanted to build a community that could communicate together about everything from falling trees and icy roads to stolen bicycles.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nancy’s broom at rest.

Now, Nancy is looking for a new connection to the community.

“I’m ready to go back to work full time,” she says. “I would love to work for a local business or a chamber of commerce.”

Someplace, she says, that has a shade tree she can park her commuter bike under.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;;

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Paints Faces (and Bellies)
by Nruhling
Oct 26, 2016 | 3344 views | 0 0 comments | 91 91 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lenore drew from her childhood to create her career.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Six-year-old Abby wants to be a catterfly, a creature of her imagination that is at once cat and butterfly, and her less articulate 3-year-old brother, Andy, can’t wait to turn himself into a snake monster.

That’s why they’re visiting Lenore Koppelman, who is going to make their fantasies come true with nothing more than a little face paint and a lot of creativity.

“This is all about making sure you have fun,” Lenore says as she sits Abby then Andy at her kitchen table, where her artist’s paints are laid out.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Abby wants to be a catterfly.

Within minutes, Abby’s face is purringly pretty in pinks and purples and Andy’s is green and gruesome.

Lenore, who is wearing a magenta stripe in her dark brown hair, amber cat glasses and a dress with dancing dinosaurs, makes all this makeup stuff look like fun and games.

She wouldn’t have it any other way. It took her forever to make face painting her career, so she’s coloring as quickly as she can to make up for lost time.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lenore uses sponges to create the outline.

Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the country of her mother, Lenore found herself in Forest Hills, where her German father spent his youth after fleeing the Holocaust, at age 4.

When she was 6, the family took up permanent residence in New Orleans.

And that’s where Lenore’s story gets colorful.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Abby’s a happy catterfly.

“I had my face painted nearly every Sunday in Jackson Square by a lady with a big, floppy hat that was covered in silk flowers,” she says. “I told everybody I knew that I was going to be a face painter when I grew up.”

Nobody believed her, and to tell the truth, neither did she. That’s why she majored in interior design at Florida International University.

“I became an assistant to an interior designer, but I was miserable,” she says. “All I wanted to do was make things pretty. I wasn’t interested in the math and architecture that went with it.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


She took a job with a medical company in Miami, but she wasn’t cut out for cubicles.

“I felt like a hamster on a wheel,” she says. “And I missed New York City.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lenore, aka The Cheeky Chipmunk.

Transferring to the company headquarters in Rockefeller Center put her in the right city, but even that wasn’t enough.

So she took a position at Kaplan Test Prep, only to be downsized three weeks into the job.

“Everyone else was crying,” she says. “But I thought, ‘I’m free.’ I went out into Times Square and threw my hat into the air like Mary Tyler Moore and sang, ‘I’m gonna make it after all.’ My hat fell in a puddle of melted snow.”

Her husband, Steve, whom she had met in Florida, suggested they have a baby and that she find a career that made her happy even if it didn’t make money.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Andy gets a glimpse of his inner monster.

Their son, Ralph, is 6, and her business, The Cheeky Chipmunk, is 3.

“I came up with the name because when I was a child I had such enormous cheeks that my pet name was Cheeky Chipmunk,” she says.

Although Lenore has always been what she calls the artsy, fun one of her family (her older brother, the serious one, is a physician), face painting turned out to be much more difficult than putting brush and sponge to flesh.

“My work was so awful that one of the first kids I did started crying when she looked in the mirror,” she says. “But I didn’t want to give up.”

Lenore took online courses and began practicing on herself, making her face up in the mirror and painting her arms and legs.

Photo by Nancy. A. Ruhling

He’s one scary kid.

“I didn’t realize it, but nobody paints themselves because it’s nearly impossible,” she says. “But it made doing others’ faces really easy.”

Ralph, who is autistic and hyperlexic, cannot tolerated being painted, but like his mother, he loves to draw, and he displays his artwork on his own website.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lenore also paints pregnant women’s bellies and does special-effects makeup for films.

So once Lenore mastered her own bodywork, she practiced on friends’ children like Abby and Andy.

Soon, she became so proficient that she was not only doing children’s parties, pregnant women’s bellies and corporate events, but she also was teaching the art on FabaTV, the industry’s online classroom.

Along the way, she created special-effects makeup for a variety of projects including the web series You Only Die Once, the cult film White Privilege Frankenstein and the upcoming Broadway star-studded musical film The Oz Project

“It usually takes people five to six years to master the art,” she says. “But I was so passionate about it that I did it in two.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Capturing the catterfly on cellphone.

Lenore is so excited about her new career that she can’t put her brushes, stencils and sponges down.

“Even when I try to take a day off, I can’t,” she says. “When I walk down the street, I see people as blank canvases.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Andy and Abby are all set for adventure.

Abby and Andy are making faces at each other, which makes Lenore laugh.

“I’m the happiest person you’ll ever meet,” she says.

Abby, the catterfly, and Andy, the snake monster, race into the living room.

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

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Guy at the Uke Hut
by Nruhling
Oct 18, 2016 | 3519 views | 0 0 comments | 89 89 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Masafumi plays guitar, ukulele and drums.


Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s really easy to play the ukulele.

To show you, Masafumi Sakai starts strumming the small four-stringer. A high-strung, high-strutting cartoon tune emerges.

“I can teach anyone the basics in an hour,” he declares.

This is no boast. Masafumi has done so countless times. It’s part of his part-time job at the Uke Hut, New York City’s only ukulele-only store.

With its grass-skirt trim, dancing hula dolls and Zen vibes, the Uke Hut is as close to (and as far away from) Hawaii as Astoria will ever get.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Uke Hut at 36-01 36th Ave.

Masafumi, a cool, laid-back guy who looks as though he just stepped off a surfboard, has been working at the shop ever since it hung up its first ukulele in 2014.

The figure-eight-shaped ukulele, aka “the jumping flea,” may be easy to play, but it’s not so easy to love. Or spell.

Invented in Hawaii in the 19th century, its confounding name means “the gift that came here.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Imagine Hawaii in the middle of Astoria.

Although some serious musicians, notably George Harrison, have sung its praises, it has, for the most part, been a novelty. (Think Tiny Tin tiptoeing through the tulips and lei-wearing tone-deaf tourists trying to tune up.)

Anyway, Masafumi came to the instrument late in his career, and had it not been for the Uke Hut, he may not have had much opportunity to extoll its virtues.

Born in Fuji City, Japan, in sight of the mountain, Masafumi was raised in Susono and lived in Tokyo for a decade after he graduated from high school.

He got interested in music at 14, which, he concedes, was rather old for such a pursuit. His first instrument was the acoustic guitar. He taught himself to play it for a school festival and couldn’t put it down.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A songfest of ukes.

Soon, he joined a garage band, adding drums and electric guitar to his instrumental arsenal.

“It was the 1980s, the time of MTV,” he says. “I was greatly influenced by the music from America.”

He went to technical school and learned the art of sound engineering, doing DJ gigs for companies and events.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Masafumi has two CDs and plays lots of neighborhood gigs.

At 22, in a move that surprised him, he decided to pursue a musical career. He became a member of one band then another and another, too many to remember, and played in clubs, dance halls and bars in the Tokyo area.

“I learned all different kinds of music,” he says. “I played blues, jazz and bossa nova.”

He also composed and sang.

In 1995, after serving as a music director for his mentor’s Carnegie Hall program, Masafumi decided not to get back on the plane.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Feel (and hear) the Zen.

“I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know any English,” he says. “It was scary.”

He mastered the language in three months, but it took longer for his music to pay off.

“For five years, I worked as a waiter in Japanese restaurants,” he says. “And at night, I played with bands.”

Quitting his day job was hard, but by giving music lessons, he was able to create a creative life.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Masafumi can teach you the ABCs of the ukulele in an hour.

He had some ups and downs – he suffered a collapsed lung and depression in 2001 – but now he makes his living teaching, performing and working the sales counter and coordinating concerts at the Uke Hut.

“I’m lucky,” he says. “I play about 15 nights a month in various places in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.”

Radio stations on the East Coast regularly play his compositions, including those from his bossa nova CD Gradation. His latest CD, Lina & Saki, is a collaboration in which he plays the ukulele for a guitarist/singer/songwriter.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Hawaii high-five.

Masafumi just turned 50, which he sees as an opportunity to set new goals. Although his ideas are still in the formative stage, he knows that their heart and soul will play out on a musical stage.

“I’d like to compose and produce more music,” he says. “All this time, I’ve stuck to New York City, but I’d really love to tour America, and now I have enough contacts to do that.”

He sets the ukulele aside and smiles, dreamy-eyed.

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

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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