|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|
|September 19, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Visual Artist Who's Eyeing His New Life||no comments|
|September 14, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Comes To the Rescue||no comments|
|September 06, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Pup and the Pandemic||no comments|
|March 17, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Paints by Flowers||no comments|
|March 10, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Garage Philosopher||no comments|
“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
A visual artist, he’s just moved into a new apartment that has a back yard and enough space for him to paint and create videos.
He looks toward the front window, where he can see the unpacked boxes piled up in the living room. His year-old black rescue cat, Tomasa, stares back at him with owl-like amber eyes.
Ahmed, who has curly black hair, a soft voice and a curated beard speckled with silver, counts his blessings:
He has two part-time jobs – he teaches video art to middle-school and high-school students at the Museum of the Moving Image and is a member of the ArtsConnection think tank developing online courses for children in city schools.
He’s newly married. (She’s an education director at a museum; they share the apartment with her mother, who is an artist.)
And he’s living in New York, which puts him in the middle of the greatest contemporary art scene in the world.
Ahmed is, of course, more than familiar with that scene.
And they run deep.
The apartment he just vacated was near the Hell Gate Bridge.
He goes inside and emerges a couple of minutes later with a small, long canvas he just completed that shows the view of Astoria Park he used to have.
“I love this bridge,” he says, in awe of its engineering and architecture.
The thing is, Ahmed never really planned any of this; good things and extraordinary opportunities just kept happening to him, pushing him into place.
Ahmed, a multi-disciplinary artist whose primary medium is video, has always been interested in art.
He was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, where his parents, particularly his mother, encouraged him and nurtured his budding talent.
Shortly after he earned a bachelor’s degree in culture and arts from the Faculty of Art and Education at Cairo’s Helwan University, he entered a competition that led to his landing a full-time job in graphic design with Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, a position he retained from 2002 to 2018.
From 2016 to 2018, he also taught media arts at the University for Modern Sciences and Arts in Cairo.
While he worked those two jobs, Ahmed continued to pursue his personal artistic endeavors, winning competitions and traveling all over the world to show his work.
“I didn’t feel like a stranger because at that time – I was born in 1981 – Egypt was very much influenced by American culture,” he says, adding that he was a preteen when the first McDonald’s opened in Cairo. “I felt like I was home.”
As Ahmed continued to develop his art talent, the world stood up and took notice.
His work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, Bamako Biennale, CairoTronica, The Guggenheim, the Museum of the Moving Image and Casa Árabe in Madrid.
Ahmed’s videos combine Machinima, stock footage, 3D animation and experimental soundscapes and cover a range of themes.
His Crossover (The Scene) was inspired by migrants in a refugee camp in Calais, France; Selection, Reflection, Attention tackles the topic of natural selection; Hybrid Spaces and Other Objects is a visual bouquet of surrealist animation fantasy; and Cairo Under Attack channels the Godzilla film franchise with a set of game’s-on digital monsters.
In 2018, Ahmed landed a nine-month residency in the Game Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles as part of a Fulbright research program.
After returning to Cairo, briefly, for a group exhibition, Ahmed came to Astoria, where the Museum of the Moving Image was showing his work.
While he was in Astoria, he reunited with the woman he had been corresponding with for nearly a decade. Late last year, they married.
Ahmed, who is classically trained, learned the art of video at an independent workshop.
He concedes that producing art, especially video art, is not an easy way to earn a living.
Materialism, however, does not really interest him.
“Being a full-time artist and working in my studio is my dream,” he says. “But teaching is part of my practice, too. I love it because new-media art is dynamic; there’s always something new to learn about it. I teach my students, but I also learn from them, and that helps me as an artist.”
New York, he says, is stuck with him.
“I plan to stay here because of the new life and family I have established,” he says. “My art is second only to my wife. New York is the source of the art movement. I can study new kinds of art here.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Short in stature and soft in voice, she’s standing firm in the courtyard of her apartment building, dressed modestly in a lime-green skirt and a bold floral-patterned blouse that don’t look as though they’ve ever flown through the air.
Her hair, no-nonsense straight and long, is pulled back, and her sunglasses are perched solidly atop her head instead of sheltering her big, brown eyes.
But don’t let the innocent soccer-mom look fool you: Julie has accomplished extraordinary feats that the rest of us mere mortals will never come close to achieving.
Julie’s transformation to rescuer all started two years ago during Trump’s draconian “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that separated families and kept kids locked in cages crying for their mothers.
Julie, like so many others in the world, was outraged and frustrated that she was standing on the other side of the bars unable to help.
Then, she heard the story of Yeni Gonzalez Garcia, a Guatemalan refugee, who, like Julie, has three children under the age of 12.
“She was being held in Arizona, and her kids were in New York,” Julie says. “I heard her lawyer on the radio, and he said she needed money to post bond so she could join them. It struck me immediately that doing this was a really concrete thing we could do in the midst of the crisis.”
She started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $7,500 bond and was astounded when she not only surpassed that goal but also ended up inspiring thousands of people around the nation to join her in the fight for social justice for immigrants.
Since then, Julie’s nonprofit, Immigrant Families Together, has raised over $3 million and has helped not only Yeti, who is living in North Carolina with her children while she’s appealing her denial of asylum, but also 119 others.
“These families are traumatized by being separated and by the process,” she says, adding that over $1 million of the money raised has been used to pay bonds of $1,500 to $40,000. “My goal is to not only provide bond money but also to take care of their comprehensive needs, which include everything from housing and food to legal representation and medical issues.”
Julie, who had earned her living as a freelance writer up until she started Immigrant Families Together, was in a perfect position to embrace her new role.
She grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where her family’s farm produced food for their own table. The property was, she says, “falling off the edge of the county map.”
With dreams of becoming an English professor, she earned a degree from Emory University in Atlanta.
While she was there, Julie, who speaks Spanish and English, became interested in art therapy. Being a longtime writer, she wanted to create a program that embraced the written word.
After graduation, an internship at the creative arts therapy program at the nonprofit Housing Works brought Julie to New York City.
That job – helping adults with HIV – eventually became full time, and Julie went back to school, earning a master’s degree in social work from New York University. During the same time, she also earned a certification as a creative arts therapist.
Next, she became the assistant director of the day treatment program at the Astoria branch of Goodwill Industries.
Burned out by the bureaucracy, she quit, and after “foundering and floundering,” moved to Puerto Rico, where she served as a tour guide. Then, she worked two years in Mexico City, writing freelance travel and social justice articles.
In 2009, she and her husband, who is a Cuban immigrant, returned to New York City, where she continued her writing career until she heard that 2018 radio interview.
“I was not planning to do this for more than one person,” she says. “But the money kept coming and coming and coming, and soon I had established nonprofits calling me asking me how I was raising so much money in so little time.”
Although Julie spends almost all of her time helping immigrants, she does, occasionally, still find time to write. This year, she co-authored, with one of the refugees she helped, “The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border.”
Julie has no plans to expand Immigrant Families Together; she is committed to continuously supporting the 120 she has taken under her wing.
“A lot of the families we support describe us as family,” she says. “We are a lifeline to them; my phone rings constantly every single day.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
While Zora’s tail wagged like a hummingbird’s wings, the puppy got into play pose.
I watched in wonder – and shock.
Zora’s a dedicated dog despiser. When she spies or smells one of her own kind, she throws a tantrum that involves growling, barking and grabbing the leash and vigorously trying to rip it off so she can go after the offender. (She’s never been successful in this endeavor.)
When we walk, I weave in and out of the streets, dodging dogs, so I didn’t need much practice to master maneuvering away from people when social distancing started.
In the beginning, Zora tried to pull me toward her peeps, but after a while, she seemed to catch on, and just like all the humans, started moving to the other side of the street to avoid close encounters of any kind.
So I was unprepared when she pulled me toward the puppy in the window. I was even more surprised that this would be only one of many attempts she has made to form new relationships while sheltering in place.
I’ve read several stories on the therapeutic effect of dogs on people, especially during times of stress and solitude. And I’ve seen reports on how having their humans at home 24/7 makes dogs head-over-tails happy.
But I’ve yet to read an article about how the quarantine affects dogs psychologically, radically changing their behavior like Zora’s.
OK, to be totally transparent, Zora does have two canine companions. Daisy, a mixed breed, is her BFF. Born on the same date, they met in Astoria Park as puppies. It was love at first hug: They lay down on the sidewalk, wet nose to wet nose, and put their arms around each other until they were pried apart.
Titus, a yellow lab, is a big, bellowing brute. He’s Zora’s best beau – or at least he thinks he is.
But Zora tolerates Daisy and Titus only so she can get close to their humans. She’s so enamored of Daisy’s mom, Judy, that when I left Zora with her for a weekend, she all but refused to come home.
And when we run into Titus, Zora passes him up and jumps on Jimmy.
Zora’s a flirt – in her mind, no walk is complete without a pack of people petting her.
She has her own fan club. Amaro, the counterman at the corner deli; Mary, the cat rescuer; and Sarah, the waitress who wants to be an actress. Then there’s Ellie, who caresses her and calls her “koukla,” and Marie, whose blueberry muffins she wolfs down when I’m not looking.
And the scores of strangers she sidles up to who can’t resist petting the fluffy dog who looks like Benji’s big sister.
These days, Zora has to content herself with sitting outside Daisy’s house, hoping her pal will make an appearance on the balcony. Or sniffing at Jimmy’s car, an old silver Honda with an ashtray on the dashboard and a sticker that says “Buffalo” on the back window.
She noses around the wheels, drinking in the scent, then plants her front paws possessively on the door, peering in at Titus’ pillow and glow-in-the-dark tennis balls.
In between these not-very-satisfying activities, she has continued to make new friends. Lately, she has had her eye on an apricot poodle and a Yorkie who yelp in their back yard as she walks by.
For an hour or so, she recently sat with Cooper, a mixed-breed puppy who looks like a fox, separated only by a chain-link fence and human chaperones.
The other day, just as we were finishing our nightly walk, Zora tugged me around the corner.
Like a guided missile, she honed in on Jimmy’s silver Honda.
The front window was open; Jimmy, seat slung back like a La-Z-Boy lounger, was taking a nap while waiting for his laundry to dry.
Before I could stop her, Zora lunged for his lap and kissed him awake.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said as he petted her. “I’ve missed you.”
As we headed home, we passed a cute little black French bulldog.
Zora threw a tantrum.
And for a split second, it seemed like things were back to normal.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Lucky, who she rescued from the streets of Greece 13 years ago, heads toward his bed as Marina brings out an elegant bouquet, an ode to rosy roses, red orchids and creamy carnations. It’s spiked with gold-spray-painted monstera spears to match its shiny brass bowl.
It may be more coincidental than calculated, but the bouquet cannily complements Marina’s hair, bright red lipstick and white blouse.
Although Marina opened Paint by Flowers in 2017, its roots reach deep into her childhood.
Marina was born on the Upper East Side, where she lived until the family moved to Flushing when she was 8.
Her mother, a divorcee, was raising two children on her own when she met Marina’s father. A year after they wed, Marina was born.
Marina’s father, who worked as a florist’s helper until he opened his own shop, filled their home and yard with plants.
“Our house was like a jungle,” Marina says. “We had all kinds of fruit trees and jasmine and hibiscus.”
Although Marina sometimes helped her father man his Manhattan shop, she didn’t consider it as a career possibility.
She liked to draw and was, she admits, “all over the place” regarding what she wanted to do with her life.
After graduating from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, her creative side asserted itself, compelling her to earn a two-year degree from the New York Acting School for Film & Television.
She played the Astoria Greek theater circuit and when she was in her early 20s, returned to art.
“I showed my first piece to my dad, and he told me he didn’t believe that I had drawn it,” she says, calling it up on her smartphone. “He thought I had taken someone else’s work and pretended it was my own.”
After a series of jobs that included waitressing, she decided to go to Greece for a short stay.
“It was on the outskirts of Athens by the beach,” she says, adding that her sister lives there.
While she was refining her art, she worked for a clothing importing company, tutored students in English as a second language and acted in English-language shows.
“What started as a summer turned into three years,” she says. “When I came back, I started doing scenic painting and set design – I like to be behind the scenes and let my work speak for me.”
Around this time, her father decided to retire and move back to Greece, so Marina took on his long-time clients and opened Paint by Flowers.
It’s tiny – it’s in a former garage – and somewhat of a novelty – it’s surrounded by houses.
Coming upon its striped black-and-white awning and flamingo-pink lights in such an incongruous setting is like seeing a bird of paradise in full flower at the North Pole.
“I used to kill every plant I came into contact with,” Marina says, “but plants speak a language, and I am starting to speak it, too. I’ve started being sensitive to what they need to survive and thrive.”
Entering Paint by Flowers is like walking into a rainbow: The front display window is filled with a jungle of green exotics, and the white walls are adorned with Marina’s colorful paintings. A portrait of Lucky, complete with the brass bell on his collar, hangs in the center of the shop.
“I love bright color,” Marina says. “I’m actually a tetrachromat – I have four color cones instead of three in my eyes, which bumps up the saturation and contrast so I see color in a fourth dimension. I’m very sensitive to the energy of color.”
In addition to bouquets like the red one Marina just made, the shop sells exotics like the sago palm, designs arrangements for large events and provides landscaping.
“Creating arrangements is like doing a painting,” she says. “The flower market inspires me, and once I choose a flower, I find ones that match it, and the design builds on itself. I try to capture the energy of each client.”
Marina, who shares a small space up the street with a roommate, concedes that starting a business was far more difficult than she thought. Her work tends to be seasonal, so she and Lucky have become used to pulling all-nighters.
“I had to figure out how to run the business on my own,” she says. “It’s like I threw myself into the deep end, and I’m learning to swim. I sometimes think about going back to waiting tables because somebody always wants something from me all the time, and I always want to be there.”
When she isn’t busy, Marina paints, using the shop as her studio.
“Surrounded by plants, it makes it easier to paint,” she says.
Once Paint by Flowers gets off the ground, Marina wants to move to a bigger, more prominent location in Astoria so she can open when she calls a “flower coffee shop,” where people can come to hang out to enjoy all the arts just as much as she does.
“I want everyone in Astoria to know I’m here,” she says.
Lucky rests his front paws on the top of his bed and gazes up at her.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
While he’s expounding upon the big reality-shattering ideas that zig and zag through his existential dystopian novel, The Defectors, like an errant self-driving automobile, he experiences a profound Proustian madeleine moment.
It’s the first book he’s had published, and although it’s classified as fiction, it’s rooted firmly in René’s own past, particularly his childhood, and like his life, it features scenes in a machine shop, Astoria and Long Island’s pine barrens.
It has no plot – René sees it only as 13 episodes that sometimes involve a character called Zig. It’s about people who defect, not from other countries as his parents did when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia only months before his birth, but from reality.
“The Defectors,” he concedes, “has a multiplicity of realities and is self-referential at times.”
A half century ago, René was born in Stockerau, Austria, a town a dozen miles from Vienna.
Four months later, the family relocated to New York City, staying briefly in a rat-infested tenement in the South Bronx before moving to New Rochelle.
René’s father took a job as a machinist, and the family eventually bought a house in Medford, a hamlet in Long Island’s pine barrens.
“After about a decade, my father quit his job and took all of his savings to open a machine shop in our garage,” says René. “I started helping out when I was 12.”
When he learned, aside from how to maneuver the lathe and drill press, was that success was elusive.
“Everyone who worked there had dreams, but most people failed when they went out on their own,” he says.
But that didn’t stop René, at least not in the beginning. After graduating from SUNY Albany with a degree in English, he spent a year studying in Prague.
“My college friends were talking about law school,” he says, “so I thought I would give it a try, too.”
Four days after he returned from Czechoslovakia, René found himself at Touro Law School.
“I hated it, but I stuck with it,” he says. “I almost failed, and ultimately, although I got the degree, I failed the bar five times – I got the identical score each time – before I finally gave up.”
While he was waiting for his professional life to commence, he met Catherine Kapphahn, whose first book, Immigrant Daughter, was published late last year.
René, a loquacious and curious man, embarked upon a number of pedestrian jobs that he managed to make interesting.
He clerked at the bookseller Shakespeare & Co. for a short while then became the production manager at the Czech Center New York, one of the cultural institutes under the auspices of the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I was a jack-of-all-trades there,” René says. “I did everything from chauffeuring to hanging art up on the walls for exhibitions.”
Around the same time, he and Catherine started a writers group and each decided to go back to school.
“We sat at opposite ends for our railroad apartment in Manhattan typing,” he says, “while our Belgian sheepdog shuttled back and forth between us.”
After he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence, René started teaching, eventually becoming an adjunct at Hofstra.
These days, he teaches creative writing and first-year composition at Lehman College and first-year composition at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
About a decade ago, the seed for The Defectors was planted when a number of journals started publishing bits and pieces of what would eventually become the novel, and René started getting grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts, that allowed him to continue the project.
“When I worked for Hofstra, I would go to the top floor of the library between classes to write,” he says. “There was nobody there.”
Those leisurely days of longhand evaporated with the birth of his sons, Radek and Rafa, who are 13 and 8, and René now finds himself tapping out notes on his smartphone in spare moments.
This is not one of them. Rafa, who is helping Catherine haul in bags of supplies from Trader Joe’s, bounces into the living room and curls up with René.
“As far as The Defectors, I don’t really consider it a novel,” René says. “Maybe it’s a story collection. For me, defecting from reality is not so much defecting from family as it is defecting from the machines of life.”
Yes, he’s quite aware that that does, indeed, include the smartphone and computer he uses to write.
Although René has additional spontaneous, free-thinking Defectors-like episodes in mind for a sequel, he’s also mulling a narrative-driven work. But he doesn’t think he can pull it off.
“My mind doesn’t work like that,” he says. “I would like to write a book that doesn’t fit into any category, where the episodes are thought experiments. I know that The Defectors is a weird book – it’s all over the place – and I know I’m not going to make any money. But that’s OK.”
Rafa looks at his dad and smiles.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling