When I started writing Astoria Characters 10 years ago, I didn’t know how long I would continue it, and I didn’t know where it would lead.
The premise was simple: Every week, I would write a profile on a person who lived in our neighborhood.
I would tell the story of each person’s life – in pictures and words.
I was still new to Astoria, and I didn’t know any of you.
I saw all of us as supporting actors in a major motion picture, the characters, who in the credits, are described as “the guy in the coffee shop,” “the tall man wearing the shorts,” “the red-haired woman with the little black dog” and the “the celebrity chef.”
My role in this home-grown production, as I saw it then, was “the new kid on the block.”
I thought writing Astoria Characters would be a good way to meet my neighbors and to get to know my neighborhood.
(It also gave me an excuse to take photos, something I love to do.)
The blog started out in the New York edition of the Huffington Post, which is now known as the HuffPost.
I always tell people that I got the gig (which paid no money but supposedly rewarded me with immense prestige) because the editors couldn’t find any other writers for this new section.
At that time, the Huffington Post only posted political stories, and I was suggesting writing profiles of people nobody had ever heard of.
When I tell people that I’ve written 520 profiles, they are astounded by the number and are surprised that I could find so many interesting people in a single neighborhood.
But I know that I’ve merely scratched the surface; every day, there are new people with new ideas moving to Astoria.
Through the years, I’ve covered everyone from chefs and clowns to cat rescuers and World War II veterans to veteran shopkeepers.
I’ve visited bakeries, restaurants, pharmacies, dance studios, jewelry stores, boutiques, artists’ ateliers and even a bagel factory, a cheese cave, a funeral parlor, a piano factory and an urban farmstead.
I’ve had a pizza named after me — it’s called the Nancy and it’s topped with home-grown Astoria figs.
I’ve met people of all ages – the oldest character had 101 candles on her birthday cake when her story ran, and the youngest, 11, started his first business when he was 3.
I’ve talked to hair stylists, financial advisers, actors, singers, champion ballroom dancers, musicians and even a medium and the Italian Fairy.
I’ve been serenaded by a ukulele, a saw and a singing baker, whom I dubbed “the cookie crooner.”
I’ve chanted with a yogi, watched a puppet show, taken a guitar lesson and eaten leaves from an organic garden.
I’ve petted cats and dogs and baby squirrels and watched pigeons wing it through a character’s living room.
I’ve seen chickens lay eggs on a character’s kitchen floor. I’ve peered back at a pet rat – it was, thankfully, in its cage.
And I’ve carefully, very carefully followed a beekeeper as he tended to his buzzing hives.
I have had the chance to visit, through each character’s eyes, virtually every state in the country and every nation in the world.
I never thought I would meet someone who grew up on a yak farm in Tibet and came to America to make ice cream, a delicacy she had never tasted.
Or become acquainted with someone who switched sides from Italy to America in the middle of World War II by literally jumping ship.
We are all different people, of course, but most of all we are a community.
Astoria Characters, I’ve heard about your hopes and your dreams and your successes and your failures.
But most of all, you’ve told me how much you love this neighborhood, which is considered the globe’s most diverse.
I’m looking forward to the next decade – I can’t wait to meet the next 520 Astoria Characters.
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling