Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 8922 views | 0 0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: Cadillac Man
by Nruhling
May 22, 2018 | 240 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cadillac Man wrote Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tom Wagner, cap and coat in hand, is itching to get outside.

He was homeless for two decades, and although he loves his apartment, anything with four walls feels confining.

Besides, he needs a cigarette. It’s hard to kick a habit you started when you were 10. But he’s down from two packs to two to five cigarettes a day.

Out in the street, he leans on his quad cane and lights up. Now he really feels alive.

“I like to get the gossip,” he says.

As he does every morning, he heads to Sal, Kris & Charlie’s Deli for a buttered roll and a cup of coffee (a little milk and three sugars).

He likes to hang out at Sal’s because it’s across the street from the 23rd Avenue viaduct at 33rd Street, which is where he and the shopping cart he “liberated” from Costco in Long Island City made their home.

In those days, everyone knew him as Cadillac Man, the name he’s still most apt to answer to.

He won the motorized moniker after he and his cart had six close encounters with errant Cadillacs in the mid-1990s. In the last crash, he landed on top of a piece of the logo.

“It left an impression on my stomach that I showed to everyone,” he says. “After that, people started calling me Cadillac Man. The name stuck.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He has breakfast every day at Sal, Kris & Charlie’s Deli.

So did Cadillac Man’s story.

While he was sleeping in the street and collecting cans and bottles for coffee and cigarette money, he was writing about his experiences.

In 2005, Esquire magazine published a piece he wrote about being homeless.

That led to the 2006 documentary, Cadillac Man: Life Under the Viaduct. His 2009 memoir, Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, was based on his handwritten diary, which filled 16 spiral notebooks.

By that time, Cadillac Man was living in a basement room in East Elmhurst with Carol Vogel, his girlfriend.

She offers him a cup of coffee when he returns from his street rounds.

On Sept. 10, 2006, she was on her way to the grocery store, and when she walked by, he was setting up a memorial to the 9/11 victims.

They struck up a conversational friendship, and during the deep downpours of that autumn, she invited him to sleep on the floor of her apartment.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cadillac Man’s cart carried this cardboard cutout.

“I fell in love with her,” Cadillac Man says. “But I didn’t want to tell her.”

In 2007, they became a couple.

“I didn’t help him, he helped me,” Carol says. “He’s calm and level-headed and has common sense. He’s a grounding force in my life. My life straightened out and stabilized after I met him.”

Cadillac Man, giving her a hug and a kiss, insists it’s the other way around.

Carol, he says, saw him as a man, not as a homeless man, even before she knew his story.

They tell it together, Carol adding so many details that it’s almost as if it’s her life she’s talking about.

Cadillac Man, who was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, was one of seven children. He had a pretty ordinary life. Until, all of a sudden, he didn’t.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cadillac Man makes daily rounds of the neighborhood.

At 16, he quit high school to take a full-time job at a candy store. It was the $40-a-week salary that seduced him. (Later, he got an equivalency diploma.)

Cadillac Man joined the U.S. Army for a 3-year stint when he was 19. It was during the Vietnam War, and he was stationed in Belgium as a bodyguard for a general.

When he came home, he bought a canary yellow Chevy Impala and drove all over the country.

“In 15 months, I passed through every state except Alaska and Hawaii,” he says. “Around this time, I found out that I had become a father at 15. The girl, whose last name I never knew, sent me a letter with a photo of my daughter. There was no return address; I’m still trying to find her.”

In 1974, he married a girl in the neighborhood and had another daughter. After their divorce, he remarried and had a third girl.

Carol brings out a binder of newspaper clippings and photos. She points out a picture of Cadillac Man, wearing a baby-blue tuxedo, with wife No. 2 on their wedding day.

She remarks that he looks like the actor Donald Sutherland.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Since 2015, Cadillac Man has lived in HANAC’s George T. Douris Tower.

By this time, Cadillac Man had had a series of jobs – at a meat market, a cigar store and a liquor store – that led to an office position at the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant in Long Island City.

“When I lost that job, in 1990, it was the beginning of the end,” he says.

For a while, he returned to the meat market, but when it closed, he never found full-time work again. His wife took on two then three jobs, and Cadillac Man became a house husband.

He earned certificates in asbestos abatement and fire safety, but the jobs he applied for required more experience than he had, which was none.

When he wife was divorcing him, in 1994, he found himself out on the street.

“My first night, I slept across from the Waldorf Astoria at a bank,” he says. “I got free food at St. Bart’s Church.”

For a short time, he lived with his brother. Then his sister took him in temporarily.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

His 2009 book, Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, made him a celebrity.

Collecting cans and bottles gave him something to do; each day he earned $20 to $100.

“I saw being homeless as temporary,” he says. “When people yelled, ‘Get a job,’ I shouted back, ‘Give me one.’ I’m proud to say that I never asked anyone for a dime. But sometimes, if people offered me money and I needed it, I took it.”

He rolled his cart through all the boroughs except Staten Island.

“Several times each week, somebody picked on me,” he says. “I was shot at, stabbed and lost my teeth.”

In 2002, Cadillac Man, barrel-chested, red-haired and an avid reader of Clive Cussler thrillers, parked himself at the Astoria viaduct.

When Carol, who is a quarter century younger, encountered him, Cadillac Man was ready for a change.

The book and the documentary caught the attention of Richard Gere, who consulted Cadillac Man for the 2014 film Time Out of Mind.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cadillac Man wants the world to see the homeless as people.

In 2015, he got his apartment at HANAC’s George T. Douris Tower on Hoyt Avenue South through a program that benefits homeless veterans.

He still marvels at his good fortune, even though it didn’t bring him much money.

“The royalties from my book go to my second wife,” he says and shrugs, adding that didn’t write it to get rich but to make people aware of the homeless.

The $275 in subsidized rent he pays for his spartanly decorated one-bedroom apartment leaves him some money in his pocket.

Carol, who lives in Rockaway Park, chips in for food and other necessities. When she visits, she cooks and cleans and takes him to doctor appointments.

Cadillac Man, who is 68, is writing some more stories. He’s working on one about Christmas; he left his live table-top tree up for inspiration.

He hopes his story helps people put faces on the homeless.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s writing more stories.

“Homeless people are not born homeless,” he says. “They’re real people – they are somebody’s husband or wife or son or daughter. If I can get even one person in a crowd to understand this, I will consider myself a success.”

He looks out of the windows of his 12th-floor apartment. He keeps them open even in the winter so he can hear the sounds of street life.

When he moved in, he felt right at home because he could see the 23rd Avenue viaduct.

Now, however, new, tall buildings block most of that view.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The ESL Schoolteacher
by Nruhling
May 15, 2018 | 331 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Yamina teaches English as a second language to second graders at P.S. 70.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When you have three children under the age of 4, it’s not always easy to get out the door on time.

But Yamina Islam-Haque’s got this.

She’s an English as a second language teacher at P.S. 70, and being in charge of a classroom of second graders has made her an astute student of childhood behavior.

Ruby and Sufi, her 3-and-a-half-year-old twin daughters (Sufi, for some reason, keeps proclaiming that she’s only 2 and a half), and her 2-year-old son, Sami (who can’t tell Ruby and Sufi apart so calls them Api, which means sister in Urdu), are chattering – and  running – away at high volume and velocity.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sami is 2.

Yamina, whose big brown eyes have been tracking them like GPS as she talks, corrals them, and with the help of her husband, Faheem Haque, bundles them into their coats for a walk, which becomes more like an errant race.

It’s Saturday, so the siblings are super excited because mommy and daddy don’t go to work and can devote the entire day to them.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sami likes to play with cars and carts.

During the week, Sami stays with Faheem, who works from their East Elmhurst home, and a babysitter, and the girls are cared for by Yamina’s parents, who live a short drive from P.S. 70.

This, Yamina hopes, is the last school year things will be so hectic: In September, Ruby and Sufi will go to pre-kindergarten classes full time.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Faheem, Yamina’s husband, keeps an eye on Sufi.

Yamina, the youngest of three children, was born in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and was brought to this country by her parents when she was around Sami’s age.

“They came for a better life,” she says, adding that they chose the East Coast because her father had a brother in Delaware and one in Astoria.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Twins Ruby, left, and Sufi are 3 and a half.

The family moved around New York City and even spent some time in Arlington, Texas, before settling in Astoria when Yamina was 7.

“We were the only Bengalis in Astoria,” she says, adding that most of the people she met were Greek. “And when we were in Texas, we were the only brown people there.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Can’t tell the twins apart? Neither can Sami. Sufi’s in the pink tights.

Although she was a child, Yamina found it difficult to fit in.

“My whole life I wanted to be someone else,” she says. “I didn’t want to be Bengali and Muslim.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sister stuff.

Yamina attended P.S. 17, P.S. 122 and Bronx High School of Science. At Stony Brook University, she earned a degree in linguistics.

“The only reason my parents let me go so far from home was that my brother was already going there,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ruby, left, and Sufi goofing around.

When she graduated, she became a case worker for United Cerebral Palsy of Long Island, where she worked until she met Faheem on Match.com.

“My parents didn’t like us dating because Faheem is not Bengali,” she says, adding that they lived two blocks from each other when she was growing up yet never met. “He’s Pakistani and was born here. The fact that we are both Muslim didn’t make him any more acceptable to them.”

The couple also had something else in common: They were obese and dropped their mega-weights by doing yoga and Pilates.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sufi takes a drive.

“I used to be over 200 pounds, and Faheem was over 300,” she says. “When we met, we were not obese any more.”

In 2009, Yamina married Faheem and quit her job – “I felt stuck because there was no way to advance” – and enrolled at LIU Post full time to earn a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language.

“I’d always wanted to teach because I had such great teachers when I was at P.S. 17,” she says, adding that it was while she was a student there that she became a U.S. citizen in third grade. “I chose English as a second language because my sister, who was six when we came to America, was put in a special-education class because she was ESL. But my mother is persistent, and the next year, she got her placed in a magnet school. I wanted to help newcomers like her.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ruby: See what I have in my hand!

So she was ecstatic when she got a job at P.S. 17 as a full-time substitute teacher.

“But the school was not the same,” she says. “There was a different principal, and the teachers I had were no longer there. And there were no permanent positions open.”

The next year, 2012, Yamina landed a job at P.S. 70.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sufi and Sami: sibling sharing.

“I’m teaching so I can help kids like myself feel less scared about being new to a country and a language because maybe they see someone like myself who looks like them and was in their shoes,” she says. “It’s comforting to them.”

Getting a job with children was far easier than having her own.

Ruby and Sufi were conceived via in-vitro fertilization, and Sami, in defiance of doctors’ conclusions, came naturally and unexpectedly.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Faheem carries Sufi inside.

“We were told we would have to do IVF to have any more children and were going to wait a while to do that,” Yamina says. “But I got pregnant with Sami when the twins were not yet a year old.”

When the children have played themselves out, Yamina and Faheem gather them up like chicks and bring them back inside.

There’s some high-pitched back and forth before things settle down.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Yamina’s got this.

Yamina — mother, wife, teacher – is right where she wants to be.

“I’ve found a family at P.S. 70,” she says. “Being in a classroom is the one place I don’t feel shy, and it makes me feel like a rock star when former students visit me. I want to be doing this the rest of my life.”

She smiles when Ruby, Sufi and Sami come running toward her.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. It is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Ballet Teacher
by Nruhling
May 08, 2018 | 491 views | 0 0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eric is the founder of the Long Island City School of Ballet and the Long Island City Ballet.

Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

There aren’t any ballet dancers in Kilgore, Texas.

You should be aware of that before you hear the story of Eric Ragan.

Eric, the founder and director of the Long Island City School of Ballet and its Long Island City Ballet, was born and raised in that tiny town, whose only other claim to fame is that it was the home of the celebrated classical pianist Van Cliburn.

Early on, Eric showed an interest in music (he played the saxophone) and was encouraged in this pursuit: His father was a musician/music teacher, and his mother was a competitive baton twirler/secretary.

Despite his lack of knowledge of the barre, Eric’s limbs longed to leap. When he was 10, he taught himself to break dance.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The movie White Nights got him interested in ballet.

“My friends and I practiced in an old bus shed,” he says, adding he saw the moves in movies. “We got so good that even though we were under age, we were doing exhibitions in nightclubs.”

He considered it nothing more than a hobby, and in community college he chose to concentrate on his music.

It was seeing White Nights, the 1985 Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet defection drama-thriller, that persuaded Eric and his feet to move in a different direction.

“Immediately, I wanted to be a ballet dancer,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Long Island City School of Ballet is at 44-02 23rd St.

He pronounces it baal-ey, placing the emphasis on the first syllable with the twinge of a Texas twang. French, he says, is too fancy for his Lone Star State tongue to twist itself around.

“Even my dad thought I was nuts,” he adds. “He told me, ‘It’s like you’re 5-foot-8 and wanting to be in the NBA. Ballet dancers start at 3 or younger, and you’re 18.’”

Eric, who has a snow-white goatee on his chin, a gold ring in his left ear and green Garmonts on his feet, didn’t listen to him.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eric got started in ballet late — when he was 18.

“I took one class in college,” he says. “I got my friend, a trombone player, to go with me. He lasted about a week.”

Eric never stopped dancing, but he did quit college to immerse himself in private training.

“I was insanely lucky because some of the Ballet Russe dancers had retired and moved to the South because of all the oil money,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The school also offers adult classes. Eric’s wife, Mary, is one of the students.

To conquer what he calls a “meteoric learning curve,” Eric danced until he dropped.

For two years, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., he trained, taking an hour break before going to class from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. with teenage dancers.

“I didn’t have the bone density of the other dancers because I started so late,” he says. “I developed shin splints, and I used to stand in trash cans full of ice water after practice to ease the pain.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eric was a guest dancer for various NYC companies.

The hard work and soaked legs and feet paid off: In 1988, Eric got a contract with the Tulsa Ballet Theatre.

He and Mary, who he met in college and would later marry, moved to Oklahoma, where the troupe was.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Students perform in Eric’s Long Island City Ballet.

After that, he danced with the Austin Ballet in Texas and the Eugene Ballet in Oregon.

For a while, the couple moved to Switzerland, where Eric danced at the Stadttheatre St.Gallen before returning to the recently merged Eugene/Boise Ballet, which was based in Idaho.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eric spends about 70 hours a week at the school.

New York City seemed like the logical next step.

In 1998, they moved to a cheap apartment in Long Island City close to the Court Square Diner, and Eric became a guest artist for Dances Patrelle, Ballet for Young Audiences, American Ballet Theatre and with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet at Kennedy Center.

In 2006, he founded the Long Island City School of Ballet, which has some 200 students and five studios, and the Long Island City Ballet as a venue for student performances. (The next performances of Eric’s ballets, Extra! Extra! and Kaleidoscope, are May 19 at Queens Theatre in Flushing.)

“The school started when a friend asked me to teach her son ballet,” Eric says. “But her son didn’t want to learn ballet. And I hadn’t thought about teaching – I’d never done it before.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Slippers ready to dance.

So Eric created SportsDance for Boys, cool choreographed routines with superheroes and light sabers that sneak in ballet moves.

All the work at the school doesn’t leave Eric much time to perform. (Every Christmas season, though, you can see him play Herr Drosselmeyer in the New York Dance Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker in Commack, Long Island.)

“I miss dancing every day,” he admits. “I didn’t have an injury, but I retired because I couldn’t keep up any more with the classes and the performances. I lasted 25 years, and that’s a long time.”

The first group of students at the ballet school, the only one in Long Island City, are coming of age. They are getting positions in bigger programs like the American Ballet Theatre and The School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Eric performs in The Nutcracker every year.

Someday, Eric hopes the Long Island City Ballet will be among their choices.

“I’d like to make it a regular company,” he says. “That’s always been the plan.”

When that happens, Eric, who devotes about 70 hours each week to the school, will have more to do every day.

That, he says, will be something to dance about.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. It is a free, public event.

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Father and Son Florists
by Nruhling
May 01, 2018 | 683 views | 0 0 comments | 85 85 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

John’s the owner of Ditmars Flowers & Gifts.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

John Patrikis is standing in the back of Ditmars Flowers & Gifts putting the finishing touches on a towering arrangement.

He adds a couple of roses in strategic spots and stands back to assess his work.

The Love Forever Tribute, which is 2 feet wide and 3 feet high and made of ruby roses and blood-red gladiolas, is destined for a funeral.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

John working on the Love Forever Tribute.

John, who has been a florist since 1971 and who opened this shop in 1984, never tires of putting buds and blooms in vases or sticking stems in green foam blocks.

“I like putting my hands in the soil,” he says. “Plants have a soul. They give me energy and life.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ditmars Flowers & Gifts is at 29-11 Ditmars Blvd.

His son George, who works with him, sees the flowers as a way to connect with the community.

“The arrangements celebrate the happy times and make the tough times a little better on the eye,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Red roses going into cold storage.

John, who was born in Nissyros, which is one of the Dodecanese islands in Greece, never dreamed that he would end up being a florist.

Or, for that matter, that he would ever come to America.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

George, John’s 31-year-old son, works from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

It was his father, a mason by trade who became a cook in Manhattan, who planted the idea in this head.

He came to New York City three months before John arrived in the world.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A potted plant goes into the delivery truck.

“At that time, it was the custom to leave the wife and kids at home,” says John, who is the third of four children. “I didn’t see my dad until I was 5 years old when he came back to Greece to visit for six months.”

In 1966, when John was 10, his father returned again.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Orchids brighten the shop’s front window.

Six months later, John’s mother died.

In 1969, John’s father left the family once again for New York City, sending for the children four months later.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

John has been a florist since 1971.

The move was frightening and exciting.

“I didn’t know any English,” John says. “We lived in the basement of a house my father owned in Astoria. The first day, I heard someone calling my name and waving at me. I couldn’t understand him, but he gave me two Babe Ruth chocolate candy bars. That same day, the next-door neighbor, who owned a hot-dog stand, gave me a free hot dog. And I thought, ‘God bless America! They give you free food in this country.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A spring bouquet.

John, whose first job was helping out at his uncle’s butcher shop in Greece when he was 8, enrolled in a work-study program at Long Island City High School after he graduated from I.S. 141.

After school each day, he manned a florist shop inside the L line subway stop at 14th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Say it with orchids.

In 1976, he bought a florist shop on the Upper East Side.

Around the same time, he met, Anthi, a woman with beautiful eyes who loved yellow roses, at an annual Greek dance.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The shop’s well-stocked refrigerators.

“We grew up on the same island but in different towns,” he says. “I remembered her from when I lived there.”

After dating for seven years, they got married in 1983 and had two sons. Vasilis, a violinist, is 33; George is 31.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

John says the flowers give him energy.

“I needed to have a family,” John says, “because I grew up almost as an orphan.”

In 1984, John opened Ditmars Flowers & Gifts a couple of doors from Immaculate Conception Church.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

It was a work-study program in high school that brought John into the florist business.

In 2003, he bought the building at 29-11 Ditmars Blvd., and when the tenants left, in 2008, he moved the shop there.

Conveniently, it’s between a hair salon and a funeral parlor.

George started helping out when he was attending Brooklyn Technical High School and joined his father full time after earning an accounting degree from Hofstra University.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tulips unfurling their blooms.

Anthi works there, too, and when things get busy, Vasilis completes the quartet.

John, who is 61, hasn’t given much thought to retirement other than deciding that it’s not for him.

“The idea scares me,” he says, adding that he and George are at the shop seven days a week. “I’m used to working. I don’t want to become a couch potato.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

John is working hard at never retiring.

It is suggested that he could spend more time tending his flower and vegetable gardens at his house in Whitestone.

Yes, but he already does that, thank you very much.

Before the conversation goes deeper, John retreats to the back, where he’s starting a new funeral arrangement.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Remains of the day.

This one’s called With Open Hearts. Heart-shaped, it’s covered with pink roses and peonies.

It will take an hour and a half to complete. It has to go out soon. The dearly departed don’t wait for any man or any bloom.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. A free, public event, it is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Full-Schedule Retiree
by Nruhling
Apr 24, 2018 | 825 views | 0 0 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Leonard is a retired LaGuardia Community College professor.



Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Don’t let the rocking chair fool you.

Yes, Leonard Vogt is sitting in it, sipping coffee from a dainty China teacup rimmed in gold.

Yes, he’s a bespectacled, 74-year-old retired college professor.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s idle.

Even his rocking is vibrant and vigorous.

As he starts listing all the things he’s involved in, Phryne, his 4-year-old chocolate-color rescue dachshund, comes scampering into the living room waving her long tail back and forth like a metronome.

Phryne is an atypical appellation, especially for a pet.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Phryne is a 4-year-old rescue.

Leonard, lean and cerebral, explains that she is named after Phryne Fisher, the glamorous Roaring Twenties private detective in the ABC-TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

He’s an English teacher, so it’s a plus that the show is based upon the novels of Australian author Kerry Greenwood.

As he’s talking, Phryne’s other daddy, Michael Rhoads, comes into the living room, leash in hand.

He and Phryne have just returned from a spin around the block, so she and her short legs transfer their allegiance and affection to him in the hopes of another walk.

Her ruse doesn’t work, so she circles back to Leonard who circles back to his life story, which begins in East St. Louis, a rough, impoverished city in Illinois when he was born.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Leonard likes to re-read the classics.

Leonard was the baby; his brother was nine years older, and his sister was 10 years his senior.

His father was an alcoholic whose only job was the heavy lifting of pressing a bottle to his lips.

His mother worked, but she had a hard time paying the bills.

Somehow, though, she scraped together enough money to send Leonard to Catholic schools.

Like a lot of young people, Leonard didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He had entertained the idea of becoming an opera singer.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Leonard loves spending time with Phryne.

It was such a farfetched notion that he was easily persuaded to join a religious order.

By his senior year in high school, he had transferred to a Catholic school in St. Louis with the intent of dedicating himself to the Brotherhood of Mary.

“Getting out of East St. Louis was a blessing,” he says. “I was a straight-A student, but I was quite an introvert so I get beaten up and bullied. In St. Louis, I was socially accepted and did things, including playing soccer and editing the yearbook, that I never would have done in East. St. Louis.”

Leonard, however, soon discovered that the religious life was not for him.

“I was in a teaching order, and ironically, given the fact that I became a college professor, it didn’t appeal to me,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He retired a decade ago then returned to teaching part time.

So he moved back in with his mother and took a job at a St. Louis brokerage house.

“The market crashed and I was fired,” he says. “I decided to go back to school.”

He enrolled at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study music.

While there, he discovered a love of literature, so he majored in both.

After graduation, he worked full time as a job interviewer for the Illinois State Employment Service while he earned a master’s degree in English from SIU.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Some souvenirs of Leonard’s travels to Mexico, Africa and Indonesia.

A $5,000 fellowship took him to Kent State University to earn his doctorate.

“That was more money than I was making at my job,” he says. “It was the first time in my life that I could just be a student.”

Leonard was not on campus on May 4, 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students during an anti-Vietnam War protest.

“I was at home writing what became my dissertation,” he says. “But that summer, I was beaten up by townspeople because I had long hair and looked like a hippie.”

With his PhD in hand, Leonard moved to Wayne, New Jersey to teach English at William Paterson University.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Leonard is from East St. Louis, Illinois.

Five years later, he transferred to LaGuardia Community College, where he taught English and was the faculty mentor for the Straight and Gay Alliance.

After 28 years, he retired in 2008.

It was while he was at LaGuardia that Leonard publicly acknowledged that he was gay and that he finally dealt with his alcoholism.

“I knew I had a drinking problem,” he says, “because I wrote about it in my personal journal every day. I was careful; I never went to work drunk, and I drank alone because I didn’t want anybody to know.”

After his longtime lover left him 20 years ago, Leonard became clinically depressed.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Leonard’s retirement plaque is book-shaped.

“There were two times that I drank nonstop for five days each,” he says. “I went into outpatient rehab for a year and started attending AA atheist and agnostic meetings.”

Around that time, he met Michael, who has been sober 38 years, in a gay bar in Manhattan.

He sees the humor in a pair of recovering alcoholics finding each other in a cocktail lounge.

“It was at The Monster Bar at Sheridan Square,” he says. “I was drinking seltzer. I was there to dance and pick someone up, not drink.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Phryne is enjoying Leonard’s retirement, too.

He spent the early years of his retirement taking college courses and traveling. Souvenirs from his trips decorate the living room.

About six years ago, Leonard returned to LaGuardia part time.

In addition to teaching, he’s the managing editor of Radical Teacher, A Social, Feminist, and Anti-Racial Journal on the Theory and Practice of Teaching.

He also joined the Park Slope Singers and started working out.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

It doesn’t get better than this.

Leonard has thousands of books, many of them vintage volumes, and enjoys re-reading the classics, mostly on his Nook.

All these activities, he says, make for an exciting combination.

“Gym takes care of the body, AA takes care of the emotions, singing takes care of the aesthetics and reading takes care of everything else,” he says. “It’s the best kind of retirement because I don’t feel retired.”

Phryne stands at his stocking feet and cries like a baby until he scoops her up in his arms and gives her a big hug.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. Sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone, it’s a free, public event.

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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Astoria Characters: The Sandwich King's Sons
by Nruhling
Apr 17, 2018 | 699 views | 0 0 comments | 74 74 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sal, Kris & Charlie’s Deli, a.k.a. The Sandwich King of Astoria, at 33-12 23rd Ave.

Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Standing at a silver slicing machine, John Gordon looks out at the crowd of customers at the counter and smiles.

The stretching sun hasn’t even taken a bite out of the morning, but already hungry people are lined up, mouths watering, for the jaw-dropping, jumbo subs of The Sandwich King of Astoria, a.k.a. Sal, Kris & Charlie’s Deli.

“My favorite thing,” he says, “is to stare at them when they take the first bite. They are so happy; some are in shock.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

John at the front counter.

About that first bite.

No matter how you slice it (and most eaters have it cut into several pieces to last a couple of meals or even days), the sandwich is a whopper: It’s 14 inches long and twice as tall as the average wide-open mouth.

John, 26, and his older brother, Nick, have been working for The Sandwich King of Astoria since they were teenagers.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Bomb on the massive menu; Alka-Seltzer is $1.

Their father, Charlie, opened the taste buds tantalizer in 1987, the year Nick was born, converting the grocery/deli that was at 33-12 23rd Ave. since the 1930s into a super-sandwich shop.

He named it Sal (for the employee who had started working for a previous owner at age 8 and stayed with Charlie until dying at 65), Kris (for his wife, who worked the counter and slicers with him) and Charlie (for himself).

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nick mans a slicing machine.

Charlie, who had been in the bakery business, believed that bread was the key to sandwich success. Size, his gut told him, did matter.

It was he who invented the shop’s signature, The Bomb, so called because it explodes with fiery flavors in the mouth.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A Sal, Kris & Charlie’s sandwich starts with big bread.

The behemoth, which at $9.50, plus tax, is  the deli’s most expensive, comes “fully loaded” with Italian and American cold cuts topped with American and Provolone cheese, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, hot peppers and sweet peppers.

Oh, yes, don’t forget the mayonnaise and vinegar.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Putting it all together.

“It came about accidentally,” Nick says. “A customer couldn’t decide what he wanted and told my dad to make whatever he wanted. Other customers started asking for it, and it got so popular that we had to call it something.”

John, who has a beard and is rather reserved, and Nick, who is married, clean-shaven and chatty, also got into the family business by accident.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s what’s inside that counts.

By the time Nick, who is a roast-beef sandwich guy, graduated from high school, Kris was ill, so he stepped in full time to cover for her.

Although she got better, he was doing such a good job that she decided to retire.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Making the final cut.

“I love interacting with the people,” he says.

It has never occurred to him to work anyplace else.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nick getting the meat out.

John, whose favorite sandwich is the Italian combo, joined him after studying a semester at Queensborough Community College.

He came to help while Charlie was recuperating from an illness and stayed even when Charlie returned full time about a year later.

Through the decades, word of mouth has worked well for The Sandwich King of Astoria: Sal, Kris & Charlie’s never has had to advertise or promote itself in any way.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Incoming! All hands to the slicers!

The brothers work the shop with a staff of four.  John opens in the morning, and Nick closes at night.

For the most part, they like working together.

The shop is long and narrow like a baguette, which makes it easy for them to get in each other’s way when the orders come flying in like artillery aircraft.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s cash and carry.

Sometimes, Nick says, there are as many curses as cold cuts.

Nick and John, who work six and sometimes seven days a week, don’t have much time to think beyond the next sandwich.

There are some things, though, that they know for certain.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Would you like one?

Nick says there’s no way there will ever be more than one Sandwich King of Astoria shop.

John, who has not heard him say this, says that someday he’d like to expand Sal, Kris & Charlie’s.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. A free, public event, it is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone.

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Artist Who Plays See-and-Think
by Nruhling
Apr 10, 2018 | 853 views | 0 0 comments | 50 50 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex grew up in Pennsylvania.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“My work,” says Alex Markwith, “is meant to inspire a conversation.”

Alex, who is dressed in all black, brings a black and white painting into his black and white and gray living room.

He places it on the floor, artfully leaning it against the leg of his black and white desk.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex’s CON TE(X/N)T.

CON TE(X/N)T, which is what Alex calls this work, is a black canvas edged in blood red inscribed with a single word that is cut in half: CON TEXT.

It has a double meaning – there’s a nearly invisible dark brown N below the X, making it CON TENT.

Twine packages the canvas and the word in a crude cross.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The entry to his apartment doubles as storage space for his artworks.

What is the context of this content? What is the content of this context?

Let’s see.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex posing with one of his wood works.

Con could be con as in con man. Text could be text message, which leads the brain to Twitter, which conjures up claims of content that could or could not be what someone keeps calling fake news.

Put CON and TENT together and in the proper CON TEXT, the word becomes CONTENT, as in satisfied with the status quo.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.

That’s only one interpretation.

With Alex, whose straight, shoulder-length hair gives him the look of a retro rocker, everything is black and white except the shades of meaning in his works.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex’s works are mixed media.

“My role is to encourage discussion rather than to tell people what to think,” he says. “My context of thinking is different from that of the viewer.”

What does Alex see when he looks at CON TE(X/N)T?

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex creates around the clock.

On that score, he prefers the art of silence.

Alex, who is 29, has been communicating with lines and shapes and images his entire life.

He grew up in Kingston, Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River city whose most distinguishing trait is its proximity to Scranton.

He drew his way through public-school art classes and supplemented them with private courses in ceramics and painting.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Black, white and red are Alex’s primary colors.

By the time he was in high school, he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to art.

While he was at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art, Alex landed a summer internship at a Manhattan art gallery.

“I didn’t have any money to get an apartment, so I stayed with friends or slept on a bed set up at the gallery or commuted back to Pennsylvania,” he says. “The owner had a house in New Jersey that was about halfway between New York and Pennsylvania, so I stayed there, too. During this time, I met the person who gave me my first show. It was 2011, and I was 22.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He has lived in Astoria since 2015.

After living in Manhattan, Alex moved to Astoria in 2015, where his one-bedroom apartment doubles as his studio.

Its long, narrow entry hall is filled with Alex’s canvases, which are stacked nearly to the ceiling.

He uses a corner of his kitchen to produce his mixed-media works, which he describes as a “hybrid of painting and sculpture.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Work on Canvas is made of roof shingles and tar.

Alex’s ideas come from manipulating materials. He cuts, nails and crushes them into art.

“Red and white and black are my primary colors,” he says. “In this way, they almost become non-colors. The black and white give structure, and the red is highlights.”

CON TE(X/N)T, is part of a new collection that adds art-related words to the mix.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

His text series includes Taste, Value and Meaning.

“I work around the clock,” he says. “I compulsively start stapling, or I pick up a brush and start painting or move things around on the canvas. The idea for the text series came about differently. I got the idea for the series at 3 a.m. and got up and wrote it in my notebook.”

His Work on Canvas, for example, came into being when he found some old roofing shingles.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

How to tell it’s a real Alex Markwith.

“I pasted them on and added black tar,” he says. “It’s a strong statement of the nature of art and work. It’s a philosophical investigation of the nature of what I’m doing.”

Although Alex is happiest when he’s working on his own work, he works his art around freelance jobs, which include graphic design projects and stints at art galleries and artists’ studios.

“I’d like to have a separate studio,” he says, “but I do like the idea that here I can go in and out whenever an idea comes.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He hopes you go to his next show.

He goes into the kitchen-studio and replaces CON TE(X/N)T with three more new text canvases: TASTE and VALUE, which are meant to be displayed together as a diptych, and MEANING.

They spark a whole new conversation.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. A free public event, it is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone.

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Owns City Scrap Metal
by Nruhling
Apr 03, 2018 | 1045 views | 0 0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

City Scrap Metal is at 34-12 Borden Ave., Long Island City.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele Rothman pulls a coil of Bare Bright Copper No. 1 out of a plastic bin and holds it up to the unforgiving glare of the fluorescent light.

“It’s gorgeous,” she says of the electrical wiring. “It’s scrap, but I consider it art.”

As she’s admiring its gleaming beauty, a truck comes in with a delivery, and she rushes over to the table to help her crew remove the plastic insulation from the new cache of copper.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele is the owner and president of City Scrap Metal.

Michele, the owner and president of Long Island City-based City Scrap Metal, loves unsheathing the braided copper, a task that her desk duties don’t allow her enough time to do.

Once she starts, it’s hard to stop. It’s like popping bubble wrap.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Coils of copper.

Tall and elegant in black high-heel boots, Michele doesn’t seem concerned about getting her hands or her suit jacket dirty.

The only woman on the line, she fits in comfortably, smiling each time a new vein of copper is revealed.

She’s not sure what makes the plastic peeling so satisfying and addictive, but it may be because she grew up in family that, as she says, “bleeds metal.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele in involved in every aspect of the business.

Her mother and father owned a metal-plating company, and her paternal grandparents had a scrap metal yard.

Michele, who was born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and spent five of her young years on Staten Island, grew up in Woodmere, Long Island.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She has had careers in advertising and real estate.

“When my parents divorced, I was in college,” she says. “My mom bought out my dad.”

Michele learned salesmanship from her mother.

“I used to go with her on calls,” she says. “I was her sidekick.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Work begins when the trucks drive in.

She never thought of going into business for herself, and after she graduated from the University of Buffalo with a degree in economics, she sought a career in advertising.

Instead, she ended up working in real estate, eventually becoming a commercial broker.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele on the copper crew.

“I still wanted to pursue advertising, so I took a leave of absence and worked as a temp at ad agencies to see whether I liked it,” she says. “It turned out I did.”

She became an account executive for Hill Holliday, where she worked with a variety of sports clients.

And that’s where she still might be had she not made a trip to the Catskills.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele sees the art in scrap metal.

“It was a singles weekend,” she says. “I met my husband, Alan, there. We were engaged six weeks later.”

They settled in Chicago, where Michele got back into the real estate business. The couple returned to New York when she was pregnant with the first of their two children.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele founded City Scrap Metal in 1999.

They joined her family’s scrap metal business for a couple of years.

Nineteen years ago, they established City Scrap Metal, whose logo is a scrappy, in-your-face English bulldog.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

There’s copper in this scrap.

“I started the company in my house,” she says. “My son was 1 year old. I used to hold him on my lap while I was on the phone doing sales calls. Then we bought this building and moved here.”

Although City Scrap Metal is open only six days a week, Michele is on duty seven.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

City Scrap Metal is open six days a week.

“The work never stops,” she says. “I do paperwork at night and on weekends because I don’t want to waste income-producing hours on it.”

City Scrap Metal, whose offices and warehouse cover 8,000 square feet, collects scrap from job sites. Its trucks have digital scales, so sellers are paid on the spot. Customers also drop metal off at the warehouse, where it is processed and shipped to mills for recycling.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele sees her employees as family.

“We are not a stereotypical junkyard,” Michele says. “We’re a serious business, and we’re a brand. At nearly every construction site, you’ll see someone in a hart hat wearing one of our City Scrap Metal bulldog T-shirts.”

There aren’t many women in the scrap-metal business, a fact that Michele is very aware of.  (Yes, she’s had her share of #MeToo moments but says she deflected them with humor.)

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The scrap is processed and sent to recycling mllls.

Michele’s work at City Scrap Metal is all consuming, but that’s OK with her. She considers the 15 people who work for her her extended family.

“There were years that I cut my salary to less than what my employees were making so I could make payroll,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michele is planning many innovations for 2018.

City Scrap Metal recently was certified as a woman-owned business, and Michele has other changes in the works.

“I’m looking for 2018 to be a breakout year,” she says. “I’m planting the seeds to move the company in a different direction because the industry is changing. I want to stay ahead of the curve.”

For the next few minutes, though, she’ll continue helping her copper crew. Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018. It is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone.

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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Astoria Characters: The Actor With the Role of a Lifetime
by Nruhling
Mar 30, 2018 | 1049 views | 0 0 comments | 72 72 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike is an actor and a father.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

As an actor, Mike Moreno has had the opportunity to play many different roles.

Being Daddy to Malcolm is the one that changed his life.

Malcolm, who is 2 and a half, is sitting in the living room watching cartoons with his mom, aka Cristin Downs.

Bronte, the family’s decade-old dog, is lying on the couch watching him. And the two cats, well, they’re doing whatever it is that cats do when they don’t want to be found.

With Malcolm’s arrival, Mike, who was used to auditioning and managing productions and filling in financial gaps with work as a stagehand or theater carpenter or event manager, became a stay-a-home parent.

“Babysitting was too expensive,” he says and shrugs.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Malcolm and Bronte hanging out.

Mike’s portrayal of a real-life house husband, however, doesn’t mean that he’s given up the acting business.

It means he’s turned to the business of acting to spur his creativity.

Mike, who grew up in Glendale, California, has been on the stage ever since he was 14.

He started as a stand-up comedian, playing to adult audiences at Los Angeles’ legendary clubs.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He founded The Actor CEO podcast.

It happened by chance.

“I wanted to be in school plays, so I got an acting coach,” he says. “And he said, ‘You’re a funny dude.’”

For a while, Mike was part of the teacher’s giggle of kid comics who were billed as the Not Ready for Bedtime Players.

Then he and his jokes went out for laughs on their own.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Malcolm inspired the podcast.

“There weren’t many kids my age doing this,” he says. “I told jokes about girls and dating and things that were going on in my life. This was before social media, so it was refreshing for people to hear a young person’s point of view.”

By high school, Mike was serious about the stage. But drama, not comedy, drew him in.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Chapman University in Orange, California, and a master’s at the University of Tennessee (“I went there for free on scholarships,” he says), Mike came to New York in 2010.

“We had to do a showcase in New York City as part of our graduation,” he says. “I got signed by a New York City agency.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike was 14 the first time he stepped on a stage.

Cristin, who is director of the Center for Professional Studies at Pace University, came with him. They had met while working on a theatre project in California.

“She was my boss,” he says. “I was on the tech crew.”

Before he had settled in, he got a part on Law & Order: SVU.

“I played a sleazy character,” he says, smiling. “I was a swinger in a swinger’s club.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cristin founded The Notable Woman podcast.

Mike, an eloquent man with soul-piercing eyes, concentrated on theatre work, which is what he was doing when Malcolm interrupted him.

“I still go out on auditions,” he says, “but I have to pick my projects. Theatre doesn’t come into the scope anymore because of the great amount of time it takes and the low compensation.”

In between changing diapers and wheeling Malcolm to Ditmars Park every day, Mike started The Actor CEO, a weekly half-hour podcast that creatively coaches actors in the art of business.

“I’m a mentor in their pocket,” he says, adding that the podcast features successful actors who offer advice and tips about the business side of show business.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike is never giving up acting.

The podcast, which could become Mike’s next day job, is only one of his enterprises.

He and Cristin, who created The Notable Woman podcast, recently started Much More Media, which helps businesses create content and shows and helps them market materials.

Malcolm also inspired Mike’s advocacy work for Ditmars Park, one of the toddler’s favorite spots.

Mike was instrumental in establishing the farmer’s market and is organizing a series of events, including a spring festival.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Malcolm also inspired Mike’s work with Ditmars Park.

Mike sees The Actor CEO as simply another stage – in his career and in his life.

“Acting is why I am here,” he says. “That’s my artistic goal.”

Malcolm, who has tired of TV, offers him a half-eaten banana.

Mike politely declines.

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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Astoria Characters: The Cameraman Who Shot the Vietnam War
by Nruhling
Mar 20, 2018 | 1301 views | 0 0 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Don served in Vietnam in 1969-70.

Text and Photos by  Nancy A. Ruhling

March 17, 1969. That’s the day that Spec. 5 David A. Russell didn’t come back.

First Lt. Don Fedynak arrived the next day. Or, as he says, a day too late.

“I never met him, but I still felt responsible for his death because he was on my watch,” says Don, who had come to Can Tho, a city in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, to command the Vietnam War camera crew Russell was in. “I had to go with another photographer to identify his body. I have been haunted by what happened to him ever since.”

For a long time, Don didn’t allow himself to get too close to the facts. But as the decades have elapsed, he has put together more of the details.

Russell, who had made a name for himself saving a Vietnamese family during the 1968 battle of Bien Hoa, was climbing Nui Coto Mountain with troops when a firefight broke out.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Don’s war medals include a Bronze Star.

In the thick of battle, Russell never put down his movie camera. Standing ram-rod straight as bullets rained down, he was shot straight through the chest.

“People told me he was a crazy kid, a risk taker,” Don says. “It was 10 years before it even hit me that he died on St. Patrick’s Day. For me, in Vietnam, it was just another day at work. Vietnam veterans didn’t get any homecoming parades; I still get rather emotional when I watch the St. Pat’s parade.”

Don, who is 76, has been thinking about Russell a lot lately because he is writing a fictional memoir of his war days.

Memory’s a tricky thing, and Don can’t be sure of what he knew/didn’t know at the time so he thought it best of create characters.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Don filming 1st Aviation Brigade operations at Bien Hoa Air Base.

The character he’s named Russo tells Russell’s story.

He had no qualms about changing Russell’s name because “as cameramen, we were anonymous to the troops. Nobody knew our names.”

Although cameramen saw battle, it was, Don says, from a different perspective.

“The war’s cameramen were like free-range chickens who were sent all over the country,” he says. “We didn’t stay in the field. When we were out of film, we were out of business. Unlike the soldiers, we had the luxury of going back to base and sleeping in warm beds.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


After he came back from the war, Don had a long career as a film director.

The cameramen – Don lugged a behemoth Bell and Howell Filmo movie camera for official business and a 35mm Minolta SR-T 101 for personal shots – accompanied soldiers in combat.

“We also visited morgues and documented doctors treating civilians,” he says. “There were military dogs, so we even filmed their veterinarians.”

The color slides he took for himself focused on his own unit and civilian life. He still has the Minolta. It’s somewhere in his basement.

That Don was even in the war was of his own making. Unlike a lot of other young men, Don wanted to serve his country in the protest-provoking war.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Don saluting among palm trees.

“I was having second thoughts about the war,” he says. “I felt it was unjust, but I also felt that so were a lot of other wars.”

Don, who grew up in a five-story walkup on the Upper East Side of Manhattan surrounded by cousins and within earshot of grandparents, had decided to make art his career.

It was a logical choice. His father, after all, was a commercial artist who worked in the Graybar Building.

“When he had to work on Saturdays, I sometimes went with him,” he says. “I used to play with the airbrush.”

In high school, Don dabbled in art. He studied advertising at Pratt Institute, where he joined the ROTC.

After two years, he transferred to the School of Visual Arts, where he met Sandy, who 11 years later became his wife.

A course in animation sparked his interest in film.

“I wasn’t in school to avoid the draft,” he says. “After graduation, I was waiting for a draft notice. When it didn’t come, I went to the draft board to ask for one.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Don’s official press pass.

He reported for duty in the Army in 1967, where he trained for the infantry and entered Officer Candidate School.

“Most of the people I knew went into the military,” he says. “I didn’t want to miss that because I thought it could be one of the last great adventures of my life before I settled down.”

His photography background landed him in the Army Pictorial Center in Astoria. Assigned to the director’s branch, he traveled around the country making training and informational films.

On Jan. 20, 1969, Don was sent to Long Binh, Vietnam, where he was with the 221st Signal Corps, the Army’s largest photo unit.

He was headed to Can Tho when Russell was gunned down.

Don, who has Good Conduct, National Defense Service and Vietnam Service Medals as well as a Bronze Star, was never wounded.

“I carried a .45-caliber sidearm pistol, but the only thing I ever shot was pictures,” he says.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


What Don’s reading.

When Don’s year in country was up, he decided to return to civilian life.

He spent his career as a film editor, working for CBS, NBC, ABC, Channel 13 and even Major League Baseball.

In 2002, he retired, devoting his free time to veterans’ causes.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


The crest Don designed for the 221 Signal Corps. The pidgin Latin roughly translates as ‘equals a thousand words.’

A past president of the Queens Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, he was featured in the documentary Unseen Warriors: Army Combat Cameramen in the Vietnam War.

His diary and fatigue jacket, which he still wears to parades, are in the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit, The Vietnam War: 1945-1975.

Often, Don does research at the National Archives, where his Army photos and films are stored.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Don is writing a fictional memoir of his time in Vietnam.

“I’m busier now than I ever was when I was working,” he says, adding that it’s common for him to work until 2 or 3 in the morning.

When he’s not writing about his war experiences, he’s helping Sandy, a cartoonist, with her business.

“I’m her production guy,” he says.

As far as Russell’s story, Don says writing it down is helping ease his mind.

“I’m still trying to get more details,” he says. “Even after all these years, I can’t seem to shake it out of my mind.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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