|January 02, 2021||Astoria Characters: The Vintage Queen||no comments|
|December 26, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Brings History to Life||no comments|
|December 19, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Egyptologist Who Digs the Past||no comments|
|December 12, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Keen Competitor||no comments|
|December 05, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Couture Curator||no comments|
|November 28, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Guy Behind Rosario's||no comments|
|November 21, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Wants It All||no comments|
|November 14, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Tamale Team||no comments|
|November 07, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Actress Livin' on a Prairie||no comments|
|October 31, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Earnest Educator||no comments|
Jade Oliver, who has long, flowing auburn hair, cherries-in the-snow-red lips and dramatic diction, has, at one time or another and even simultaneously, been all of these things.
“I’m a jack of all trades, she says. “I do whatever I can to survive.”
Most recently, that meant sitting down at her sewing machine and making fashion masks when she lost her longtime waitressing/bartending gig during the pandemic lockdown.
“I made 700 of them,” she says, adding that she has shipped to customers as far away as England and Australia. “I sold some and donated some.”
The work kept her afloat, and for that she’s eternally grateful to the Astoria community.
Jade, aka The Vintage Queen of Astoria, is not sewing at the moment.
She’s lounging on a loveseat in her sitting room, which is filled with racks of the clothing she sells as the proprietor of Vintage Queens NYC.
It’s in Astoria’s Flatiron Building, a Victorian behemoth that allows Jade to employ her interior design and carpentry skills.
She repainted and redecorated the vast apartment, restrung her vintage chandeliers and has done numerous repairs to the building that have included her climbing on the roof to patch leaks.
“I love making and building things,” she says. “I’m always in the hardware store downstairs. My dream is to one day own an old Victorian house that I can refurbish myself.”
In the back room of Jade’s apartment, which is where she stores her inventory, there’s a whisper-thin lace tea dress from the Edwardian era hanging on the wall like a piece of art, a couple of fringed piano shawls suspended from the tin ceiling, a shelf of hats of various vintages and row upon row of period ensembles that date from the 1900s through the 1970s.
There’s also an ironing board covered with heaps of recent purchases waiting for Jade to make them gloriously gorgeous again.
A couple of umbrella lights are standing in the corner ready to go into action when Jade books a commercial shoot.
Jade’s partial to 1940s fashion – “the clothes just seem to fit my body, and rayon, which they don’t make any more, feels like heaven” – so she’s wearing a Navy blue Lilli Ann dress coat that has leg-of-mutton sleeves.
Her reproduction World War II-era plaid dress, which features a demure belt with a brass clasp in front, is made from a period pattern.
Her ankle boots, though, are new.
“I don’t wear vintage shoes because we walk so much in New York that they literally fall apart,” she says.
Jade fell in love with the fashions of bygone years when she was growing up in the conservative Gulf Coast city of Beaumont, in Texas’s Cajun Country.
“I used to watch old movies,” she says. “I loved AMC and Turner Classic Movies and Fred and Ginger, and then I got into the clothes. My grandma used to take me to estate sales, and I started buying as a teen.”
Jade’s Siamese cat, Mr. Pickford, who is named after the stylish star Mary Pickford, aka “America’s Sweetheart,” wanders into the room and plants himself prettily on the ornately patterned carpet.
“He’s a rescue,” Jade says. “He showed up in my mom’s backyard in Texas when he was about five weeks old. It was raining, and he was crying.”
Texas. Yes, Jade and her vintage wardrobe didn’t really fit in there.
Longing for a larger stage, she enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.
As it turned out, she was young – too young – for such an adventure in such a big city.
“I had never been away from home before,” she says. “I fell in love with the city, but after one year at the academy, I went back to Texas.”
But she didn’t stay long. A couple of years later, she returned to the Big Apple, determined this time to take the stage by storm.
She reveled in the synchronicity between acting and vintage clothing – “you can be someone else on the stage, and dressing up is part of it” – and soon was wearing other-era fashions all the time.
A decade ago, she founded Vintage Queens NYC, and it, along with all her other pursuits, which include photography, screenwriting and costuming for films, has kept her going all this time.
“The vintage has taken over my life,” she says. “Acting is more of a hobby, but everything I do is a hobby. I’m just lucky enough to get paid for what I do.”
Jade’s done a lot of different I-just-want-to-pay-the-bills jobs; she’s been everything from a nanny to a personal assistant.
“But I wasn’t happy in my life,” she says. “Life isn’t worth living if you’re miserable doing a job.”
Which is why she has her eye on opening her own vintage-clothing shop.
She had been saving for just such a venture when the pandemic struck but realizes that now online sales may be the way to go.
She’s not going to worry about the future right at this moment – she has a lot of washing, ironing and mending to do.
Jade’s made a career of being flexible, so whatever happens, she’ll figure out a way to keep going on by doing what makes her happy.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Hal bursts into the back yard like a flying bullet, grabs a knit cap from the bag on the chair and starts dragging it through the mud.
He gets excited when visitors come, says Lynda Kennedy, as she tries to pry the prize from his mouth.
Hal, a Great Dane/Labrador/Border Collie mix, is a 4-and-a-half-year-old rescue with innocent brown eyes.
He joined Lynda’s family when he was only 4 months old, so he’s had plenty of time to train everyone to obey his every command.
Lynda, whose career has revolved around the theater and museum worlds, is a born storyteller, so it’s not surprising that she’s got some doggoned doozies about Hal, starting with his arrival.
Lynda, her husband and daughter were walking home from the Museum of the Moving Image, where they had just viewed 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“My daughter had been lobbying for a dog for a long time,” Lynda says. “And we were looking at all the dogs we passed and assessing them.”
She pets Hal, who is sitting still at her feet, at least for now.
They saw dogs that were too big and dogs that were too tiny.
Then they noticed a perfect-sized black-and-white puppy.
On closer inspection, they noted that he was wearing a vest emblazoned with the plea, “Adopt me.”
What’s more, his name just happened to be Hal, the same as the Space Odyssey’s computer-in-chief.
“We took this as a sign from God,” Lynda says.
Hal distinguished his puppy years by, among other things, eating an extension cord (the copper wires were visible in his X-rays, but things came out naturally on the other end) and swallowing a tennis ball whole (yes, there was surgery, and no, he’s not allowed to play ball with his pals any more).
Lynda’s own story starts more serenely.
The last of three children, she grew up in Torresdale, a working-class neighborhood in the Far Northeast section of Philadelphia.
She took cello, piano, and of course, dance lessons and got introduced to theater in elementary school – she was cast as the lead in the musical Finian’s Rainbow in fifth grade.
After her father died and Lynda realized that her career choices were slim — “girls at the time where I lived either got married or became nuns” – she started focusing on college.
“Nobody in my family had gone to college, and there wasn’t any money for it,” she says. “It was hard because I didn’t have anyone to help me.”
At 17, the age her daughter is now, Lynda set her sights on New York University, earning a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in only three years.
“I wanted to perform, but I also wanted a regular job, too,” she says, adding that working her way through school prepared her for this duality.
For many years, she worked as a bartender between performances.
“It was the closest thing to being independently wealthy,” she says, adding that the money was so good that she only had to serve drinks two nights a week to pay her bills.
She took to New York’s fringe scene the way Hal took to the knitted cap.
A founding member of Gorilla Rep, which puts on free productions in outdoor venues, notably Central Park, Lynda has performed with the Faux-Real company for many years.
It was teaching children’s theater at the private Upper West Side Bank Street School that gave direction to Lynda’s career.
That job led to projects with other educational institutions, including the National Museum of the American Indian.
To perfect her teaching technique, Lynda went back to school, earning a master’s degree in education from the Bank Street College of Education and a doctorate in urban education from the CUNY Graduate Center.
Through the years, she continued to perform as she honed her storytelling skills at positions with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, The Gotham Center for New York City History, the Museum of the Moving Image and the New York City Department of Education.
Almost seven years ago, she became the vice president of education and evaluation for the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
She’s also on the board of Art House Astoria Conservatory for Music and Art.
Lynda, like Hal, excitedly seized each opportunity that came her way.
She loves “channeling ideas from theater into my museum work” to make history come alive.
“I want to help kids like me who have so much potential but don’t know how to get to the next step,” she says.
Lynda enjoys the creativity of the “interesting mix” of things she does.
“It feeds all of me,” she says.
Lynda still performs occasionally, and during the pandemic she appeared in Gorilla Rep’s adaptation of Macbeth, which was shot up-close via iPhones in isolation then edited together so it appears the characters are FaceTiming with the audience.
She’s been tapped for the company’s upcoming version of Hamlet.
Hal’s starting to bounce around again.
Lynda leashes him up for a walk around the block.
She’s bound to have another story to tell about him by the time they return home.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava Forte Vitali’s life, that is.
She lifts her biker-black leather skirt to reveal the tattoo on her right thigh.
The half-foot-long stick-figure skeleton is from a mosaic in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that Mt. Vesuvius buried in a belch of volcanic ash in 79 A.D.
“He’s carrying two jugs of wine,” she says. “The image was found on the floor of a party room, and in Greek it said, ‘Be cheerful, enjoy your life.’”
Having survived a bout of Covid-19, Ava takes its message of carpe diem to heart.
Of course, it didn’t take a pandemic to get Ava to seize the day.
Whether she’s been digging for ancient artifacts in Egypt and Turkey, creating costumes for theatrical productions or making short films, Ava has always followed a plethora of passions, some of them serendipitous.
“My career has swerved several times,” she says, adding that she’s glad it’s not easy to pigeonhole her.
When pressed, she describes herself as an archaeologist, Egyptologist and project manager.
But these words are academic and dry; Ava is neither.
Upbeat and offbeat, she’s a flamboyant fangirl of museums, flea markets and antiques shows, heavy-metal concerts, history (she’s the community outreach coordinator for the Greater Astoria Historical Society) and probably, she admits, too much sci-fi TV for her own good.
Her eclectic taste is reflected in her apartment on the top floor of Astoria’s Flatiron Building, which was erected at the corner of Astoria Boulevard and 27th Avenue in 1889.
Filled with eccentric finds, the tin-ceilinged space, which features a crystal chandelier suspended in the center and purple velvet drapes, looks like Edward Gorey’s vision of a Victorian brothel.
Ava can make anything and everything interesting, as those who have attended her “Death and the Occult in the Ancient World” series at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum and her Intro to Egyptian Art classes at Adelphi University can attest.
Ava, who doesn’t feel dressed until she has placed silver rings on nearly finger, is as brash as ALL CAPS boldface type.
She’s tall, even without the heeled leather boots, and her face is framed by dark riotous ringlets that bounce gleefully down her shoulders.
She’s from Scituate, a small fishing village that’s about 45 minutes south of Boston.
It was in this “beautiful, peaceful, very Irish” place that Ava, who comes from what she calls a loud, artistic Italian family, discovered that she had big and odd ambitions.
“I became fascinated with Egypt when I was a child,” she says. “I used to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I always asked to look at the statues with the weird heads. I went to a Montessori school, which encouraged us to research subjects that interested us. So I did.”
Which brings us to the tattoo inside her left forearm. It is the fractured face of an Egyptian queen, circa 1353 to 1336 B.C., depicted in a statue at The Met’s Temple of Dendur.
“She’s still beautiful even though she’s beaten and broken,” Ava says as she runs her hand over its bee-stung lips.Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She got to know the statue well when she managed the Greek and Roman art collections at the museum.
Ava finally got out of Scituate when she came to New York City in 2000 to attend New York University, where she had every intention of studying anthropology. Until, that is, she discovered that she could major in Egyptology instead.
“The ancient Egyptians left behind culture and art, but the way they approached everything was different from the way we do,” Ava says. “I love making my brain take a step away and look at things through another culture’s eyes.”
She was well on her way to earning a doctorate at NYU when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 put an end to her studies.
“I was supposed to be in the trenches doing an archaeological dig when it happened,” she says. “It was canceled at the last minute.”
Uncertain where her future lay, Ava moved back to Boston temporarily. She returned to New York for the job at The Met.
Two years later, she became a lead project manager for Picturae, overseeing a digitalization project for the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt.
In her current job, Ava manages creative corporate projects for the children’s book publisher Scholastic.
Books, she says, are part of her heritage: Her grandmother was a librarian.
Through Scholastic’s Possible Fund, Ava coordinates the donation of 1 million books a year.
“I like being in a job where I tangibly see an impact in real time,” she says. “I want to stay in jobs that have a corporate social responsibility.”
She’s interrupted by a tiny squeaking sound emanating from the bowels of the apartment.
Her roommate’s Morkie, Marty McFly, who is named after the Back to the Future hero, wants the world to know he has awakened and is a force to be reckoned with.
A bitty blonde, he wanders into the living room and jumps on the couch.
Before nestling his head into his favorite pillow, he gives Ava a big kiss.
Which leads, for no explicable reason, to a discussion of Ava’s trio of other tattoos.
A small flock of birds, based on the work of artist Will Barnet, flutter their wings across her upper right arm, and two tiny tattoos on her left leg are book themed.
She’s thinking of getting a sixth. Yes, she really should do it.
“I’ve been lucky to follow my dreams,” Ava says. “I’ve found a niche for myself as an Egyptologist/anthropologist doing lectures.”
Marty rouses himself: It’s time for his walk.
“I do so many things that sometimes people ask me whether I ever sleep. The answer is no,” she says. “I’m a people person. I like to keep busy.”
Marty races down the steps ahead of her, barking at the top of his little lungs.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
As the joggers run rings around the track, Andreas ties his dark hair up in a man bun and starts kicking the ball around the perpetually green artificial turf.
“I always get emotional on the soccer field,” he says, sending the ball spinning into the air like a shooting star. “I’m competitive minded – I always want to win. If I’m not competing with someone else, I’m competing with myself.”
Through the years, as Andreas has set the goal post higher and higher for his achievements, he hasn’t always come out a victor.
But his losses have only made him work harder to win.
Andreas, whose feet first made a significant connection with a soccer ball when he joined a team at age 3, is the captain of the Astoria-based amateur team the New York Pancyprian-Freedoms.
It was his father, who played competitively in his native Athens, Greece, who got him into the game.
Andreas’ mother, an immigrant from Limassol, Cyprus who died when he was 7, made no objection.
Andreas, who is a tall, chiseled-featured left-footed player, and his older brother used to kick the ball around their two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, sometimes not without lasting and unanticipated consequences.
“We broke a lot of things like plates and vases,” Andreas says, smiling. “And we used the metal door frame as a goal post; it made a lot of noise that the neighbors didn’t like, but my father loved it.”
Andreas, who is now 31, rose through the ranks of the soccer world, mastering what he calls “the science of the game,” and by 13, he was a player on U.S. Soccer’s Youth National Teams Under 14 team. He remained all the way up to the U-19 team.
He also was a member of the U.S Region 1 Team from U-14 to U-17.
When he was 17, his ability with the ball landed him a full four-year scholarship to Columbia University.
It was, he says, an offer that he accepted with alacrity: He had always been an excellent student and had his eye not only on the ball but also on the Ivy Leagues.
He was all set to go until he got a 4.5-year contract from AEK of the Greek Super League to play as a professional.
He didn’t hesitate to follow the ball all the way to Greece.
But things didn’t work out as he planned or hoped.
“The team didn’t support me mentally or professionally. It was a first-division team, and they loaned me out to a fourth-division team,” he says, adding that at one point he was not even being paid. “I wanted to leave because I saw no future.”
To do that, he eventually bought out his contract, paying some $20,000 – virtually all of his savings.
When he arrived back home, he started working for the family business – a pair of chic clothing stores based in Westchester.Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He began as a part-time salesman and worked his way up to become the working manager of Beginnings Boutique in Scarsdale and Beginnings Bleus in Armonk.
At 25, he went back to school, earning an associate’s degree in advertising and marketing from FIT and then a bachelor’s degree in business from Baruch College.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I was working full time and going to school, and I was engaged and had no time to spend with my fiancee. I was playing soccer at night.”Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
These days, Andreas’ schedule is just as packed: In addition to working at the stores five days a week, he practices soccer one night a week and plays on Sundays.
He’s quick to point out that the New York Pancyprian-Freedoms are on a winning streak – after eight years of losing, they have clinched the championships the last three years in a row.
In his spare time, Andreas is training and mentoring four soccer-playing kids and recently signed a deal with FC Westchester to mentor and provide technical proficiency expertise to its gifted young players.
Citing his own negative experience as a pro, Andreas says that he wants to “pass on my knowledge and skills.”
He and his wife (yes, she stuck with him while he was trying to keep all those balls up in the air), Stephanie, have an 18-month-old daughter who is already kicking soccer balls around the apartment.
Their second child is due in the spring.
Andreas still wishes he had pursued a professional soccer career, but he’s channeled his competitiveness into the clothing stores, where he has enacted a number of changes that have made them more efficient and profitable.
“I regret not being a professional soccer player every day,” he says as packs up his gear and gets in his car to drive to the stores to work his shift. “I think about what I could have done differently. I had everything required to be a success, but I didn’t fulfill my potential.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Oh, it feels s-o-o good to get dressed up again!
For Colleen Hill, getting dressed up means donning a chic 1960s black velvet dress whose bat-wing-like bell sleeves are trimmed with outrageous curlicues of rigid white ruffles.
It, of course, complements her black patterned tights, her kicky dark-purple secondhand suede ankle boots and her leopard-print cloth mask.
She bought the dress on Etsy and remarks that it’s silk velvet, which nobody makes any more.
Colleen’s the curator of costumes and accessories at the Fashion Institute of Technology so what’s in her closet is of intense and immense interest.
There are only three wee closets in her apartment – one for her, one for her husband, Christopher Howard, and one for coats and storage.
Hers, which has a full-length mirror on the outside, is in the living room. It’s crowded but carefully choreographed; her collection of shoes is arranged on shelves on the floor.
Right now, it holds her winter collection – the summer clothes are in boxes under her bed.
“Eighty-five percent of my clothing is secondhand,” she says as she slips off her boots, replacing them with black slippers adorned with large deep-blue tassels.
They are new, not pre-owned, she points out. She bought two pair on Etsy – they are, she says, the epitome of comfort.
Colleen, who has long blond curls and blue eyes, couldn’t help herself.
She makes no apology for her first-foot purchase: “They are beautiful quality, and since I’m not going out as much during the pandemic, it’s nice to have pretty slippers to wear around the house.”
Since childhood, Colleen has been drawn to clothes that are decades older than she is.
Her father collected and rode 19th-century bicycles, the big-wheeled ones that stand as high as your chest, and her mother loved touring historic homes and poking around in antiques shops in Lansing, Michigan, their hometown.
“I was doomed to love old things,” Colleen says, delighted.
As if on cue, Eisner, her ancient Maine Coon/Ragdoll catwalk cat, comes prancing through the living room.
A rescue, it is believed that he’s 14 years old, but he acts like he’s a kitten.
It was a trip to the public library that got Colleen started on her fashion career.
When she was 10, she checked out Joel Lobenthal’s Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties and couldn’t put it down.
“When I was 12, I started making clothes that looked like they were from the Sixties – my mother bought me the Husqvarna sewing machine I still have – and searching in thrift shops for vintage clothes,” Colleen says. “In the 1990s, all through high school, I wore vintage 1960s and 1970s clothes. Those are still my favorite fashion decades.”
It wasn’t, she admits with no regrets, how the other kids were dressing.
After taking some art history courses at the local community college when she was still in high school, Colleen majored in the subject at Michigan State, the advance credits allowing her to graduate when she was only 21.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “I thought of being a college professor, but I didn’t see myself pursuing a PhD at that young age.”
It was a Google search and the memory of something she saw on the 1990s TV sitcom Saved by the Bell that brought Colleen to FIT to pursue her master’s degree.
“One of the episodes of that show featured FIT, and it burned in my brain,” she says. “I had only been to New York City once before, and that was when I was in college.”
When she graduated in 2006, Colleen, who had been an intern at FIT, got a part-time secretarial job at the institute’s fashion museum.
That turned into a full-time job in the school’s textile department, where, Colleen says, “I learned how museums worked and what curators did. It was a perfect job.”
In 2008, she co-curated her first show, and in succeeding years, she wrote several books.
In addition to writing books, conceiving and organizing exhibitions, giving tours of the museum and mentoring emerging peers, Colleen is working on her doctorate.
She’s scheduled to complete her degree at the London College of Fashion in 2023.
“The PhD is not about advancing my career,” she says. “It enriches what I’m already doing.”
Colleen, whose apartment is appointed with the contemporary artwork her husband collects and hundreds of books housed in floor-to-ceiling bookcases, defines her style as “eclectic, 1960s-vintage inspired.”
Her work-at-home station, for instance, is a vanity from her childhood that has been converted to a desk. Its top and front drawers were painted fire-engine red by her father to mask a stain.
“I like to have a lot of white because in small spaces, white is bright,” she says, sitting on a chair and holding a black-and-white striped pillow that just happens to coordinate with her outfit. “And I add pops of color.”
Although Colleen didn’t plan it, Eisner is in sync with the sophisticated décor: He’s witch black with white whiskers.
There’s a white spot on his chest and his nose and another on his stomach. His front paws are white, and his back paws, white from the toes through the ankles, make him look like he’s wearing a pair of UGGs.
Colleen loves the world of fashion and the role she plays in it.
“This job is consuming,” she says, adding that she wouldn’t ever think of doing anything else. “Everything I do, including travel, is related to it. I don’t have a lot of time to do other creative things; this is creative. My career is my life.”
She picks up Eisner and lays him in her lap, where he and she are mutually and totally comfortable.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
One reassuring thing we know for sure is that six days a week, Rosario DiMarco will be sitting at the deli counter at Rosario’s and that his 97-year-old father, Santo, will be there with him.
Rosario, who is wide of shoulder, short of stature and long of chatty conversation, opened the old-fashioned Italian deli and pizzeria on 31st Street under the shadow of the El’s Ditmars stop in 1986 and moved it a couple of storefronts down the street in 2001.
“I like meeting the people who come here,” he says, as he sits at the cash register and receives a bread delivery.
Homemade Italian food has always been a large part of Rosario’s life.
The family is from Sicily, and Rosario was 12 when his parents brought him, his brother and his sister to Astoria.
Santo got a job at the old Ronzoni pasta factory in Long Island City and stayed until he retired many years ago.
Rosario, the oldest of the three children, didn’t know any English, and that may or may not be why he wasn’t so fond of school.
He doesn’t go into specifics, saying only that he and school “didn’t get along.”
But work was another matter.
When he was 13, he got a part-time job cleaning tables in an Astoria pizzeria.
He quit school after 9th grade and at 16 had earned a full-time job at the pizzeria.
“My father said, ‘If you don’t go to school, you have to go to work,’” Rosario says, turning to Santo for corroboration.
That suited Rosario just fine, and he proceeded on his path to success.
At 20, he opened a pizzeria in Astoria. When he sold it five years later, he set up shop in Manhattan.
In 1986, he bought the deli on 31st Street and reopened it under his own name.
In 2001, he moved it to its current, uber-convenient location: You can get a slice steps from the subway or pick up a pack of cheese and meats without breaking stride.
“Some of my customers have been with me since I opened the first pizzeria,” Rosario says as he brings wedges of Moliterno, Sicilian truffle cheese made from sheep’s milk, and prosciutto to the counter. “I’ve served generations of the same families.”
The customers come not only for the cheeses and prosciutto but also for the pizza, the fresh mozzarella, the homemade sausages and beef meatballs and an abundance of Italian-imported products that range from tomato sauce to pastas.
And to shoot the breeze, in the language of their homeland, with Rosario.
Some of the recipes come from Rosario’s family. He learned to cook at home and then from his bosses at the pizzeria.
Oh, the olive oil.
Rosario brings a bottle down from the shelf.
The brand name is DiMarco.
Rosario’s brother, who lives in Italy, makes it.
Although Rosario moved to Long Island’s East Hills long ago, Santo still lives in Astoria.
“He’s stubborn,” Rosario says. “He lives by himself, but I take him to my house every Sunday.”
Rosario’s 63 and his daughters – 21-year-old triplets – are not interested in taking over the business if and when he ever decides to retire.
His hair is grey, and his beard is grizzled.
He knows he’ll have to throw in the pasta at some point, but it’s not something he’s prepared to think about right this minute.
The old-timers as well as the newcomers who consider themselves foodies depend on Rosario’s; these days, they line up, six feet apart, at the counter, waiting to greet Rosario and Santo.
It’s a ritual that satisfies all.
It’s only 8:30 in the morning, and things in the deli are already hopping.
Rosario’s just getting into his groove.
He’s been here since 7, and he won’t go home until after the 7:30 closing.
Rosario glances over at Santo.
They both know they’re not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.
“Coming here keeps my dad going,” Rosario says.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
DeeAnne, poet/vocalist/place enthusiast/activist/history buff/animal adopter/and a whole bunch of other things, is on the roof of her apartment building, sitting in a beach chair soaking up the sun.
There’s a little chill in the autumn air so she’s wrapped her aunt’s floral-patterned coat – it looks, she notes, like the outfits Julie Andrews made from frumpy floral draperies for the captain’s kids in The Sound of Music – around her prison-orange Astoria T-shirt.
“Everything” is a very big topic.
It’s well, everything, and for DeeAnne, who is board president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, it starts with the recent pandemic past.
As she’s bringing out a series of CDs she recorded earlier in her life, she tells a story about renting a car to visit her mother in Florida; it involves a pup tent and a portable potty and scads of sightseeing.
And that’s important because DeeAnne’s passion for what she calls “poking around” in the universe of things can be traced back not only to her mother but also to her father.
DeeAnne, who has auburn hair and still calls herself a Southern belle despite her current address and New York accent, was born in Athens, Georgia, and spent her childhood in Richmond, Va.
Her mother taught piano, and her father, who died when she was 9, was a veterinarian.
“My parents were interested in everything,” she says. “We used to go on Sunday drives to look around and find stuff.”
From an early age, DeeAnne took dance and music lessons and developed an affinity for animals. At one point in her life, she even considered following in her father’s footsteps.
She found herself on the stage instead.
“I had horrible stage fright, I would get sick to my stomach,” she says. “I could not do solos; I could only do bit parts in school plays.”
DeeAnne went to college to try to find a single, suitable subject to devote her life to.
It didn’t work.
After graduating from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. with a degree in liberal arts and a minor in French, she worked for the school for a year and continued taking courses that interested her.
Then she began trying on new locations.
She temped her way through Orange County, California and Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Greenwich Village and the East Village before setting her sights on Paris.
A certificate from The New School to teach English as a second language to adults was her ticket there.
As so often happens, she fell in love not only with Paris but also with a guy.
“He was a student of mine,” she says. “We had a long-distance relationship for a couple of years then married and came to New York.”
Twenty years ago, they settled in the Astoria apartment DeeAnne still lives in.
For a variety of reasons, things didn’t work out as planned, and they divorced after a couple of years.
“During the divorce, I soothed myself by getting back into music and poetry,” she says. “I got smitten by jazz – I was hanging out in Harlem and the Village and absorbing everything.”
Her pay-the-bills daytime temp job turned into a full-time position – she’s still with the same company as an administrative assistant – and she continued to pick up singing gigs.
When the music side of her life dwindled – “most of the clubs I performed in are gone, and as you age, it’s not always easy to live a double life, going to bed at 2 a.m. and going to work at 8 a.m.” – DeeAnne pursued some of her other interests.
Ah, her other interests … she mentions embossed bricks, historic walking tours of the city, adopting a 13-year-old cat during the pandemic (she died, but DeeAnne is going to get another one) and working for Amnesty International.
Oh, she almost forgot. She loves to get into costume.
You may have seen her at The Idiotarod shopping cart race, the Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival on Fifth Avenue, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the Pride Parade, the Halloween Harvest Festival at Socrates Sculpture Park and the Village Halloween Parade.
“During the pandemic, I’ve started walking around the city for hours,” she says, adding that at one point she had been a member of a historical society in each borough. “I’m fascinated by history and what’s happened to the places we are in now. New York City is like an onion because there are so many layers.”
Like many New Yorkers these days, DeeAnne is evaluating and re-evaluating her life and her goals.
She always thought she would stay here, but now she’s not so sure.
She had a bunch of ideas for new projects, such as opening a bookstore that provides live entertainment and cinema screenings. She, of course, would be one of the singing acts.
And she wants to adopt a lot of animals, which isn’t really feasible for an apartment dweller.
“I love it here, but I wonder what it’s going to look like when this is over,” she says. “Upstate is starting to look nice.”
She stares directly into the bright sun, as if searching for guidance.
“It’s hard to choose among all my interests,” she says. “I’ll just wait for things to unfold.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
As she does every weekend, she’s making tamales, a humble task she has performed for the better part of her 62 years.
The recipe, which she brought with her from Tochilmilco, Mexico three decades ago, is based on one her mother taught her.
“I added my own touches,” she says in Spanish, as her daughter Teresita translates.
There’s no secret ingredient – at least not one that you can buy at any store.
“It’s hard to make good tamales,” she admits. “But when you make them with love, and you love doing it, it’s not hard any more.”
Concepción, a small, short woman with a soft voice and a ton of determination, was pregnant with her first child when she arrived in New York City on a plane with one of her five brothers.
It took her soon-to-be-husband a little longer: He had to cross the border.
“We came for the American dream and a better life,” she says. “But I had to leave my mother behind.”
Her eyes start tearing up; she stops to compose herself. It was, she says, the saddest moment in her life, one she’ll never recover from.
Concepción’s sister already lived here, and for a couple of months Concepción made money babysitting.
In short order, Concepción and her husband moved to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which is where they raised their three children – Luis, Teresita and Carolina – and began selling Concepcion’s homemade tamales.
“We sold them out of a shopping cart,” Concepción says. “We worked six days a week, and on the seventh, we did a lot of prep work for them. The money provided for all of our necessities.”
For six years, Concepción cooked out of her kitchen; the kids pitched in.
“I used to do things like shred the chicken and take the stems off the jalapeños,” says Teresita, who works as a cook and attends LaGuardia Community College, where she is majoring in nutrition and culinary management. “That’s how I got my love of cooking.”
Concepción’s tamales were such a success that in 2001 she and her husband opened a restaurant in Sunset Park.
In 2018, when Concepción and her husband separated and Alimentos Saludablesclosed, Concepción started selling small batches of tamales out of her home kitchen.
By that time, Teresita had moved to Astoria, where her fiancé, Pedro Vazquez, a kitchen manager in Manhattan, lives.
In September 2020, Concepción joined them and her son, Luis, a banker who is working on his master’s degree in international finance at Fordham University.
Typically, Concepción starts preparing the tamales at 1 a.m., and depending on when customers want them delivered, finishes cooking at 4:30 a.m.
As in the old days, everyone pitches in. Luis and Pedro handle deliveries, and Teresita helps with the cooking.
Concepción’s other daughter, Carolina, lives in Brooklyn and lends a hand when she visits.
On most weekends, the orders are for 15 to 55 tamales, not enough to sustain a business but enough to make Concepción feel as though she’s making a contribution not only to the family but also to the community.
“It’s keeping her sane,” Teresita says. “It’s hard for someone her age to find work.”
Concepción nods in agreement.
Luis adds that “it makes her happy.”
The future of the family tamale enterprise is, he says, up to his mom.
“She has to give the green light,” he says. “She’s the CEO, the board of directors, we’re just the minions.”
She beams at her son.
“I don’t want to retire,” she says. “I want to continue working so I can eat.”
Luis pats her on the shoulder.
“It’s the cycle of life,” he says. “She took care of me, and now it’s my turn.”
To which everyone gathered around the kitchen table says, “Si.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
The actress, who has had roles on Broadway, was tucking her son, Henry, in for the night.
As she was snuggling with him, in the state somewhere between waking and dreaming, the idea just popped into her mind.
“It was like an electric bolt going through my body,” she says. “It made me sit straight up in bed.”
The idea – to create a comedy series about a socially awkward woman obsessed with the long-running TV show Little House on the Prairie — was no stretch.
Pamela, who is 43, watched the show when she was a child and became a life-long fan.
“I used to have Little House parties in college,” she confides.
When you meet Pamela, who has hair the color of copper and neon green eyes the size of saucers, don’t ever admit that you’ve never seen the show, a drama based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of Little House books that was on NBC from 1974 to 1983.
Here’s why – or at least part of the reason why she’s so keen on it:
“I don’t know any other show that gets to the psyche of a person as this one does,” she says. “It’s a very serious show – it’s incredibly deep and has some dark and serious episodes. It affects people at a very deep level, and it affects how they look at the world. It has affected me in ways I’m not even aware of. I know its other fans feel this way, and they’re in the closet because the show’s not cool.”
Pamela’s Livin’ on a Prairie, an award-winning six-part series whose episodes run about 3 to 6 minutes each, became a pandemic hit, leading her career in a different direction.
“I wanted to be an actor,” she says. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer and a producer, too. It was a eureka moment – I was able to use all my tools.”
There was never a doubt that Pamela, who was born in New York City and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, would be an entertainer.
“My mom was an actor, and my dad was a writer,” she says, adding that her older sister’s a pianist. “I came out of the womb knowing what I was going to be.”
Although Pamela did perform in the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus, she had a panic attack at an early audition in front of an agent.
“They wanted me to sing, and I just froze,” she says. “I didn’t audition again until after I was in college.”
Indeed, after earning a degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Pamela began picking up parts in regional theater and television shows as well as Off-Broadway and Broadway productions.
You may have seen her as a sub in the Broadway play Hand to God (she understudied the parts of both women in the cast) or the Broadway musical comedy A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (she understudied six parts and was featured in more than 300 performances).
Pamela, who describes herself as an actor who sings and dances (she was a serious ballet student until an injury sidelined her) has a number of side jobs that keep her finances flush when she’s not on the stage.
“But I had just finished six years of back-to-back shows, and I was burned out and frustrated because I thought that more doors would open for me,” she says. “I knew I had more to offer.”
Little House was all about family and community, and as she’s talking, she’s sitting on her front porch, waving and calling out hellos to neighbors as they pass by.
Hal Fraser, her husband, is doing the laundry. Henry, who is 10, is off to visit a friend, and 2-year-old Margot runs to sit in mommy’s lap.
Just like the TV show, Livin’ on a Prairie became an obsession for Pamela. She worked on the series for six months, releasing it in 2018.
She’s proud to note that two of the TV series’ original cast members – Charlotte Stewart, who played Miss Beadle, the schoolteacher, and Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson – appear in Livin’ on the Prairie.
Once the series was released, big things started happening, and before Pamela knew it, she was working with a Los Angeles producer to create a half-hour series based on it.
But by the end of 2019, everything was put on hold, and before Pamela could regroup and resume work on it, the pandemic arrived.
So did another idea.
Pamela released Livin’ on a Prairie online and produced a Zoom reunion of the cast of the original series to accompany it.
“I was working 20-hour days,” she says. “It gave me a purpose.”
It also gave her a platform to re-present Livin’ on a Prairie: She’s found another producer for the half-hour series.
And if the Livin’ on a Prairie series doesn’t work out – or even if it does – Pamela already is working on another idea.
“It’s about a jaded children’s music star,” she says. “It’s a cross between Veep and Spinal Tap. I’m dying to make it.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Wrapping a white shawl around her shoulders, Sara Angel Guerrero-Mostafa heads to the backyard garden.
She surveys her work: She’s just finished planting tomatoes, okra, eggplant, beets, spinach, sugar peas and squash.
Look, here’s a chili pepper that’s perfect for picking. She plucks it with panache.
Sara’s vegetable garden used to be potted on the balcony of her apartment, so she’s glad to give the plants more room to grow in this her new, larger space that fits her new, larger life.
A lifelong learner and earnest educator, Sara has lived many places and has pursued myriad opportunities, so unlike her vegetables, she doesn’t need deep roots to grow.
This move has been especially exciting because she got married last year, and this will be the first proper place she and her husband, an artist and teacher, have chosen together.
Sara, who is the Museum of the Moving Image’s deputy director of education and community engagement, has lived in New York off and on since 1995 when she came to study at Barnard College.
After spending the first dozen years of her life in Santa Barbara, California, Sara started her odyssey by moving to Pittsburg, where her single mother got a teaching job.
“I’ve always been involved in art and academic environments,” she says, adding that her mother has devoted herself to art for the last several years. “I went to museums all the time and took classes there. I come from a family of teachers and academics; if you go back in my family history, there probably are about 50 teachers.”
After graduating from Barnard with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and women’s studies, Sara, through the nonprofit Teach For America, became a middle-school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona.
It was, to say the least, a learning experience.
At night, Sara became a student again, earning a master’s degree in education from Arizona State University.
“I’ve always loved teaching because it’s a service,” she says. “I like the idea of having intellectual conversations and sharing skills.”
Her next teaching job was in Mexico City, where her father, who died at a young age, was from.
“I visited my grandmother every weekend,” she says, adding that she learned a lot of things, including film editing and advanced Spanish, while there.
Two years later, she headed back to The Big Apple, this time to teach Teach For America applicants. At the same time, she was a consultant to a sociologist at Barnard.
Her next position – what she calls her dream job – was at the Queens Museum, where she became the founding manager of the New New Yorkers Program, which teaches immigrants life skills through the arts.
Then, she was off to the University of the Arts London, where she studied from 2009 to 2012, working on a doctorate in art theory.
“I didn’t stay in the city all that time,” she says. “I traveled through the Middle East and Central America as part of my research.”
She came back to Queens, where, among other things, she continued her consulting and became a freelance curator and a dealer in Latin American art.
In 2015, she landed the job as director of education and public engagement for No Longer Empty, a nonprofit that turns unoccupied storefronts into public art exhibitions.
Her love of art and all of her academic and professional work led to the job at the Museum of the Moving Image. The position was created in 2017, the same year Sara earned her doctorate.
In addition to figuring out how to engage the community via online classes and activities in the wake of the pandemic, Sara is working on creating a game lab for children of all ages.
Although Sara has taken many art classes and loves to draw, paint and sculpt, her real passion is “being an arts worker to help people interact with art. I love the intersection of art and education.”
She sees art as a way to bring the world together.
“Art is the true language of love,” she says, “because you communicate with your heart, and it breaks down boundaries. The synergy, the magic happens when people create art together.”
Sara intends to keep making that magic happen at the Museum of the Moving Image for years to come.
“I love working there,” she says, adding that someday she hopes to establish a community arts center.
If not in Astoria, then wherever she and her moving boxes end up.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling