Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 6723 views | 0 0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Monster Maker
by Nruhling
Feb 20, 2018 | 210 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sky Deviler on the loose.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Somewhere sinister, in a secret lab, Dr. Cube, a mad scientist intent on ruling the universe, is making a malevolent monster mob that can crush cities with a single stomp.

When the bad doctor, who wears a box-like mask to hide his hideous face, unleashes his formidable force, the planet kneels before the likes of Kung Fu Chicken Noodle (a factory worker who’s a soup can) and Dusto Bunny (a hare-sage who needs a body Swiffer).

Will the earth be pulverized by these strange beasts called Kaiju?

You’ll have to ask Randy Borden, the creator of the series of live shows called Kaiju Big Battel that pits good against evil.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The fate of the universe is in his hands.

Randy, who has been producing this brand of evil entertainment for more than two decades, grew up in Abington, Massachusetts watching Kaiju, the Japanese flicks featuring beasts in big battles.

Remember the so-bad-they-were-good Godzilla movies that were replayed on TV a gazillion times?

Randy, who decided when he was in fourth grade that he wanted to be an artist, forgot all about them until he was in Boston at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts studying sculpture and printmaking.

The next Kaiju Big Battel is March 10 at 2 p.m. at La Boom in Long Island City.

“Somebody gave me a book from Japan with Kaiju monsters,” he says. “I was friends with a film student, and we decided that I would create the characters and make the monster costumes and we would shoot our own movie.”

Things happened, but the movie didn’t.

“We ended up doing a stage version at a Halloween fund-raiser,” he says, “and it snowballed.”

Soon, Randy was producing shows all over the country.

“Hundreds of people were coming,” he says. “We even did one show that had 4,000 people.”

College is also where Randy was introduced to Yoriko Shiraishi, a native of Tokyo, Japan.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sky Deviler changing into human form.

Like Randy, she wanted to make art her career.

“My father taught me to draw stick figures when I was 2,” she says. “He was a car engineer, so I started drawing cars and never stopped.”

After going to a high school in Los Angeles, Yoriko decided to come back to America for college.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kiliko with her Kaiju monster.

“I was using the printmaking room, and I was impressed by Randy because every time I was there, he was cleaning,” she says. “In Japan everything was very tidy, but in America it was messy, so this caught my attention. I didn’t realize until later that cleaning the room was part of his job running the room.”

Their love of Japanese pop culture led to their friendship.

In 2001, they married, and in 2007, their daughter, Kiliko, was born.

When the economy went south and the shows stopped, Randy and Yoriko went west.

“I was offered a job building things in New York,” Randy says. “We have lived in this apartment since we arrived in August 2009.”

As it happened, Randy’s job was a bust, but Yoriko found part-time work.

She was an office assistant at a Japanese newspaper for several years before being laid off.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Randy’s all set for the March 10 show.

Now, Randy teaches after-school sculpture classes at P.S. 17, 85 and 166, and Yoriko does freelance graphic design projects, paints and has an Etsy shop that sells postcards and prints.

Randy is ramping up Kaiju Big Battel; the next show is on March 10 at La Boom in Long Island City.

It’s a fund-raiser for Our World Neighborhood Charter School in Astoria, which Kiliko attends.

Each Kaiju Big Battel is unique.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kiliko subduing her monster.

Randy’s the director, script writer and creature and prop designer/maker.

“Everybody in the cast – there are about 25 people from all over the country – sends me ideas, and I take the things I like,” he says. “We play off news stories. There’s a lot of political and social commentary, but it’s so subtle it goes over most people’s heads.”

From script to stage show takes about a month.

The Kaiju monsters are made of foam covered in rubber.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kiliko also is an artist.

“Each one takes a couple of months to do,” he says. “The rubber is painted on, and it takes a long time to dry between coats. Most have seven to ten coats.”

The Kaiju Big Battel shows are family affairs.

Yoriko often helps design the posters.

“I do them from his sketches,” she says, “because I’m better at drawing.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kiliko with No. 13. Fear the evil.

Even Kiliko has gotten into the act.

She has danced as Sky Deviler, a blue alien-glutton who has one big red eye in the center of his face and fierce fangs.

If that creature looks familiar, it’s because there’s a similar one in Disney’s 2014 film Big Hero 6.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Dr. Cube is out to rule the world.

“The three-eyed battle suit worn by Fred is based on Sky Deviler,” Randy says. “I read an article about the director where he’s quoted as saying that my character was his inspiration.”

If things go Randy’s way, Kaiju Big Battel will, indeed, conquer the world.

For good.

“I want to do this full time again,” he says. “I hope to produce at least 12 shows a year all over the country.”

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

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Art-Foundry Owner
by Nruhling
Feb 13, 2018 | 419 views | 0 0 comments | 39 39 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael’s family owns Sculpture House Casting.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

What’s your title?

It’s not meant to be a funny question, but it makes Michael Perrotta of Sculpture House Casting laugh.

“We’re a family business,” he says. “We don’t have titles. I’ve done everything from sweeping the floor to doing the patina on a bronze. Nothing is above or below anyone here.”

Michael, who handles the business aspects of the foundry, is sitting at an art-scarred antique oak desk.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sculpture House Casting is at 43-77 9th St.

It belongs to his father, Salvatore. So do the dust-shrouded grey New Balance sneakers peeking out from under it.

Michael picks up a crimson-color wax head that’s lying on the desktop.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

One of the foundry’s classics.

It’s right where Salvatore left it; he was working on it yesterday, flicking away flecks of wax from its seams so it can be cast in bronze.

You can see the bright-red dots on the floor. They look like blood.

The desk, Michael mentions, used to be used by the foundry founder, Alex Ettel.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The excellence is in the details.

He rummages in the top drawer and brings out a bunch of vintage photos.

He holds up one of Alex, then one of Alex’s father in the studio standing next to a pair of life-size equestrian statues.

Michael isn’t sure what’s in all the drawers because he’s never really gone through them carefully. They contain a hundred years of history.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael has made the foundry his career.

Sculpture House Casting, which has been making art molds and casts since 1918, is the oldest foundry in New York City. (More photos.)

The city’s two other foundries also are in the boroughs.

Modern Art Foundry in Astoria was set up 85 years ago, and Bedi-Makky Art Foundry in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was established in the early 1920s.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A wing-like motif.

“We all collaborate on projects,” Michael says.

Until 2014 when it moved to Long Island City, Sculpture House Casting, which has 11 employees, made its home in Manhattan.

Salvatore and Michael’s uncle, Joseph Ruggerio, bought it in the mid-1980s after working there for decades and now all three own it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael handles the business aspects of the foundry.

“My father came to New York City from Naples, Italy, in 1966 with $80 in his pocket,” Michael says. “He was a poor farmer and didn’t know anything about this business. At that time, foundries were dominated by Italians. He went door to door looking for jobs. He got a job here and worked his way up. He also got my uncle his job.”

Michael, tall and statuesque with perfectly sculpted salt-and-pepper hair, grew up in the foundry.

“As early as I can remember, I would come here on Saturdays with my father,” he says. “I found it to be a fascinating place. And I got to play with clay and plaster.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The foundry houses 100 years of history.

He continued to help out while he was earning a degree in finance from St. John’s University.

“After I graduated, I did a few other jobs for a short time, but they were so mundane and boring that I came back here and never left,” he says, adding that the transition, like the foundry’s molds, was virtually seamless.

The foundry works with a host of artists, including Kara Walker, Kiki Smith and Tom Otterness.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The foundry executes artists’ designs.

“Everything we do is handmade,” Michael says. “We’re still analog in a digital world, and we’re going to stay that way.”

It also creates high-end props for window displays for the likes of Macy’s and Tiffany & Co.

If you’ve ever been to Carnegie Hall, you’ve seen the ornamental plaster that the foundry restored in the 1980s.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Works in various stages of progress.

And if you went to the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2014 to snap a selfie with Kara Walker’s bittersweet sphinx A Marvelous Sugar Baby, you got to see the surrounding statues the foundry made.

Last year, perhaps you sat on a cast-concrete Louis XIV sofa or chair made by the foundry for Liz Glynn’s Open House at 59th Street and Central Park.

Or maybe you’ll visit the FDR Hope Memorial on Roosevelt Island, which will include Meredith Bergmann’s statue of the 32nd president and a little girl that were made by the foundry.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael joined the foundry full time after college.

“It’s interesting working here,” Michael says. “We’re producing art, and I get to meet a lot of interesting people.”

There may be an art to the foundry’s work, but Michael is the first to admit that the creativity is cast by the artists.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


“We are more like mechanics,” he says. “We carry out artists’ instructions.”

Michael, who is 47, acknowledges that the foundry’s is a dying art.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael has been trained to do every job in the foundry.

“In our world, art is the first thing that is cut from budgets,” he says.

Although Michael commutes on the LIRR from Sea Cliff, the foundry’s workers, who are immigrants, live in the boroughs.

“I can’t move to the suburbs,” he says. “I have to be on a subway line, so it’s vital for the city to make space for industrial businesses like ours.”

Indeed, it was an astronomical hike in rent — from $8,000 to $40,000 per month — that forced Sculpture House Casting from Manhattan.

Successors? Michael hasn’t given much thought to the subject, even though he probably should.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The mold for a Macy’s clown.

Salvatore is 71, and Joseph is 65.

Michael’s daughter, who just turned 14, is far too young to be thinking about joining any business, even one owned by her family.

“She comes to visit occasionally,” he says.

Then again, nobody has mentioned retirement.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael facing the future head-on.

Michael is proud of the fact that during his tenure, which began in 1995 and included the 2009 recession, there have been no layoffs.

“We’re a family,” he says. “If things don’t work out, we’ll go out together.”

He puts the faded black-and-white snapshot of Alex Ettel back in the desk drawer and slowly closes it.

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

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Voice of Chinamerica Radio
by Nruhling
Feb 06, 2018 | 446 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Steve’s the voice behind Chinamerica Radio and The Country Oldies Show.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

The first time Steve Warren stepped in front of a radio-station microphone, he was wearing a bow tie.

“I was in third grade and sang White Christmas,” says Steve, a tall man with an easy-going, ear-pleasing voice. “An organist in a suit was playing the music live. They gave me a wristwatch.”

The timepiece, which Steve wishes he had preserved as a souvenir, turned out to a prescient present.

Steve, the host of Envision Radio Network’s The Country Oldies Show, America’s longest running weekly radio program featuring the greatest country hits from the 1950s to the 1980s, has spent his entire career in radio.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chinamerica Radio started a decade ago.

Since 1999, he’s been producing the oldies show, which made its debut in 1994, from a studio-apartment-size space on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City. The studio also is home to his Chinamerica, the only 24-hour Internet Chinese global radio station.

Radio was a logical choice for Steve because his father was in the business. That’s how he got that bow-tie holiday gig.

The family lived in New Albany, Indiana, which is right across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky and is home to WNAS, the first public high school FM station in the country.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Steve made his first radio appearance when he was in grade school.

“My dad didn’t stay in radio,” Steve says, “but he managed regional country music stars and later distributed music for Decca Records.”

Steve got to know the stars.

Some of them, African-Americans, used his bedroom as a dressing room because they were not allowed to stay in Louisville hotels under Jim Crow laws.

By the time he was a senior in high school, Steve was producing a weekly 15-minute program for WNAS, which broadcasted from Louisville. After graduation, he worked for a local rock-and-roll station.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Steve in his WNBC days.

He worked full time in radio while earning a speech and theatre degree from Indiana University.

Instead of heading to a Broadway stage, Steve opted for a broadcasting booth.

“I used radio as my theatre venue of choice,” he says. “It was just me and the microphone. It was like doing improv — nothing was scripted.”

His eye and his voice were on Manhattan, so he worked his way across the country, station by station as he zeroed in on the Big Apple.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Steve worked for several NYC stations, including WHN, the city’s first country station.

In 1971, he made it: He got a job with WPAT.

Later he worked for CBS Radio Network, WNBC Radio and WHN, the first country station in the city.

He traded DJing for program management and established his own consulting company.


hoto by Nancy A. Ruhling

Paper umbrellas and microphones.

For a couple of years, he was editor of Radio Ink Magazine.

When satellite radio was being developed, he designed and implemented the country music channels for Sirius.

Later, he helped launch the Martha Stewart Living channel on Sirius and became the news anchor for The Howard Stern Show.

Along the way, he made personal appearances and MC’d shows for stars like Johnny Cash, John Denver and Buck Owens, wrote RADIO: The Book, a best-seller on programming, appeared in episodes of The Sopranos and in several feature films, including It’s Complicated, and served as an adjunct instructor at the International Academy of Broadcasting in Montreux, Switzerland.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chinamerica Radio opened up a whole new life for Steve.

Then, 10 years ago, when he was close to retirement age, he met someone from the Chinese Consulate in New York City.

“He introduced me to the pop music of China,” Steve says. “That’s what got Chinamerica started.”

The station, which has a listener base of nearly a million tune-ins per month, plays Chinese pop music. Announcements, ads and interviews are in English.

“I couldn’t believe that nobody else had thought of this,” he says. “The Chinese-American population alone is 3.8 million.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Each person interviewed gets a fortune cookie.

Chinamerica is essentially a one-man show. Steve has a partner in Beijing who comes to New York for a couple of weeks each year. He calls in part-timers when he needs them.

Steve mans the station from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day then attends events at night and on weekends.

“The station has grown entirely on relationships,” he says.

Steve, who just brought back a suitcase full of CDs from Taiwan, says Chinamerica is a fulfilling endeavor.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Steve hopes a mainstream station gives a voice to Chinamerica Radio.


“Learning new music, a new language and a new culture has extended my lifetime,” says Steve, who has spent 56 of his 72 years working in radio. “I’ve got something to wake up for every morning.”

Although Steve is having too much fun to retire, he’d like to create a secure future for Chinamerica.

“I would feel vindicated, if at some point, I am able to get this music and this demographic acknowledged by mainstream media,” he says.

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

Support Astoria Characters at GoFundMe

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Street Painter
by Nruhling
Jan 30, 2018 | 656 views | 0 0 comments | 53 53 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony started street painting after 9/11.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony Cappetto is standing on the sidewalk on 30th Avenue.

This is not how he’s generally known for making contact with concrete.

Anthony is an internationally acclaimed street painter, and when he’s working on one of his illusionary 3-D murals, he’s sitting or lying on the ground using colored chalk to find the art in the asphalt.

It’s the kind of creative endeavor where you get your hands dirty. And where your art is always wiped out.

“I accept the idea of temporality and thrive with it,” he says and grins.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony working on his project for the LIC Flea & Food.

Anthony, who is from the suburbs of Chicago, started drawing as a child.

There was, he declares, nothing unusual about his pursuit.

“Every child has an interest in art,” he says, “but it is tempered by society.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He colors in the spaces by hand with chalk.

Anthony, who has a bachelor’s degree in architecture and philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, managed not only to retain his artistic ability but also to channel it into a livelihood.

He paired a career in corporate interiors architecture in New York City with what he likes to call “after-hours painting,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

He didn’t know anything about street art until 1999, when he and his wife, Wendy Stum, went to Grazie di Curtatone, Italy, to visit the world’s oldest street painting fair.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The design includes pumpkins.

“I was completely into it,” he says.

The couple visited other fairs, and when Anthony and Wendy were downsized after 9/11, he decided to try street painting.

“I was at the bottom of the rung,” he says.

It didn’t take long for him to become one of the world’s top street painters.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The image starts taking shape.

Anthony, a tall man with salt and pepper hair that’s a riot of curls, distinguished his work by incorporating 3-D elements, a technique that at the time was novel.

Since 2001, Anthony, through his company, Art for After Hours, has completed more than 100 projects around the world for festivals, exhibitions, conferences and corporations.

He’s chalked his way through the United States as well as the United Arab Emirates, India, Switzerland, Japan, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and Mexico.

His New York City projects include one in Central Park and one in the World Financial Center.

In October, he created a 3-D street painting – a jumbo jump-into-the-foam mug of beer with a side garnish of autumn pumpkins and a salt-encrusted soft pretzel – at the LIC Flea & Food.

“I’m grateful for all of these experiences,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony has created street paintings around the world.

Anthony’s works are meant to engage. Look at one and you want to step inside his world, where what you see is not what it seems.

A 3-D bowl of spaghetti invites you to pick up the fork to take a bite; an I-beam floating in the sky makes you think you are on top of the world; and a skyscraper tricks you into believing you’re dangling dangerously close to death.

Whether Anthony’s creating a mural for a festival or corporate client, his method is the same.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chalk is Anthony’s main medium.

He solicits ideas from each client and presents a small-scale, hand-drawn sketch in color pencil.

“I’m traditional in this respect,” he says, adding that he prefers the personal touch over the computer click.

Once the concept is approved, he creates a small-scale technical sketch.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The LIC work, partly finished.

“I mathematically calculate the 3-D proportions,” he says. “And I look at every angle people will view the art.”

On the street, he hand draws and hand colors the full design.

Although many of his works are chalk, he also works in acrylic and tempera paints.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anthony’s is pretty much a solo act.

From design concept to last chalk mark, some projects can take months. For larger projects, he creates a team to help with the painting.

At every step along the way, he gets feedback from Wendy, who is his assistant and marketing director.

“She’s my muse,” he says. “She’s my harshest critic and my staunchest supporter.”

He thinks about this a moment.

“You might want to soften the word ‘harshest,’” he says, neglecting to suggest an alternative.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Get ready to take a photo of the mural.

Since 2011, Anthony has been working 4-D emerging technologies into some of his paintings.

“I try to do things that others do not,” he says, adding that he’s started to include animated augmented reality and virtual spaces in his streetwise works. “My work is conceptual, visionary and thoughtful in nature. I want people to walk away and think about what they have seen and experienced.”

Anthony posing with the LIC work.

Anthony looks forward to pushing the envelope – and the concrete – to the limits.

“I’m 56 and not getting any younger,” he says. “In the next eight to 10 years, probably eight, I will start training other younger artists to develop my ideas. I’m also thinking about street art – painting on walls.”

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

Support Astoria Characters at GoFundMe

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Funnyman
by Nruhling
Jan 23, 2018 | 538 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben was born in  Russia.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When you’ve joked around all night, it’s hard to be awake, much less funny, at 8 a.m.

Comic Ben Rosenfeld is swigging bottled water and swiping the sleep from his eyes, which he confesses aren’t quite ready to open.

Whose bright idea was it to do this interview at such an awful hour?

Busted! It was Ben who set the time.

He was joking. Well sort of. He also suggested noon, so he didn’t really think 8 would be the chosen option.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben just finished his third album.

“I’m not a morning person,” he says. “I used to sleep in school. When the teachers called on me, I gave the right answer then put my head back down on the desk.”

He swears he’s serious.

Jokes, he insists, don’t just spring from his brain fully formed. They have to be house trained like puppies to get their giggles and guffaws on.

“Some jokes take five different versions to work,” he says. “Some are written the day before a show. With some, it takes months before I say them on stage.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben does his stand-up routine at clubs every night.

Ben, who writes his routines in the spare bedroom in his apartment, does stand-up on the Manhattan circuit — Carolines, the Broadway Comedy Club, Comic Strip Live and Stand Up NY.

He’s just recorded his third album, The United States of Russia. (Hear Ben tell a joke.)

“When I find something that’s interesting, I try to think of a way to make it funny,” he says.

That usually means rummaging through his own life for material. There’s lots of it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The laughs are so loud.

Ben, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia when it was called Leningrad, came to America when he was 4. His family settled in Stamford, Connecticut, where his parents had friends.

He doesn’t remember much about his life there or his transition here.

“My dad says that I stopped speaking for six months then started speaking English,” he says.

He also started telling jokes.

A joke from Ben’s new album, “The United States of Russia.”

“Someone once said about me that most people make jokes to show they are funny, but Ben makes jokes to show he’s smart,” he says.

When his parents divorced, 10-year-old Ben lived with his father. He’s not quite sure why – his mother and father tell different versions of the story.

“It’s unusual that my dad got custody,” he says. “But at the time it seemed normal. And his parents lived close by, so it wasn’t like I was at home alone.”

Ben continued to find the funny side of things while studying at Rutgers University, where he ran a school parody website and earned a degree in economics and philosophy.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben was raised in Connecticut.

“My freshman roommate was doing stand-up,” he says. “I used to follow him and give him advice.”

When Ben graduated, he took a serious job. For three years, he was a management consultant for Accenture.

During his second year, he transferred from the Hartford to the Manhattan office and moved to Astoria.

A project required him to travel to Philadelphia, so he decided to check out stand-up shows for his ex-Rutgers roommate.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ben goofing around on the patio.

“I thought, ‘I can write this stuff,’ so I did and told my friend that he could use some of the jokes,” Ben says. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I thought, ‘Why not? I don’t know anybody in Philly.’”

Everybody laughed when Ben took the stage.

Thus encouraged, he continued his routines when, a year later, he attended grad school at Caltech, where he was majoring in a decidedly unfunny subject, neuroeconomics.

After four months, at the end of 2009, he quit.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Come on, give me a laugh!

“School was getting in the way of my comedy,” he says.

He moved back to Astoria and returned to the club circuit.

“I lived on my savings,” he says. “And I took a four-day-a-week job for nine months. I told them I could not do five days a week because I needed to catch up on my sleep.”

Since 2012, he’s been making his living one joke at a time.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Pretty please, come to my show!

“I’m a full-time comedian,” he says. “By that, I mean that I have about eight different ways of making money – I do stand-up, acting, video work and radio voice-over work, and I write books and direct and edit sketches. So I’m always working.”

Generally, he gets up between 9 and 10:30 a.m. OK, 9 is wishful thinking; it’s nearly always closer to 10.

His wife, Michelle Slonim, is a comedian with an at-home day job. She works at a desk in a corner of the living room.

Ben stretches, meditates, does some stream-of-consciousness writing and warms up his funny bone by writing headline jokes for

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jokes, Ben says, are serious business.

“I can’t control when I get ideas, but when I do, I mine and squeeze them for all they’re worth,” he says. “Sometimes I get no ideas; other times, I get three or four a week.”

When Ben’s not refining his own routines, he’s punching up keynote speeches and talks for pay.

By 1 or 2 p.m., he’s scheduling his appearances.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a … new joke!

“I do stand-up every night,” he says. “I end up doing 600 to 750 spots a year. A spot generally is 10 to 20 minutes.”

If this sounds tiring, it is.

And so is Ben. Eight o’clock is far too early.

No kidding.

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

Support Astoria Characters at GoFundMe

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The High-Flying Acrobat
by Nruhling
Jan 16, 2018 | 505 views | 0 0 comments | 52 52 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Bobby likes to keep things up in the air.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“Why walk when you can fly?”

Bobby Hedglin-Taylor answers his own question by starting to scale a giant London Plane tree in Ditmars Park.

This probably isn’t a good idea. Anything could happen. He could fall. He could reach the top.

He wonders, momentarily, whether it’s illegal to climb a park-property tree.

Bobby at home in a tree.

It’s too late to worry.

He jumps to the top of a park bench so he can grab the lower branches. He looks upward. It’s nice to say hi to the sky, but he’d rather be in motion.

Let’s go to the swings!

Bars are made for tightrope walking.

They remind him of the trapeze, his aerial apparatus of choice.

But before he gets to them, he climbs to the top of the junglegym’s tree house, hangs upside down from the rings (the metal is freezing cold on his bare hands so he doesn’t stay suspended long) and does a swift tightrope walk across a horizontal bar in his sneakers.

“I’m a conspicuous person,” he says. “I’m designed to stick out — I’m a redhead.”

Swings remind Bobby of trapezes.

He’s stating the obvious, but it’s probably a safe bet that given the series of stunts he executed in his impromptu park performance, Bobby’s hair is not what watchers will remember.

About his hair – it’s clown curly and carrot color. His close-cropped cut keeps its playfulness in check.

Bobby, a mass of muscle who describes himself as a shy person, is an aerial sequence designer, an up-in-the-air teacher/trainer and sometime performer and actor. He’s also the director of STREB’s trapeze academy.

Creative types come to him for help doing everything from making fake nooses for haunted houses and music videos to safely planning stunts like hanging a little girl upside down from her ankles while she plays the violin.

“My favorite call ever went like this: ‘Bobby, we want you to dress as Austin Powers and climb down a 60-foot rope and introduce Sheena Easton,’” he says. “People come to me with the impossible, and I make things happen.”

During the summer, he teaches dance, gymnastics and circus arts at the all-girls Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. Twelve-year-old Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was one of his students. Now, she calls herself Lady Gaga.

Where Bobby feels at home.

You’ve seen his aerial work in Broadway’s 2012 revival of Pippin as well as in regional theatre productions. You’ve also seen his teaching at work in a variety of venues. He was, for instance, the tightrope trainer for the 2012 Broadway musical Chaplin.

As an actor, he has shared the stage with a number of stars, including Lauren Bacall, Bebe Neuwirth, Kathy Lee Gifford and Kirstie Alley.

And he was one of 17 acrobats who flew in harnesses 75 feet up to the roof of Madison Square Garden at an astounding 18 feet per second during the 2012 New Year’s Eve performance by the rock band Phish.

Bobby in a state of suspension.

“When I’m on the trapeze, my body is my paintbrush, and the air is my canvas,” he says. “It’s floating, it’s freedom, and it’s reminiscent of my childhood home, where we used to swing on tires tied to trees.”

The home he’s referring to was in Marshall’s Creek, Pennsylvania, an isolated area where Bobby and his extended family lived on the top of a hill.

“My great-grandfather bought land there,” he says. “And his 19 children and their children all lived there. I was surrounded by relatives. My grandmother lived across the street. We’re Sicilian, so we called it Macaroni Hill.”

Bobby makes it look easy.

Bobby’s mother and father worked two jobs. The family grew its own food in the yard, which was populated by ducks, chickens, goats and turkeys.

“My older brother and I used to take a salt shaker outside and eat the tomatoes off the vine after school,” he says. “We left the remains on the vine; for the longest time, my mother thought groundhogs were doing it.”

The house was filled with music, and Bobby got hooked on musical theater after he saw West Side Story on TV. He was 3, so he didn’t really understand the plot, but his baby body grooved to the moves.

By the time he got to high school, entertainment was uppermost on his mind. He learned ballroom dancing as he started studies at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.

Bobby has lived in Astoria for 14 years.

“Male dancers were needed for this ballet theater in town,” he says. “I couldn’t dance, but they taught me, and they put me in musicals.”

It was a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy that brought Bobby to New York City.

The trapeze was not something Bobby ever considered, but when he had his first lesson – for a stage production that didn’t get off the ground – he never wanted to come down.

He’s worked on Broadway productions.

“It was like a dance in the air,” he says. “And I continued to take lessons on my own.”

In addition to his conventional stage work, Bobby performed under big and not-so-big tops for 17 years.

“When I’m teaching, I tell my students that ‘the circus is inside you, but you have forgotten it. You just have to make yourself remember,’” he says.

Should I climb a second time?

This is also something he has said, more than once, to his husband, David Taylor, a former singer/dancer/actor who now is an accountant.

“He did try the trapeze one time,” Bobby says, astounded that his partner didn’t want to continue to play in the air.

Although injuries have turned the trapeze against him, Bobby has higher goals.

“I want to create a Broadway show based on flight,” he says.

Astoria Characters Day: The Second Annual Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Guy Sitting in the Court Square Diner
by Nruhling
Jan 09, 2018 | 588 views | 0 0 comments | 46 46 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


The Court Square Diner at 45-30 23rd St. in Long Island City.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stop by the Court Square Diner for breakfast or dinner, and you’re likely to see HughCarragher. He’s the tall, white-haired gentleman sitting at the corner counter seat closest to the subway.

Hugh has been eating at the diner twice a day ever since he moved to Long Island City at the end of 1961.

That’s, let’s see … 56 of his 81 years.

Hugh is surprised by the math; he had it in his mind that he’s been a regular customer for only 50 years.

“It’s amazing how quickly time goes,” he says. “I was never one to change. There used to be another diner close by, but this was my place.”

Hugh has been eating at the diner twice a day for 56 years.

It strikes him that if he has been coming to the Court Square Diner for 56 years, then he’s been living in the same two-bedroom apartment near the eatery for 54 years.


Speaking of dates, the Court Square Diner was established 1946. The original was nothing more than a railroad-like car where the 7, G, E and M lines converge.

Its flashy retro exterior, in shiny steel and ketchup-red, was completed in 2010 by the current owners, brothers Steve and Nick Kanellos.

The original diner opened in a railroad-like car in 1946.

Hugh’s been living in New York City since 1959. The only reason he didn’t dine at the diner sooner was because he was living in Jamaica, Queens.

Hugh, who is one of 11 children, grew up on a 50-acre farm in Cootehill, Ireland.

His family raised flax, which the market town was famous for, and potatoes, corn, cabbage and turnips as well as hens, ducks, geese, cows and pigs.

“We were very fortunate because we owned the land,” he says. “We were not poor, and we always had enough to eat. We had a good life.”

Hugh started helping out on the farm before his fifth birthday.

When he graduated from technical school, he got a good job in the post office then briefly worked as a police officer.

Hugh in his favorite seat at the end of the counter.

He followed two of his older brothers to America.

“I was close to them, and I just made up my mind that I was going,” he says. “My dad had been born in New York City and lived there until he was 5, when the family went back to Ireland, so there was that fact also.”

Hugh got a job in the produce department of the Grand Union supermarket in Manhattan and later worked for Key Food.

“At Key Food, I did work in all the departments,” he says.

Court Square Diner is busy 24 hours a day.

His last job was running the mailroom at Elizabeth Arden.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “I retired at 58 when the company was sold and I was offered a buyout.”

Fairly quickly, Hugh settled into a routine centered around three meals.

For breakfast, it’s Raisin Bran, coffee and cranberry juice at Court Square. On Saturdays and Sundays, he has been known to break routine by ordering eggs.

The diner is a couple of blocks from Hugh’s apartment.

For lunch, he generally eats in Sunnyside while visiting friends in Woodside. He’s adventurous — he doesn’t have a particular place or plate.

For dinner, he’s back at Court Square.

Hugh spends holidays with his brother in Whitestone.

Although he’s a bachelor, he has a lot of nieces and nephews who live in the area.

Hugh came to New York City from Ireland in 1959.

One of them, an architect from Connecticut who works in Manhattan, spends a couple of nights a week with him.

“It’s convenient for him because the subway is here,” Hugh says.

The current owners took over in 1991.

And he goes home to Ireland twice a year.

“I’ve made 63 trips,” he says, adding that before he retired he only had enough vacation time for one visit per year.

Hugh says that the Court Square Diner always makes him feel at home.

The retro look is from a 2010 renovation.

“These guys look after me good,” he says.

Tonight, he’ll be back for dinner. Court Square has a lot of specials.

Hugh mentions the leg of lamb and the roast beef.

Introduce yourself to Hugh when you walk in.

“The whole menu’s good,” he says.

He’ll wait until he reads it before deciding which dish to order.

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

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Baker Who Makes Edible Art
by Nruhling
Jan 02, 2018 | 754 views | 0 0 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Pink Canary Desserts is at 13-11 Jackson Ave.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“I always eat a cookie for breakfast,” says Amy Stack.

She sets a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie on a plate then adds a raspberry-blueberry-almond scone for good measure.

To compensate for all this sweetness, she takes her coffee black, sans sugar.

Amy grew up in a house full of bakers.

“I never eat the whole cookie,” she says. “All the calories are in the last bite, right?”

Amy, the co-owner of Pink Canary Desserts in Long Island City, laughs.

It’s such a sweet joke that she takes a big bite of the scone.

The shop specializes in custom cakes.

Homemade baked goods remind Amy of her childhood. She was born outside of San Francisco and lived in the Los Angeles area. When she was 8, the family moved to Seattle, Washington.

“Baking has always been part of my life,” she says. “My dad and my grandma were always baking bread and cookies. One of my first memories is of my grandma making crescent rolls.”

A three-tier Frida Kahlo cake.

Amy, a tall woman who pulls her hair back in a perky ponytail, is sorry to say that she and her three younger siblings took their treats for granted.

“We always had homemade cookies in our school lunches,” she says. “We felt deprived because we didn’t have Oreos and Ding Dongs like the other kids.”

Amy, a creative soul, carried on the family tradition.

Amy left a career in mental health to come to the bakery.

“In every professional job I had,” she says, “I was the one who brought homemade baked goods to the office for my co-workers.”

Given her love of baking, it’s somewhat surprising that Amy didn’t find herself standing in front a professional oven immediately.

A detail of a cake in full bloom.

At Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art, and at Springfield College in Massachusetts, she graduated with a master’s of science degree in art therapy.

“Baking was a hobby,” she says. “So were the other creative things I did —painting, knitting and crocheting.”

After working in the mental health field for several years and moving to the East Coast (“I came for a job and a boy,” she says. “I married him.”), Amy felt stymied.

The shop’s party room features a sweet mural.

“As an artist, I had gotten a little too far away from creating,” she says.

So when her sister entered TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off in 2010 and asked Amy to join the team, she couldn’t resist the challenge.

Pink Canary Desserts is designed to look like an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.

“I didn’t have professional baking experience like my sister,” she says. “And I said to her, ‘Are you sure you want me? You want to win, right?’”

The team’s 6-foot-6-inch-high Sweet Sixteen birthday cake, which was topped by a spinning globe crowned by a castle, took the cake and the $10,000 first prize.

“I did a lot of the sculpting and painting on it,” Amy says, adding that the team had only nine hours to make the cake.

A cake with a taste for great literature.

The sweet victory made Amy rethink her career, and a couple years later, she quit her job to do a one-month internship in baking.

“My friends started asking me to make cakes and cookies,” she says. “I was really busy for a person without a job.”

Let everyone eat CAKE!

For a short time, she worked for Sarah’s Cookies.

“I was decorating more than 1,000 cupcakes a day,” she says. “And I felt like a machine.”

She was contemplating a change when she walked by Pink Canary Desserts, which opened on Jackson Avenue in 2014 near MoMA PS 1, and saw a help wanted poster in the window. Eight months later, she was a partner.

Amy adds Oreo crumbs to the frosting of a chocolate cake.

Pink Canary, which originally only sold cupcakes, specializes in custom fondant cakes. In addition to these scrumptious sculptures, the shop also sells ice cream, cookies, cupcakes, cake slices, sweet breads and coffee.

The house favorites include Beer Me!, a chocolate cake with a vanilla core and beer ganache, and Dulce de Leche, a vanilla cupcake with a Dulce de Leche buttercream core and frosting and mini alfajores.

​“The recipes come from me, my dad, my mom and my grandma,” Amy says. “We bake everything from scratch in small batches.”

Nutter Butter cookies decorate a peanut butter and fluff cake that is frosted in meringue.

Pink Canary is designed to be a small operation.

“I have some help,” Amy says. “But I don’t have elves. I’m my own elf.”

Mini loaves of banana bread wait at the counter.

The shop, which is pretty in pink candy-cane stripes, has the ambience of an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Soothing tunes from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s play in the background.

“I want to become part of the community,” Amy says. “I want the people who come here to feel it’s their place as much as it is mine.”

A customer comes in to pick up a cake that’s a replica of a two-story Shingle Style house in the Hamptons.

Amy says her customers are like family.

“I spent the weekend being an architect,” Amy says as she carefully boxes the complex confection.

Then she clears her breakfast sweets from the table. She has to go back to the kitchen. There are cookies in the oven.

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

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Portrait Photographer
by Nruhling
Dec 26, 2017 | 859 views | 0 0 comments | 61 61 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Fumi is from Osaka, Japan.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Fumi Sugino is a portrait photographer, so it makes sense that he sees things in scenes.

His images are artfully and carefully composed. The people in them are merely props meant to blend in with their surroundings.

“I tell the sitters to have no expression or feeling,” he says, with no expression or feeling. “I imagine the subject matching the background. It is as if they are in an old painting.”

Fumi demonstrates. He stands next to a graffiti-scrawled wall and stares straight ahead like a Secret Service agent guarding a president.

Fumi got his first professional camera at age 7.

He’s small and slim; only his owlish eyeglasses and his Canon 5DS R betray his presence when the sun glances off their lenses.

In Fumi’s own life, the most significant scene occurred at age 7. That’s when he got his first professional camera.

He had been making do with a cheap point-and-shoot, snapping away during the baseball games he was playing in.

But he couldn’t get the effect he desired, so he asked his grandmother for help.

He’s lived in Astoria for more than two years.

Fumi’s family lived with her in an old house in Osaka, a large city on the Japanese island of Honshu.

“She bought me a Minolta 7000,” Fumi says. “It was a film camera. And it was used. I bought my own lens. It was about $500, I think. There’s a tradition in Japan of giving children money on the new year, so that’s what I used.”

The lens was long, and Fumi was little, so he stuck out in his crowd of kids.

For several years, he was a photographer’s assistant.

That didn’t stop him from shooting everything he saw.

“When I was 10, I went with my father on a business trip to Thailand, and I took the Minolta with me,” he says.

He kept taking pictures through grade school but stopped when he was in junior high.

Fumi likes to blend into the background.

In high school, he put it around his neck again to take portraits of his friends.

“I bought myself a motorcycle with my new year’s money,” he says. “And I drove out to the countryside to shoot landscapes.”

Taking pictures, he thought, was nothing more than a hobby, which is why he majored in English language and culture instead of photography when he was at Eichi University.

He came to America as a student.

When he wasn’t studying, he was working part time as a photographer’s assistant in Osaka.

“The photographer told me to go to Tokyo to learn technique if I wanted to get serious,” Fumi says. “And he introduced me to the people at a studio.”

The first month there, Fumi worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week.

Getting set up.

For the rest of his time there – 1 year and one month – he only had to work six days a week.

“It was like going to school,” he says. “I learned everything.”

The round-the-clock work left him no time for a life without lenses.

Fumi shoots for Japanese magazines.

“I lived with 30 other people, and I worked so many hours that I only slept three hours a night,” he says. “We each had space for a bed, but there was no privacy because each room had a swinging door like in a Western saloon.”

Needless to say, Fumi was excited to get his first real job.

For one and a half years, he worked as a photographer’s assistant in Osaka.

He also takes photos for private clients.

Then, in 2004, he came to New York City. He didn’t have a job lined up, but he figured his enthusiasm would carry him.

“I came as a student,” he says. “I was studying English as a Second Language, and some of the Japanese people I met in my class introduced me to photographers.”

For the next two years, Fumi worked as a photographer’s assistant.

He’d like to take your portrait.

“It was an unpaid internship,” he says. “I lived on my savings.”

He started getting his own jobs, and in 2009, he began shooting for Japanese magazines, developing his shutter-signature art-portrait style.

“In the future, I want to keep doing my environmental portraits,” he says. “I want to do more groups and family events like weddings.”

Portrait of Fumi.

Fumi, who is single, goes back to Japan for a couple of weeks each year.

“I miss my family and the food,” he says.

In between trips, the Minolta his grandmother gave him cheers him up.

“I don’t use it to shoot,” he says. “I keep it for the memories.”

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Young Man With the Broken Heart
by Nruhling
Dec 19, 2017 | 552 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Romaine is from Alabama.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Romaine Paige is sitting on his bed trying to figure out his future, which may or may not be written on the Whiteboard on his wall.

His wife – there has been no wedding ceremony or marriage license, but that’s how Romaine thinks of her – left him three days before Thanksgiving.

“She told me that separation makes the heart grow fonder,” he says, tears coming to his eyes, which register heartbreak even when they’re dry. “She said that she would come back but that I needed to re-define myself and find God and that going away was her gift to me so I could do this.”

Romaine, who cannot imagine life without her, made a list of Life Goals and wrote them on the Whiteboard:

Family (he drew stick figures of himself, her and two future children)

Money (you need to support)

Establishment (know thyself)

Peace (know God, know peace)

Home (something the family can share)

Purpose (serve and return God’s glory)

Wisdom (to understand God’s plan)

Romaine’s Life Goals.

They are the first thing he sees in the morning when he wakes up alone and the last message he views at night when he sleeps solo.

Around the same time she left, Romaine, tall and thin and more teenager than grown-up man, lost his full-time IT job.

(Don’t worry: He had a part-time job as a set-up artist for events, and, thanks to God, he was able to convent it to a full-time position.)

The woman he loves left him.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Romaine, who is 30. “All my life, I’ve never had a dream or a goal. I’m trying to change that.”

Romaine, a child of the South who always says yes ma’am and no ma’am and reads the Bible every day, was born in the small city of Anniston, Alabama, the second of six children.

His stepfather was in the army, so he didn’t stay there long. All in all, he attended 11 schools.

Aside from Alabama, he has lived in Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Hawaii and California.

Romaine’s rethinking his life.

He concedes that he may have forgotten a couple of states.

“I took the GED in seventh grade and passed it,” he says. “But they wouldn’t let me leave school until after 12th grade.”

Upon graduation, Romaine enrolled at Jacksonville State University and joined the ROTC, where he started as a mechanic and eventually became an instructor in an army task force unit.

He’s trying to find happiness.

“I was training people to use weapons and equipment,” he says. “It bothered me that I was helping people defend themselves by destroying others.”

He left school and the military to help his uncle run an import business in Jacksonville, Florida. After his uncle died, he worked for a Volvo dealership.

“We overcharged a customer,” he says. “It was deliberate, and I told her. She persuaded me to leave and brought me to New York in 2010.”

Romaine’s looking to God’s book for answers.

For a month, Romaine lived with her in Huntington while he worked for Home Depot in Woodhaven. Later, he stayed with an aunt.

“I was homeless for three or four months,” he says. “I had a job, but I was sleeping on a roof. The tenants found me and helped me rent a room with a family.”

Through the years, Romaine had a series of jobs and another short stint of homelessness.

Where does his future lie?

“I used to climb in a friend’s van to sleep,” he says. “I had access to the lot it was parked in.”

Then, two years ago, he met the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with.

It was in a bookstore in Forest Hills.

Everything in the apartment reminds Romaine of her.

Their story became a real-life romance novel, and they began sharing her Astoria apartment.

“Every day, I see something that reminds me of her,” he says, looking around the bedroom where her pairs of sunglasses are arranged alongside the window ledge next to a laminated line drawing of Jesus the Savior.

Would you like to see her?

He tries to find a smile a day.

He shows of photo of her on his smartphone.

She’s sitting in the Bel Aire Diner smiling at him.

“We went there every Sunday,” he says.

What Romaine wants.

Romaine, who carries Bible verses in his pocket, knows that whatever happens will be God’s plan.

“I want what’s best for both of us, not just me,” he says.

They are going to get together around Christmas to talk things out.

Turning to God.

A while ago, they signed a lease on a new apartment in Astoria.

On Jan. 1, Romaine will move in.

He’s hoping his wife will come with him.

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

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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