|September 14, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Comes To the Rescue||no comments|
|September 06, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Pup and the Pandemic||no comments|
|March 17, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Paints by Flowers||no comments|
|March 10, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Garage Philosopher||no comments|
|March 03, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Calmness Creator||no comments|
|February 25, 2020||Astoria Characters: The New Taco Chef in Town||no comments|
|February 11, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Writer Soaring on the Wings of His Words||no comments|
|February 04, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Saved the Pet Store||no comments|
|January 28, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Constant Creator||no comments|
|January 14, 2020||Astoria Characters: The Man Out To Heal the World||no comments|
Short in stature and soft in voice, she’s standing firm in the courtyard of her apartment building, dressed modestly in a lime-green skirt and a bold floral-patterned blouse that don’t look as though they’ve ever flown through the air.
Her hair, no-nonsense straight and long, is pulled back, and her sunglasses are perched solidly atop her head instead of sheltering her big, brown eyes.
But don’t let the innocent soccer-mom look fool you: Julie has accomplished extraordinary feats that the rest of us mere mortals will never come close to achieving.
Julie’s transformation to rescuer all started two years ago during Trump’s draconian “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that separated families and kept kids locked in cages crying for their mothers.
Julie, like so many others in the world, was outraged and frustrated that she was standing on the other side of the bars unable to help.
Then, she heard the story of Yeni Gonzalez Garcia, a Guatemalan refugee, who, like Julie, has three children under the age of 12.
“She was being held in Arizona, and her kids were in New York,” Julie says. “I heard her lawyer on the radio, and he said she needed money to post bond so she could join them. It struck me immediately that doing this was a really concrete thing we could do in the midst of the crisis.”
She started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $7,500 bond and was astounded when she not only surpassed that goal but also ended up inspiring thousands of people around the nation to join her in the fight for social justice for immigrants.
Since then, Julie’s nonprofit, Immigrant Families Together, has raised over $3 million and has helped not only Yeti, who is living in North Carolina with her children while she’s appealing her denial of asylum, but also 119 others.
“These families are traumatized by being separated and by the process,” she says, adding that over $1 million of the money raised has been used to pay bonds of $1,500 to $40,000. “My goal is to not only provide bond money but also to take care of their comprehensive needs, which include everything from housing and food to legal representation and medical issues.”
Julie, who had earned her living as a freelance writer up until she started Immigrant Families Together, was in a perfect position to embrace her new role.
She grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where her family’s farm produced food for their own table. The property was, she says, “falling off the edge of the county map.”
With dreams of becoming an English professor, she earned a degree from Emory University in Atlanta.
While she was there, Julie, who speaks Spanish and English, became interested in art therapy. Being a longtime writer, she wanted to create a program that embraced the written word.
After graduation, an internship at the creative arts therapy program at the nonprofit Housing Works brought Julie to New York City.
That job – helping adults with HIV – eventually became full time, and Julie went back to school, earning a master’s degree in social work from New York University. During the same time, she also earned a certification as a creative arts therapist.
Next, she became the assistant director of the day treatment program at the Astoria branch of Goodwill Industries.
Burned out by the bureaucracy, she quit, and after “foundering and floundering,” moved to Puerto Rico, where she served as a tour guide. Then, she worked two years in Mexico City, writing freelance travel and social justice articles.
In 2009, she and her husband, who is a Cuban immigrant, returned to New York City, where she continued her writing career until she heard that 2018 radio interview.
“I was not planning to do this for more than one person,” she says. “But the money kept coming and coming and coming, and soon I had established nonprofits calling me asking me how I was raising so much money in so little time.”
Although Julie spends almost all of her time helping immigrants, she does, occasionally, still find time to write. This year, she co-authored, with one of the refugees she helped, “The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border.”
Julie has no plans to expand Immigrant Families Together; she is committed to continuously supporting the 120 she has taken under her wing.
“A lot of the families we support describe us as family,” she says. “We are a lifeline to them; my phone rings constantly every single day.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
While Zora’s tail wagged like a hummingbird’s wings, the puppy got into play pose.
I watched in wonder – and shock.
Zora’s a dedicated dog despiser. When she spies or smells one of her own kind, she throws a tantrum that involves growling, barking and grabbing the leash and vigorously trying to rip it off so she can go after the offender. (She’s never been successful in this endeavor.)
When we walk, I weave in and out of the streets, dodging dogs, so I didn’t need much practice to master maneuvering away from people when social distancing started.
In the beginning, Zora tried to pull me toward her peeps, but after a while, she seemed to catch on, and just like all the humans, started moving to the other side of the street to avoid close encounters of any kind.
So I was unprepared when she pulled me toward the puppy in the window. I was even more surprised that this would be only one of many attempts she has made to form new relationships while sheltering in place.
I’ve read several stories on the therapeutic effect of dogs on people, especially during times of stress and solitude. And I’ve seen reports on how having their humans at home 24/7 makes dogs head-over-tails happy.
But I’ve yet to read an article about how the quarantine affects dogs psychologically, radically changing their behavior like Zora’s.
OK, to be totally transparent, Zora does have two canine companions. Daisy, a mixed breed, is her BFF. Born on the same date, they met in Astoria Park as puppies. It was love at first hug: They lay down on the sidewalk, wet nose to wet nose, and put their arms around each other until they were pried apart.
Titus, a yellow lab, is a big, bellowing brute. He’s Zora’s best beau – or at least he thinks he is.
But Zora tolerates Daisy and Titus only so she can get close to their humans. She’s so enamored of Daisy’s mom, Judy, that when I left Zora with her for a weekend, she all but refused to come home.
And when we run into Titus, Zora passes him up and jumps on Jimmy.
Zora’s a flirt – in her mind, no walk is complete without a pack of people petting her.
She has her own fan club. Amaro, the counterman at the corner deli; Mary, the cat rescuer; and Sarah, the waitress who wants to be an actress. Then there’s Ellie, who caresses her and calls her “koukla,” and Marie, whose blueberry muffins she wolfs down when I’m not looking.
And the scores of strangers she sidles up to who can’t resist petting the fluffy dog who looks like Benji’s big sister.
These days, Zora has to content herself with sitting outside Daisy’s house, hoping her pal will make an appearance on the balcony. Or sniffing at Jimmy’s car, an old silver Honda with an ashtray on the dashboard and a sticker that says “Buffalo” on the back window.
She noses around the wheels, drinking in the scent, then plants her front paws possessively on the door, peering in at Titus’ pillow and glow-in-the-dark tennis balls.
In between these not-very-satisfying activities, she has continued to make new friends. Lately, she has had her eye on an apricot poodle and a Yorkie who yelp in their back yard as she walks by.
For an hour or so, she recently sat with Cooper, a mixed-breed puppy who looks like a fox, separated only by a chain-link fence and human chaperones.
The other day, just as we were finishing our nightly walk, Zora tugged me around the corner.
Like a guided missile, she honed in on Jimmy’s silver Honda.
The front window was open; Jimmy, seat slung back like a La-Z-Boy lounger, was taking a nap while waiting for his laundry to dry.
Before I could stop her, Zora lunged for his lap and kissed him awake.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said as he petted her. “I’ve missed you.”
As we headed home, we passed a cute little black French bulldog.
Zora threw a tantrum.
And for a split second, it seemed like things were back to normal.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Lucky, who she rescued from the streets of Greece 13 years ago, heads toward his bed as Marina brings out an elegant bouquet, an ode to rosy roses, red orchids and creamy carnations. It’s spiked with gold-spray-painted monstera spears to match its shiny brass bowl.
It may be more coincidental than calculated, but the bouquet cannily complements Marina’s hair, bright red lipstick and white blouse.
Although Marina opened Paint by Flowers in 2017, its roots reach deep into her childhood.
Marina was born on the Upper East Side, where she lived until the family moved to Flushing when she was 8.
Her mother, a divorcee, was raising two children on her own when she met Marina’s father. A year after they wed, Marina was born.
Marina’s father, who worked as a florist’s helper until he opened his own shop, filled their home and yard with plants.
“Our house was like a jungle,” Marina says. “We had all kinds of fruit trees and jasmine and hibiscus.”
Although Marina sometimes helped her father man his Manhattan shop, she didn’t consider it as a career possibility.
She liked to draw and was, she admits, “all over the place” regarding what she wanted to do with her life.
After graduating from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, her creative side asserted itself, compelling her to earn a two-year degree from the New York Acting School for Film & Television.
She played the Astoria Greek theater circuit and when she was in her early 20s, returned to art.
“I showed my first piece to my dad, and he told me he didn’t believe that I had drawn it,” she says, calling it up on her smartphone. “He thought I had taken someone else’s work and pretended it was my own.”
After a series of jobs that included waitressing, she decided to go to Greece for a short stay.
“It was on the outskirts of Athens by the beach,” she says, adding that her sister lives there.
While she was refining her art, she worked for a clothing importing company, tutored students in English as a second language and acted in English-language shows.
“What started as a summer turned into three years,” she says. “When I came back, I started doing scenic painting and set design – I like to be behind the scenes and let my work speak for me.”
Around this time, her father decided to retire and move back to Greece, so Marina took on his long-time clients and opened Paint by Flowers.
It’s tiny – it’s in a former garage – and somewhat of a novelty – it’s surrounded by houses.
Coming upon its striped black-and-white awning and flamingo-pink lights in such an incongruous setting is like seeing a bird of paradise in full flower at the North Pole.
“I used to kill every plant I came into contact with,” Marina says, “but plants speak a language, and I am starting to speak it, too. I’ve started being sensitive to what they need to survive and thrive.”
Entering Paint by Flowers is like walking into a rainbow: The front display window is filled with a jungle of green exotics, and the white walls are adorned with Marina’s colorful paintings. A portrait of Lucky, complete with the brass bell on his collar, hangs in the center of the shop.
“I love bright color,” Marina says. “I’m actually a tetrachromat – I have four color cones instead of three in my eyes, which bumps up the saturation and contrast so I see color in a fourth dimension. I’m very sensitive to the energy of color.”
In addition to bouquets like the red one Marina just made, the shop sells exotics like the sago palm, designs arrangements for large events and provides landscaping.
“Creating arrangements is like doing a painting,” she says. “The flower market inspires me, and once I choose a flower, I find ones that match it, and the design builds on itself. I try to capture the energy of each client.”
Marina, who shares a small space up the street with a roommate, concedes that starting a business was far more difficult than she thought. Her work tends to be seasonal, so she and Lucky have become used to pulling all-nighters.
“I had to figure out how to run the business on my own,” she says. “It’s like I threw myself into the deep end, and I’m learning to swim. I sometimes think about going back to waiting tables because somebody always wants something from me all the time, and I always want to be there.”
When she isn’t busy, Marina paints, using the shop as her studio.
“Surrounded by plants, it makes it easier to paint,” she says.
Once Paint by Flowers gets off the ground, Marina wants to move to a bigger, more prominent location in Astoria so she can open when she calls a “flower coffee shop,” where people can come to hang out to enjoy all the arts just as much as she does.
“I want everyone in Astoria to know I’m here,” she says.
Lucky rests his front paws on the top of his bed and gazes up at her.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
While he’s expounding upon the big reality-shattering ideas that zig and zag through his existential dystopian novel, The Defectors, like an errant self-driving automobile, he experiences a profound Proustian madeleine moment.
It’s the first book he’s had published, and although it’s classified as fiction, it’s rooted firmly in René’s own past, particularly his childhood, and like his life, it features scenes in a machine shop, Astoria and Long Island’s pine barrens.
It has no plot – René sees it only as 13 episodes that sometimes involve a character called Zig. It’s about people who defect, not from other countries as his parents did when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia only months before his birth, but from reality.
“The Defectors,” he concedes, “has a multiplicity of realities and is self-referential at times.”
A half century ago, René was born in Stockerau, Austria, a town a dozen miles from Vienna.
Four months later, the family relocated to New York City, staying briefly in a rat-infested tenement in the South Bronx before moving to New Rochelle.
René’s father took a job as a machinist, and the family eventually bought a house in Medford, a hamlet in Long Island’s pine barrens.
“After about a decade, my father quit his job and took all of his savings to open a machine shop in our garage,” says René. “I started helping out when I was 12.”
When he learned, aside from how to maneuver the lathe and drill press, was that success was elusive.
“Everyone who worked there had dreams, but most people failed when they went out on their own,” he says.
But that didn’t stop René, at least not in the beginning. After graduating from SUNY Albany with a degree in English, he spent a year studying in Prague.
“My college friends were talking about law school,” he says, “so I thought I would give it a try, too.”
Four days after he returned from Czechoslovakia, René found himself at Touro Law School.
“I hated it, but I stuck with it,” he says. “I almost failed, and ultimately, although I got the degree, I failed the bar five times – I got the identical score each time – before I finally gave up.”
While he was waiting for his professional life to commence, he met Catherine Kapphahn, whose first book, Immigrant Daughter, was published late last year.
René, a loquacious and curious man, embarked upon a number of pedestrian jobs that he managed to make interesting.
He clerked at the bookseller Shakespeare & Co. for a short while then became the production manager at the Czech Center New York, one of the cultural institutes under the auspices of the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I was a jack-of-all-trades there,” René says. “I did everything from chauffeuring to hanging art up on the walls for exhibitions.”
Around the same time, he and Catherine started a writers group and each decided to go back to school.
“We sat at opposite ends for our railroad apartment in Manhattan typing,” he says, “while our Belgian sheepdog shuttled back and forth between us.”
After he earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence, René started teaching, eventually becoming an adjunct at Hofstra.
These days, he teaches creative writing and first-year composition at Lehman College and first-year composition at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
About a decade ago, the seed for The Defectors was planted when a number of journals started publishing bits and pieces of what would eventually become the novel, and René started getting grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts, that allowed him to continue the project.
“When I worked for Hofstra, I would go to the top floor of the library between classes to write,” he says. “There was nobody there.”
Those leisurely days of longhand evaporated with the birth of his sons, Radek and Rafa, who are 13 and 8, and René now finds himself tapping out notes on his smartphone in spare moments.
This is not one of them. Rafa, who is helping Catherine haul in bags of supplies from Trader Joe’s, bounces into the living room and curls up with René.
“As far as The Defectors, I don’t really consider it a novel,” René says. “Maybe it’s a story collection. For me, defecting from reality is not so much defecting from family as it is defecting from the machines of life.”
Yes, he’s quite aware that that does, indeed, include the smartphone and computer he uses to write.
Although René has additional spontaneous, free-thinking Defectors-like episodes in mind for a sequel, he’s also mulling a narrative-driven work. But he doesn’t think he can pull it off.
“My mind doesn’t work like that,” he says. “I would like to write a book that doesn’t fit into any category, where the episodes are thought experiments. I know that The Defectors is a weird book – it’s all over the place – and I know I’m not going to make any money. But that’s OK.”
Rafa looks at his dad and smiles.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
Come with her into the calmness. Lose yourself in the tranquillity of the snow-white walls, the silky smooth crystals and the velvety purple phalaenopsis.
“When you come into Sacred Space, I want you to feel like you’re being held,” she says placidly as she welcomes people to the day’s first yoga class.
Sacred Space is new – it and the year 2020 commenced together – but the idea for the yoga/reiki/meditation sanctuary/studio had been peacefully floating around in Kim’s head for years.
There were, however, other things that had to be taken care of before all the energy points aligned and placed her in a prime present-moment position to do so.
Kim, who is a yoga teacher, a reiki master and an urban zen integrative therapist, has long been fascinated with the mind-body equation.
She grew up in three suburbs of Detroit, shifting her time between her mother and father, who were only 18 when she arrived.
“They never married,” she says. “I lived with my mother and my grandparents. My mother married when I was eight, and my father married when I was 10.”
Kim, who is cool, collected and comely, always figured she would be a teacher like her mother.
“But I didn’t want to deal with principals,” she says. “I didn’t realize there was another kind of teaching outside of the classroom, the kind I do now.”
She filled her time with gymnastics, basketball and diving. (Although she worked out with a yoga video at 16, she didn’t try yoga classes until college.)
By the time she was in 10th grade, Kim had decided upon a very ambitious career.
“We learned about DNA,” she says. “And I said, ‘That’s what I want to study.’”
At Cedar Crest College, a small private liberal arts women’s school in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Kim studied genetic engineering then took a job in clinical genetics research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“It was the hardest year of my life because I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “I started visiting Astoria because I had college friends here.”
She had no intention of staying in New York City – “I had had a college internship here, and I cried because I was terrified of living here” – but the universe had other plans for her.
Her friends happened to introduce her to the man who became her husband.
“We met right away,” she says. “We went dancing, and we connected.”
So she married him and moved to Astoria and began working for a series of biotech companies.
“But I missed working with patients and hearing their stories,” she says.
Three years later, she landed at Columbia University, where she earned her master’s degree in biotechnology while collecting clinical data for hepatitis C research as part of her full-time job at the school’s medical center.
“I was pregnant while doing all of this,” she says. “My first child, Luka, was born three weeks after I got my master’s. While I was working on my thesis, he used to kick me when I was writing at the kitchen table.”
In 2012, shortly after Luka’s arrival, Kim quit her full-time job and took yoga teacher-training classes.
“Yoga gave me the same feeling and movements as diving and gymnastics without the risk of injures, including broken bones, that I suffered doing them,” she says.
Her daughter, Carina, who is now 6, entered the picture in 2013, around the time Kim started subbing as a yoga teacher and trying to help her mother-in-law, who was dying of cancer, feel more relaxed.
“I started doing what we called massages, but it really was some energy work in the small chakras of the body to ease her pain,” Kim says. “It was reiki, and I felt a calling to do it, which answered everything for me.”
In 2016, Kim became an urban zen integrative therapist, using her holistic skills to help nursing-home patients who were seriously ill or dying become comfortable.
About a year ago, she decided to concentrate on setting up Sacred Space. After searching for six months, she found a storefront on 21st Avenue at 29th Street.
“Since 1996, the owner had used it as storage,” she says, “so it was nothing more than a concrete block.”
She filled it with positive energy and second-hand furniture – the wooden pew is from a Connecticut church, the elaborate front desk is from New Jersey, the wall of windows in the front is from a historic manion, and the plants are from a neighbor’s house.
During construction, Kim got some energy she never expected: She was pleasantly surprised to discover that she’s pregnant. Marco will make his debut in June.
“My other two children were from in vitro fertilization,” she says. “This feels totally different physically.”
She says it’s important for people in the city to have a place like Sacred Space to relax.
“The yoga we do is spiritual; it’s deep healing work, and the practice is more about the restorative than the physical,” she says. “And the teachers are empowered to create classes that are important to them.”
Sacred Space is very much a work in progress. Kim will be adding classes, including ones for seniors, and workshops for beginners.
“I get to bring in whatever it is I want to learn,” she says, adding that vocal toning was something new for her.
Although Kim teaches some of the classes and works privately with reiki clients, she says that Sacred Space isn’t about her.
“You can feel my presence, my energy,” she says. “But I’m a student, too. I’ll be taking classes.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
“What would you like me to make?”
Sebastian Royo, the executive chef of Astoriana Diosa del Taco, is standing in the kitchen, pan in hand.
It’s early – especially if, like Sebastian, you were up working until 3 a.m. – but he can’t wait to start cooking again.
Should he fix breakfast or lunch?
He settles on a medley of taco favorites – the Astorianos chicken, the Al Pastor, the Carne Asada and two vegetarian versions, the Flor de Jamaica and the Coliflor.
In a well choreographed routine that keeps him dancing from grill to cutting board, Sebastian, black-haired, bespectacled and buoyant, assembles the tacos and artfully arranges them on plates.
“I’m just cooking what I know – legitimate tacos reminiscent of what Mexican ones taste like,” he says as he carries the dishes to the dining room, where the brick walls are painted white, the tables have wooden tops, and the gigantic triple-tier crystal chandelier is as glitzy as a Vegas showgirl.
Astoriana Diosa del Taco – “diosa” is Spanish for “goddess” — is a modern-style taqueria with a Mexican-Greek theme.
It’s new to the neighborhood’s culinary scene, but Sebastian’s association with restaurants began right before he made his entrance into the world four decades ago.
(For the record, Sebastian may be 40, but he likes to add that “I’m going on 18.”)
Sebastian, who was born in El Paso, Texas, was raised in the rural ranch town of Casas Grandes, Mexico and later the industrial center Ciudad Juárez.
“In those days, it was easy to cross the border into the United States, and people did it all the time to go shopping,” he says, adding that he has dual Mexican-American citizenship, which also was easy to get at that time. “My parents were eating out in El Paso when my mother went into labor.”
Growing up, Sebastian, whose family is what he calls “middle class by Mexican standards,” learned a lot of things; cooking wasn’t one of them.
“Casas Grandes is a Mormon/Catholic town,” he says. “The street outside my house was gravel. My school was close to the American system – half of the classes were in English, half were in Spanish.”
He didn’t find himself in the kitchen until he enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“I worked my way through college working in restaurants,” he says.
After he earned a degree in marketing and entrepreneurship, in 2005, Sebastian moved to New York City.
“I had a friend who worked for a Mexican marketing company,” he says. “I came to get a job there, and while I was waiting for an opening to occur, I started working in restaurants.”
Sebastian got hooked on cooking after a chef offered to give him lessons on his days off.
Later, he worked his way through culinary school then got gigs at several Manhattan restaurants, including 11 Madison Park, Mary’s Fish Camp, Centrico, Ilili and Zarela.
“I never did go into marketing,” he says, adding that that’s actually a good thing because he never would have met his wife had he done so. “She was a customer at Zarela and was there on closing night in 2011 when I stopped in.”
By 2014, Sebastian was the executive sous chef at La Esquina. He also was longing to open his own restaurant, so he moved to Dallas. While he was a chef at a restaurant there, he set up a summertime food truck, El Rudo, in Denton, which he still runs.
“When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, who is now three, we moved back to New York,” he says.
All of his experiences paved the way for Astoriana Diosa del Taco, which is officially opening this week.
“We do traditional flavors with a modern spin,” Sebastian says. “Even though the tacos are tweaked, they are still legitimate tacos.”
For instance, Astoriana’s signature taco, which is stuffed into a Sonora-style tortilla made in-house, features funky greens, tzatziki, tahini, tomatoes and choice of chicken, lamb, beef or hibiscus filling.
Sebastian is taking things one taco at a time; he doesn’t talk about opening additional restaurants or creating an Astoriana Diosa del Taco chain.
He says only that “I want Astoriana to become a staple in the neighborhood.”
As he clears the table, he adds, “I’ve done the whole fine-dining thing. But I like the simplicity of tacos.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
For many years, he was content to let word after word take up residence in his head, where they started stringing themselves into sentences that begat a series of siblings that swirled into stories striving to be released.
“I always had a very active imagination, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” he says.
This was not much of a difficulty for him when he was a working-class lad growing up in Tralee, the rural town in County Kerry, Ireland whose claim to fame is hosting the annual Rose of Tralee International Festival.
“There were no artists around to inspire me,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the fields surrounding my home by myself.”
So it was that he passed his time until it was time for college. He signed up to study, of all things, civil engineering, a subject he had less than zero interest in.
“Everyone I knew was doing that, but it wasn’t for me,” he says. “I hated being in the classroom. I stayed briefly, and by that I mean two weeks.”
His biggest dream, which of course he never put on paper, was to come to America.
“I always planned this,” he says, adding that an aunt of his lives in the Bronx. “I had been a bartender since I was 14, and I wanted to do that in America, but you can’t drink – or tend bar – until you’re 21, so I had to wait.”
Seanie, a tall man with an alliterative appellation, subtle blue eyes and raven black hair, did some waiting in Edinburgh, where he had friends, while working in construction and in bars. He also lived in London and the Spanish island of Gran Canaria.
Once he hit the magic legal age of 21, he made his way to New York, where he took jobs in a trio of Irish bars in the East Village that all had the same owner.
“I had no plan,” he says. “I was going to bartend until I figured it out.”
As it happened, writers like to drink, so Seanie ran into a lot of them.
Precisely when and where did he write his first words?
Seanie skillfully skips around the question again and again.
“I’m a writer, after all,” he says. “We do procrastinate.”
Finally, he gets back on track.
“At 23, I went to a screenwriting course,” he says. “But I only lasted one week.”
It took six more years for Seanie to start writing, and even then, he says, he really didn’t do it.
“I ran into a guy and pitched an idea I had in my head,” he says. “I watched him write it on his laptop.”
The work, Catch 22: Based on the Unwritten Story by Seanie Sugrue, became his first film.
That writing/non-writing experience made Seanie realize that he wanted to pen plays.
“I went to the Strand Book Store a lot and just stood there and read,” he says, adding that Neil LaBute’s In a Dark, Dark House is what started him on his stage-writing career. “Sometimes I stayed there and read five to six hours a day; sometimes, if I liked the play, I bought it. I was there so much that I bought a jumper with the Strand name on it because it’s the ‘college’ I went to.”
He finished his first play, Black Me Out!, while producing his Catch 22. By 2015, he had co-founded the Astoria-based production company Locked in the Attic.
These days, the words rush out of Seanie’s brain; thus far, he’s written and directed five additional plays, most of which have played at The Secret Theatre, an Off-Off Broadway venue in Long Island City.
His latest, The 8th, revolves around two siblings who return home to mark the first anniversary of their father’s death and are drawn into a spirited political debate about the country’s recent legalization of abortion. The work was named best production at the 2020 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival Awards.
“One of the actors is good friends with Neil LaBute,” Seanie says. “He came to see the play and told me he liked it.”
During that time, Seanie finally finished his debut novel, Cardboard Coffins.
His newest film, Misty Button, which is about two Irish guys in the Bronx who place a proxy bet on a racehorse of that name and pocket the money, has won numerous awards; it’s opening next month.
What with his series of successes, Seanie has all but given up bartending. Now, he concentrates on his writing.
Every weekday, he puts on his headphones, tunes in his custom playlist and taps out his ideas from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Each evening, he spends at least an hour editing.
“I enjoy writing,” he says, adding that he also produces and directs. “It doesn’t feel like work.”
He also works on projects for others, through Locked in the Attic Productions.
“I haven’t had much free time,” he says, adding that up until recently he had been working 12-hour days then topping them off with bartending gigs. “I read a lot – it’s like taking my brain to the gym. And I go to the movies, which I justify as research.”
This year, Seanie will be going back home to Ireland to shoot a feature film. He’s also polishing two scripts – one set in Los Angeles and one that takes place in Ireland.
“I’ll keep on writing,” he says. “I want to take things a step up and do everything on a bigger level.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
He pokes his finger into the water, which, thanks to artificial lighting, is deep blue like the sea, and attracts a cleaner shrimp who goes by the name of Jacques. The crustacean clings to Tom’s appendage, stripping it of parasites.
Next, Tom heads to the back of Tom’s Pet Supply and looks in on the canaries and parakeets and rodents and reptiles.
He scoops Artemis, the yellow and orange bearded dragon, into his hands, where the lizard lounges lazily until released back into his glass house.
Tom presents Hazelnut, the little latte-colored mouse, who climbs all over his hand at a frenetic pace, wispy whiskers quivering in excitement.
“Are you afraid of snakes?” he asks as he replaces Hazelnut with Fendi, a petite albino corn snake who coils his buttercream- and tangerine-spotted body around his arm like a tourniquet.
Little One, the 26-year-old red-footed tortoise who is Tom’s personal pet, isn’t quite as demonstrative.
“She’s shy,” he says. “It took a long time for her to get used to me.”
This is how Tom, who’s like a shiny new sports car roaring out of the showroom for the first time, starts every day.
God, how he loves it.
Tom, who is 22, opened Tom’s Pet Supply in the summer of 2019 on the former premises of Petland Discounts, a regional chain that closed after more than a half century in business.
Tom was born and raised around the corner from the Broadway store, which is in the strip mall that features the Bel-Aire Diner, and worked for Petland Discounts while he was studying at Fordham University.
Tom, who has cherub cheeks and wears his dark locks in a man bun, has a long history with pet stores.
He fell in love with animals when he was 3 and started begging for a puppy shortly thereafter.
“I was raised by my mom and grandmother, and although they love animals, they never let me have a puppy,” he says, adding that the death of a dog long before his time left them too heartbroken to get another.
He was, however, allowed to have fish, hermit crabs, turtles, hamsters and bearded dragons.
“I was really terrible,” he says. “I wanted to go in every pet store I saw, and I would throw a fit if I did not get to go in.”
By the time he was in high school, Tom had become what he calls a frequent pest at Petland Discounts.
“I used to come in and bother the manager for a job,” he says. “But you have to be 18 to work with animals, and I wasn’t.”
The closing of Petland Discounts came at an opportune time for Tom: He graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in May and started revamping the store in June.
There was much speculation in the neighborhood about the future of the space.
“I kept up with my customers, and one of them called me and said, ‘Did you hear about the new pet store? The owner’s name is Tom, and I think I know who he is. You should apply for a job there.’”
Tom demurred, saying he didn’t think it was necessary for him to do so.
“I told her the new owner was indeed Tom, but not the one she was thinking of,” he says. “When she asked me how I knew, I said, ‘It’s me,’ and she burst out laughing.”
Needless to say, pet owners were thrilled when Tom’s Pet Supply opened in July.
“I took all my savings, and I got some help from my family,” Tom says. “A lot of people don’t think there’s a place for a local pet store, and I don’t agree. People need to see the animals right there in front of them, and they need a place to go where people are knowledgeable to get answers you can’t get by Googling on the Internet.”
Tom and his 7-month-old rescue puppy Duck, whose bed is by the cash register, man the store seven days a week with the help of a full-time manager.
“I love being here,” Tom says. “People ask me whether I’m tired, but I’m not. It’s so exciting because every day, there’s something new.”
Tom says he has no grand plans – at least not yet – for adding a store or starting a chain.
“I’ve always wanted to work with animals, and I have a degree in sociology, which deals with the interactions of people, so this is the perfect combination,” he says.
He’s very sure about his future.
“What will I be doing five years from now? This,” he says, as he hangs the cages of parakeets near the front of the store. “What will I be doing 10 years from now? This.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s sitting in his galley kitchen, by the window with the faded shamrock decal, as the day goes grey.
Here, by the snow-white stove and refrigerator, Kevin rehearses and records his CDs.
He does most of his writing in the room across the hall, whose only significant furnishing is a sofa, or in his bedroom, where he spent the last two years penning Dirty Days, a non-fiction narrative detailing his escapades as a Bleecker Street bouncer and musician in Greenwich Village during the 1980s and 1990s.
Kevin, who was born in Jersey City and raised in Old Bridge, can’t remember a time when he wasn’t writing something, anything, everything.
“I still have stuff I wrote when I was 13,” he says, flipping through a file. “I sometimes use lines or lyrics I wrote at that time.”
Kevin, a gregarious, gentle bull, comes from a six-pack family – he has four sisters and a brother – that revels in its Irish roots.
“My mother is from Longford,” he says. “I grew up listening to Irish music. We made trips there in the summers, and I worked on my grandfather’s farm. She always reminded me that I was Irish.”
Kevin, a church choirboy, didn’t take to the guitar right away; in fact, he tossed his plectrum after only a few chords.
“I was more into writing poetry,” he says, adding that although he was the frontman in a high school garage band, it wasn’t until he was 40 that he taught himself to play bass.
“I forced myself to sit in this kitchen for two years until I got it,” he says.
Shortly after graduating from William Paterson University with a degree in communications, Kevin became a fixture in the East Village arts scene, where he was a bouncer at The Red Lion for 15 years.
It’s a funny story how he got that job. He was a wing forward in a rugby club at Seton Hall University, an institution he never attended but his then-girlfriend did.
“I played there three years and was one of the top team scorers,” he says. “One game I scored three times and was on the front page of the school’s newspaper. Nobody ever figured out I wasn’t a student. The bar owner saw my Seton rugby jacket and told me that if I wanted the job, I had to play. I was about 25 and hadn’t worked out for years, but I went to the gym and more than proved myself on the field. I think I would have said I was a player, a coach and a tenured rugby professor to get the job. I was so broke.”
Through the years, Kevin worked for other bars, as a bouncer and a bartender who loved to tell stories.
One night, a performer he was acquainted with invited him onto the stage to sing.
“It came natural to me,” he says. “I got a standing ovation, maybe because people liked the idea that I was a bartender not a band member.”
He subsequently joined that band, The 4th Floor, which played happy punk so well that it got a major record deal that led to national tours and opening for the likes of KISS, Alice Cooper and the Scorpions.
When that band broke up, in 1997, Kevin joined others, including Astoria-centric Begorrah, and began making his living as a freelance sound engineer for major TV networks and news outlets.
“It’s anything but a 9-to-5 job, and I’m on the road a lot,” he says, adding that that’s what he loves about it. “I have a lot of stories to tell about it.”
An assignment once took him and his guitar to Hardy, Arkansas, where during a break, he put on an impromptu show in the hotel parking lot while standing on a picnic table.
“Everybody was dancing,” he says, grinning.
That reminds him of the story he covered in 1999 for Good Morning America about a Kosovo war refugee who gave birth to a son only hours after her U.S. flight to freedom.
“They were having trouble getting the rolling hospital crib over the wires in the studio, and the nurse asked me to take the baby,” Kevin says. “It was the first child born to a Kosovo refugee on our soil, and the father wanted to name him America. He was so small and brittle that I was afraid I was going to crush him.”
Later that day, he found himself at SUNY-Purchase covering a Knicks game.
“I was standing by the bathroom, and Patrick Ewing cursed at me and told me to get out of his way,” Kevin says.
Still emotionally charged by his interaction with the Kosovo baby, Kevin sprang into action.
“I was just getting ready to punch Ewing in the face when my friend rushed up and stopped me,” he says.
When letters laced with lethal levels of anthrax began arriving in the mailboxes of VIPs and news personalities shortly after 9/11, Kevin found himself the center of attention.
“I just happened to have been on the scene where three of them were delivered,” he says. “All the people in the media were being screened, and I was called in and interrogated. When it dawned on me that I was the No. 1 suspect, I said, ‘You guys think I’m the guy? I’d stab the anthrax bomber.’”
Apparently his words, and those of his corroborating colleagues, were convincing, because Kevin was released after about two hours.
Faced with death and destruction headlines on a daily basis, Kevin decided to take a break from the news cycle and returned to work in Bleecker Street bars.
In 2006, he made TV work his full-time freelance gig.
“I only want to make money to make another record,” he says, adding that he’s self-produced five.
Since he finished Dirty Days, he’s been struggling to get an agent and a publisher.
He admits he’s discouraged but says that “I’m never gonna stop – I’m always making shit.”
Even so, he’s taken to writing songs so sad that they bring tears to the eyes.
He starts strumming It’s 3AM, a new tune that was inspired by a friend’s telling him about kids as young as 12 and 13 overdosing on heroin.
“It’s 3 am when the roar of the phone
Hits the air my heart races
If I don’t pick up, you will still be here with me …”
By the time Kevin reaches the end, his voice, husky and ragged from sorrow, catches.
“I don’t like singing it,” he says.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s reflecting on his life.
All 30 years of it.
It’s more full than his cup of tea: He’s a college student, commuting to class in Connecticut three times a week, and he’s working a bunch of jobs to pay the rent and the tuition to fuel his ambition.
If you’ve taken a Chinese yoga class, stepped into an Uber, stopped into a neighborhood bar for an after-work cocktail or ordered fast food delivered to your apartment, chances are you’ve encountered Dave.
(When he’s a delivery boy, he calls himself “Doctor Pizza Man,” a nickname whose significance will become clear when you know more about him.)
Dave, who is studying traditional Chinese medicine so he can practice bone setting and acupuncture, was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but he spent most of his childhood in Harriman, a village in Orange County, New York, whose population hovers around 2,400.
“It’s suburban and rural,” he says, adding that his was a middle-class family with four boys. “It’s baseball and McDonald’s after practice.”
Dave, a bright, shiny new car, followed a rather traditional course: He joined the Boy Scouts and wrestled in high school and didn’t think too long or hard about the Significance of Life.
“When I was getting ready for college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I liked working out, music, art, nature and literature, and I was looking for something that had all of these.”
His first encounter with Asian medicine occurred around the same time. At a family barbecue, a cousin who was studying acupuncture asked Dave to be a practice patient.
Whether it was his cousin’s lack of experience or his own lack of belief (“I thought it was bullshit,” he says), Dave was suitably unimpressed with the experience and the results.
He went on with his life, finishing a bachelor’s degree in human biology at SUNY Albany and settling in Portland, Oregon, where, for a time, he worked at an outdoors school, getting students in touch with nature.
There just happened to be a famous acupuncture center in the city, and Dave made an appointment. He was hoping simply to alleviate his physical exhaustion.
“I practically had an out-of-body experience,” he says, adding that he took the treatments for a couple of months. “It was like seeing the world for the first time. I saw bright lights, felt fresh air, and my brain was filled with ideas.”
It was one of those ideas that brought him back to the East Coast.
“I decided to go back to school,” he says. “I let all the old go, and all the new came in. I started to train in acupuncture, and my life started to change.”
He moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn and began taking classes at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in New York City.
He transferred to the University of Bridgeport, where he will graduate in May with a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine and then begin work on a doctorate in the same subject that he will complete by the end of the year.
Dave can’t wait to share the medicine.
“I want to do good,” he says.
He has all kinds of ideas about how he can contribute to the well being of his fellow beings; it’s possible that he’ll open a clinic or even create a “floating” center to treat patients.
It will all come in due time.
“My perception of time has changed,” he says. “I used to be focused on the end result, but now there’s no beginning or end.”
He dreams of traveling the world, exchanging ideas – about medicine and culture – with everyone he meets.
Dave, who tends bee hives on the roof of his apartment, likens it to “cross pollination.”
“It’s spiritual pollen,” he says. “Its object is to help, to learn to get better, to change my perspective.”
He’s more than ready to get started.
“There’s suffering everywhere,” he says. “I’ll go where I’m needed.”
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling