Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 17820 views | 0 0 comments | 104 104 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Special Teacher
by Nruhling
Feb 19, 2019 | 85 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nicholas’ last name used to be Alexander.

Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Growing up, Nicholas Alexandrakos was always interested in his family’s history.

With grandparents from Greece and Italy who spoke their native languages at home, how could he not be?

“So much of my upbringing was talking about foreign lands I’d never been to,” he says. “When we celebrated the holidays, everyone talked about how it was done in the old country.”

That’s why he changed his last name.

Alexander, not Alexandrakos, was the one bestowed upon him when he was born in Brooklyn, and it was the one he went by when he was growing up in Queens.

It was, after all, his father’s. But, as Nicholas came to find out, it was not his family’s.

“My grandfather was an undocumented laborer,” says Nicholas. “He jumped ship and changed his name to Alexander. He didn’t become a U.S. citizen until he married. He died when I was young, so I never got to hear the full story or know his point of view.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He has a keen interest in history, especially his family’s.

But that didn’t keep Nicholas from speculating. Was the alteration done because Alexandrakos was too difficult for Americans to pronounce? Or was it switched to hide his grandfather’s real identity from the authorities?

“I never liked the feeling of explaining why Alexander is and isn’t right and wrong,” he says. “So after I graduated from college, I changed it to Alexandrakos.”

If things had worked out differently, Nicholas would have turned his passion for history into his life’s work.

That’s what he majored in at Hunter College.

“Actually, I wanted to be an archaeologist,” he says, adding that his interest intensified when he did field work during a study-abroad program in Pylos, Greece. “But I was $28,000 in debt when I graduated, so I decided to teach a little then return to school when I had paid it down.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s the gym teacher at Robert Louis Stevenson therapeutic college prep in Manhattan.

His first job was at The Child School/Legacy High School on Roosevelt Island, whose students have what the institution classifies as “learning challenges.”

Nicholas’ salary was $28,000 – the same amount as his college debts.

The job was tailor-made for Nicholas,  who “with one foot in Queens and the other on the other side of the Atlantic,” kept trying to see where he fit in.

He started as a full-time substitute teacher and took over a math class then a gym class.

“I thought, ‘Math is fun, but PE is more fun,’” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He started the school’s after-school athletic teams.

After a year, he got a job at Robert Louis Stevenson, Manhattan’s only therapeutic college prep independent school.

It enrolls bright students in grades 8 through 12 who cannot navigate the traditional school environment.

Nicholas, the gym teacher and director of athletics as well as the advisor/counselor/in-school advocate to a group of nine students, is one of 20 teachers at the school, which has an enrollment of 75.

“When I went there 12 years ago, there were no after-school programs,” he says. “So I started ones for soccer, basketball and track and field and founded a league with similar schools.  In the beginning, I was the coach for all of them; now I only do some.”

Nicholas’ teams train in Astoria Park, which is where the league competitions are played.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

An avid cyclist, he’s ridden the 165 miles from Brooklyn to Montauk in 11 hours.

“I realize that I’m entitled, so I feel a responsibility to help the youth, especially this population, which is neglected, misunderstood or has fallen through the cracks,” he says. “The connections I have with the students, especially the student athletes, have an impact on their lives; I share in their success and excitement.”

When Nicholas is not at school, he’s spending time with his family. His son, Filippo, who is 1 and a half, will carry on the Alexandrakos name.

An avid New York Cosmos fan, he coaches soccer.

“I’m big on fitness,” he says, adding that he works out four to five times a week to work off stress. “In the Queens Turkey Trot 5K last year, I finished 21:18, which was ninth in my age group. Most of the time, I ride my bike to work – I go over the Triborough,” he says. “Door to door, it’s 6.5 miles.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nicholas loves making a positive impact on people’s lives.

He’s also ridden his 18-speed Scattante the 165 miles from Brooklyn to Montauk.

“Non-stop, except for five- to 10-minute breaks to drink and eat, it takes me 11 hours,” he says. “I rent a hotel and sleep over or have someone pick me up.”

Nicholas fills in the rest of his schedule by volunteering at the Coney Island Lighthouse Mission’s food pantry.

He says it’s important to give back, adding that The Notorious B.I.G. lyric “spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way” is his motto.

At this point in time, Nicholas, who just turned 38, can’t see himself doing anything else.

“Teaching at Robert Louis Stevenson is the perfect place for me,” he says.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Artist in Training
by Nruhling
Feb 12, 2019 | 236 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jose is from the Dominican Republic.

In the spare bedroom of his apartment, Jose Mota is standing at a monumental work table, using an oil-paint marker to create the black, undulating lines that define his latest work.
The mixed-media abstract painting, Related Formation, is part of a series of 20 large pieces titled From A Distancethat, when viewed together, form a complete picture.

The works consume most of the space in Jose’s makeshift studio.

And all of his free time.

Of which there is not very much.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jose looks through some sketches.

Jose, who makes his living as a personal trainer, paints between clients and long into the night after he finishes his stints at the gym.

Sometimes he’s up until midnight or even one or two in the morning canvassing each canvas.

He doesn’t notice the passage of time.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jose was raised in an orphanage.

His solitude is broken only by the soothing sound of classical music, which plays softly in the background like a mantra, and the satisfaction that things are progressing.

“For me, this is not a hobby,” he says. “It’s a dream.”

Andi it’s been a long time coming – Jose is 43 years old, and he’s been filling in the lines of his life with drawings ever since he could hold a pencil.

Jose, who is from Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, might never had found his artistic spirit had tragedy not changed the course of his life almost before it began.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

International Cooperation, one of Jose’s recent paintings.

His mother died when he was 3, and a hurricane ravaged the island.

“We went from poverty to extreme poverty,” he says. “Our relatives tried to help out, but they couldn’t afford to keep doing it.”

Jose and his three siblings were sent to an orphanage run by SOS Children’s Villages, the world’s largest independent, non-governmental, nonprofit international development organization.

Their father eventually remarried; he and his five new children lived 16 miles away in San Cristobal.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Denying The Existent Correlation is part of Jose’s From A Distance series.

“My dad was allowed to visit every Sunday, and we took summer vacations to his house,” Jose says. “And we also had contact with my mom’s side of the family regularly.”

Jose concedes that although it may not have been the ideal childhood, there were many positive aspects.

“Because of SOS, all of us got an education, which would not have happened otherwise,” he says. “SOS allowed us to do things that no regular family in the Dominican Republic at that time could afford to do. I got exposed to art and sports through SOS, and I fell in love with opera after seeing one. I hid the fact because it was not a cool thing to like — the other kids would have laughed at me.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He spends all his free time painting.

The institution supported Jose all through school, including his years at the Universidad Católica Santo Domingo, where he majored in hospitality.

“I had wanted to be a chef, but the Dominican Republic is so dependent on tourism that I figured hotel management would be a better choice for advancement,” he says.

It was a seasonal job that brought him to Florida and that helped him hone his English-language skills.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sometimes Jose works far into the night.

“While I was there, they told me that if I were a trainer, they would pay me more money,” he says. “So I got certified.”

In 2006, after two years in Florida, Jose moved to New York City. He lived and worked in the Bronx, where he had friends, before getting a job in Manhattan. Since 2009, he has worked for the New York Health & Racquet Club.

That same year, he moved to Astoria to live with the woman who eventually became his wife.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jose adds details to Related Formation.

“We met at the gym,” he says. “She was one of my clients.”

They rented a two-bedroom apartment so Jose would have space to create his paintings, and when they divorced in 2016, Jose started painting larger works.

Aside from a couple of printing workshops at the School of Visual Arts, Jose has no formal training in art.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jose is working hard to make art his full-time career.

“I drew all the way through middle school and high school as a distraction,” he says. “In college, I copied art from books.”

The first completed pieces of the From A Distance series — Localized and Out of Coordinates are on exhibit in Jose’s living room; the two large canvases are showcased on a wooden easel that stands as tall as the door into his studio.

The series features what Jose calls “elevations” – 3-D elements that are meant to suggest a geographic topography.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Localized and Out of Coordinates on display in Jose’s living room.

“The idea is that everything in this planet is connected,” he says. “I view this piece as an aerial view – an eye from the sky.”

Jose has found making art so transformative that he’s decided to do it full time. Recently, he started cutting back his hours at his gym job.

“I had to push myself and make a sacrifice financially,” he says. “Otherwise, I would never do it. I hope that in one year from now —  or even less – I’ll be a full-time artist.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A 3-D detail from Out of Coordinates.

He’s also begun to think about getting a show at a gallery and renting a separate art studio.

Actually, he doesn’t have a choice – the new pieces he wants to create are too large to fit into his apartment.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Guitar Guide Guru
by Nruhling
Feb 05, 2019 | 385 views | 0 0 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Meet Mike, aka the Guitar Guide Guru.

Text and photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

How hard – or easy – is it to play the guitar if you’ve never done it before?

Instead of answering, Mike David Papapavlou, aka the Guitar Guide Guru, takes an acoustic off the rack and places it in my hands.

He positions my right elbow securely over the bulky blond body and puts my left hand on the instrument’s neck, informing me that there are six strings, numbered 1 through 6, with the latter being closest to my face.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike says it’s easy to learn to play the guitar.

“What would you like to play?” he asks.

When I reply that I’ve always wanted to learn Beatles tunes, he starts strumming “Yesterday” then guides me through the first three chords, showing me how to make the instrument sing.

“Just run your thumb over the strings lightly,” he says. “Just like you’re brushing hair.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike is from Nicosia, Cyprus.

I follow his instructions – it’s really difficult to keep my left index finger pressed into the steel string — and I hear music. 

He says it’s “Yesterday,” but to me it sounds more like scrambled eggs.

But, hey, I’m doing it, which is the whole point.


“People ask me what makes me different from other guitar teachers,” he says. “I strive to inspire, empower and motivate my students to live the best life ever. The guitar was the first thing that I was ever good at, and I want everyone else to have the same experience.”

Mike’s fingers first picked and plucked the sacred six strings when he was 10.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music.

Although he listened to the radio, he had shown virtually no interest in music or music making. It was his mother who suggested he take lessons.

“I heard all kinds of music because my mother is from Bolivia and my father is from Cyprus,” he says, adding that they settled in the suburbs of the capital city of Nicosia. “They met in New York City. I was familiar with Greek, Latin American and American music.”

Mike mastered the classical guitar quickly then picked up speed with an electric instrument.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike became a full-time guitar teacher this year.

By the time the family moved to Canada in his senior year of high school, Mike and the guitar were one.

A year later, the family returned to Cyprus, where Mike completed his two years of compulsory military service.

“When it was time for college, it didn’t cross my mind to do anything else but music,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He says learning the guitar fosters creativity.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in music from Newcastle University in England, Mike, who learned English from his mother and his attendance at private schools, came to New York.

“I was really into jazz,” he says, “so I knew the city was the best place for an aspiring jazz musician.”

He earned a master’s degree from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and embarked upon what he hoped would be a promising career. Along the way, he started teaching.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike took his first lessons at age 10.

“I tried different things,” he says. “One of them was an internship with a start-up that used software to teach piano. Another was with a promoter who booked Greek acts on U.S. tours.”

What he soon realized was that whatever he ended up doing with his music, business know-how would be a plus. So he earned a digital marketing certificate from Baruch College.

“I wanted to learn to think like a businessman or an entrepreneur,” he says.

Up until recently, Mike supplemented his music-teaching money with stints as a waiter.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike: Take a lesson — it will be fun for both of us!

“I took a leap of faith and started the Guitar Guide Guru teaching business,” he says. “I went with it because I wanted to get stellar at it. Besides, it’s what I have been doing the longest.”

In addition to teaching private students, Mike is developing corporate programs for groups.

“I don’t know what it’s like not to be creative,” he says. “But through my teaching, I’ve learned that this is not the case for everyone. Whatever you do in your life, it’s all about creating opportunities, and that’s not something that comes from formal education. It comes from living your life fully.”

And learning to play the guitar, he says, can be a wonderful start.

“Even if you’re only good at one thing, it will have a ripple effect on other areas of your life,” he says. “I’m the perfect example.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Comic With the Punch-Line Life
by Nruhling
Jan 29, 2019 | 503 views | 0 0 comments | 85 85 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michelle shows off her mommy mug.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

If you didn’t know that Michelle Adrienne Slonimis a new mother, you need look no further than the room that used to be her living room.

Instead of a rug, a child’s foam play mat covers the floor; its giant-jigsaw pieces are decorated with animal shapes in tasteful shades of white and grey.

On top of it, there’s a bouncer whose brightly colored dangling toys are designed to delight little eyes and hands – and trip up mommies and daddies as did that dastardly Dick Van Dyke ottoman.


In one corner, there’s a fortress-like cubicle where her husband, comic Ben Rosenfeld, writes jokes.

Crunched into the opposite corner in what is technically the dining room is Michelle’s workspace, a small white table and a black office chair.

It is a funny scene, which is a good thing because Michelle, a stand-up comic and producer, gets her ideas from her life, and right now, that means mining motherhood for all it’s worth.

“OK, I admit it,” she says. “I use my baby, Eliana, as a comedic tool.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Smelling the (dead) flowers.

As if on cue, the pitter patter of footsteps is heard.

Wait, it’s not 9-month-old Eliana – she’s spending time with her Manhattan grandparents – it’s only Ben, who is just waking up after a late-night show and an even later-night party.

Where were we? Oh, yes, Michelle gets her punch lines from her own experiences. When she was 38 weeks pregnant, she did a stand-up routine about being with child.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michelle, a stand-up comic, sitting down.

Let’s go back to that – nine months is 36 weeks, and 38 weeks is, well it’s amazing she was able to stand at a mic, much less draw big-belly laughs from the audience about her colossal circumference.

What’s even funnier, in Michelle’s view at least, is that only two days after she gave birth, via C-section, she was cast in a sketch for Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Although she had auditioned a ton of times for two tons of roles – she even donned a bikini when she was eight months pregnant – she had never gotten a single part.

This time the joke was on her because she hadn’t even tried out; a friend had recommended her.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michelle’s afraid of dogs, but what the hell.

Ben points out that when he told her about the offer while she was lying in her hospital bed, he couldn’t believe she turned it down.

(He doesn’t recount exactly what she said, but it’s safe to assume that her reply included a lot of words that babies like Eliana are not allowed to hear.)

But, he says, she had a change of heart, and a week later, she was filming the sketch for the show.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

How can you not laugh at this face?

“I plan to have a second child so I can be on Conan,” she says and laughs.

By her own admission, Michelle has always liked to be the center of attention, which worked out just fine in her family.

“My dad is a huge personality,” she says. “He’s a king of Borsch Belt humor, and he has a Rolodex of jokes for all occasions. And I’ve always been schmaltzy or hammy.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Waiting for Conan to call.

Michelle, who doesn’t like to admit that she was born and raised on the fashionable Upper East Side of Manhattan, was a precocious child.

“I attended The Dalton School from kindergarten through 12th grade,” she says. “I was interviewed at age 2, and I got in because when the interviewer came to view me in my day-care class, I walked up and said, ‘Hey, how’s it going,’ which apparently is an advanced thing for someone that age to do.”

Michelle began taking acting lessons when she was 9 and had roles in many school productions.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michelle’s Drawing Room Entertainment brings comics to people’s homes.

“I always was cast in character roles,” she says. “I was always playing a Jewish mother even when I was 12.”

It was when she was at the University of Michigan that she got involved in improv.

“I wasn’t studying acting,” she says. “I majored in Spanish so I would have something to fall back on if my acting career fell through.”


She puts a horrified look on her face. What was she thinking? Spanish as a career? Now, that’s really a joke.

While waiting for her big break, Michelle held a series of rent-paying jobs that ranged from selling real estate to checking coats.

She did get two roles – she was cast in the regional production of the Off-Broadway play Jewtopia, which made her think she was going places, and right afterward had a part in an outdoor children’s show at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, which convinced her that she wasn’t.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michelle acting out.

Since college, she had been producing singles events, so she decided to focus on that.

“They were for me to meet a guy,” she says. “But I was so busy checking people in that I didn’t have much time to check people out.”

She only made one match – the couple moved in together until the man decided he was gay – but the productions did push her into stand-up comedy.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

This motherhood stuff, she’s got it.

“I MC’d them and told jokes, which essentially means stand-up comedy,” she says. “I took stand-up classes, which are like training wheels when you’re learning to ride a bike.”

Focusing on her funny side also changed her life – in 2015, she met Ben on the comedy circuit, and they married after dating for more than two years.

(For the full story, you’ll have to ask Ben. Michelle prefers to gloss over the details like their sharing space with Ben’s roommate and living and working in a single room, with his and hers desks on each side of their bed.)

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

And so it goes.

“I nagged him for at least a year to marry me,” she says. “Ben’s father dated his current wife for 20 years, so I knew he had had a poor role model. When he did finally propose, it wasn’t a surprise, even though he thought it was.”

Michelle’s stand-up work led her to found Drawing Room Entertainment, which puts on comedy shows in people’s homes and which, with the coming of Eliana, is her main focus.

The funny stuff aside, Michelle takes her career and roles as mother and wife seriously. She arranges her schedule around Eliana’s and gets up every morning to make breakfast for Ben.

It’s nothing fancy – eggs, and when she has time, homemade hummus – but she likes the ritual, and she loves taking care of him.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Couple Walked by the Wheaten Terrier
by Nruhling
Jan 22, 2019 | 683 views | 0 0 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Constantine was born in Astoria.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When the front door opens, Henrysprings into action like a Pogo stick on speed, jumping up and down, planting wet kisses all over the place. Sometimes they even land on the face.

His parents, Constantine and Stavroula Venetis, echo his warm welcome but in a more restrained manner, bringing out a platter of pastries and handing out coffee in cups adorned with Henry’s baby pictures.

Henry, who just celebrated his second birthday, is, in Constantine’s words, “our best buddy.”

He is, adds Stavroula, “the joy of our life.”

He’s also a Wheaten terrier, fluffy and frolicsome as hell. But please don’t call him a dog.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Henry is a Wheaten terrier.

He thinks he’s a person. Scratch that – he knows he’s a person.

Stavroula and Constantine met long before Henry arrived, but it’s not surprising that they easily added him to their family.

They had been thinking about getting a dog ever since they married in 2016. Indeed, they had had “the talk” many times.

“I kept saying, ‘We need a puppy, I want a puppy,’” Constantine says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Stavroula came here from Greece when she was 7.

“I kept saying, ‘Dogs are a big responsibility; let’s hold off a few years,’” Stavroula says, forgetting to add that it was she, not he, who caved.

While they were waiting, they took an American Kennel Club quiz to see which breeds best suited them. Wheaten terriers made the top-five list.

“We had never heard of them,” Constantine says. “We Googled and thought they were adorable.”

As he says this, Henry looks at him lovingly and bats his lavishly long lashes.

Their pet quest went no further until Stavroula decided that a puppy would be the perfect present to celebrate Constantine’s birthday.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Family portrait.

She bought Henry, who looked like a chocolate truffle, and put him in a tiny basket in the hallway of their apartment.

She tied a balloon to his paw and asked her husband to bring in the bag of groceries she left there.

By the time Constantine did so, which was all of three seconds later, Henry had already escaped his confinement and was sniffing his way around his new home.

“It was,” Constantine says as he and Henry cuddle on the couch, “a nice surprise.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Henry out for a spin.

As far as Stavroula and Constantine, they met in a much more mundane manner.

Stavroula, who was born in Athens, Greece, arrived in Astoria when she was 7.

“My dad came here for work and moved back and met my mother, who is Greek and Italian,” she says. “He told her that we needed to go to New York City for a better future.”

In August 1991, that’s exactly what they did.

“One of my first memories is walking with my father on Steinway Street,” she says. “He had a pocket full of quarters so I got to ride the mechanical horses outside all the shops. I thought, ‘I can get used to this.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

You’ve probably seen Henry in the nabe.

And she did – rapidly. With the help of a tutor, she learned English, and by the time she was in college, it was the subject she majored in. When she graduated, she began working for a taxi brokerage in Long Island City.

“I feel right at home there,” she says, adding that she’s pursuing life coaching on the side. “My dad drove a cab.”

While Stavroula was still in Athens, Constantine was on the move – and it was away from the place she would eventually come to.

Although he was born in Astoria, when he was 4 the family moved to Bayside.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Constantine’s new job gives him more time to spend with Henry.

“My father’s family is from Greece,” he says. “My mother is Hungarian, but she was born in Tel Aviv.”

After graduating from Queens College with a degree in media studies, the only thing Constantine knew that he wanted to do was live in Astoria, so he moved back.

As far as his career, he hadn’t a clue. While he was deciding what to do, he took a job in his godfather’s flower shop in Chelsea.

In July 2012, Stavroula and Constantine met at a birthday party at the Astoria restaurant Ovelia.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Henry says Constantine and Stavroula are his life’s work.

“I was attracted to her because she is beautiful and smart,” he says, gazing at her.

She says, “I thought he was cute; I liked his easy-going personality.”

They went on one date. Then they didn’t see each other for nearly a month.

 “I was at a remote bed and breakfast on the Amalfi coast in Italy where my best friend was getting married,” she says. “Constantine and I had tried to reach out during my vacation, but we never got each other’s messages.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Puppy (and human) love.

He says, “I didn’t know if there would be a second date.”

Stavroula, too, thought that they were finished before they even started, but they became two in 2016. And then three in 2017.

It was the perfect time to get Henry, they say, because Constantine took a job with Ambros Banana Whiskey, a startup with more flexible hours that sometimes allows him to work from home.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

If you see Henry, please stop to pet him.

Still, they worry that Henry is lonely. Recently, they set up a camera to see what he does when they’re not there.

“He cries for about 30 minutes after we leave,” Constantine says.

If they had a bigger apartment, they’d get Henry a sibling.

When Henry hears this, he puts his paw on Constantine’s cheek.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at,  @nancyruhling, nruhling,,

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Salsa Master
by Nruhling
Jan 18, 2019 | 699 views | 0 0 comments | 110 110 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Nancy A. Ruhling

Jean Franco’s the owner of Salsa In Queens.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Salsa In Queens is going to open soon, so Jean Franco Vergaraygrabs a broom and starts sweeping the wooden dance floor.

He moves back and forth, back and forth and back and forth again. Over and over and over.

Once his feet feel the beat, he establishes his own methodical rhythm, his movements reflected in the studio’s wall of mirrors.

This simple dance for this simple task is a far cry from the spicy, sassy salsa steps students come to Jean Franco’s studio to master.

Whether he’s sweeping the floor or sweeping a partner across it, Jean Franco, who is buff, brown-eyed and bearded, makes it look easy.

The funny thing is, he’s not a natural-born dancer, which is something he and his feet intuitively knew when he was 6.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sweeping the studio becomes a little dance.

His defeat occurred at a birthday party he attended with his friends in Lima, Peru, where he was born and raised.

“One of my only memories from that age is crying to my mom about this,” he says. “I asked her to help me.”

So it was that two dancing aunts and three cousins took Jean Franco and his feet into their arms.

“I just let my body do its thing to the music,” he says. “I could do the moves, but it took me a long time to feel comfortable doing it.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jean Franco is from Lima, Peru.

He was confident enough, however, to play drums in the school orchestra and sing in the institution’s chorus.

But there were more changes in store for Jean Franco.

When he was 11, his father moved to New York City in hopes of getting a better job. Two years later, the rest of the family followed.

“My parents didn’t tell my younger sister and me that we were moving here,” he says. “We thought we were coming for a two-month summer visit.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

At 6, he knew he was a terrible dancer.

That September, Jean Franco enrolled at Astoria’s Academy of New Americans, where he learned English.

“It was really hard,” he says. “But all the other students were in the same boat.”

At 16, while he was attending the Flushing International High School, he got his salsa on.

“My aunt had been taking classes, and she invited me to a practice and a performance,” he says. “Everyone went out after the performance, and I danced all night with all of her friends. The rest of my family was like a fish out of water, but I was swimming.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

At 18, he discovered salsa.

Two years later, he started taking his first formal lessons, eventually joining a performing dance team.

“It brought me back to when I was 6 because I was the worst in the bunch,” he says. “I cried a couple of times, because I sucked but I couldn’t run to my mom even though I wanted to.”

(Actually, he could have because he still lived at home, but you get the idea.)

Soon, he was dancing through the night, every night.

“It was a family-oriented group, and the studio felt like home,” he says. “But my parents were worried because I was staying out, rehearsing and dancing, and coming home at 1 a.m. They didn’t want me to do it.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He has a degree in electronic engineering just in case.

Although he was making good money working in restaurants, his family persuaded him to go back to college, which is why he has a degree from DeVry University in electronic engineering, a profession he is positive he will never enter.

“I had played chicken with college before, but I needed something under my belt just in case,” he says.

Two years ago, around the time he graduated, everything came together: Jean Franco opened Salsa In Queens, he moved in with his girlfriend, and he became a U.S. citizen.

About his girlfriend: In case you’re wondering, they did, indeed, meet while dancing the salsa.

“She was a student of mine when I was teaching at another studio,” he says. “She had a boyfriend, and they took the class together as a date. She kept coming, and he didn’t.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jean Franco’s dream is to open more studios.

There aren’t many dance studios in Queens that teach salsa, and Jean Franco thinks that’s a shame. That’s why he’s making it his mission to change that.

Down the road, he hopes to open five more studios in Queens plus more in other boroughs.

“I want to create more events around the dance,” he says, adding that he already has hosted a number of successful ones.

The steps aside, Jean Franco has discovered that salsa is a demanding dance partner.

He’s either at the studio or working on studio matters pretty much 24/7. He’s happy to do so, even if it means taking a phone call at midnight or not getting to dance much any more.

“Salsa has always been my happy place, my safety net,” he says. “It gave me lifetime friends and a job. Salsa has given me more back than I ever gave it.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Daughter Who Took Over the Family Business
by Nruhling
Jan 08, 2019 | 718 views | 0 0 comments | 39 39 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gerri is the owner of AirLogix.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When Gerri Domenikos was growing up, she always figured that she would go into the family’s commercial heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration business.

After all, she had been involved with Bayside Refrigeration (now AirLogix) since she was 5.

Her father, a Greek immigrant, had founded the company in their home in Bayside in 1984 two years after she was born.

To make it a success, he had to work all the time, and the only way he could see Gerri was to take her with him on his jobs.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gerri started helping out when she was 5.

“I used to ride with him on service calls,” she says. “I would pass him tools as he was making repairs. I spent a lot of time in the evenings sitting at diner counters being entertained by waitresses.”

In the intervening years, Gerri helped out in a variety of ways, doing everything from filing papers to answering the phones.

So she was more than taken aback when her father told her to go work somewhere else.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gerri has an MBA from Pace University.

“The company had always been a part of my life,” she says. “He told me he wanted me to see how other companies worked. I was offended. OK, I was 18, and I was pissed.”

As she says this, Gerri, a serenely calm woman with a never-give-up attitude, smiles.

As it turned out, her ouster from the company that was like her second sibling turned out to be a very good thing.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

AirLogix has 60 employees and 39 service trucks.

“I’m so happy my father did that because it expanded my horizons,” she says.

After working her way through Hofstra University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in management, and Pace University, where she earned an MBA, Gerri embarked upon what she assumed would be a lifelong career with Fortune 500 companies.

But after a decade, she was looking for a change. It just so happened that her father also was looking. He was building a database and needed a project manager, so Gerri joined the team in 2009, three years after AirLogix moved to Astoria from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

This is how Gerri feels about her job.

In 2010, Gerri became an owner, and when a work-related injury in 2012 forced her father to retire early, she took over. In 2014, her younger brother, Gabe, also joined the company full time.

“This was a trying time because everything was in transition,” she says. “But I learned so much.”

The company Gerri runs has 60 employees and 39 trucks. It installs and services HVAC and refrigeration units for commercial, industrial and institutional clients in the five boroughs as well as in Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gerri never looked back after leaving her career in Fortune 500 companies.

Recently, AirLogix began offering custom appliances through a partner in Europe.

“This allows us to create fixtures that fit into unique spaces,” Gerri says. “It gives designers and architects a lot more leeway.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She works 60 to 70 hours a week.

Gerri, who generally works 60 to 70 hours a week, recently cut her schedule to five days a week.

“I still work the same number of hours,” she says. “The time just flows. I don’t count hours – I’m done when I’m done, which generally means I stay until 7 or 8 p.m. During the winter, there’s no necessity for me to work on weekends, but in the summer, I might as well put a bed in the office.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She wants to teach teens about finance.

She sees a lot of opportunities for her MWBE-certified business to grow.  

“I love this business, and I feel very connected to it,” she says. “But at some point, I want to  make myself  obsolete – I want to turn this into a turnkey operation.”

 Doing so would allow Gerri, who is 37, to have a social life (she’s single and has no children) and would give her the opportunity to take a short vacation every once in a while.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gerri’s ready to roll.

“This doesn’t mean that I would ever leave AirLogix,” she says. “In the next five years, I want to position the business so it doesn’t take 100 percent of my time. I want to be able to pursue other projects while I’m here.”

She mentions creating a program that teaches teenagers, especially young women, how to handle money.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gerri looks forward to the future.

“I want young people to realize that saving money doesn’t mean that you have to deny yourself everything,” she says.

She doesn’t have a specific idea for implementing this plan, but she knows it will come together when the time is right.

For now, though, she’s content to be “married to the business.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Yiddish Actor
by Nruhling
Jan 01, 2019 | 810 views | 0 0 comments | 49 49 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

You can see Adam in Fiddler on the Roof.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When Adam B. Shapiro introduces himself, he makes a big point of emphasizing his middle initial, B.

You see, Adam’s an actor, and there’s another fellow on the New York stage who has the same name; it is the all-important B that clarifies the confusion.

(For the record, the two Adams recently met, and Adam B says that Adam No B, who is starring in Waitress on Broadway, is, indeed, a very nice guy.)

While explaining all this, Adam, a benevolent bearded behemoth, is sitting in his small living room sipping coffee and snacking on a batch of pumpkin-apple muffins he just took out of the oven.

His hands are giant, and the muffins are mini; the maneuver to the mouth, which is akin to a bee buzzing into a ball stadium, is a marvel to behold.

So what does Adam’s B stand for?

Surprisingly, there’s no short, straightforward answer.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Adam is from Indianapolis.

That’s because Adam’s is a B with benefits: His good-luck charm possesses chameleon qualities.

“My middle name is Burton, after my grandfather,” he says, “but for me the B has come to mean many things – Bella, the character I played in the TV movie The Normal Heart, Broadway, Bear and Baker.”

Ever since he came to New York City in 2004, the B has had Adam’s back, bringing him roles in plays, movies and TV shows.

In the Netflix series Friends From College, Adam’s Akiva, an Orthodox Jewish dad, and in Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, he’s the family’s cantor.

Right now, he’s playing Der Rov in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Yiddish-language production of Fiddler on the Roof.

“I can’t seem to escape Jewish roles,” he says, smiling broadly. “And I don’t want to.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Playing Fiddler off the roof.

Call it kismet, call it fate, winning a part in Fiddler was bashert.

“That’s the Yiddish term for ‘it’s meant to be,’” he says. “When I was 10, I went to theatre camp for the first time, and our first show was Fiddler. In high school, I played the lead in it. So from a very young age, Fiddler has always been my dream.”

Bashert – that’s another B that fits Adam to a T.

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” he says, excitedly.

Adam, who is from Indianapolis, Indiana, grew up singing and dancing. He first stepped on the stage at age 5.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s happy to get so many TV, theatre and movie roles.

“I remember my father putting me in Little League,” he says. “It was clear I wasn’t going to be into sports — I was twirling in the outfield.”

In 2004, after graduating from Ball State University, where he studied acting, voice and dance, Adam immediately moved to Astoria.

“New York was always the destination,” he says. “Some of my college friends who were older had moved to Astoria, and I wanted to be in a place where I knew people.”

Like many aspiring actors, Adam struggled to get parts.

“I was told I wouldn’t get work until I was older, so I was happy when I turned 30,” he says.

When he was passed over for a Broadway role he had high hopes for because he had aced six rounds of call backs, he became depressed.

“I realized that I needed to find something different to focus on,” he says. “And the National Yiddish Theatre was putting on The Marriage Contract. I saw a part that was perfect for me.”

There was, however, a slight hitch: The only Yiddish word Adam had ever uttered was “oy!”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Adam’s hoping to get a role on Broadway.

“I am Jewish,” he told himself. “Presumably it’s in there somewhere.”

After studying audio files, Adam was able to Yiddish his way through the audition.

“I didn’t get cast,” he says, “but I left feeling as though I had accomplished something.”

Adam figured he would audition for the next show, but before he could, the company called him. Even then he didn’t realize he was up for the lead in the 2008 production of Gimpel the Fool.

He was speechless when he was offered the part.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Adam says learning Yiddish for his roles has been the hardest thing he’s ever done.

“I told them that I didn’t have a working knowledge of Yiddish, and they said they could teach me,” he says.

During the five weeks of rehearsal, Adam took Yiddish classes and also worked with a Yiddish tutor.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says, adding that he’s been in five Yiddish productions in the last decade. He’s also had several parts, including one in Adam Sandler’s 2014 film The Cobbler, where he has been called upon to converse in Yiddish.

In Fiddler, in addition to the rabbi, Adam has, on occasion, filled the lead role of Tevye as well as that of Lazar Volf, the village butcher.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s looking forward to entertaining you.

“Doing the lead was scary and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

Adam considers himself one lucky guy.

“My goal, which has been my dream since a very young age, is to do Broadway,” he says.

So far, the closest he’s come is One Man Broadway, a laugh-out-loud video series of his own production in which he plays all the roles in a self-selected musical.

“The truth is that I want to keep working,” he says. “Hopefully, my B will mean I’ll B working all the time.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Comfort-Food Chef
by Nruhling
Dec 25, 2018 | 816 views | 0 0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nick is the executive chef at The Bonnie and Sweet Afton.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ah, comfort food. Whether it’s mac and cheese or mashed potatoes, it’s what gets Nick Testa’s culinary juices flowing like fine wine.

“It reminds me of my childhood,” says Nick, who is the executive chef of the Astoria gastropubs The Bonnie and Sweet Afton. “It makes me think of home. And of my mother.”

Which is why he put zucchini fritters on Sweet Afton’s menu.

“It’s her recipe,” he says as he places a plate of them on the table.

It makes sense that Nick would cull his boyhood for the delish dishes he creates because he was nothing more than a child when he entered the business.

Nick, who is from Mount Pleasant, New York, worked his way into the kitchen when he was only 15. His first job, which he did after school and on weekends, was at a local deli.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Bonnie at 29-12 23rd Ave.

“I started as a stock boy,” he says. “I made sandwiches and started cooking.”

Before long, he was hanging out with the guys in the kitchen.

“It was so creative,” he says. “Customers would come in and say, ‘Make me something delicious.’”

Nick, who has dark curls that sprint across his cranium and a hula girl tattoo that dances down his right forearm, originally set his sights on culinary school. When the tuition proved bigger than his stomach, he bought a deli in Yonkers. He was 19.

“The $30,000 I used for the down payment was my life’s savings,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nick got started in the food industry at 15.

It didn’t take him long to realize that it was a half-baked idea.

“I was too young and immature,” he says, adding that he had had no idea about how to run a business. “So after a year, I sold it. I basically lost all the money I invested in it.”

After that, he took a series of jobs in the food industry that allowed him to move on and up every couple of years.

He managed a friend’s deli/market in the Bronx then worked with Chef Ryan Skeen at a newly opened Manhattan restaurant.

“Chef Skeen was my mentor,” Nick says. “We were the only two cooks – at 21, I became his sous chef.”

When that restaurant closed, Nick became the executive pastry chef at a downtown Manhattan hotel, then again worked with Skeen, first at a restaurant and then doing projects for celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sweet Afton is at 30-09 34th St.

“We helped Rocco on his cookbook,” Nick says, adding that he served as an assistant food stylist.

Four years ago, Nick joined The Bonnie/Sweet Afton team.

“The owner remembered me from when I had worked for 83 ½, the restaurant where Chef Skeen and I met,” Nick says.

As executive chef, Nick oversees three of the group’s seven restaurants – The Bonnie, Sweet Afton and The Penrose, which is on the Upper East Side.

“I rotate among them, managing the teams, building the menus, training the staff and cooking,” he says. “I put in eight- to 15-hour days.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nick is a “Chopped” winner.

During his down time, he attends Norman, his 3-year-old Schnauzer, works on building projects and refines his natural-wine recipes.

“I also go out to eat so I can explore all the great restaurants in the city,” he says. “It helps me with my career, and it’s a good way to network.”

He needn’t worry about his career.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Zucchini fritters just like Mama made.

At 31, he’s racked up an impressive resume, which includes being a 2017 winner of the Food Network’s Chopped competition.

“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “I grew up watching that show, but at first, I didn’t want to do it. I thought I would be eliminated immediately, but I have a couple of friends who had won, so they pushed me.”

Someday, Nick would like to open his own restaurant, something small and as comforting as a bowl of chicken soup.

“After my experience owning the deli, I don’t want to use my own money,” he says. “I’m waiting for the right investors to come along.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Good Witch
by Nruhling
Dec 21, 2018 | 1016 views | 0 0 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annie is a licensed massage therapist and a certified aromatherapist and teacher.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

In Annie Mascia’s life, things don’t simply happen. Rather, she gets interested in one thing, and it leads to another and another and another.

Annie, a licensed massage therapist and certified aromatherapist and aromatherapy teacher, remarks that it’s quiet in the co-op today – her husband and two young daughters are out.

She and Rusty, her 2-year-old orange and white cat, are hanging out for a while until she leaves to sell her skin-care products at a local market.

She’s trying to brush him, but his amber eyes deliberately look away from her; even when attempts tries to lure him with a snack of catnip, he’s having none of it.

Annie, who grew up in Babylon, Long Island with her three siblings, never dreamed that her passions and pastimes would converge perfectly, creating her career and family as well as her present, somewhat fur-strating moment with Rusty.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annie is from Babylon, Long Island.

In the beginning, she followed a conventional path. At her father’s insistence, she enrolled as a business major at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I had no interest in business,” she says. “My dad wanted one of his kids to go to business school, but I wanted liberal arts, so I tried some different courses and ended up with a compromise – a marketing degree.”

After graduation, she got a job with a Manhattan book publisher.

“I was in the sales department,” Annie says. “I made peanuts and after four years, I couldn’t sit at a desk any longer.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The brush-wary Rusty.

When a friend suggested, for no particular reason, that she become a massage therapist, Annie didn’t hesitate.

“It wasn’t on my radar, but I liked science and the body,” she says. “I’m a people person, and I’ve always been athletic. I like getting to know new people, and I love doing something that’s one on one.”

During her last year with the book publisher, she took night classes at the Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences, where she earned a massage therapy license.

In the beginning, she worked for spas but then struck out on her own.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annie, who has a degree in marketing, started her career working for a book publisher.

“I did some work on film sets,” she says, “and several Hollywood stars became clients.”

Strong and confident, Annie carried her massage table to clients all over Manhattan.

“I bought a carrier on wheels, which didn’t work well on the pavement and made a lot of noise,” she says. “So I replaced them with skateboard wheels – the small ones used for doing tricks – and it was perfect.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She balances work, family and her business.

Annie’s flexible schedule allowed her to dabble in the arts. She took several courses at The Art Students League of New York.

She brings out a small abstract sculpture she made. The silver necklace and the silver ring set with a light green stone that she’s wearing also are her creations.

At some point, she decided that she needed to learn to speak Italian and signed up for classes at The Cooper Union.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A sculpture Annie made.

She and a classmate kept in touch and in 2004, she invited Annie to a Christmas party.

Annie was mingling when she noticed a guy — black suit, black shirt, no tie — at the other end of the room.

Around the same time, he noticed her and began walking toward her, only to be waylaid by co-workers who drew him into an engaging conversation.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Rusty relaxing.

“My friend, who was decades older than I, decided to check out his accent,” Annie says. “She walked up to him, grabbed his arm and asked him the time. When he told her he was from Rome, she mentioned that that’s where I’d just been on vacation. She sort of bonked our heads together; he asked me out to dinner, and that was the end of the beginning.”

A year later, in 2005, Annie married him (his name is Alessandro Mascia, and he’s an architect), and in 2007 they bought their Queensview co-op.

Annie lightened her massage schedule after the birth of Lucia, who’s 12, and Penelope, who’s 10. She started studying aromatherapy and got her certification in 2013.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

La Strega Buona skin-care products.

She also became an ardent environmentalist: She compulsively turns off light switches as she walks through a room, composts, makes her own cleaning products and used washable diapers on Penelope.

In 2014, Alessandro’s work took the family to Rome for a year.

“We wanted to submerge the girls in the language and let them get to know my husband’s family,” Annie says. “In one month, the kids were fluent.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Annie sells her La Strega Buona products at local markets.

Upon their return to New York, Annie again began focusing on her career, taking on more massage clients and creating a line of natural skin-care products, including face creams and deodorants, called La Strega Buona, which is Italian for The Good Witch.

“I have a garden plot in Roosevelt Island where I grow the herbs,” she adds.

My Breast Friend, an organic oil blend of juniper berry, sweet-scented clary sage and lemon, is one of her more innovative creations.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The brush is gone; they’re friends again.

“I made it to encourage women to do monthly breast exams,” she says. “You massage it in, and you smell great to boot.”

With the girls in school full time, Annie is devoting her days to her massage clients and La Strega Buona.

“I’m marketing myself as an aromatherapy consultant,” she says. “I want to work with private clients to create custom products.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at,

@nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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