Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 12630 views | 0 0 comments | 73 73 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Likes Pi and Pizza Pie
by Nruhling
Oct 16, 2018 | 6 views | 0 0 comments | 0 0 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid is the owner of Macoletta.



Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

"Not all pizza is created equal,” says Walid Idriss as he sprinkles flour on the countertop and places a roll of dough in the center.

The crust may be a little thicker or thinner. The toppings may be arranged slightly differently.

Or in the case of the one he’s making, the pie may not form a perfect circle.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Macoletta, the pizzeria and beer/wine bar, is at 28-15 24th Ave.

And that’s OK by him. In fact, it’s kind of the point.

When Walid opened Macoletta, his artisanal brick-oven, Neapolitan-style pizzeria/wine and beer bar earlier this year, he never intended it to follow the rote recipes of Pizza 101.

That may be because in his entire life, the 36-year-old Walid has never chosen a conventional path.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cara and Walid met at an Astoria restaurant.

Walid, whose parents are from Egypt, was born and raised in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria.

After graduating from a French high school in Algiers in 2000, he decided to come to New York instead of going to college. His first stop was White Plains, where his older brother lived.

“My parents thought I was crazy,” he says. “I didn’t have a plan. I knew how to speak French and Italian and Arabic, but I didn’t know how to speak English.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid and Cara got married in 2015.

But America had always been on his mind.

“When I was 8, we came to New York City for a family vacation,” he says, “and I knew I wanted to live here.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid came to New York when he was 18.

He got a job in a restaurant, where he worked 14-hour shifts prepping salads and pastas.

“I had never worked in my life or in a kitchen,” he says. “I didn’t even know the names of the pastas.”

A year later, he moved to Nyack to live with his uncle and subsequently worked his way through an American language school, Rockland Community College and Baruch College by managing five gas stations and filling in his spare hours with shifts at restaurants. He also had a series of unpaid internships at banks.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Making the mozzarella.

“I’m best when I’m really busy,” he says, as he pulls his pizza out of the oven.

In 2005, he moved to Astoria, and in 2009 he graduated from Baruch with majors in math and actuarial science. He promptly took a full-time job in a French restaurant.

“It took me that long to get a degree because I was working all the time,” he says apologetically.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid’s pie — deliciously, it’s not perfectly round.

That same year, he met his wife, Cara, a native of Washington, D.C., who had come to New York in 2008 after earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Worcester State University in Massachusetts then doing volunteer work with homeless women in California.

Cara’s first job in New York was with a public relations firm; later, she worked in a Manhattan restaurant.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Into the oven.

That’s where they were in life when they arrived at Brick Café (now Mom’s) in Astoria.

“The seats were so close that it was almost like we were sitting at the same table,” Walid says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Macoletta is the only restaurant in New York City with a Marana Forni pizza oven.

There was no reason for them to converse with each other because they each had come with a friend.

But given such close quarters, Walid, who loves pi as much as pizza pie, couldn’t help overhearing Cara mention that she was looking for a math tutor to prep her for the GRE exam.

He offered to help.

She was, to say the least, surprised by his overture.

“He and his friend had been speaking French,” she says, adding that she wasn’t paying much attention to them.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Adding the garnish.

So it was that Walid, who may or may not have told Cara that he was looking for an English tutor for the GRE (he says no; she insists yes) began tutoring each other. And dating and living together.

“We both actually did study, and we did learn a lot,” Cara says, adding that she did, indeed, take the GRE and did, indeed, pass it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ready to eat!

While Cara was earning her master’s in anthropology from New York University, Walid, who never did get around to taking that GRE, was pursuing a career in banking.

They married in 2015.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cara is working on a doctorate in anthropology at NYU.

“We’re very different, and I like that,” says Cara, who is working full time on her doctorate in anthropology at NYU and helping Walid with public relations and marketing for Macoletta. “I’m into reading and writing, and he’s into math – he does calculus for fun – and entrepreneurship. We learn from each other.”

In 2017, Walid came up with the idea of Macoletta, which he opened in June 2018.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Macoletta’s signature pie.

“I had quit my job, but a bank I had worked for before offered me a position, so I’m still working there full time,” he says. “I really like doing both things.”

Walid brings a second pizza to the table. It’s the pizzeria’s signature Macoletta – cauliflower, roasted tomatoes, zucchini, artichokes, olive oil and sea salt resting on a bed of harissa, the Maghrebi hot red-pepper paste that reminds him of his heritage.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

You know you want a bite!

Walid says opening Macoletta was an easy decision because pizza is his favorite food.

“It’s affordable – the highest price on our menu is $16 – and it’s easy to make,” he says. “It’s magical; you put it in the oven, and it’s done in 90 seconds.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The piece de resistance.

Cara confirms this, adding that “he even loves frozen pizza, so much so that people got tired of him offering it to them when they came to our apartment.”

Once Macoletta is a success, Walid hopes to open more of them.

“I want to master my craft here first, though,” he says. “If it takes 10 years, I can wait.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chatting with a neighbor.

He serves dessert – Nutella pizza with the chocolate spread sandwiched between the pastry-thin, oven-warm crust.

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

 

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Bakers Who Are Sweet on Each Other
by Nruhling
Oct 09, 2018 | 204 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero is at 44-17 30th Ave.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

It is pouring down rain, but Michael Dellapolla, the owner of Gian Piero Bakery, doesn’t notice the deluge.

What he sees are the customers pouring in. Sure, he wishes the sun were out, but in the 23 years the bakery has been in business, he’s weathered far worse weather.

He goes out to do some errands, leaving his wife, Anna, in charge. When he returns, the rain has eased and there’s a line outside his door.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael and his family came to America when he was 11.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was tough going in the beginning because Gian Piero was selling all-natural breads and baked goods when nobody else was.

“Our breads have a hard texture,” he says, “and customers thought they were old.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The bakery opened in 1995.

He smiles, watching the Italian and American flags flutter out on the street in front of the shop.

Michael has a lot to be thankful for. Gian Piero, which has 30 employees, sells not only to customers who stop into the shop for a loaf of bread or a fancy cake but also to more than 200 restaurants in the metro area.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anna has been working at Gian Piero since it opened.

The bakers work in two shifts, which necessitates Michael and Anna and their son, Gianni, being on the premises pretty much all the time.

Gian Piero, which is named for his son and his former partner, is Michael’s third successful business.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker ices some cookies.

This is all the more extraordinary given the fact that there are no precedents for cookies or cakes or commercial concerns in Michael’s family.

He, his two sisters and his parents left Nusco, a small town in Italy’s southern province of Avellino, when he was 11 years old.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero’s products are all-natural.

They moved to Astoria, where Michael’s uncles owned property.

“My dad worked two jobs, and I started working after school at a hardware store when I was 12,” he says. “My older sister and my mother worked as seamstresses. It took us two years to save $11,000, which we put down on a six-family house in Astoria that we bought for $36,000. Our family still owns it; I live across the street from it in a two-family house.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Oven mitts at rest between batches.

By the time Michael graduated from high school, he not only was working for a hardware store but also was a locksmith and burglar-alarm expert.

Michael didn’t get much time off, so it took him a decade to return to Italy to visit family. While he was there, he met Anna.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker gets the bread ready for the oven.

Anna, who was working on her family’s farm, liked Michael immediately and thought coming to America would be a great adventure.

“I didn’t know any English,” she says, adding that they were each 21. “But Michael’s family spoke Italian, so I didn’t feel alone.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Working the dough.

When they married, Michael started driving a bakery truck to make more money.

“I did this for nine years, seven days a week, working from midnight until 2 p.m. the following day,” he says. “The money was good, and I built up a wholesale business. I was able to buy a house in two years.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker gets ready to cut a cake.

Before long, Michael had a restaurant in Manhattan and Gian Piero in Astoria. In addition, for five years, he owned a bakery in Brooklyn.

“I was never home,” he says. “At one point, I had all three businesses together, and all I did was go from one to the other. Eventually, I sold the Brooklyn bakery, and I had to close the restaurant because the building was going to be torn down.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Panna cotta ready for the mouth.

This gave him more time to devote to Gian Piero, which is where you’ll find him and Anna every day. She generally comes in at 5:30 a.m., and he follows at 6.

Sometimes she comes in in the afternoon and leaves a little early, but generally she stays until 10 p.m., closing time. Michael, however, is always around until midnight.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker puts the finishing touches on the biscotti.

Their 38-year-old son, Gianni, works with them. Their daughter, Laura Garfalo, grew up working in Gian Piero. She owns Senso Unico, a recently opened Italian restaurant in Sunnyside.

Gian Piero, which opened 90 days after Michael bought the building and renovated it, specializes in authentic Italian fare.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Oh, chocolate!

“We’re known for our Stasi Napoleons,” he says. “They are made from an old recipe I got from an old-school bakery in Corona that opened in 1950. It’s very simple – it has layers of dough and powdered sugar on top. It’s a light dessert.”

The Corona bakery owner, a bachelor who had been in business for decades, finally retired, but Michael and Anna are too busy to think about such things.

They assume that Gianni will take over Gian Piero, but things could change. After all, he has a family and would like to spend some time with them.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero has over 200 wholesale clients.

“That’s why we’re still here,” Michael says. “To make sure he wants it; if he doesn’t, we’ll have to sell it.”

Michael and Anna, who generally take a couple weeks’ vacation every couple of years, talk, rather vaguely and unconvincingly, about traveling.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The open door of the sfogliatelle cabinet is so enticing.

“My life is work every day,” Anna says, adding that one of her primary roles is filling in for staff members who are ill or on vacation. “I get very tired, but I cannot leave the business alone.”

Michael figures they have about seven working years left; Anna doesn’t disagree with this.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

I’ll have that. And that. And that.

A staff member sticks his head into Michael’s office to tell him he’s going to make a delivery.

Michael nods and gives him the OK; a few minutes later, he standing on the sidewalk with Anna and Laura greeting customers, who arrive with umbrellas under their arms and leave with white boxes tied with green and white string.

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

 

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

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Astoria Characters: Vinny and Suzy and the Harley
by Nruhling
Oct 02, 2018 | 363 views | 0 0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Vinny and Suzy get ready to ride.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“Wanna go for a ride?”

Suzy runs circles around the living room coffee table, yes, yes, YES!

Satisfied with her enthusiastic answer, Vinny Ombres grabs his black leather vest and helmet and heads out the front door, Suzy prancing at his heels.

As he takes the protective cover off his cherry red Harley Road Glide Ultra, Suzy sits patiently on the sidewalk.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Suzy, who is named for Vinny’s grandmother, in her biker doggie basket.

Once the bike is road ready, Vinny straps Suzy into the custom compartment in the back and puts on her goggles. For longer rides, she also wears earmuffs.

Off they go, Suzy leaning forward to feel the wind’s fun fury on her furry face.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Suzy started riding as a puppy.

Suzy, an adventurous 15-pound miniature Australian Shepherd, and Vinny, a big, burly guy with a Paul Bunyan beard, have been riding together since she was a puppy.

Two and a half years ago, Vinny drove his Chevy Malibu, not his Harley, to Pennsylvania to pick Suzy up from a breeder. Only 8 weeks old, she had no idea that she was going to be a biker.

“I started her on a snowboard,” Vinny says, adding that she was small enough to smuggle onto the slopes. “I put her in a backpack strapped to my chest. She was a little nervous because it was a new experience, but I could tell that she liked it. The next month, we rode a moped together with her sitting between my legs and putting her paws on the handlebars. And then we got on the bike.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Are we ready?

At first, Vinny strapped Suzy behind him so she could ride standing up.

When she mastered that, he transferred her to the custom metal basket on the back of the bike and secured her with a harness/leash system he designed that keeps her contained but allows for controlled, comfortable movement in the cushioned space.

“I had to put her in back because I have to make room for human partners to ride,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Con-furring about the trip.

Since then, Vinny and Suzy have added boating, jet skiing and camping to their itinerary.

Vinny’s two loves – bikes and dogs – are relatively new interests. Like the rest of his life, they came together without much pre-planning.

Vinny, who was born and raised in Babylon, Long Island, had decided on a career in the arts after earning a degree in visual communications from Farmingdale State College SUNY.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A break between rides.

But he had worked his way through school doing hard-hat jobs, and when a union offered him a position in Astoria teaching construction safety, he decided to give it a try. He’s still doing it.

He got his first bike, a black Harley Sportser 883, nearly a decade ago when he was 27.

“I had wanted to ride since I was 17, but I always assumed my mother wouldn’t like the idea,” he says. “But when she told me she loved bikes and wouldn’t mind if I got a license, I got a permit the next day.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Last year, Vinny and Suzy biked the East Coast.

Shortly afterward, a friend found him a rescue dog, who just happened to be named Harley.

Initially, Vinny wasn’t keen on the idea.

“She was a 6-year-old Pomeranian,” he says. “She was a big Pomeranian – she was 10 pounds, but still, I said, ‘I’m a single, straight guy. I cannot be walking around with a Pomeranian. How am I going to pick up women?’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

‘She’s my baby,’ Vinny says.

He decided to give Harley a trial run because he heard that she liked to ride. (He’d also been told that she was house trained and didn’t shed, which he immediately discovered wasn’t true.)

“For the first three days, she wouldn’t look at me or talk to me,” he says. “But the first time I took her on the bike, she looked at me, and her eyes totally changed.”

Vinny and Harley had a lot of fun hiking, biking and even kayaking in the four years they were together. So much so that Vinny traded the Harley for a bigger bike, a black and silver Kawasaki Voyager.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

This fall, they are going to bike the Pacific Coast Highway.

Without her, “my life became a country music song – I broke up with my girlfriend, my grandmother died and I flipped my bike and broke my ankle,” he says.

He pulls up his pants leg to reveal a scary 7-inch scar.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Suzy and Vinny take day trips to Long Island and Manhattan and the boroughs.

“I have two plates and nine screws,” he says, smiling. “It’s awesome.”

He got a new bike and a new dog in 2016, and his life has been exciting ever since.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Taking a short spin.

“I don’t have a wife, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a girlfriend right now,” he says. “Suzy’s my baby.”

Vinny, who “can’t stop thinking about riding on two wheels,” is the road captain of Roads to Roam, a club he started for family and friends that has biked as far as northern Connecticut, eastern Long Island and the Catskills.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ah, the feel of the wind in my fur!

In addition to these jaunts, he and Suzy have been all over Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens; they even have ridden along the FDR Drive.

“Sometimes we’re gone for hours,” he says. “We like to stop for lunch and dinner. When people see us, they smile and laugh and take pictures.”

Suzy and Vinny, who did an eight-day tour of the East Coast last year, are planning a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway this fall.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

I’m ready to ride again!

Vinny is still working out the plans. He only gets two weeks of vacation, so to save time, he’ll send the bike ahead, and he and Suzy will fly there to meet it. He’s taking a drone to document the journey.

It’s unclear whether Suzy comprehends this itinerary. But she scampers excitedly up to Vinny and hugs his leg. In return, he scratches her behind her fluffy ears.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It is a free, public event.

 

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Smiler Behind Sorriso's
by Nruhling
Sep 25, 2018 | 362 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Frank came to America from Italy in 1966 when he was 9.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Standing behind the shiny stainless-steel counter at Sorriso Italian Pork Store, Frank DePaola is all smiles.

His is a big, broad, toothy grin, the kind people break into when a photographer asks them to “Say cheese!”

It’s a habit Frank can’t break: He’s been doing it all 60 years of his life, and he has practiced it on a daily basis since he opened Sorriso nearly 40 years ago.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sorriso Italian Pork Store is at 44-16 30th Ave.

“I was so busy getting the shop ready to open that I hadn’t had time to think of a name for it,” he says. “The first customer who walked in commented on the fact that I was smiling, so I decided to call it Sorriso, which is the Italian word for smile.”

Frank’s family came to Long Island’s Massapequa from Calabria, a region in the toe of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula, when he was 9. Back then, he had never heard the word smile.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Frank began helping out at his grandfather’s bakery when he was 11.

“The trip here took 12 days by ship,” he says. “We arrived in April, and I didn’t know any English. By September, when I went to school, I was speaking half English and half Italian.”

Frank, who wears a meaty butcher’s pencil rakishly behind his right ear, got his first job – working in his grandfather’s bakery – when he was 11.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sorriso’s homemade sausages.

“I did things like wash the pans and fill in the cannoli,” he says. “That’s when I fell in love with food.”

It also helped that in Italy his mother made her own sauce and sausage and that his father was a vegetable farmer.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Frank’s favorite spot — behind the front counter.

By 14, Frank had his first real job. He has fond memories of working in that pork store.

“I met my wife there,” he says, adding that she used to come in to buy ricotta and mozzarella.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tony Mannino, Sorriso’s butcher.

(For the record, her cheese choices weren’t the only thing that attracted Frank to her.)

“We fell in love as teenagers,” he says, “and have been together ever since I was 17.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tony making sausage.

Frank left the pork store when he was 21 to take over a butcher shop on 30th Avenue in Astoria. In 1988, he moved it across the street to its current space, which is significantly bigger.

“The original store was only selling meat,” he says. “We added the authentic Italian products.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sorriso makes several kinds of sausages.

Sorriso, which happily announces itself with smiley faces in the Os of its name, sells items like pesto calabrese and caper berries that can’t easily be found elsewhere and carries a variety of products, including tomato sauce and olive oil, under its own brand name.

It also has a full diner-size menu that runs from appetizers, salads and sandwiches to main courses that include meatballs, lasagna and chicken artichoke sausages.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ready for the next customer.

“We make everything in-house,” Frank says. “Most of the recipes are from home – they are just like my mother used to make.”

The special ingredient in all of them, he adds, is “a lotta love.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Frank never gets tired of coming into work.

Sorriso Italian Pork Store is open seven days a week, and Frank is usually there five or six of them. He drives in from East Meadow, where he lives, arriving as early as 5:30 or 6 in the morning to make the mozzarella and generally doesn’t go home until after closing at 6:30 in the evening.

“When I am at home, I’m always doing stuff for the store like going to the bank or visiting vendors,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Frank makes the mozzarella.

He doesn’t see anything unusual about devoting all his time to Sorriso.

“I love interacting with the customers,” he says. “I’ve been in business 39 years, so I’m almost on the fourth generation of them.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

In Italian, sorriso means smile.

Frank is having too much fun to give up the front counter.

He’s never given a thought to retirement.

The issue isn’t likely to come up soon: His son and daughter are grown and have their own careers.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Frank takes smiling seriously.

The fact that they have no interest in taking over the family business makes Frank feel relieved.

“Every time I come to work,” he says, “I treat it like it’s my first day on the job.”

He smiles.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.  It is a free, public event.

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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Astoria Characters: Miss Edie at Broadway Dance Studio
by Nruhling
Sep 18, 2018 | 558 views | 0 0 comments | 58 58 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
 
Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling
 
As the little leotarded girls arrive for the 10 a.m. tap class at Broadway Dance Studio, Edie Bongiovi greets them at the front desk, a semicircular structure surrounded by pint-size four-legged stools.

Watching the parents helping the 2- and 3-year-olds put on their shiny black patent leather shoes, she smiles.

This routine act brings back a lot of memories. Miss Edie, as her students call her, began dancing at Broadway when she was 3.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Miss Edie became the owner of the studio in 2010.

When her students ask her about it, she explains that it was a long, long time ago. Too long ago for them to comprehend, so “I tell them that I’m 18,” she says.

They, of course, think that’s an ancient age.

It was Miss Edie’s ears, not her feet, that brought her to Broadway. Her father owned a dental lab in the same building, and she heard the music when she came to the office with him.

“I told my mother I wanted to take dance lessons,” she says, as she removes her gold sneakers and replaces them with the tap shoes she wears to teach the class. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Miss Edie at the front desk.

In those days, she took lessons from Miss Dorothy, the dancer who owned the studio.

Broadway Dance Studio opened in 1934, when Miss Dorothy was 10, and has remained in the same building on Broadway between 31st and 32nd Streets.

Miss Edie, who has long hair and long legs, danced her way through grade school and high school.

“For the first 10 years, I only took tap,” she says. “It’s what I still like.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tap is Miss Edie’s favorite.

By high school, Miss Edie was taking classes five or six hours a week, and when she got a full-time job at a bank in Manhattan, she continued her studies at the Phil Black Studios and at Broadway Dance Center.

At 23, Miss Edie started teaching at Broadway Dance Studio while pursuing her career with financial institutions. In 2008, she and Miss Dorothy became business partners; in 2010, Miss Dorothy sold the business to Miss Edie and Miss Edie’s husband, Eddie Lawler.

Edie and Eddie – there’s so much rhythm in the repetition of their names – have been running it ever since.

Unlike Edie, Eddie has never put his toes in a tap shoe or ballet slipper.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Broadway Dance Studio opened in 1934; it has classes for adults as well as children.

“But he can hold his own on a dance floor,” Edie confides.

Edie and Eddie, who is a firefighter, knew each other for decades before they got married. The met in Astoria when they were teenagers.

After dating a year, they broke up. Eddie got married to someone else and had two daughters; Edie kept dancing and working.

“We reconnected when there was a fire across the street from my house,” Miss Edie says. “By then, he was divorced. But it didn’t work out, so we went our separate ways.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Miss Edie has a full-time job in the financial industry.

On 9/9/99, fate brought them together again.

“I heard from him a week after my father died,” she says. “I thought it was a condolence call.”

Miss Edie, who still works full time in finance, teaches classes on Saturdays and is at the studio three to four evenings a week. She handles the administrative work of the studio; Eddie fills in at the front desk and plays handyman.

Miss Edie can’t imagine what her life would be like without the studio. She walks over to the wall that is filled with photos of celebrities, including Shari Lewis and Ed Sullivan. When Miss Dorothy was in her prime, she entertained troops with the USO. That’s where she met these stars.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

In addition to tap, the studio teaches ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop and lyrical.

Miss Dorothy doesn’t dance any more – she’s 93 – and she doesn’t come to the studio – she lives in Jamestown, New York. Miss Edie visited her recently and caught her up on all the news.

Miss Edie, who is a trifle older than 18, has no intention of ever hanging up her tap shoes.

“When I quit my full-time job, this will be my retirement job,” she says, “because being here with all the children really keeps you young and on your toes.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A student gets ready for class.

Doing both jobs doesn’t give Miss Edie much free time to take dance classes or even do anything else.

“Dancing is my soul,” she says. “It’s my passion. I’m passing along the love of dance to all these eager children.”

In addition to dance, she’s teaching them discipline, respect and teamwork.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Miss Edie won’t ever hang up her tap shoes.

“When I see the kids at recitals …”

Tears come to Miss Edie’s eyes before she can finish the sentence.

The class begins, and the rat-a-tat-tot of tiny tapping toes sounds like rain pounding on a tin roof.

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

Sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone, it is a free, public event.

 

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Neon Guy
by Nruhling
Sep 11, 2018 | 691 views | 0 0 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kenny is the owner of Krypton Neon.

Photos and text by Nancy A. Ruhling

When he reaches the end of the dark, tunnel-like hallway, Kenny Greenberg switches on the signs.

Luncheonette.

State Garage.

Pepsi-Cola.

Airstream Since 1931.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Krypton Neon is in Long Island City.

Beacons in the blackness, they blink their eyes open, one by one, bathing the studio in the soft glow of history.

Neon signs debuted 108 years ago, and for the last 38 of them, Kenny and his Krypton Neon studio have been an integral part of their illuminating story.

Kenny, a lanky man with eccentric eyebrows that frame his face like baby bird wings, styles  himself as a neon, light and technology artist.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A tabletop version of the big sign.

He was raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn and Englewood, New Jersey, and spent his childhood drawing cartoons and tinkering.

He noticed the large neon signs of Long Island City when he accompanied his father, a color chemist who toyed with the tones of crayons and Play-Doh, to work.

“My parents made it clear that being in the arts was not practical,” he says. “I was told I was going to be an engineer.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A vintage sign.

He set out to do just that, studying the field at Columbia University.

“I was instantly miserable,” he says. “It wasn’t me. I walked out in the middle of midterms.”

While he was deciding what he really wanted to do, he transferred to liberal arts, where he traded his Cs and Ds for straight As and a place on the dean’s list.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

For Kenny, neon work is the perfect intersection of art and science.

Eventually, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology then a master’s degree in psychology and education from Columbia Teachers College.

For the next decade, he worked in the child-care field, where he held supervisory positions and created programs for emotionally disturbed youngsters.

“Then one day I said, ‘I’m done,’” he says. “I want to work with the creative urge within me.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Krypton Neon does work for TV shows, movies and Broadway.

The thing was, he wasn’t sure exactly what his creative urge was or what it was urging him to do with his life.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A butterfly wearing neon.

Neon wasn’t even on his radar when his then-girlfriend showed him a couple of ads for classes.

It was a revelation, he says, to learn that “human beings make neon.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kenny had a career working with emotionally disturbed children when he switched to neon.

The science and art of bending thin glass tubes and filling them with the inert gas appealed to him, and after learning the technique from the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, Kenny set up part of his Tribeca loft as a neon studio.

“Converting matter to energy is magical,” he says. “I love to see the natural light that comes from the pure atoms themselves.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

This sign needs no explanation.

A year later, he opened Krypton Neon in Long Island City, where he lives.

“I chose that name because I loved Superman comics as a kid, and krypton is one of the rare gases we can use,” he says. “It’s a beautiful and subtle color that is used by only a handful of neon artists. I also like the contrast between its soft white-lavender color and the blazing red of neon.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kenny also creates his own neon art.

Kenny’s neon scenic and environmental art pieces have been in Broadway shows (Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, In the Heights, Jersey Boys, Grease and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical), TV shows (Saturday Night Live, The Tony Awards, The Emmy Awards, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Sesame Street, and ABC, CBS and NBC News) and Hollywood movies (Men in Black I and II, The Producers, Dead Presidents and I Don’t Know How She Does It).

Kenny also has done work for a number of corporate clients, including Macy’s, Disney World and the New York Stock Exchange, and has restored and installed pieces for numerous museums, notably MoMA, PS 1 and the Queens Museum.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The glass tubes are bent to follow to-scale paper patterns that are printed backwards.

Krypton Neon’s signs illuminate the city’s storefronts; Milkflower pizzeria in Astoria is one of Kenny’s clients.

“They wanted the sign to look old,” he says. “I aged it with artificial rust and decay and beat it up with a hammer. I did such a good job that the website Forgotten NY featured it.”

Kenny also has collaborated with artists like Doug Aitken, Matthew Day Jackson, Carsten Holler and Terrence Koh, and his own neon works have been featured in art shows and galleries.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s in the studio every day.

In addition to the signs, Krypton Neon’s 2,000-square-foot space houses one full-time and one part-time employee. Kenny generally works seven days a week. Because he wants to.

“Glass blowing is not easy,” he says. “There’s a satisfaction to its fluidness and balance and Zen. I’m also an amateur musician, I mostly play piano and am reacquainting myself with the guitar, and I compare it to playing a musical instrument. Music takes place in time, and so does glass blowing.”

Kenny, who is 67, has no plans to retire; neon guys, he says, prefer a slow fade.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Krypton Neon all aglow.

“As long as I can stand up and work and see, I’ll be here,” he says. “But that could change. It’s hard to say where neon will be five to 10 years from now. It has a history of life and deaths.”

He hasn’t thought about passing on the burner. And there’s no next generation.

“I have two cats, but they don’t blow glass,” he says.

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

 

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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Astoria Characters: The Puppeteer and the Producer
by Nruhling
Sep 04, 2018 | 730 views | 0 0 comments | 64 64 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Allison, who doesn’t have a Southern accent, is from Alabama.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

It happened at a summer camp in the Catskills.

It’s where Mike and Allison Hayhurst met; it’s why they share the same surname.

Mike, who is from Leighton Buzzard, England, was teaching theatre there.

So was Allison, who was from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, specifically Huntsville, Alabama.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike’s from England.

Allison: “At the last minute, a friend asked me to design costumes for Grease. It was just for three weeks, and I thought, ‘It’s not gonna change my life.’”

Mike: “Oops!”

He, who is all straight lines, grins like a Cheshire cat.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike is a producer and director for theatre and film.

She, who is all C and S curves, doesn’t react.

Mike: “I know you still don’t believe me, but the first time I saw you, I just knew you were an incredible person.”

As it happened, Mike and Allison performed in the staff’s improv comedy show. Afterward, they chatted at a bar while celebrating her 21st birthday. The conversation has never ceased.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Two years ago, they set up a production company, Evening Squire.

Mike: “I used the show as a ruse to speak to you. I kept thinking, ‘Why would she pay attention to me?’”

Allison: “I was attracted by the accent; I didn’t know I loved you for quite some time.”

Mike: “Ouch!”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Allison’s also a puppeteer.

OK, it wasn’t quite that cut and dried; she cried when they parted.

Allison: “I knew he was staying in the United States an extra two weeks, so I used the money I earned at the camp to buy him a plane ticket to Alabama.”

Mike: “She made me take three flights.” (What he doesn’t say is that he was willing to take three flights or even 300 flights to see her again.)

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Let the photo shoot begin.

Allison: “I barely had enough money to cover it.”

Mike: “I couldn’t believe she paid for it.”

That was in 2007, and they have been united, in life and in art, ever since. For the first couple of years, they had a long-distance romance, visiting each other for a week every couple of months.

Right from the start, it was obvious that they were committed to each other.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Scene One

The first year, Mike even cooked Allison a Thanksgiving dinner. He had to do a lot of recipe research because England doesn’t celebrate the holiday. They agree that the meal was as exceptional as the company.

Mike, who has a bachelor’s degree in drama from England’s University of Northampton, stayed in that regional-theatre-centric town as a director, a role he relished because “I enjoy crafting stories.”

Allison, meanwhile, completed her bachelor’s degree in theatre and psychology at the University of Alabama as well as an acting apprenticeship in Louisville, Kentucky.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Scene Two

In 2009, Allison moved to Astoria to pursue an acting career. In April of that year, Mike showed up on her doorstep with a diamond engagement ring.

Allison: “He came unannounced and got down on one knee.”

Mike: “She didn’t answer for a long time.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Scene Three

Allison: “I screamed, ‘What are you doing here?’”

She pauses, just as she did when he popped the “marry me” question.

Allison: “It didn’t compute in my head because I had just talked to you on the phone, and I thought you were in England.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Final Cut

Mike: “Proposing that way was a reckless thing to do. Within a week, I had spoken to her Dad, bought the ring and got on the plane. I’m usually not that impulsive.”

He laughs; like a take in a movie, he’d do it over and over again to get it right if he had to.

In January 2010, Mike moved in with Allison. They were married in February 2010 in a sunset ceremony in Long Island City.

Allison: “The longest time we had ever spent together was three weeks.”

Mike: “We chose to stay in New York because we were both pursuing careers in the theatre so it made sense.”

For the last three years, Mike has been a freelance producer and director for theatre and film, and two years ago, they established their own production company, Evening Squire.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Allison is the screenwriter for their next film, 15 Down.

Allison, who kept her day job in the advertising technology industry, also learned the art of puppetry, which came in handy on The Pits, an award-winning short film about an avocado in Astoria searching for his other half.

She pulled the strings on a pair of bananas that split and a flying leaf; Mike acted as the director and cinematographer.

Their next film, 15 Down, which is centered on three generations of women living in a biracial household in the South, will be released early next year. Written by Allison and directed by Mike, it runs 15 minutes; it’s longest they have done.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike, thinking of his next film.

They also have what Mike calls a “quirky zombie romantic comedy” in the works.

Mike: “It’s still early days for Evening Squire. We’re slowly working our way up to feature films.”

Allison: “We love to make stories that seem small but that hit universal themes that everyone can relate to.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Mike and Allison worked on the award-winning short film The Pits.

Mike: “That’s what The Pits is about — loneliness and searching to complete yourself. The theme is about trying to find a connection.”

Just like the one Mike and Allison made at that summer camp all those years ago.

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

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Yogini Who Is Happie
by Nruhling
Aug 28, 2018 | 1128 views | 0 0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lisa is the owner of The Happie House.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Kicking off her slip-on sneakers, Lisa Samuels steps into a small space that is the color of sunshine.

Filled with fire, she balances on one leg, and leaning forward, positions herself in Dancer’s Pose. She stands, holding her other leg in the air, as still as a statue.

With joy, she transitions into Tree Pose, turning her legs into a grounded trunk and her arms into triumphant branches.

Satisfied with that, she pulls out a yoga mat for King Pigeon, another precarious pretzel pose that she makes look as simple as snapping your fingers.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She grew up in Long Beach on Long Island.

Lisa, a robust woman with Rapunzel ringlets the color of raven’s feathers, ends her mini practice with a seated meditation, the light of the room washing her serene, smiling face in goddess gold.

Yoga makes her happy, and she’d like to make you happy, too, which is why she opened her wellness center: Her Happie House literally puts the ‘I’ into happy.

“The services I offer – yoga, nutrition counseling and workshops — are meant to help people find true happiness and true connection with other people but most importantly with the self,” she says. “I want people who come here to make The Happie House their Happie home.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Happie House is on 35th Street at 30th Avenue.

Lisa, a registered dietitian and 200-hour registered yoga teacher, is a stunning example of the transformative power of body and soul work.

When she was growing up in Long Beach on Long Island, Lisa spent a lot of time playing soccer, basketball and softball.

She spent just as much if not more time eating.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Dancer’s Pose

“I’ve always been overweight,” she says. “Depression made me a compulsive eater – I was a 100-percent carb person. I could eat an entire loaf of bread, no problem.”

Her fascination with food led to her interest in nutrition. After taking an intensive course at the Natural Gourmet Institute, she decided to become a registered dietitian.

“Suddenly, I realized the power of food,” she says, adding that she eats healthy although she’s not vegan or vegetarian now.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Tree Pose

She already had a degree in art history from Ithaca College when she enrolled at LIU Post in Brookville, Long Island, to become a registered dietitian.

“Even when I was in school, I realized that I didn’t want to work in a clinical setting, which is what I was being trained for,” she says.

So after working in a nursing home, Lisa, who had been practicing yoga, decided to teach it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

King Pigeon

“I was so miserable in my job,” she says. “This was my cry for spiritual health.”

Around the same time, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which explained her lifelong battle with mood swings.

She moved to Sunnyside, where she has friends, and set up a private-client nutrition/yoga practice.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lisa meditating.

For a long time, she had been mulling the idea of creating a community center, and The Happie House is the result.

After searching for spaces in Long Island City and Sunnyside, she discovered the second-floor walkup on 35th Street at 30th Avenue.

“I had gone to Modern Spaces to ask about rentals, and when I walked out the door, I saw the ‘for rent’ sign and called,” she says.

The Happie House, which announces itself with a small, semicircular black awning, opened at the end of March.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lisa wants to help you put the I in Happie.

Right now, Lisa is pretty much a one-woman show – she works the front desk, manages the studio, takes care of business issues and teaches many of the classes.

“I want to do a lot of events and become a part of the community,” she says, adding that she doesn’t mind that her days typically run from 5:30 in the morning until 11 at night.

If all goes well, Lisa wants to open more wellness centers. But if that doesn’t happen quickly or ever, she’s OK with that.

“Since I opened The Happie House, my life has changed in a good way. I think I have found peace,” she says. “I feel like myself for the first time in my life.”

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

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

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Colors Outside the Lines
by Nruhling
Aug 21, 2018 | 1011 views | 0 0 comments | 56 56 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Zach has been drawing for nearly a quarter century.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Every morning, Zach McCurdy sketches.

He draws lines for a living, and this routine, sometimes with a pad and pencil, other times on a computer tablet, helps his brain get in the right frame of mind for the day’s designs.

“It’s therapeutic,” Zach says.

He creates his cute kid-centric cartoon characters in his apartment.

He doesn’t have a dedicated space – he likes to roam from room to room. There is a compact computer desk in the living room and a tiny table in the kitchen where he keeps a plastic bag of crayons.

But there’s also a comfy couch. That’s where Zach’s sitting now, smiling.

Zach doesn’t have to tell you that he’s one happy, lucky guy.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Some of Zach’s latest sketches.

He lets his illustrations speak for him. In this case, it’s the stick-on mural right above his head.

Its giant electric-yellow umbrella, gleefully grinning, has unfurled itself to protect a flower garden from blue-meanie raindrops that are falling like bullets.

If you haven’t met Zach, you’ve probably seen his work. The senior design director for Astoria’s home-grown Bareburger restaurants, he created the logo and branded merchandise for its smokehouse sibling, Salt & Bone. (The Bareburger logo was completed before his time.)

“I try not to take myself too seriously,” says Zach, a tall man whose little-boy face is framed by grown-up glasses that change from green to blue depending on the light. “My work is child-like and child-friendly.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Zach has a degree from the Savannah School of Art and Design.

Zach, whose giggle-generating illustrations are a mash-up of Maurice Sendak, Disney and 1940s styles, has spent a quarter century – his entire life — drawing.

He offers a thumbnail sketch of his 25 years, which he considers a very, very long time to have been on this planet.

He grew up in Elizabethtown, which is in Pennsylvania’s Amish country a couple of bites from the candy Kisses-topped streetlights of Hersheypark.

His mother, a schoolteacher, gave him unlimited access to art supplies.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Equality patches that Zach sells on his website.

“I never drew on any walls when I was a child,” he says, “but I probably did manage to make marks on some furniture.”

Cartoons shaped the crayon-colored works of his early years.

“Disney’s The Jungle Book showed me characters that had personalities that brought them to life,” he says. “When I saw it, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I strive to do in my work – give characters life so they inspire the next generation.”

Captivated by the celluloid characters, Zach wrote to their animators.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He came to New York in 2015.

“The people at Pixar actually answered my letters,” he says. “I was 11 or 12, and that motivated me.”

By the time he was a freshman in high school, Zach knew that he wanted to make animation art his life. He set his sights on studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“I only applied to it and one other college — the second choice was my safety school,” he says.

Savannah changed his life. He met his wife, Kara, there.

They were freshmen, and she was studying photography.

“I liked my dorm roommates, but they were smelly and dirty, so I hung out with some other friends upstairs,” he says. “Kara leaned out her door and yelled at us for being too loud.”

Meeting Kara may have been an accident, but changing his career was not.

“I took my first animation course during my sophomore year,” he says, “and I absolutely hated it. All I was doing was making someone else’s ideas. So I switched to illustration, and it’s been fantastic.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The senior designer at Bareburger, Zach was in charge of the Salt & Bone campaign.

In 2015, Zach further defined his life. In May, he and Kara graduated. In June, they moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn. And in August, they got married.

Yes, Zach admits, that’s a lot of important changes happening in a short period of time. He shrugs. It all worked out.

OK, Brooklyn was a mistake, but it led him to Astoria, so it’s all good.

“We moved to New York because it is the hub of my industry,” he says. “Kara had a job lined up, and I told myself that I would find something.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Zach’s happy brella wall mural.

After three months of looking, Zach was about to give up when he saw an online ad for a job at a place he never heard of — Bareburger.

“I got an immediate response,” he says. “I went for an interview on a Tuesday, an hour and a half after they contacted me. On Thursday, I had an interview with one of the owners, and on Friday, they offered me the job. I started on Monday.”

At that time, Salt & Bone was in the works, so Zach did all the design work from the menu to the logo.

“I won the lottery with Bareburger,” he says, “because it has so much personality with it and about it. Kara and Bareburger gave me confidence in myself and my art.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Zach’s work is inspired by Sendak, Disney and 1940s styles.

When his Bareburger day ends (usually at 6 p.m. but often later during what he calls the “crazy” weeks), Zach works on his “wife time.”

They recently took up bouldering, which he says is more fun than it sounds, and Zach is learning hand lettering.

“I love to soak up knowledge like a sponge,” he says.

In their free time, Kara and Zach collaborate on designs for their ecommerce site.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A prototype for a pillow.

Their latest project is children’s pillows that feature the images of dinosaurs.

“When I came to New York, I was hell-bent on getting into the children’s book industry,” Zach says. “So this is a roundabout way of doing that.”

It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun.

“I like challenges,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s expanding his ecommerce products.

Having a day job and a night job has proved ideal for Zach.

“I love the idea of being an independent illustrator because I only answer to myself,” he says. “But I also love the collaborative aspect of working with other people.”

The balance, he says, is what keeps his imagination working overtime.

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

It is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone.

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The BFF of Socrates Sculpture Park
by Nruhling
Aug 14, 2018 | 851 views | 0 0 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Audrey’s the director of public programs for Socrates Park.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

A comet’s tail of hair streaking in the air behind her, Audrey Dimola power-pedals to the front gate of Socrates Sculpture Park on Cherry Bomb, her single-speed Schwinn.

She jumps off her burgundy “chariot of fire,” which is her constant commuter companion, and jubilantly raises her arms in a V.

Because she loves her job. (She’s the park’s director of public programs.)

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Audrey and the park grew up together.

Because she loves her life. (She’s a poet, performer, curator, local arts advocate, community organizer and artist.)

Because why not? (She’s a proponent of passion and the positive power of the present moment.)

Audrey, for reasons that will become obvious, calls herself Wildfire. She grew up with the park, which was right by her childhood home.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Audrey with Cherry Bomb, her chariot of fire.

In fact, not only are she and Socrates Park BFFs, but they also are the same age: 32.

Audrey made her debut on Aug. 12, 1986, and Socrates held its first exhibition on Sept. 28, 1986.

That, she says, cannot be a coincidence.

After she securely stores Cherry Bomb, Audrey takes a walk in the park.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

This is how Audrey feels every day.

Well, given that it’s Audrey, it’s more like a run and a climb and a wade in the water.

Audrey, who is colorfully, clashingly and chicly clad in a low-cut leopard print top and black tights abloom with the kind of pink cabbage roses typically seen on old-lady wallpaper, kicks off her black flip-flops and scrambles up a tree, stopping near the top.

Then she sunbathes for a second on the park’s signature stone stage – it doesn’t seem to bother her that it’s a chilly, grey day threatening rain. Next, she plants herself in a border of rhododendrons, softly stroking their leaves.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Taking a treetop view.

Oh, she has to go to the water! She sits by the skyline, drinking in the view, then leads the way to the park’s baby beach, where she perches on a rock like a statue as the waves do a dance around her toes.

The left foot’s toenails wear green polish; the right’s are painted yellow. Her cropped fingernails echo them, alternating yellow, green, yellow, green like flashing traffic lights.

She’s just about to head to her office, which is across the street, when she realizes that she hasn’t spent any time on Virginia Overton’s balance beam.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sunbathing on the park’s signature cobblestone stage.

So she scales the swaying sculpture and walks serenely across, toes pointed like a ballerina’s.

Although Audrey’s been in the park thousands of times – that’s where her job requires her to be, hooray! – it’s as if she’s seeing it for the first time every time.

That’s because Socrates has always been Audrey’s sanctuary.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Peeking out of the rhododendrons.

“I feel free when I’m here,” she says. “And whatever was going on in my life, I would come here to sit by the river and write.”

Audrey, a self-described child ham, planned to have a creative career. But by the time she was studying at Hunter College, her creativity had all but come to a halt, so she settled on what she thought would be a safe degree, in media studies, and got a job with a Long Island City arts magazine, where she quickly rose to the position of managing editor.

Two years later, she switched to a blog, producing stories about the neighborhood. After a year, she became a project manager for an Astoria-based tech start-up.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Balancing on Virginia Overton’s sculpture.

“I loved all these jobs because I got to do a lot of things, and I learned a lot,” she says.

But in 2012, Audrey began a series of jobs that didn’t feed her passion.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Drinking in the water view.

“I did things on the side, like writing books,” she says, adding that she published Decisions We Make While We Dream that year. “That’s how I kept myself going.”

Audrey, who calls herself a “sojourner,” finds that long walks are conducive to her creativity.

“I consider myself a messenger,” she says. “Writing, especially writing poetry, is my lifeblood. Everything speaks to me. That’s why I walk around with my marbleized notebooks — to find beautiful moments of aspiration.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Audrey and Socrates were born the same year.

Eventually, Audrey found her way back into project management. She wrote her second poetry/prose book, TRAVERSALS, got engaged to an artist and moved to Brooklyn.

“In 2015, I called everything off – I left the guy and the job, and I crashed-landed with my parents at my childhood home,” she says. “The first thing I did was go to Socrates’ Halletts Cove Beach. All I could think was, ‘I’m almost 30. What the hell have I done? I’ve shattered my life, and I can’t fit back in my old life. I guess this is the beginning of the real story.’”

At first, Audrey’s life was more like a sequel than a new beginning. She had more time than money so she took any and every job that came her way.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Audrey is the author of three poetry/prose books and is working on No. 4.

It was her mother who suggested that she contact Socrates. It just so happened that the park was looking for a part-time public programs coordinator, and it just so happened that Audrey was the candidate chosen in April 2016.

“That’s when my life literally changed forever,” she says.

Later that year, when the director of public programs decided to leave, she encouraged Audrey to apply for her position.

“She saw me with a capital S,” Audrey says. “And she made me realize I had a place at an arts institution.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Audrey on stage at Socrates, right where she belongs.

In January 2017, Audrey became the director of public programs. In that role, she has produced a variety of free public events ranging from musical performances and dances to yoga classes and kayaking.

“Working at Socrates is such an incredible opportunity,” she says. “I feel aligned with the original energy of the space, and I feel it’s my responsibility to uphold it.”

Audrey, who has just published her third book, WILDLIGHT, and is getting ready to write No. 4, says she and Socrates have had such a long history and are so in sync that she can’t see herself being anywhere else.

“This,” she declares as she stands on the stage and looks out over the park’s lawn, “has become my life.”

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

A free, public event, it is sponsored by Bareburger and Salt & Bone

 

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

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,

astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

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