Astoria Figures: The Woman Leading Hour Children

The fastest Alethea Taylor has ever driven is 125 miles per hour, and it was only for a second or so.

“When I got close to 100 and the car started bucking, it was really scary but exhilarating,” she says. “I stayed at 90, where I felt comfortable.”

She’s as new at racecar driving as she is at leading Hour Children, the 35-year-old organization founded by Sister Tesa Fitzgerald that takes incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in New York State under its wing.

 “I love to drive and experience the freedom behind the wheel,” says Alethea, who joined Hour Children in January as the second executive director in its history.

Mind you, she doesn’t push her leased 2021 Infinity SUV past the legal speed limit despite her daily commute from Hackensack, which she says, takes 30 minutes when there’s no traffic. Which is, of course, never.

It’s the same with her job. She’s taking things at a patient pace, spending time working side by side with staff members at Hour Children’s thrift shops, communal house, food pantry, low-income housing complex and jail and prison programs.

“I’m getting to know how things operate,” says Alethea, who wears her black hair short and her heels high. “I want to see the employees’ and clients’ issues and struggles, and I want them to know me.”

Although Alethea never envisioned herself running Hour Children, she has spent her entire life preparing for the position.

“I didn’t choose this path,” she says. “This path has chosen me.”

Alethea, who is from Browns Town, Jamaica, spent her childhood alternating between her grandparents’ farm and her mother’s apartment in Kingston.

“My father really wasn’t in the picture,” she says.

When she was 8, her mother moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the family, which eventually numbered five children, lived in a one-bedroom apartment. The children slept in two queen-size beds, a bunkbed and a crib, and her mother slept in the living room.

“I’ll never forget when the plane landed, and I ran to my mother,” Alethea says. “She had come here before us, so I hadn’t seen her in a year.”

Coming to New York was, to say the least, a difficult transition for Alethea.

We had accents and didn’t dress like the other kids – our  mother made our clothes,” she says. “We were devout Apostolic Pentecostals – we stayed with people of our own culture. And even though we lived in a community that was predominantly of people of color, people would say things like, ‘You came over here and took our jobs … go back to your own country.’”

Alethea became a dedicated student (she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in women’s studies from Stony Brook University, a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling from New York University, a doctorate of rehabilitation from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and is a certified vocational rehabilitation counselor).

After her first graduation, she went to work for Greenhope Services for Women, which helps formerly incarcerated women who have substance abuse and mental health issues.

Through the years, she worked for Greenhope off and on. When she left it to become a full-time professor at Hunter College, she was the executive director.

“I had worked with Hour Children when I was with Greenhope,” she says. “When five people I knew came to me over a period of three months last year and said I should work there, I took note.”

With Hour Children, she declares that she has found her life’s purpose.

“I want to bring choice and voice to women, who, if they had the opportunities and support, may have made different choices,” she says. “Women who now need their voices heard and who want to – and will – make meaningful choices if given the opportunity.”

One of her priorities will be creating a day-care center for tots through teens, a project her predecessor pushed.

“I also want Hour Children to take more of a lead on social issues connected to our mission,” she says, adding that she has been doing some internal restructuring, placing a priority on inclusion and diversity.

To accomplish all of this, she’s working a superwoman schedule. She laughs when asked whether she puts in 80 hours a week.

It is, she says, far more than that because “I have a lot to catch up on.”

She also has been evaluating her own life. She’s hoping to buy a house in New York City, probably in Queens, that’s spacious enough to accommodate not only her (she’s divorced and doesn’t have children) but also her mother and stepfather.

Lately, she’s been taking some breaks. “I realized that I can’t teach women to take care of themselves if I don’t take care of myself,” she says.

Hence the racecar driving. She’s also exploring kickboxing but admits that she’s not very good at it.

She insists that she’s not the least bit tempted to show off her speed skills on her daily commute.

“I don’t drive fast when I’m in public,” she says as she exchanges her heels for flip-flops for the drive home.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Chef who learned French cooking in England

Vincent Caro didn’t learn to cook the culinary classics of his native Brittany at home.

For that, he had to go abroad. To England.

Vincent named his bistros after his daughters.

Vincent, the owner of the newly opened French bistro Chez Olivia, says it’s not as strange as it sounds.

He was, after all, in the employ of a French restaurant when he learned the ins and outs of braising the boeuf bourguignon and anointing the coq au vin with Burgundy.

Ah, that does make sense. Sort of.

Sipping an espresso at one of the tables in Chez Olivia’s backyard garden that’s shaded by tomato-red umbrellas, Vincent, who was born and raised in the tiny farming/fishing commune of Pleyben, recalls, fondly, the kitchens of his past and present.

His conversation is interrupted several times.

As the cleaning crew is finishing up and the tables are being set, Vincent is alerted to the fact that one page of the menu in the front window has fallen to the floor.

He reinstates it, and as he walks past the kitchen, he helps move a set of shelves back against the wall.

There’s also some kind of plumbing problem, and he has a discussion with a worker about the best position for the pipe. Then, he checks on things in the basement and runs through produce prices with a prospective vendor.

“How much are you paying for Idaho potatoes?,” she asks. “Oh, that’s way too much. I can get them for you for $2 less.”

He patiently hears her out but politely defers an on-the-spot commitment.

OK, where were we?

Chez Olivia is at 29-11 23rd Ave.

Oh, yes, his parents – Dad was a teacher and Mom ran a gift shop – did serve Vincent and his brother home-cooked meals, but the boys’ only interest in food was eating it.

Indeed, Vincent’s passion for the culinary arts didn’t commence until he was 14.

That’s when he took a part-time job at a restaurant to make spending money.

“I started out on weekends and holidays and fell in love with the work,” he says. “I was always in the kitchen asking how to do things and trying the food.”

If the food was good, he discovered that the gossip was even better.

“The population of Pleyben is only about 4,000,” he says. “The restaurant was the best place to find out what was going on.”

During breaks from college, where he earned a degree in business and sales, Vincent continued the restaurant stints, which eventually became his career, first in France and then in England.

“I wanted to improve my English,” he explains in his delicious French accent.

Vincent, who has eyes that match his espresso and generously salted hair, had no intention of coming to America until a friend told him about job opportunities at EPCOT, Walt Disney’s Florida theme park.

“There were pavilions for various countries, including France, and the people who worked there came from all over the world,” Vincent says.

He secured a job, and six months later, in 2005, he made his way to New York City.

“I had been to New York on vacation twice, and I loved it,” he says.

After working for several restaurants, Vincent decided to open his own.

“By this time, I was married, and my wife was pregnant with our first child,” he says, adding that she’s a New Yorker. “I always wanted to go out on my own, and I thought if I don’t take the risk now, I never will.”

He made his debut in 2016 in Sunnyside, but the restaurant closed permanently in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns.

His second establishment, Chez Eloise, is in Jackson Heights, where he lives. Chez Olivia is the newest sibling.

In case you haven’t guessed it, the bistros are named for Vincent’s daughters, 6-year-old Eloise and 4-month-old Olivia.

Restaurants require a lot of hands-on work, and these days Vincent finds himself literally running back and forth between Olivia and Eloise.

“It’s about a 10-minute drive by car,” he says. “But it sometimes takes much longer because of all the red lights. Sometimes, I jog instead. That usually takes 15 minutes.”

Vincent isn’t sure how many hours he works – he’d probably quit the business if he ever stopped long enough to tally them – but his day starts at 7:30 when he gets Eloise ready for school.

 It doesn’t end until everything is done, and often that’s late at night.

“I try to manage my time,” he says, adding that “when I am home, if I have time, I do the cooking.”

Because Chez Olivia is new, Vincent is still trying to figure out a reasonable schedule. Right now, it’s only open for dinner.

“I hope in 10 years that Chez Olivia and Chez Eloise will still be open,” he says. “Restaurants are hard – every day is a struggle.”

He is sure of one thing, though: If he has a third child, he will not commemorate the event by giving birth to another restaurant.

“It is,” he says, “too much work.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Proprietor by the Park

Anna Budinger pulls up on her bicycle, breathless. It’s only a 15-minute ride, but it’s so suffocatingly sultry that she feels as though she has been pedaling through rolling ocean waves.

She opens the door, pulls up the shade, switches on the lights, and Babs springs to life like a puppet on a stage.

Babs is at 19-23 Ditmars Blvd., a half a block from Astoria Park.

Babs, which is a half block from Astoria Park on Ditmars Boulevard, has only been open since mid-May, so Anna is still getting used to the routine – and excitement – of being a retail shopkeeper.

It’s the first business she has owned – it is, by the way, in case you’re wondering, named after her nickname – and it sells all the things she loves: candles, vintage and new glassware, coffee mugs, ceramics, tea towels, cutting boards and artisanal condiments such as honey and olive oil.

“I’ve always been a renter, and my concept for the store was to carry special items made by artisans that bring delight and intention into daily life,” she says.  “Things to make a tiny apartment feel like home.”

Or to make a day in the park more fun. Babs sells a variety of items for outings and offers a 24-hour picnic-rental package that includes a mat, a Frisbee, a cooler and a corn hole bean bag game.

“These are things that are too bulky and expensive to have in a small city apartment,” she says.

Anna, who is 29, tall and willowy and describes herself as a “hands-on person who wants my hands in many pots,” did, indeed, try her hand at several things before the debut of Babs.

Born in Chelsea, she grew up in the East Village and for as long as she can remember, she has been interested in and involved in the creative arts.

“I always wanted to own my own small business,” she says, adding that she was inspired by her father, a contractor with his own business. “And my passion is working with artists, interior designers and making things,” which is what Babs the boutique is all about.

Many of the items at Babs are made by local artisans.

After earning a degree at SUNY New Paltz (“I made up my own major – it was writing, photography and indigenous history in America”), Anna moved to Astoria and considered several careers, including independent filmmaking and opening a bottle shop but ended up working as a set dresser in the film industry. Her assignments included the CBS-TV show Bull.

Three years later, she entered the gig economy.

“I took any job I could get,” she says. “I did everything from helping my dad build a barn and custom cabinetry to photography and working as an events assistant.”

During the first year of the pandemic, when work dried up, Anna sheltered in her parents’ cabin upstate.

She spent most of last year selling her photographic prints and clay earrings in various vendor markets.

She also joined QNS Collaborative, which, she says, “fueled my fire.”

“I was having lunch in Sunnyside with my boyfriend, and he said, ‘Why not start a store and put everything you love in one place,’” she says.

So that’s what she did.

“I saw the space on the way to the park,” she says. “I don’t usually walk along Ditmars because I don’t live at this subway stop, but I was staying with my sister. I saw the sun pouring in the window and thought, ‘This feels like my store.’”

Anna and her father and her boyfriend renovated the petite space, which she declares is “the perfect size.”

Anna, by the way, built the shelves and the checkout counter.

When Babs is more established, Anna envisions hosting community events and gatherings.

She mentions book clubs and crochet circles. Perhaps she’ll invite a cheesemonger to give a presentation.

“I have a small-town mentality,” she says. “The people Babs is attracting make this feel like a small-town neighborhood. I love meeting everyone and seeing the same faces all the time.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Purloined Plant

The day I moved into my house, 17 years ago, I signed up for a street tree.

The block was barren – the two trees on the corner were half dead – and I longed for sidewalk shade.

What it says.

Two years later, almost to the day, a small ornamental cherry tree appeared when I wasn’t paying attention.

Its slender trunk was held high by a pair of robust wooden stakes.

A while later, a crew came and planted a row of Belgian blocks around it.

You’re lucky, they told me, because Harry has a green thumb. Every tree he plants survives.

I erected a small metal fence to protect the trunk and planted a dozen daffodil bulbs.

As the years went by, Cherry not only survived but also flourished, creating a canopy over the concrete.

Cherry’s blooms, petite and pink, carpeted the sidewalk.

People stopped to stare and pose for selfies.

And pick and pluck.

I fought off all the pests – the fathers who let their toddlers climb its trunk and the kids from St. John’s Prep who swung on the branches until they broke — and picked up all the trash – who throws away a carton of sweet and sour pork in the middle of the night without taking a bite?

Right before the pandemic and too many tossed Chinese takeouts later, I invested in an official New York City tree guard.

That, I figured, would get to the root of all my problems.

When the guard was installed, the Belgian blocks were removed, creating a much more significant space.

I wanted to plant peonies because I love their lush, luxurious blooms, but the spot is too shady.

Through extensive research, I discovered the perfect plant: the Dwarf Sweetbox, aka sarcococca hookeriana var. Digyna “Purple Stem.”

Purple Stem, as its name indicates, is, indeed, supported by a stalk of that vibrant hue.

It also has dark green flame-shaped leaves, fragrant flowers and black-purple berries.

In the dead of winter, with the hope of spring in my heart, I ordered not only a Purple Stem but also a sister hybrid, sarcococca x confusa “Western Hills” that has laurel-like leaves and gets red berries.

Six months later, when the box arrived, Western Hills was missing; the nursery promised to send it in the next shipment.

In the meantime, I planted Purple Stem in the center of the plot, facing my front gate so I could see it.

I carefully positioned the 6-inch-high baby to catch just the right amount of sun on its little leaves.

Cherry’s canopy of shade.

Every day, I checked on Purple Stem’s progress, and at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 5, as I walked my dog, Zora, to her weekly play date with her BFF, I noticed its leaves shining in a sliver of sunlight.

When we returned, at 11 a.m., I was shocked to discover that Purple Stem had vanished without a trace.

Someone had dug the plant up – or worse yet, pulled it out of the ground by its pretty purple stem.

I’ve had people on my block do mean things to me — a decade ago, my then-neighbor poured red pepper all over our back alley to keep Zora away, chopped down my bushes and re-poured concrete on my property without permission – but this was a crime I couldn’t understand.

Purple Stem wasn’t in bloom or in berry, and if you didn’t know any better, you would think it was a weed.

Although nobody has ever dug up a plant in my front yard, I’ve caught scissors-wielding nuns from the Greek church snipping buds and a couple of passersby blithely picking bouquets.

But what kind of person goes around the neighborhood ripping plants like Purple Stem out of the ground?

And what does the thief do with them?

Are they put in a prom bouquet?

Are they potted and placed in a window?

 Will there be a ransom note?

I posted a reward poster at the scene of the crime pleading for the safe return of Purple Stem, but so far, there have been no leads.

Apparently and unfortunately, plant snatching seems to be a common thing in Astoria.

A woman on 24th Street off Ditmars Boulevard lost a newly planted blooming impatiens to a plant-napper the same morning Purple Stem was purloined.

And when I posted my loss on Reddit, I was surprised that 11,000 of my fellow Astorians took note.

And 35 commented, telling bizarre stories of begonia burglaries, azalea assaults, mum jackings and planter piracies.

None of these tales made me feel better, but they did make me feel a little less alone.

Western Hills arrived at my house four days after Purple Stem was nabbed.

I planted it under the cherry tree.

On the street side, where it’s harder for a snatcher to see.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Woman Who’s Passionate About Parrots

By Nancy Ruhling

 

You can’t miss Kar Red Roses.

As colorful as her name, she’s standing in her floral Dr. Martens on the sidewalk outside Trinity Lutheran Church on 37th Street, clutching a chic carrying case, her red hair like a flickering flame in the whipping wind.

Long and lean and wearing jeans and a wide-brimmed straw hat, she looks like a model or at least someone who looks like a model or a celebrity.

She sits on the church steps and opens her case, liberating Albert, her 34-year-old Congo African grey parrot.

He perches on her hand, pecking at her silver rose-shaped ring and planting parrot kisses on her lips.

Kar Red Roses’ red spectacles match his tail feathers.

The churchyard, with its benches, rose bushes and shady trees, is one of Albert’s favorite places.

Kar Red Roses – that’s not the name she was born with, but it’s the one people know her by, so we’ll go with it — is the only parent that Albert has ever known.

He talks and sings what she calls “chicken bolero” opera and makes farting sounds when he’s displeased or joking around.

He interrupts our conversation several times to intone, “Sorry.”

He calls her Karen Bird. “I feel honored that he has given me bird status,” Kar Red Roses says.

He joined her flock – or as he would tell you, she joined his flock – when he was only 6 months old.

But Albert’s not the first bird Kar Red Roses has ever loved. (Please don’t tell him – he will be crushed.)

Kar Red Roses’ passion for her feathered friends began when she was 5 and her father bought a peach-fronted conure for her mother’s birthday.

“Before that, I think I was a normal kid,” she says. “Parrots took over my life – I became obsessed.”

Kar Red Roses, who describes herself as a “classic only child,” grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

In addition to birds, she loved the arts and at one time envisioned herself as a textile designer.

But by the time she got to college, her focus had shifted to animals, particularly horses (among other jobs, she worked on a track as a galloper).

Oops. Albert has had an accident. 

He just had breakfast, and well, you know, shit happens. 

Kar Red Roses takes a bottle of water out of her bag and calmly cleans her jeans.

“The saying ‘eats like a bird’ is incorrect,” she explains as Albert does it again. “Birds eat constantly. In fact, they eat one-fourth of their weight every day. They have a very high metabolism. Their lives consist of eating, foraging, cleaning their feathers and napping, rinse and repeat.”

Albert, she explains, had a hearty, hot meal this morning: a poached quail’s egg blended with ZuPreem pellets and corn, squash and string beans.

He’s a big fan of ZuPreem: It’s his photo that’s on several of the brand’s products.

When Albert arises each day, he waddles across the kitchen table demanding food and sits in his own human-size chair, which is slipcovered just in case, and eats from his own personal plate.

“It’s so cute – he makes lip-slapping sounds,” Kar Red Roses says.

Albert, whose wings are not clipped, has free rein of the apartment when Kar Red Roses and her husband are home. When they are out, though, certain areas are off limits because of safety concerns.

“Parrots are sentient beings who are very loving and as super-intelligent as a chimpanzee or a dolphin,” Kar Red Roses says, adding that Albert’s “gotcha day” is July 9, 1990 and his hatch date is New Year’s Eve 1989. “They live to be 40 to 50, so they’re in your family for life. But they never mature beyond the mental age of 3. It’s like living with a toddler.”

It was her then-boyfriend who suggested they get an African grey.

Kar Red Roses has to admit that she wasn’t keen on the idea, but she went along with it because she had told him she’d accept any bird breed he selected.

“I thought they were grumpy,” she says as she massages Albert’s pencil-thin neck.

Six years after adopting Albert, Kar Red Roses moved to the East Village, where she lived with the boyfriend who would become her husband. They settled in Astoria two decades ago.

In the beginning, she worked in a bird store. By this time she had learned bird grooming. (Albert doesn’t exactly love the parrot pedicures she gives him, but he does tolerate them, sometimes making farting noises in protest.)

Eventually Kar Red Roses became a florist, retiring in 2013.

Birds aside, collecting antique postcards is Kar Red Roses’ other passion. She has 10,000 of them dating from 1905 to 1914. They are organized by subject – night scenes, Paris, England, and of course, birds.

She and Albert do everything together.

“I love to travel,” she says, adding that there will be more time for it when her husband retires next year and they move to Providence, Rhode Island. “He’s been to the ocean, and he loved it. I want to take him to the mountains and the desert.”

Albert cocks his little head while she’s talking.

“Albert will be with me forever,” she says as she puts him back in his carrying cage along with a plastic dish of cashews as a snack for the trip back home around the corner. “I don’t need more than one bird in my life.”

 

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

 

Ruhling: The Real Estate Agent With the Key to Success

A silver BMW pulls to the curb.

A smiling Devin Navarro, classic blue suit, crisp white dress shirt, rose-gold Hublot on his left wrist, emerges, ready to seal yet another deal.

Devin’s only been a real estate agent for two years, but he’s already way ahead of the game.

Devin’s a real estate agent in NYSpace Finders’ Astoria office.

He completed the 90-hour licensure course in only two weeks, and it took him only a year to rack up the 3,000 points needed to make him eligible to become a broker, a status that will, among other things, increase his sales-commission rate. (The only reason he isn’t a broker yet is because it requires three years of experience; he has a year yet to go.)

Devin, who is 26 and who looks like a linebacker and speaks like an Oxford don, has always been passionate about everything he does, which is why it’s not surprising that he’s poured every ounce of energy into his career.

Real estate may be his current love, but it sure wasn’t his first.

Devin, who starts each day with the goal of meeting at least 10 new people, is a South Jersey kid.

He grew up in Brick, which is about nine miles from Toms River and which Devin describes as “a middle-class working town where everybody knows each other.”

And, he adds, “where I was different from all the other kids; my mother and father are Black/Puerto Rican. I was the only Hispanic-Black kid in the predominantly white community.”

Devin’s family, which eventually included a significantly younger brother and sister, was tight-knit.

“My mother had me when she was 18, so she moved back home,” he says. “We lived in the same house with my grandmother, my grandfather and my uncle.”

When he was getting ready to enter third grade, his great-grandmother died, and he and his mother moved into her apartment in Co-Op City in the Bronx.

Devin loves Astoria and can’t wait to meet you.

He was sent to a co-ed Roman Catholic elementary school on City Island.

“I didn’t really fit in there either,” he says. “The way I spoke and the way I carried myself were different.”

But he didn’t let his distinctness hold him back.

In Manhattan Village Academy, a small public high school in the Flatiron District, he created a niche for himself.

“It was very hard to get into the school, and the work was very challenging,” he says. “I was always busy with sports and activities.”

Music and dancing became his new passions.

“My mother forced me to dance,” he says sheepishly. “In particular, she wanted me to learn Salsa. I got really good at it. I traveled to competitions in Puerto Rico, on cruise ships and at festivals.”

(Devin declines to demonstrate any moves. It was, he says, such a long time ago …)

Devin spent the rest of his free time playing the drums.

“School started at 8:15 a.m., and I showed up every day at 7 to practice,” he says. “Instead of eating lunch with the other kids, I practiced, and after school, I practiced from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. when they kicked me out.”

His music teacher took note and enlisted the then 16-year-old Devin to play in his jazz band.

“My mother had to pick me up at the clubs at 1 a.m.,” he says. “When she asked me how much I got paid, I told her that I already spent the money on food.”

In college, Devin played in a band, and during his third year and much to his mother’s disappointment, he dropped out to go on tour.

Before the pandemic, he was in the restaurant industry.

“I thought I was going to be Phil Collins,” he says, grinning. “I went on the road with four of my best friends. We traveled from Maine to Florida with a trailer and a Dodge Durango, playing 25 shows in 30 days.”

When the tour ended, Devin moved back home to Co-Op City. He went back to school, this time to study computer engineering and math.

“I believe in the work ethic above all,” he says, adding that while he studied, he took a job in a restaurant, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to bartender/server.

“I wanted to be an entrepreneur and have my own business,” he says. “I wanted to learn everything I could about the restaurant business. The owner became my mentor.”

What he calls “Marine-style business training” paid off: The owner started a second restaurant, with Devin as manager.

Things had been going so well – Devin met his wife at the restaurant, they have two daughters who are 4 and 1, and they live in the Co-Op City apartment he grew up in – that he never envisioned doing any other type of work.

The pandemic had other ideas.

“The restaurant was closed for a year,” he says. “I knew I had to pivot, and I also knew that I could apply the skills I had learned anywhere.”

It was his mentor who connected him with the founder of NYSpace Finders.

Real estate, he says, was a logical choice because it’s a career that allows him to operate his own business while still having the security of working within a firm.

“I had to learn everything very quickly because I had no choice,” he says. “I was thrown into the fire; it was sink or swim.”

Devin has some lofty goals, and he’s more than willing to put in the eight-days-a-week work to achieve them.

“I want to be the King of Queens in the real estate world,” he says. “I want to be as big as I can be.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.comastoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Bargain-Basement Buyer

Digging through the big, brimming bins, Sam Kirby – “that’s Kirby like the pink Nintendo character,” he likes to say — unearths a treasure.

Sam’s the manager of Bingers Bargain Bins.

It’s the Funko Pops doll modeled after Pam Beesley, the level-headed receptionist at Dunder Mifflin on the iconic TV comedy series, The Office.

He thrusts it aloft like a trophy.

 Would you buy it for $10.99?

How about $8.49?

Or better yet, how about a pair of Pams for $2.99?

At any price, it’s just so cute that it’s hard to resist.

(Sam didn’t – he has a collection of The Office characters in his own office.)

At Bingers Bargain Bins, the price of Pam and all the other prizes keep going down until they hit rock bottom and are replaced by next week’s shipment of stuff.

Bingers Bargain Bins, which is in an old warehouse that Sam painted bright blue, is a no-frills fun place to shop for big-name brands – you never know what you’re going to find, and that’s the whole point.

Sam, who was a diehard Bingers shopper before he was put on the payroll, recently was seduced by the Angry Mama Microwave Cleaner, a product he didn’t know he couldn’t live without but now wonders how he ever did.

You fill the plastic female figure (its “dress” comes in several colors) with water and vinegar, and pop it in the microwave for 7 minutes. Steam comes out of her head (remember, she’s a mad mama) and softens all the dirt and stains so you can easily clean the appliance.

Bingers Bargain Bins opened at the end of 2020, about six months after Sam arrived in Astoria.

Sam, who was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and grew up in Daphne, Alabama, didn’t expect to buy the Angry Mama.

Nor did he anticipate that he would end up living in the Big Apple.

After attending Louisiana State University for a year, he moved back home and got a job as a customer service representative at a car dealership.

“It was my first real job,” he says, adding that he didn’t know anything about cars. “But I learned a lot – about cars and about people.”

Shopping is like digging for treasure.

Five years later, when his sister vacated her apartment to study abroad for a year, he took her place in Auburn, Alabama, rooming with her best friend, Jackie Goff, who became his girlfriend.

“I went there without a job,” he says, “and I worked in the restocking department of a vending machine company. It was neat because the warehouse was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – I got to snack on Snickers bars and Coca-Cola all the time.”

Sam might still be there had Jackie, a kindergarten teacher, not gotten a job offer in the South Bronx, where she had done a year-long internship.

“We kicked the idea around for about a week,” he says. “I told her moving to New York sounded like it could be fun.”

For the first year, Sam, sitting on his couch with a laptop, devoted himself to finishing his community college degree online.

“I kept delaying things because I really didn’t know what I was interested in majoring in,” he says. “I chose science because it was the most general thing offered.”

He fell in love with Bingers Bargain Bins, which probably is the only discount store in the world that has a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, and when there was a job opening in August 2021, he applied.

“I was shopping there one to two times a week, and the manager recognized me in the interview,” he says.

Sam, who is 28, became the manager in February, and a couple of months later, he proposed to Jackie at the Central Park Reservoir.

Living in the city has been a great adventure for Sam, a tall man with a sliver of a Southern accent that surfaces when he’s smiling, which is pretty much all the time.

 “We love it here,” he says. “And I love Bingers Bargain Bins – it’s a fascinating concept.”

Bingers Bargain Bins buys pallets of merchandise returned to major retailers, including Amazon.com.

Some of the items are repackaged by Bingers into so-called “mystery boxes” that sell for $99.99.

“They are a collection of everything in the bins – we go by what we think is fun, not by what we have in excess,” he says. “The retail value always exceeds the price paid.”

Sam is still a frequent shopper at Bingers Bargain Bins.

He looks around his office – his computer mouse, computer stand and paper shredder – yup, they are all from BBB.

“I’ve become the perfect gift giver,” he says, grinning. “I’m always finding little doodads.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Self-Styles Shopkeeper

Flavio Bessah is setting a style scene on the sidewalk.

He carries a petite light-blue side chair out the front door of his shop, Flash 16 Botik, and places it on the colorful Turkish rug atop the concrete.

He follows that with another chair, this one upholstered in a light floral pattern.

Flash 16 Botik is at 22-04 33rd St.

Flavio, tall and dark and shy, adds a small wooden cabinet and a half dozen empty frames and artworks to the smart scenario.

By the street planter, which is filled with purple and yellow petunias and serves as an extra seat, he places a glass-topped side table, crowning it with a lamp that has a blue and white china base.

After making a few adjustments – perhaps the pillows on the second chair should be re-arranged and the painting should be moved to the other side – he steps back to survey his work.

“I have to be and like to be involved in every detail,” he says.

Yes, it is a perfect city sitting room.

Flavio’s been working for hours, cleaning, and arranging and rearranging, and he didn’t realize that it’s time to open the boutique, which sells fashion for people and fashion for the house.

This isn’t Flavio’s first shop.

The shop carries furniture and home accessories.

That one, Flash 16, was on Newtown Road, and he closed it last year because of the pandemic after a three-year run.

This boutique, which he is calling Flash 16 Botik , is on 33rd Street off Ditmars Boulevard between the old Key Food parking lot and Chip City.

It has only been open two months; there’s much work yet to do.

The black awning still carries the name of the previous tenant, a juice bar, and Flavio’s still trying to figure out how to fit all his stuff into this, a significantly smaller space.

The designer-brand stock varies – you really need to visit the boutique every week to keep from missing out on the Coach, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and Escada pieces that you and your wardrobe simply can’t live without.

Right by the door, there’s a pair of lipstick-red Calvin Klein stilettoes.

On the back wall, there’s a vintage framed poster of the Beatles promoting their first film, “A Hard Day’s Night.”

In the window, there is a pair of glass and metal table lamps. And over in the corner, by the vintage glassware, there’s an entire section filled with designer handbags.

The clothes racks are bulging: There are frilly dresses, tailored coats, just-plain jeans and shiny micro-mini skirts.

The designer merchandise – some new, some old, some donated, some consigned, all of it in perfect condition – is carefully curated by Flavio, who made his career as a fashion stylist.

Flavio has a degree in journalism.

Flavio, who is from Goiânia, a city in central Brazil that’s 125 miles from Brasilia, has always been interested in fashion, but it wasn’t until he moved to New York City some two decades ago that he began the collection that ultimately led to his opening the shop.

A journalist by training – he has a degree in the subject from the Universidade Estácio de Sá in Rio de Janeiro – Flavio figured he would write about fashion in the city.

He quickly discovered, however, that the money he was making writing his magazine articles didn’t cover his rent or his fashion purchases.

Working as a fashion stylist, however, did. So did selling styles and style.

Like Flavio’s first shop, Flash 16 Botik – Flash refers to the camera-carrying paparazzi, 16 is the date of Flavio’s birthday and Botik is a play on the word boutique, which is what the restaurant across Ditmars Boulevard calls itself – is proving to be successful straightaway.

Flavio has a good feeling about this store: He thinks and hopes that it will be so popular that he’ll be able to open an entire chain that features his self-styled fashion aesthetic.

He finds the 12-hour days fun and fulfilling, whether he’s unpacking dresses or dressing up the front windows.

“I’m so busy with this right now that I don’t have time to do styling any more,” he says, grinning. “I’m totally dedicated to Flash 16 Botik.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Woman who takes History to Heart

As a historian, Heather Nicole Lonks Minty is used to telling stories.

Other people’s.

So that’s where we start.

We’re in England, where in 1909 two suffragettes, identified as a Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, find a novel way to draw attention to the cause.

They mail themselves to the prime minister at No. 10 Downing St. so they can advocate, in person, for the right to vote. (The postal charge is 3 pence, and the “human letters” are unceremoniously returned when the recipient refuses to sign for them.)

Heather starts a new job next month.

“A delivery boy had to actually walk them there,” Heather says, smiling at their audacity and cleverness. “During the mailbox bombing and arson campaign of 1912 through 1914, one woman used to hide explosive devices in her wheelchair.”

In the United States, the women were not so militant. In 1917, they merely chained themselves to the fence around the White House to get President Woodrow Wilson’s attention.

Heather, a tall woman with glamorous gold-rimmed spectacles, tells these and other stories about everyday people to make history come alive.

Whether you’re talking about women picketing to get the right to vote or young men protesting the draft, the stories resonate because “it could be you or someone in your family,” she says.

That’s why she finds walking tours so thrilling: You get to stand in a space where history took place.

As far as Heather’s own history, it starts in Flushing, where she was born 32 years ago and where she spent most of her childhood and young adulthood.

At LIU Post, she earned a bachelor’s degree in TV and radio (she loves watching historical documentaries, and her thesis was a video walking tour of the Civil War draft riots) then proceeded to earn a master’s in public history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

“Public history is all about getting history to the public,” she says. “These days, there are many engaging ways to tell stories that are not just exhibitions in museums.”

After returning to New York, she landed a job at the New-York Historical Society, a move that would change her own history in ways she never imagined.

It was there that she met Chris Minty, a “cute” Scotsman fascinated with U.S. history who had a fellowship with the museum.

“We actually were in London at the same time, both frequenting the same research libraries when I was in college, and I did take some day trips to Scotland, but our paths never crossed,” she says.

They were introduced at a staff meeting, but Heather wasn’t impressed enough to pay much attention to him.

It was Tinder that kindled their romance.

“I swiped right, but I still didn’t recognize him,” she says, adding that the people on fellowships like Chris had separate work areas so she never saw him. “He sent me a message saying he thought we worked in the same building.”

Heather thought it was a pickup line until she verified the information.

On Nov. 4, 2014 – Heather, ever the historian, remembers the exact date – they met for coffee.

“Our love of history connected us,” she says. “We spent five hours talking – it’s probably the longest coffee date known to man.”

Their relationship deepened their appreciation not only for each other but also for their respective areas of study.

“He opened my eyes to parts of American history I had never seen before,” Heather says.

Although they had been dating only a couple of weeks, Chris traveled all the way from Morningside Heights to Flushing to have Thanksgiving dinner with Heather and her parents.

“The holiday, of course, is not celebrated in Scotland, so he really didn’t know what he was getting into,” she says. “My mother sent him home with so much food – and he discovered corn bread.”

Heather makes history come alive.

They married and moved themselves and their voluminous collection of history books to Boston, where Chris had been offered a job.

Heather took a position with the Boston Athenaeum and later worked for the Boston Arts Academy Foundation then Respond, whose mission is to end domestic violence.

At the end of 2020, during the pandemic, they returned to New York to be closer to Heather’s family.

Heather was working for Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit that focuses on New York City’s and state’s finances and services, when their daughter, Isla, was born.

(For the record, the only reason Isla, who is 6 months old, has not visited a museum yet is because of covid restrictions.)

Next month, after taking a short break in her career, Heather’s starting a new job as the development director of an institute in New Jersey whose mission is gender equality, which syncs with her keen interest in women’s rights.

“Having a daughter makes this even more exciting because instead of fighting only for myself now, I’m fighting for her and her generation,” she says. “That makes it easier for me to leave her and go back to work.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

Ruhling: The Woman in Retro

From the color-coordinated racks of clothing, Lisa Ferrari-Sullivan pulls out a 1940s sundress and holds it up to the light streaming through the front windows of her new shop, Pimbeche Vintage.

She points out its flamboyant green-rose floral print, its contrasting yellow piping, its perky front bow and its metal zipper.

Although the dress is at least 80 years old, it looks as gorgeous as it did the day it was made.

For Lisa, who is wearing a kaleidoscopically colorful 1980s Guy Laroche cotton top and 1980s Gitano jeans, retro fashion is much more than mere window dressing.

It is, she says, a really good way to recycle and repurpose, which she has been doing her entire life.

Lisa, model tall with long black hair that she tames by tying it back in a ponytail, was born and raised in Wallingford, Connecticut, which she calls a “lovely little suburban town that I always wanted to get out of when I was young but that I now am nostalgic about.”

She gets her own sense of style from her mother, who she says is “extremely fashionable.”

Lisa adds that her mother was in her early 20s – nearly three decades younger than Lisa’s father, a World War II combat veteran and first-generation Italian-American she met while he was working for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

“She was always well dressed but on a shoestring budget,” Lisa says. “She was Latinx, she was exotic, and she was the talk of the town. I was in awe of her. She didn’t look like the other Connecticut moms.”

As a youngster, Lisa borrowed her mother’s clothes to play dress up and came to love vintage clothing, which she subsequently began collecting.

At first, she frequented thrift shops then switched to estate sales and online auctions.

“I love 1970s clothes,” says Lisa, who was born at the beginning of that fashion-forward era. “They are carefree and bohemian – it was anything goes. People used clothing to express themselves.”

When it was time for college, Lisa didn’t major in fashion – she has a degree in business management from Southern Connecticut State University – but she knew she wanted to make her career in New York City.

“I had a friend who had a job here,” she says, explaining what prompted her to move. “My first job, in 1998, was as a receptionist at Thierry Mugler.”

Lisa climbed the fashion industry ladder, eventually becoming a national sales director for a succession of major fashion houses.

Around the turn of the century, she got married, moved to the Astoria area and had two daughters, who are now 14 and 11 and sometimes help her out at Pimbeche Vintage.

“After my first daughter was born, the showroom I was working at closed down,” she says. “I wanted to stay home, but I didn’t want to stop working —  I had been working since I was 16. My side hustle was selling vintage clothes.”

She started selling online and about eight years ago began setting up at the Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo and Chelsea.

“I originally did it with my mother, but she had to drop out to take care of my father,” Lisa says. “I used the money I made through the years from the flea markets to fund Pimbeche Vintage.”

Pimbeche, which, by the way, is French for “snobby girl,” carries women’s fashions, including jewelry, shoes and handbags, from the 1940s to the early 2000s.

“I love selling pretty things,” Lisa says as she puts the sundress back on the rack. “But I also want to help the environment. I have a strong passion for sustainability.”

Pimbeche Vintage is still a work in progress.

Lisa, who wears vintage when she’s in the shop, is working on a website and soon will add live online sales.

As she’s talking about her plans, a customer walks in.

After searching through the racks, she selects a prettily patterned cotton dress and heads back to the dressing room to try it on.

Lisa smiles.

“The Astoria community has been amazing,” she says. “People come in to browse, to buy and to talk. I’m grateful that they want to support small businesses like mine.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

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