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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.

Ruhling: The Planet Proponent

The planet is weeping when Kayli Kunkel opens the door to her store, Earth & Me.

It’s raining cats and dogs and elephants and lions.

She sighs –she’s holding an event later, and this May monsoon isn’t about to stop sobbing any time soon.

The planet’s perpetual peril pains Kayli.

Kayli, whose face is defined by horn-rims and a sense of urgent earnestness, grew up in the Mississippi River bluff town of Dubuque, Iowa, where she spent her spare time playing on the beach and riding the waves in a pontoon boat.

“My dad took us on hikes, and we were always catching frogs and tadpoles,” she says. “We always had pets, and once we even brought home a wild rabbit. I liked to watch Steve Irwin’s nature shows on TV.”

Kayli tried several pursuits before she focused her passion on the planet.

For pretty much the first decade of her life, she was a dancer, stepping and spinning her way around the Midwest, winning competitions.

Later, she devoted herself to show choir, performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as well as at Carnegie Hall.

But she also was interested in writing and storytelling, which is why she majored in graphic design and magazine journalism at Drake University, which is in Des Moines, some three and a half hours from the house she grew up in.

“My biggest goal was to be an art director for a major magazine,” she says, adding that she stayed in Des Moines to take a job with the media conglomerate Meredith Corp.

As magazines around the country started folding like dinner napkins, Kayli shifted to a career in content marketing, which she pursued for a couple of years before coming to New York City.

“My partner, who I’m still with, was studying architecture and got a job here,” she says. “I was ready for a change, too.”

When the pandemic hit, Kayli was the marketing director for a software company, a job she was laid off from in June 2020.

Because everyone was staying home and doing things like making sourdough bread and masks between Netflix binges, Kayli literally tried her hand at home goods.

(The colorful coasters she created out of vintage yarn are for sale at Earth & Me.)

“I also joined the social justice protests,” she says. “I decided to open a zero-waste store that carries handmade eco-conscious items produced locally. This happened two weeks after my job ended.”

She began researching local sources and products and started doing pop-up stores that summer.

She opened her first Earth & Me (it is so named because she wanted to put herself in the  equation) in a small space on Astoria Boulevard in December 2020.

In September 2021, she opened an expanded Earth & Me on Steinway Street that includes a café with home-baked goods, an outdoor events space, vintage clothing and kitchenware and a substantial stock of hand-made refillable items that range from soaps and pastas to spices and teas.

“The idea of the refills is rather like the old milk deliveries,” she says. “You buy the product, and when the bottle’s empty, you bring it back or we pick it up and deliver a refill. Right now, we are local deliveries only, but we are going to expand to include all the boroughs. The items are transported in an electric van.”

She estimates that her refills have reduced the use of plastic bottles by the thousands.

Earth & Me looks like an old-time grocery store: The bulk items are displayed in glass bottles and glass canisters.

There are shiny silver scoops and funnels for the dry goods.

“There are no stores in Queens that offer these refills,” she says. “And there are very few in New York City. I want to make refilling as convenient as going to the bodega.”

Earth & Me and Kayli are all about saving the planet and building a like-minded community.

The shop’s cards are made of recyclable paper, and the products’ packaging is recyclable as well as compostable.

Next to the counter, there’s a plant propagation wall, where customers can rehome greenery.

“Our customers also donate clothing to SCRAP to be recycled,” she says. “We get about three to four bags a day. I’m proud to say that we’ve kept over 1,000 pounds of textiles out of the landfills.”

For Kayli, who lives in a Jackson Heights apartment with her partner and her dog, recycling comes naturally.

She composts and produces so little garbage that her trash can, which is only 2 feet tall, gets full enough to empty only every three weeks or so.

“We are conscious about what we buy,” she says. “And we only buy what we need.”

For the planet’s sake, she hopes her sustainable practices catch on.

“Typically, I’m in the store every day,” she says. “I knew what to expect from running a small business because of my parents, who each had their own company.”

Kayli has plans to expand Earth & Me.

She talks about refill pop-up stores, diffuser bars with signature scents and a line of skin-care products.

“But these,” she concedes, “are way down the path.”

She looks out the front door at the raindrops splashing on the sidewalk.

The showers aren’t expected to let up until early tomorrow morning.

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

Ruhling: The Woman Who Took a Deep Breath

The Woman Who Took a Deep Breath

The lights are low, the music is soft, and the sweet scent of flickering candles is oh so soothing.

Erika Ferrentino, who has luminous blue eyes and the poise of a ballet dancer, is eager to welcome everyone to the first downward-facing dogs of the day at YUG Wellness.

She’s still pretty new at being a business owner – she started the studio in October 2021.

It wasn’t as simple and as straightforward as it sounds.

Erika had to make a lot of changes and choices to create YUG Wellness, whose Sanskrit name refers to the process of uniting mind, body and consciousness.

Erika, who at one time was passionate about CrossFit, didn’t discover the healing power of yoga until recently.

Born and raised in Rockaway Beach, she aspired to be a writer.

But after graduating from SUNY Albany with a degree in English, she became a residential real estate broker specializing in rentals.

To supplement her commission-only income, she waited on tables.

“I didn’t have any money,” she says. “I was living in my parents’ basement in Rockaway Beach and doing the long commute to Manhattan. When my mom asked me to pay rent, I started saving as much as I could so I could move out.”

She ended up on the Upper East Side.

For a while, she was the manager of a small Wall Street firm.

“I was so broke that I ate cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says. “And I walked to work to save the subway fare – it was five to six miles each way.”

Then she got a big break: an entry-level job at Morgan Stanley, where several of her cousins were employed.

She worked her way up, becoming an executive in wealth management.

That career took her to Miami, where she lived for a year, then back to New York City, which is where she was when the pandemic locked the world in a vise grip.

By that time, she was the mother of two daughters, Francesca and Gigi, who are, respectively, 8 and 5.

“I was working from home part of the time and commuting to Manhattan a couple of days a week,” she says. “And I was home-schooling the girls. The stress got to be too much.”

Indeed, her anxiety became so severe that she began having panic attacks.

“I would get on the train and have to get off because I couldn’t breathe,” she says, adding that she also lost her vision twice. “It was so bad that my doctor put me on medication.”

Although her symptoms declined, Erika, who rarely takes a Tylenol, didn’t want to be dependent on prescription drugs.

At her doctor’s suggestion, she reluctantly tried yoga, which she thought would be boring.

The poses were easy; it was calming her mind that proved difficult.

“Yoga changed my life,” she says. “The first thing I learned was that I wasn’t breathing – I was holding my breath. Yoga reconnected me to my breath.”

The results were so dramatic and positive that Erika wanted to learn as much as she could about yoga, a quest that led her to binge-read books and ultimately take a 200-hour teacher training course.

Last year, Erika, who lives in Astoria, quit her job of 17 years at Morgan Stanley to establish YUG Wellness, which offers not only yoga classes in Italian and Spanish as well as English but also a variety of holistic wellness experiences that range from facials and body contouring to meditation and IV vitamin therapy.

“For the second half of my life, I want to do something that helps people walk out feeling better than when they came in,” she says. “And I want to create a community space where people can connect in person.”

Erika, who was used to making overseas phone calls at 4:30 in the morning when she was with Morgan Stanley, is at YUG Wellness six days a week.

“I don’t teach the classes, but I take at least one a day,” she says, adding that she does fill in sometimes as a substitute.

She usually arrives at the studio after she drops her daughters off at school.

When they come home, she takes a break to be with them.

On weekends, they sometimes visit the studio and help her at the front desk.

Like the students who are arriving for class, Erika’s taking things one downward-facing dog at a time.

“If I can help one person like me change their life, that’s important to me,” she says. “I want to be present and let go of the past and move forward and feel grateful.”

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

Ruhling: The Deep-Discount Guy

Chris Sciacco, who is wearing a grey sweater and a big smile, throws open the doors to Kaiya’s Pallets.

This is week No. 5 of the wholesale/discount store’s existence, and he’s really pumped.

Come on in! We have deals you can’t pass up!

Water is 10 cents a bottle.

Gatorade is 50 cents a bottle.

Diapers are on sale for $10 a pack.

And brand-name cereals are $3 to $5 for a two-pack.

Come on in! Fill your cart without emptying your wallet!

“I’d say that 90 percent of the people who come in here do not leave empty-handed,” says Chris, as he greets another customer. “I decided to open the store because there’s nothing cheap in Astoria.”

Kaiya’s Pallets, which he describes as “a mom-and-pop BJs-Costco,” certainly fits the bill.

Its ever-changing inventory of brand-name products, which range from toothpaste and olive oil to clothing and lounge chairs and appliances, is the very definition of deep-dollar discounts.

Despite his enthusiastic sales pitches, business is not Chris’ first love, something you might guess if you’ve seen the hilarious videos he creates and stars in that promote the store.

A native of Whitestone, Chris moved with his family to Maryland right before he started high school then came to New York City when he enrolled in The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

He majored in film.

“I always had a camera,” he says. “I was an athlete and goofball, and I was always making stupid stuff. I fell in love with filmmaking after I took a course in high school.”

His parents, he says, were not amused by his affinity for the cinematic art.

“I begged them to let me do it,” he says.

To appease them and ease their fears for his future, the summer before he started school, he worked at his uncle’s discount store, Thomas Ventures, in Corona.

He bartended his way through college, and when he graduated, he moved to Astoria in 2007 shortly before his daughter – in case you haven’t figured it out, she’s the Kaiya in Kaiya’s Pallets – was  born.

“I started working for my uncle full time,” he says. “He told me he wanted me to follow my dreams, so he allowed me to take time off to continue making films.”

Chris took him at his word: So far he has made 300 shorts, and his first feature-length film, The Improviser, has just been released.

In 2018, when his uncle died, Chris began running the store and successfully shepherded it through the pandemic by adding a wholesale component.

And that might have been the end of the story had his aunt not decided to retire and sell the store, which, he adds, may or may not happen any time soon.

“She encouraged me to start Kaiya’s Pallets, which is a mini version of Thomas Ventures,” he says. “Right now, I’m working seven days a week and going back and forth between the stores.”

It is, he admits, a lot.

Kaiya’s Pallets, which covers only 5,100 square feet, is staffed by Chris and four of his friends.

Kaiya, who is 13 and is the model for the store’s logo, works a weekend shift in the clothing section.

“At first she thought it was cute that I named the store after her,” says Chris, a proud single father since her birth. “But now all of her friends are making fun of her.”

And she’s making it fun for herself by promoting the store on social media.

In case you’re wondering, Chris is starting work on yet another film; it will, of course, be shot in Astoria.

And he’s planning on making a film about his grandfather, a Korean War POW who came out of the fighting with four Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars pinned to his uniform.

Sometime in the future, he hopes to open more Kaiya’s Pallets.

“My dream is to have another location on the other side of Astoria,” he says.

Ruhling: The History Guy on the Soccer Team

There are two questions that everyone always asks Chris Minty:

Why is a Scotsman devoting his career to studying Early American history?

Why is such a serious academic so keen on spending his spare time playing football, or soccer as we call it in the States?

For the answers, we have to do what Chris, a documentary editor historian who literally gets to hold history in his hands, does on a daily basis: search and annotate the past to put the present in perspective.

Chris, long and lean and happily sleep-deprived because of his 4-month-old daughter, started his history in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city.

If you didn’t know this, his subtle Scottish accent would give him away.

“I have always been interested in soccer and history,” he says. “My parents used to take me to historic sites, mainly castles.”

By the time he was in high school, Chris was so fascinated with the past that he knew it would play a large role in his future.

He felt the same way, it should be noted, about soccer, which he spent a lot of time playing.

In the beginning, Chris opened his mind to all kinds of history.

“I wanted to sample as much as possible,” he says.

His focused shifted to America, however, when he took a survey course in U.S. history at the University of Stirling, where he earned his bachelor’s degree with first-class honors as well as his doctorate.

“All the while I was studying, I was playing soccer,” he says.

His research on the origins of loyalism in New York prior to the Revolution led him to visit not only the Big Apple but also Michigan, Virginia and California.

He made trips to the New-York Historical Society, The New York Public Library and to the state archives and library in Albany.

“My first trip here, I stayed with a friend who had a fellowship with the New-York Historical Society,” he says. “And he gave me the tour of life. I thought the city was brilliant, and I loved the subway.”

So enchanted was he with the city that, like his friend, he applied for a one-year fellowship with the historical society, which came with a faculty position at The New School.

While he was waiting, he took teaching positions in Scotland, and of course, continued to spend substantial time on the soccer field.

He did, indeed, get the fellowship, and in August 2014, he came back to New York for what he thought would be only a 12-month stay.

But he didn’t know that he would fall in love.

As it turned out, the woman he married, Heather, also worked for the historical society; they had been introduced but didn’t pay much attention to each other until Tinder threw them together.

“We each recognized each other on the app,” Chris says. “We went out for coffee and started dating.”

The fellowship ended, but their relationship didn’t.

“I wanted to stay,” he says. “And even though I was applying for and interviewing for jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, I was looking for almost anything to stay.”

Things all came together when he got an offer to be an assistant editor of The Adams Papers Editorial Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he co-edited volumes of the Adams Family Correspondence.

“It was exciting – Heather and I got married – and I got to handle and study original documents not only from members of the Adams family but also from the founding fathers – Jefferson, Madison and even Hamilton,” he says. “And after a break, I started to seriously play soccer again.”

Chris joined Kendall Wanderers Football Club, one of the oldest amateur teams in Massachusetts. He also managed two of its six teams and served as the club’s president.

“I felt as though I had rolled back the years,” he says, adding that he got to play all over the state. “I loved it – I can be moody when I lose, but we didn’t lose.”

 It was the pandemic that brought Chris back to New York.

“My father-in-law got Covid early on – he’s fine now – but he was very ill, so in December 2020 we moved back,” he says. “We wanted to start a family and didn’t want to do it in Massachusetts, where neither of us had family.”

Chris took a remote job with the University of Virginia’s Center for Digital Editing and began playing for New York International Football Club. He also manages the club’s reserve team and coaches both.

“I probably spend 20 to 25 hours a week with the team,” he says, adding that it’s like having a part-time job. “I absolutely love it even though it takes me days to recover from playing a game.”

Somehow with all this going on, he found time to write American Demagogues: The Origins of Loyalism in Manhattan, a book that will be published later this year.

Since the birth of Isla – she arrived, he delightedly points out, on Nov. 30, 2021, St. Andrew’s Day, which honors the patron saint of Scotland – Chris’ life has become even busier.

As a historian, he’s not accustomed to looking ahead, but there are things that he’s certain of.

He’ll keep his university job – “it’s a lot of fun” – and he’ll continue tearing up the soccer field.

“I’m 34, but I have a few years left at the level I’m in,” he says. “I’ll graduate to the over-30s, then the over-40s teams.”

In the meantime, he has the prospect of a team history project. The league, the oldest amateur one in the country, celebrates its centenary next year.

“I’m already talking to them about what I can do to bring historical context to the anniversary,” he says.

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

The Balloon Sculptor

There is an art to breathing life into a balloon.
Hampton Keith Bishop selects one of the 600,000 unblown balloons that are hanging on the wall in a rainbow of color.
It happens to be a pretty pearl lemon chiffon hue.
He attaches it to a precision air inflator, the black box that can be carefully calibrated to release .1 to 9.9 seconds of air in a single instance.
He sets the buttons — .5 of a second, 1 second, 1.5 seconds – stopping at each to show the results as he pumps up the balloon to the perfect size.
Size isn’t the only balloon attribute Hampton can change; he’s an expert at altering colors.
He deflates the pearl lemon chiffon balloon and stuffs it with a spring green balloon, inserting one inside the other on the top of a long stick.
The black box does its magic, and the balloon-within-the-balloon blossoms into a luminous green/gold watermelon.
“It is,” he says, “like mixing paint.”
Since he started HKBalloons NYC at the end of 2015, Hampton has literally blown up hundreds of thousands of balloons sans a single premature pop.
His creations have appeared at corporate and celebrity events, have been exhibited at art shows and have starred in films (Survivor is coming out this year) and on TV (he’s done projects for several shows, including Saturday Night Live, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock: A One-Time Special, Love Life, Blue Bloods, Girls5eva and Pose).
In 2018, for a satellite show by Maarkah at the Museum of the City of New York during New York Fashion Week, models wore gowns made of HKBalloons. (Hampton didn’t have a dress form handy so he used a body-size inflatable champagne bottle as a size guide for the expandable couture.)
And in the depths of the pandemic, Hampton created elaborate holiday balloon scenes outside his home office on Astoria Boulevard South facing Astoria Park.
“I didn’t have anything to do during the lockdowns,” he says. “I just needed to create something, so I designed them as messages of hope.”
Balloons, you see, represent happiness to Hampton, who is from Bowling Green, Kentucky. (If you listen carefully, you can still hear a slight accent through his smooth stage voice.)
He twisted his first balloon in first grade after his babysitter gave him a book on the subject.
His neighbor, a Ringling Bros clown who owned a costume shop, allowed Hampton to work in the store, tutored him on balloon twisting and mentored him on the finer points of musical theater, which was Hampton’s major at Belmont University.
“I was always fascinated by balloons and hot-air balloons,” Hampton says, “and I used to build giant sculptures out of trash bags in my front yard when I was a child. I loved being able to create something out of nothing.”
After graduating from college and working at Dollywood, Hampton moved to Astoria to hit the New York City musical-theater audition circuit.
Like all performers, he took a variety of jobs to pay the rent.
His stints with the custom holiday design company American Christmas, the show producer RWS Entertainment Group, and the party store Balloon Saloon proved pivotal to the formation of HKBalloons NYC.
The company (the HKB is Hampton’s monogram, and he’s delighted that it just so happens to end in B for balloon!) started out as nothing more than an imaginative idea.
“I started in my apartment with three to four bags of balloons,” he says. “And I twisted balloons in Central Park for tips at the end of the month to make enough money to pay my rent. Suddenly, it just took off.”
Hampton, who is a solo show, runs the company out of his basement and lives in the apartment above the office.
Sometimes clients ask him to replicate their designs; other times, they commission him to come up with ideas and execute them.
Large projects are blown up in sections in Hampton’s office and assembled on site, a job he likens to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“Sometimes, they take up my entire apartment, too,” he says, adding that when there’s still not enough space, he rents a box truck to store and transport them.
In May 2019, for instance, when HKBalloons NYC created the SNL set for the Jonas Brothers, Hampton made the 5,000-balloon sculpture in sections and trucked it to the Manhattan studio.
“I actually created it twice,” he says. “I did one for the color check and one for the live show. I popped all the balloons of the first one with scissors.”
That one really hurt, Hampton says, because nobody except the production crews got to see it.
That’s the thing about balloon sculptures – they are appealing, in large part, precisely because, like bouquets of live blooms, they aren’t supposed to last forever.
Speaking of forever, Hampton, who just turned 33, isn’t sure where his balloon business will lead him.
He’s at a point where he can pick and choose his projects, he’s just not sure what the next big thing will be.
He’s thought about expanding and hiring people to help him, but for now, he’ll just take things one balloon at a time.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.

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