Most Fridays I go to Absolute Wine and Spirits at 34-13 30th Ave to pick up some wine. Invariably my kids are with me, and I worry that their backpacks will knock bottles off the shelves. Luckily that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a small place but you’re likely to find whatever you’re looking for.
Nilo Mathias, the owner, opened the store in June 2009. Originally from Brazil, he’s been in the US for 25 years. “Since I came, it’s been Astoria,” he says. “I don’t see myself going anywhere else. I feel like I was born here. Well, I was re-born here!”
He hopes the store will stay, despite the rapid changes in the neighborhood.
“We used to have a Deli across the street, now we don’t any more. We used to have a 99 cents store, a clothing store, and now we don’t. Different people have come in. We’ve had a change of around 70% of people. Fewer than 30% are the original clients from when we first opened.”
That said, there are still the regulars. “They come every day to get their bottle of wine for dinner. They go to the market and get their fish or their meat, they go to the grocery store, and they stop by here to get their bottle of wine.”
Nilo’s colleague J hails from Lebanon. He is an expert on the bottles that line the shelves. Ask him about any bottle of wine or spirit, and he’ll be able to share a specific anecdote or insight. His secret? “An elephant memory,” he says.
Nilo owned a bar when he was in Brazil. “I just love drinks, the whole thing with the wine, and the history of spirits.” His own favorite is scotch. “And red wine…big bold Riojas.”
A new arrival on 30th Avenue is “Vapor Generation” at 36-20B. I quit smoking about five years ago when I became pregnant with my first child: while I’ve noticed vape stores popping up around the neighborhood and people standing outside bars with their vape pens, vaping has been a bit of a mystery to me. I spoke with Vapor Generation’s Brian King to find out more.
Brian moved to Astoria from California two and a half months ago. He started working with Vapor Generation when it opened in late February.
‘We’re trying to get people to quit in a nice healthier way, giving people many options,” he says. “We’re talking ingest or otherwise, with varying rates of nicotine from zero all the way up to eighteen milligrams for the heavy smokers. That way they don’t go through withdrawals if they are trying to kick.”
The store has a long counter where customers can test the products, and glass cabinets where they are on display: the battery-powered vaping devices, and the liquids in various flavors which go inside them. Along one wall is a black and white image of a lamp-lit street in Paris.
“There’s a heating element inside that atomizes the liquid,” says Brian. “Instead of turning it into a smoke it’s actually a vapor. You are exhaling, and it looks like smoke, but it’s not.”
He adds: “It tastes good, and it smells good too. People’s boyfriends and girlfriends are happy when they are not smoking because they don’t have to kiss an ashtray anymore.”
Brian, who formerly worked in construction, started using vapors in California. “I had to do something with my mouth,” he says. “I was chewing on pens and pencils, toothpicks, and eating lollipops…and then I found vaping.”
Until he got into the business, however, he did not realize how many options were available. Vapor Generation sources its liquids from the US and Europe – avoiding other overseas sources given the risks of them containing harmful ingredients such as pesticides. The liquids they sell contain pharmaceutical-grade or food-grade propylene glycol and glycerin.
Vaping is picking up quicker in New York than in California, Brian says, “because of Prop 215, which has made other things legal to smoke in California.” (Prop 215 is the legislation on medical marijuana).
While many of Vapor Generation’s customers are young, older long-time smokers are also venturing in. Brian sees it as his role to educate them. “A lot of the older folks that come in are trying to quit smoking – they have a lot of questions. It’s good to be able to answer their questions for them and let them know what’s going on.”
On Astoria, Brian says that it “has friendly people. It’s a little bit busier than I am used to. But when you get somebody to stop and talk to you they are actually willing to give you a bit more time than they would in San Francisco. If you’re lost looking for somewhere, people will actually get on their phone and ask other people. They will try and help you get what you need.”
When my husband Carlos and I have people round or throw a party, we serve empanadas: beef, chicken and cheese. But when guests ask if we made them we have to confess we ordered them – from Tu Casa at 30-10 Steinway Street, just round the corner from 30th Ave. They’ve become an expected feature at our place and are way better than any we could make.
Recently I spoke with Rodolfo, Tu Casa’s manager. He has been in the restaurant business in New York for 20 years.
“We’re unique,” Rodolfo says. “I believe we are the only Latino restaurant around here. And not only Latino – but quality, good class Latino. The majority of people here in the neighborhood are European – and the majority of the restaurants are like French, and Greek.
“So I’d like to invite people who haven’t been here – to show them what good Latino food is all about.”
While Tu Casa’s owner has Dominican and Honduran parents, the chef is Peruvian – and about 75% of the menu is Peruvian. But there are also dishes from other parts of Latin America.
When asked which is the most popular dish, Rodolfo says “Lomo saltado, and pollo saltado – saltado is a style of cooking with onions, tomatoes and cilantro.” But then continues as if spoiled for choice: “Our ceviches are very popular too, Peruvian style. Also the Peruvian fried rice – Chaufa, with chicken.”
And we have non-Peruvian dishes that are very popular: chicarrones de pollo served with tostones or with rice and beans – our steaks, our fish…”
Their busiest times are Friday and Saturday nights, though they also serve food at lunchtime and have some regulars who come every day. During the week, Tu Casa has a happy hour in the early evening.
The first Tu Casa opened in Kew Gardens. Then came the Astoria restaurant in 2010, and just a few weeks ago the third one, in Forest Hills, opened its doors.
Rodolfo says that as manager of the restaurant he enjoys dealing with people – whether it’s staff, or customers – and resolving situations that come up. His aim is to make sure that people who come through the door feel like they are welcome and at home. The restaurant is called “Tu Casa” after all.
Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro is an artist and former NYC subway train graffiti writer. He was one of twelve children born in Manhattan to Italian immigrants, and was raised in Astoria: he lived in Astoria from 1966 to 1996.
“I started writing graffiti very young in 1977, I was 11 years old,” says Louie. “Ever since I can remember I was always drawing, sketching, finger painting and reading comic books. So when I started to notice the cartoons and bubble lettering on trains I was immediately attracted to it.”
He adds: “Sketching the outline to executing it and seeing the result fly by while you are sitting in your homeroom class is really unforgettable.” There were challenges too, of course. “Going into a tunnel or train yard and doing a piece on a train that you liked and then walking out unscathed and not arrested were the biggest. Painting in the dark was a challenge for sure – that’s why I painted mostly in yards. In the daylight.”
Some of the cliques (subway writing groups) that Louie was a part of would meet up at the 30th Avenue subway station. He met with writers from IRT (Invading Rapid Transit) and TSS (The Super Squad). “There were guys with names like RCA (Reckless Car Artist), SN (Sick Nick), and KB (Krazy Boy) aka Savage 1. RCA and KB were the founders and presidents of these two Astoria based cliques.”
Subway graffiti was known as writing because, Louie says, “it was letter and name based. So we were writing. Writing for ourselves and each other.
“Subway era graffiti was totally competitive. Every writer would try and ‘burn’ the other with style or with quantity.” But there was also camaraderie. “Being a (graffiti) writer really transcended any and all social, economic, ethnic and racial boundaries. The art was the common denominator.”
Louie grew up always feeling safe in Astoria. “Everywhere I’d go I always knew someone. If I didn’t, they’d usually know someone in my family. It was a true neighborhood. Astoria Park and all the school yards were the social network. I still visit Astoria frequently because of the many great restaurants, and the Museum of the Moving Image, which I used to play in when it was an abandoned wreckage.”
In the mid 1980s, Louie was the first Astoria-based artist to be commissioned by the community and private businesses to do murals. “I’m really proud of those murals,” he says. And despite being a graffiti-writer on the trains he was a member of a community group called Graffiti Busters, helping identify what could be done for kids who were defacing property.
“I’d be sitting there with really long hair and a leather jacket explaining the psychological reasons why kids were writing their names on walls. I got used to being stared at really quickly.”
Louie is still an artist, and a musician: his band is called Servants Of The Crown -Keepers Of The Sign. And he recently published a book, “Don 1, The King From Queens– The Life and Photos Of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master” about the influential graffiti writer from the 70s Joe “Don 1” Palattella (also from Astoria). Louie says: “The book includes 200 never-seen-before photos of the old Astoria RR trains and the DON 1 tags and pieces (short for master-pieces) that adorned those trains.”
On why New York City saw the birth of the global street graffiti movement, Louie says: “When ‘Cornbread’ – a graffiti writer from Philadelphia – was noticed and TAKI 183 and Julio 204 took it to the next level in NYC and the whole metamorphosis from the more simplistic ‘single hits’ of graffiti signatures went to ‘bubble lettering’ and more elaborate ‘burners’ and ‘wild style’ the entire vocabulary of graffiti art was laid out on the NYC subways and streets – it was the invention of a modern art form.
“The evolution and style metamorphosis that happened in NYC from 1970 – 1980 is responsible for the global phenomena of graffiti writing and graffiti art. I always say that we needed to write and apparently so did the world.”
“Astoria is my second Alexandria” says Mohamed Khalil, the manager of Leli’s Bakery & Pastry Shop at 35-14 30th Avenue. Originally from Egypt, Mohamed has lived in Astoria for the past eleven years.
Leli’s opened in November 2012. It was founded by Emanuel Darmanin, known as “Leli”. Darmanin owns Melita Bakery based in the Bronx which sells bread and deserts wholesale to restaurants and hotels throughout the city. He decided to branch out with his first storefront café, and settled on Astoria.
“In the past five, six years there has been, let’s say, a revolution in business here,” says Mohamed. “I remember when 30th Avenue was too dark in the night. Barely after 9 o’clock, you didn’t hear no-body. If you had a pizza stop or something, it wasn’t a fancy one.” But then “the first big café opened, that was Avenue Café. They did a great business, and then came Grand Café, Flo Café, Mexi-BBQ…”
Leli’s Bakery followed suit. At first, they would open at eight in the morning, and close at nine pm. Now they open at seven, and at weekends stay open until eleven. All of the food is made on site – the metal bread machines can be glimpsed through the back of the café.
The owner Darmanin is from Malta, and Maltese products feature prominently in the bakery. There are mounds of savory Qassatat, that “TastoriaQueens” has reviewed in glowing terms, and pastizzi; small flaked-pastry snacks stuffed with ricotta cheese, beef, or spinach and feta cheese. “In Malta, those are like the equivalent of falafel,” says Mohamed. “Two of those will keep you going until you have your lunch or dinner.”
Then there are the sweets of course, of all shapes and sizes, from rainbow cookies to carrot cake. Birthday cakes form colorful lines behind the glass counter and baskets brimming with croissants and muffins surround the till. “To have a good product you have to do it from real ingredients”, says Mohamed. “You know, nothing fat free. That’s not what the boss is doing here. Even if he has some sort of recipe that’s for people who want low-fat foods…that will never happen because he mixes it his Maltese way.” Despite, that is, Darmanin being diabetic so unable to eat the delicacies his business creates.
Mohamed got to know Darmanin because a friend of his, also Egyptian, is married to one of Darmanin’s daughters. “What I found out about any Maltese who I met here,” says Mohamed, “is that they have a background in baking.” Mohamed finds the Maltese language easy to understand because “it’s about sixty percent Arabic. They got the language from Libya…and the baking from Italy,” he says. Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean, is in-between the two.
“Some people might like the feeling you get in a formal, expensive hotel,” says Mohamed. “That’s not what we are aiming for here.” No two chairs in Leli’s are the same, purposefully. While we spoke on a Sunday afternoon all the chairs were occupied, and customers were queuing up at the counter for goods. At the table next to us was Mohamed’s mother, over for a trip from Alexandria, knitting a child’s cardigan that she was hoping to complete by the end of the day. On the other side of us, a young couple focused on their i-pads.
There is no shortage of other bakeries along 30th Avenue. You “have to do a bit extra”, says Mohamed, to keep customers coming.
From last Wednesday, Trade Fair employees have been standing outside the supermarket on 30th Ave with placards and leaflets. They are among 100 employees of the meat departments at the nine Trade Fair locations throughout Queens who are holding an “unfair labor practices” strike.
Among them is Eunice Izquierdo. She has worked in the store’s meat department for 23 years. “When I started working here it was a relatively small business,” she says (translated from Spanish). “I saw him [the company’s owner Farid Jaber] buy the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, all of those stores I saw him buy. And also I’ve seen how the stores have grown in size, thanks to cheap labor.”
In November the workers’ contract came up for renewal. Their union says that in the proposed new contract the management wanted to freeze wages for meat department employees, make everyone part time instead of full-time, reduce healthcare benefits and stop paying extra rates for Sunday work.
“He wants to reduce our hours to 24 hours a week. How are we going to support our families on that?” says Eunice, who has three children – two in college and one in high school. “There have been three cuts. First we worked 48 hours a week, then 37. At the moment we have been working 34. Now he wants to cut it to 24 and change Sunday working to regular pay.”
She adds: “I like the work here. We have done our work with a lot of love. That is what hurts. Because we have worked here with our hearts. We have worked harder than we have been paid for. It’s not to say it’s a bad business. It’s a good business, well managed. But the owner – that’s to say the owner-owner of all the stores – says that he wants everyone to be part time. Who lives off part time?”
The workers are accompanied by representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local 342. According to the union, when rounds of negotiations over the new contract were not making any progress, the workers began to leaflet the customers on their off-the-clock-time. The management reacted to this by harassing them and putting up signs in the department that part-time meat workers were wanted, the union says.
Union representative David Rodriquez said: “The employees are just speaking out for their rights. They went to the community, spoke to the community, and he [Jaber] didn’t appreciate that, he would have preferred that they stay quiet. So he put up these signs saying that they needed help, in the meat department, when they don’t.”
When the strike began on Wednesday, workers offered to go back to work in the afternoon to continue bargaining. But management did not let them back, saying that they had been replaced with new staff, according to the union.
Beatriz Gomez is another of the workers on strike. She has worked in the meat department for 13 years. “What we are asking is to stay with what we had before,” she says. “I have a lot of faith that we are going to be able to go back, that we will get our jobs back. I am prepared to be here as long as it takes.”
Trade Fair headquarters declined to comment for this post. They referred to the banner posted on the outside walls of their supermarkets. It reads: “…We are in negotiation with the union and told them that we need to keep our costs competitive with other non-union stores in the neighborhood so we can provide you with top quality meat at fair, competitive prices. The disruptions to our business is their answer to us. Trade Fair will continue to do what is necessary to keep our costs competitive so that our prices remain competitive.” (full wording on the image below).
An interview on this website in November 2011 with two managers at the 30th Ave location, Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar. When asked if he would like to comment on the meat workers’ action, Mustafa said that for now only the management at Trade Fair headquarters is able to do that.
In September a group of people in their early seventies met for lunch at an Astoria restaurant. Most had either attended Public School 5 or Junior High School 126 in the neighborhood together, back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. There were 24 “kids” from those schools at the gathering, along with 16 spouses or friends. There were hugs and shouts of delight. Some had not seen each other for over fifty years. Since June 23, 1954 to be exact.
Alfred Holzman organized the reunion. His Slovakia-born parents had moved into 34-03 30th Avenue in 1944. They ran a store called Grand Paint Supply Company downstairs from their apartment, which is now Prime Design and Printing. In 1945 Alfred entered Public School 5.
The school was at 30-11 29th Street, just off 30th Avenue. The site is still a school – PS 234 – but the PS 5 building is no longer there: in 1967 an eight year-old boy playing with a match in a student clothing closet triggered a fire that burned the building to the ground.
Alfred and his classmates were devoted to one of their teachers, Mrs. Evelyn R. Benton. She had recently started teaching at the school after serving with the US navy during World War II as a “WAVE” (an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Many years later, in 2005, Alfred decided to get a small group of “Mrs. Benton’s kids” back together again for a reunion.
Since that initial gathering in South Florida the group has mushroomed as Alfred has been able to track down more and more of their classmates. Many live within New York State or New Jersey. Some though had flown in for the Astoria reunion from Florida and were making the occasion into a vacation. One woman arrived a little late having driven for seven hours straight from Vermont.
The reunion bubbled with reminiscences and summaries of lifetimes. How to update someone on the last fifty years of your life? It tended to boil down to love, work and health. There may be big differences between the specific paths Mrs. Benton’s pupils took but those basic ingredients, in various formulations, are there.
Among the group is an actress, an artist who taught at Fashion Institute of Technology, and a wall-street investor-turned marine-turned firefighter who also played the bugle in a band during the half-times of New York Giants games. One of the guests had married his childhood sweetheart. Another was there with his second wife. Alfred married his wife Lucy when he was in his fifties.
Clyde Locke, one of the guests, remembers the mix of origins of the kids along his block and still has the accents to prove it. He can switch effortlessly from Irish- to Scottish- to English- to German- to Italian-accented English. He says arriving at college where most kids had grown up in rural American towns was a culture shock – their experience having been so different from his city life. Frank went on to be an ophthalmologist in Astoria and the Director of eye surgery at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. He fixed two detached retinas for one of his PS 5 kindergarten classmates, Rosemarri Roth, who stood up at the reunion to thank him.
While Astoria was mixed when Mrs Benton’s kids were young, most of its residents were of European origins. As Alfred described it, “we all came from working class immigrant families, whether Hungarian, German, Slovak, Greek, or Italian-American.”
The guests brought photos and mementos. Among them was a faded PS 5 banking book. Each student contributed to his or her student bank account every Monday morning. It could be a dime, a quarter, even a dollar, whatever their parents could afford at the time. At the end of sixth grade when they graduated from PS 5, the children received a regular bank book. In that way they learned to save.
The best memories though didn’t need a prop. Evelyn Strang (raised on 30th Street between Newtown Avenue and Astoria Boulevard) and Frank Jankech (31st Avenue and 32nd Street) reminisced about a date they had gone on when they were young. It was Evelyn’s first time going to a Broadway show. She recalls her mother telling her to dress up nice and wear gloves. “I remember you were always smiling, always happy,” she said of Frank.
Miss Anna E. Burns, the PS 5 long-time principal, cropped up in the conversations. The girls at the school liked her, the boys loathed her. One recalled his delight at discovering how to open a high window in the corridor followed by the dread of sensing her approaching behind him.
There were also insights into how 30th Avenue has changed. Near where Key Foods supermarket is now located there was a grand mansion: Evelyn’s father tended the gardens there. Most of the Avenue consisted of small shops, like now, but very few of the shops from the time have survived. On practically every corner there was a pharmacy: from 29th Street to Steinway there were seven.
Off the Avenue, kids would take over whole blocks with street games, like stick ball for which they used manhole covers and auto fenders as bases. And many remembered the jubilant street parties on V-J day in Spring 1945, when they were impressionable five year-olds.
Guests were given a questionnaire that they browsed during the meal, with questions about PS 5 and the neighborhood. Some had specific answers. “An important invention was made in Astoria in a garage on 37th Street, what was it?” (Answer: xerography, i.e. a dry photocopy, which soon became the essence of the Xerox corporation).
Other questions began with “Do you remember…?”. For example, “Do you remember ‘inspection’ each week?” (when the class had to stand in a row and have their hands and fingernails inspected for cleanliness and display their handkerchiefs). And: “Do you remember the basement lunch room (can you smell the tomato soup) ?”
The atmosphere at the reunion ranged from lighthearted to emotional. As Alfred said when he addressed the group: “It’s just a kick, a great feeling, to see someone again.”
I am very grateful to Alfred Holzman for inviting me to join this reunion.
First up, a note from Jennifer Greco about the shop:
Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place where collectors meet each other whether during working hours or on Saturdays, to discuss coins of interest, the market trends, or just stop by to say “Hello”. The highlight of the store has always been the display cases, and whatever wall hangings we have on display at the moment, and the comradely conversations. Frank Greco believes that these displays are not only of interest to our devoted customers, but even travelers find interest in the museum-like experience of seeing a small bit of history hanging on our walls and in our cases. Our unique coin shop is an interesting visit for people of all ages.
Frank and Jennifer Greco have run Astoria Coins and Collectibles on 30th Avenue since 1975. It was a coin shop before then too. Jennifer’s family owned the building, and the store first opened when she was around eight years old. “I used to come in all the time with my Dad,” she says. “I grew to love the shop and the idea of collecting coins…I guess it is in my blood now.”
She was fifteen when she met Frank. They were both working at Key Food supermarket, at the time located not on 30th Ave as it is now but on 31st Street, between 21st Avenue and Ditmars. Frank left Key Food after the couple had their children, as he was working really long hours. He got a job with Air Canada at JFK airport and began working in the coin shop as well on Saturdays. Then when he was laid off, he made the coin shop his full time vocation. Their two sons and daughter are now grown up: the middle son, Robert, works in the coin store too.
“It’s the whole thing,” Frank says, on why he is passionate about working with coins. “It’s a history lesson, really. For example you start thinking about the movies, and John Wayne when he used to go into a bar with a silver dollar and get a whole bottle and a meal, and maybe even a woman and still get change!”
The store focuses on US coins, but also sells coins from many other countries. Frank says that there used to be more coin shops, particularly in Manhattan. But given the increasing rents and rise of the internet there are far fewer now. He himself does a lot of business on the internet, while also sourcing coins from customers who bring them in, dealers who go from store to store, and shows.
The display cases that run the length of the store are crammed with clearly-labeled coins, each of which conveys a story. Recently among them were a coin commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 address at Cooper Union before he became President, and a more recent coin marking the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK.
The store also used to sell baseball cards and comic books, a hit with kids from the local boys club. They still provide a bright patchwork on the walls, along with cabinets of coins, hanging bills, and a superhero mural. But, Frank says, “It just got out of hand, got crazy. I’d be selling baseball cards for a dollar a piece and then all of a sudden they came out with the high-end cards for $10 a piece. Same thing with the comics. But kids don’t have ten dollars. So I just stopped it.”
The store provides an income tax service too. It predates the coin business, in that Jennifer’s father had a real estate office next door which also did income tax. Frank says: “At that time we would get the paper with the carbon copy in the middle and if you made a mistake you would rip it up and have to do another one. When I got started, all I remember is ‘Do it over! Do it over!”.
Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place to hang out as much as a store. “My eldest son always says that we should turn on a video here, because of the people who come in and just talk,” Jennifer says. “Usually it starts about coins, about the economy, but then it becomes anything.”
A significant change they are seeing the neighborhood is the construction of new, expensive apartment buildings. “I see a yuppie generation coming in,” says Jennifer. “For the older generation – I can speak from my mom’s point of view because she was also born and raised in Astoria – she hates it. She says they’re killing Astoria, I guess killing the country feeling of it, that she had growing up around 18th Street.”
Frank adds: “I grew up in Long Island City, down by Vernon Boulevard and 40th, where the Pepsi plant was. When I grew up there it was just factories. Now it’s Manhattan just coming right over the river. And they’re going to do that along the waterfront here, too. It’s just a matter of time.”
He says that properties are being overpaid for. He cites the example of an apartment block on 21st Street where “they purchased five or six houses for $1.2 million. Most people who live there paid like $8-10,000 for their houses. If you get an offer for $1.2 million, you’re like ‘ok I’m out of here!’”
The coin store will no doubt though remain a community fixture for many years to come. Jennifer recently returned to work there after retiring from her work in education. “It’s invigorating,” she says. “Especially having been in a classroom, a school, where you know there’s a lot of action, I never realized what I was missing all those years!”
Elizabet Flores owns La Bomboniera Marylu party store on 30th Ave. What more festive way to end this year of interviews than a conversation with her. “We are like a party planner,” Elizabet says. “We can help you with first communions, christenings, birthdays, weddings. We help you with the invitations, favors, decoration of the hall…anything that you need for the party.”
The store is brimful with party products. Among them are its namesake and Elizabet’s own personal favorite item, the favors called bombonieras. They are small packets of five sugared almonds wrapped in tulle or organza and tied with a ribbon. On the ribbon are words appropriate for the party, like “happy birthday” or the names of the couple if they are for a wedding.
“It’s a French, Italian and Greek tradition, so I didn’t know about them before,” says Elizabet, who is from Mexico. “When you tell the customers, they say, ‘you didn’t know what that means?!’” The bombonieras are given for good luck.
Elizabet says that she is always learning from customers about their own party traditions. “For the Greek orthodox people, we do things that they have for Easter, the candles and things like that.” At Christmas time, local Ecuadorians hold month-long celebrations for the holy boy, divino niño Jesús. “They do it like a party for the holy boy. They make invitations, they have a mass, they have a reception and traditional dances. So we help them with that.”
La Bomboniera also helps customers hold small parties in their homes. “We can rent the chairs and the tables, and do a touch with a small cake. We just work with the Dominican cakes. We have a lady who makes them for us. People like the Dominican cakes a lot. Around the area on 30th Avenue they just sell like Italian cake, French. The difference is the paste. It should be like a pound cake, and the filling doesn’t have cream, it just has like a guava paste, or pineapple or strawberry or chocolate.”
The store has been on 30th Ave since 2004, and its previous owner ran it for some time before that on Roosevelt Avenue. Elizabet says that how she became involved “is a funny story. I was the cleaning lady of the previous owner. She got married and one day said ‘I want to sell my business’. I thought, ‘ok, I’ll have to look for another job’. But I was talking with a couple of friends and my family, then I talked to her and said ‘why don’t you give me the opportunity to buy your business?’
“She helped me a lot. Because I didn’t speak English at that time. She was helping for four months, showing me. I was trying to learn the most that I can. Because her husband bought another business in Florida and she had to go. I was like, ‘oh my God I have to learn!’”
“What I can tell you? I can’t believe I was just the person who helped her at her house and now I own her business. Once a year she still calls me. ‘Elizabet, how’s everything, you doing good?’”
Elizabet says that she tries to be involved with each customer as if she is planning her own party. “In that way I think they are going to be happy and they are going to come back. I try to keep all of my customers. It was a very hard time when I started, but now I can tell you thank God, everything is ok.” Her mother and her sister help her in the store. She says that being able to work with them and the face-to-face interaction with her customers are what she enjoys most about running the store. When her own two children have parties, she even invites a few of her customers along to join in.
If she doesn’t have an item a customer needs she does her best to find it. “If I don’t understand exactly what they want, I just say ‘can you explain again?’ And I’ll do it. Of course!”
Sid is an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with the New York City Fire Department. He covers “pretty much anywhere on the West end of Queens.” I spoke with him on a bitterly cold Sunday morning while his ambulance was parked outside Mount Sinai Hospital on 30th Ave.
Sid says that the work involves “anything from picking up drunks on the street, to cardiac arrests and severe trauma jobs.” He enjoys helping people through his work – to the extent that as well as working the shifts of his job (each eight or sixteen hours), he also volunteers as an EMT around Suffolk County in Long Island, where he lives.
But EMTs often don’t get the credit for their work, he says. “With most of the stuff that we do here in NYC, we pretty much have the Fire Department in front of us. The Fire Department get the credit and we don’t. Pretty much we take care of the patients, they take care of the fire. So whoever they bring to us, we take care of them. Half-dead, we bring them back alive. We bring them back here [to the hospital], and that’s the end of it.
“Sometimes, especially when there are family members around, about half of them they come to you and do say thank you, others they just don’t really care.”
Sid says that the sytems are different in Long Island and New York City. “In Long Island we do everything at once. We do fire, rescue, and ambulance first aid at the same time. Here it’s separate. Fire is fire, EMS [Emergency Medical Services] is EMS. I think it works a lot better when everything is together.” One reason he has continued volunteering in Long Island, which he has done for a long time, is because of the excitement of doing a bit of everything.
Training for being an EMT includes first aid, basic life support, and CPR. Sid says that in New York the training is about three months and in Long Island it is six. In the future, he hopes to go on to be a paramedic, and beyond that, a physician’s assistant or a nurse.
Of Astoria, Sid says, “the neighborhood around here is pretty good, depending on which way you look at it. There’s a lot of diversity around here. On one side you have Brazilians, on this side Italians, again on the other side you have Middle Easterners, and then back here there are people from Greece.”
Sid was born in Colombia and came to the US when he was young – he has been here for 27 years now. “I’ve been back to Colombia seven or eight times,” he says. “It’s a little expensive to go down there! And other than some family and some of my elementary school friends I don’t know anybody there now, so it’s a little different.”
Sid says the Colombian community in Astoria is much smaller than in Jackson Heights, where many of the Colombians in NYC live. Now, he says, many are moving out to Long Island.