Despite the construction happening right outside her door, Riki Damti was all smiles when she met us at Grill 212, the tiny kosher eatery that she owns with her brother, Maor, and her husband, Moshe. Though Grill 212 is mainly a takeout spot, there are a few tables in the back where customers can dine. Riki invited us to sit down, and offered us tea made with fresh mint and a bowl of each of the six soups on the restaurant’s menu. The selection included vegetable, white bean, a hearty meat soup and Marak Regel, made with calf's leg, which turned it into a deep reddish purple. Riki explained that while they are from Israel, Moshe has a Yemenite background; therefore, the menu is a combination of traditional Israeli and Yemenite dishes, which uses slightly different spices.
While we sampled the soups, Riki brought us a bowl of hummus with fresh pita and shared some stories about her family. She and Maor moved to New York when she was twelve years old. When she got a job with the Israeli company, Ahava, selling products from the Dead Sea, she moved to Texas, where she met Moshe. At the time, he was working for a Dallas construction company. She and Moshe married and came to New York in 2012 in order to join the Yemenite Congregation at the West Side Institutional Synagogue.
Owning a restaurant, Riki stated, was Moshe’s “life-long dream.” Grill 212’s current location used to be a hair salon with a low ceiling. When the threesome found this location, they had to take about ten inches off the floor, while Riki also worked to improve her baking skills - “It’s something I always loved doing.” Challah, which she makes on Thursday for people to pick up on Friday before Shabbat, is her specialty. They managed to get the business off the ground thanks to word spreading amongst the Jewish community. She told me that she enjoys working at the grill, saying, “It gives one a great satisfaction when you do something you love.” She also enjoys the food, especially the chicken schnitzel served with rice, which she had us try, along with the falafel, baked with cardamom.
Despite having spent a substantial time in Texas and Israel, Riki considers New York her home. She shared stories with me of visiting Israel with her children during bombings and seeing the terror in her little boy's eyes. As much as she adores Israel, and being with her family, she admitted that she is always happy to return here, her "safe place." She does, however, try to make trips to Israel whenever she can and would be proud of her son if he chose to join the Israel Defense Forces one day.
Riki recognizes that Grill 212 works in New York in a way that it would not in Israel: the eatery serves a specific purpose on the Upper West Side, providing casual glatt kosher food to its neighbors. My final question to Riki was to ask her what it was like being in business with her husband and brother. With a twinkle in her eye, she smiled and said, “I always get it my way.”
When I entered FD Gallery, I was convinced I was walking into a bakery - drawn in by the delectable trays of pastries and beguiling tarts in the window. Only after I saw a dazzling array of gold and jewels did I realize that this was, in fact, an estate jewelry gallery. The painted cakes in the window were a display for the necklaces and brooches carefully exhibited around them. "We all have an affinity for sweetness," Thomas Tolan, the gentleman who greeted me, laughed when I told him my mistake. He explained that the displays, which change every six to nine weeks, are meant to be fantastical: "We feature a lot of animal motifs and pieces of whimsy that transcend fine art."Thomas went on to tell me that FD are the initials of the gallery's founder, Fiona Drukenmiller, a woman who had a successful career on Wall Street, but who left finance to raise her three daughters. When her youngest went off to school, Fiona decided to return to work. Recognizing that her passion and knowledge lay in estate jewelry - as she had amassed her own personal collection of jewelry over the years - she set out on a new career path.Thomas said that FD has a much understated business model, and that having a side street location allows for the anonymity of their clients. The gallery does very little advertising and relies on word of mouth. Perhaps because of this, FD provides excellent customer service. The staff essentially work as a concierge, welcoming people and tracking any items that are of interest to them. The pieces are all curated by time period and material. Although the jewelry was magnificent, and several pieces had interesting histories, I was particularly fascinated by a ruby Buddha that Thomas said dates back to fifteenth century China.It was evident that Thomas was passionate about his position at FD. This is definitely a "gallery as opposed to a jewelry store," however, each item is meant to be used and appreciated. As he put it, "A piece of art like this should be worn and enjoyed. It would be sad to see it locked away in a safe." He went on to say that he often gets attached to something, and then feels a special bond with the person who ends up purchasing it.In addition to the Cartier and sparkling Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry in the front of the boutique, there are rare books and other vintage items in the back, along with an espresso bar laden with treats. I was getting ready to step back outside when Thomas, full of smiles, confirmed my suspicions, saying "It really is fantastic to work here. Fiona is a remarkable woman." And it was only a few days later while riding the subway that I looked up and spotted an advertisement for the upcoming AIDS Walk. Along with the corporate sponsors listed, there was one solitary individual donor: Fiona Drukenmiller. I was so pleased, not only to recognize her name, but to see that she is truly a philanthropic, altruistic, whimsical woman.
The Upper East Side sometimes feels like Little Hungary, what with the First Hungarian Literary Society on 79th Street, the Hungarian House on 82nd, and various Hungarian churches scattered throughout the neighborhood’s residential streets. The First Hungarian Baptist Church, which provides services in Hungarian, is no exception. The congregation was established in 1895 and now resides in a building completed by Emery Roth, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, in 1916.
Eileen Macholl, the Executive Director of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, introduced me to Mary-Ella Holst, calling her a “historian, long-standing member, and guru.” The answer to most questions in the church, Eileen told me, is “Ask Mary-Ella.” We learned just how extensive her knowledge was when she took us on a tour of the sanctuary and recounted the history of the congregation. She joined the church in 1964 to teach at the church school, but Mary-Ella is a well of information stretching back as far as 1819, when the congregation was first formed. It began when William Ellery Channing was invited to give a speech in Baltimore and made a trip down from Boston, where he lived. On the way, he stopped in New York to visit his sister, Lucy Channing Russel. She then invited her friends, primarily Bostonians staying in Manhattan, to listen to William give a sermon. He was not feeling well at the time, so he read the sermon while sitting down, but his listeners were inspired to start a church based on his reading.The congregation moved around in its first few decades. Its third location was in a church on Park Avenue and 22nd Street that was cheekily referred to as the “Church of the Holy Zebra,” thanks to its odd striped design. Though the church was much derided and no longer exists, the Victorian Society in London recently got in touch with the Unitarian Church of All Souls to tell them that the church had been one of the first examples of Ruskin architecture in the United States.Before entering the congregation, Mary-Ella showed us to an old pew rental chart. She pointed to a name, George F. Baker, explaining that he was the founder of Citibank. He had been the President of the Board for fifty years, which was useful, since the church is entirely self-funded. They receive no support from a national organization and when the church is short on funds, the board is expected to come up with the money. Countless other influential figures have attended the church, including Louisa Lee Schyler, who founded the Bellevue School of nursing, and author Herman Melville.Continuing into the sanctuary, Mary-Ella spoke about William Ware, who became the first minister for the church. She described him as a “great writer, but a bad preacher.” He had the proper lineage, however, since his father was on the faculty of Harvard and helped form the divinity school, despite his Unitarian tendencies. He was also married to the daughter of Benjamin Waterhouse, who invented the smallpox vaccination. A lot of the history of the time, Mary-Ella said, comes from the diary of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a female writer who attended the church, but was not a member due to her gender. She also encouraged William Ware to write Zenobia, a novel that was published in the Knickerbocker, a literary magazine, and took place in Ancient Rome. William Ware also wrote Julian, which described life in Nazareth, but never mentioned Jesus as the Son of God.The most influential minister, however, is featured to the right of the altar. The bas-relief of Whitney Bellows is thought to be the largest relief that the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens ever made. It is believed that Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union, convinced him to create it after Augustus spent two years studying with Rodin. Bellows, who was “more powerful than any newspaper,” was supremely influential in New York. He created the Union League Club to support emancipation and raised money for the sanitary commission, which eventually became the American Red Cross. He even had a hand in forming Central Park (the co-designer of the park, Calvert Vaux, was a member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History.Our tour ended with two important elements that bookmark the sanctuary. First, Mary-Ella turned us around to face the impressive organ. The church is very musical, with a church choir, a community choir, a youth choir, and a concert series. Though the current organ is relatively recent, the church’s historic first organ is being used in Vermont. Finally, Mary-Ella gestured to the elaborate design made with gold and silver strings at the front of the church, created by Sue Fuller. Unitarian Universalists welcome all beliefs or lack thereof. For this reason, within the sparkling design above the alter, there is the swooping arc of Islam, the Star of David, and a Christian cross.We were informed of countless other tidbits about the church and the history of the city from Mary-Ella, and were not surprised to learn that she conducts a lecture series in the summertime. The Manhattan Sideways team was riveted through her entire tour and highly recommends it to anyone interested in understanding more about New York City and its influential members throughout the years.
The side streets are full of people with a lot of character, and that would certainly include Eugene Nifenecker, known as “King Gene.” When I commented on his moniker, he immediately reached for a plaque on his desk. He explained that once he started calling himself “King Gene,” a friend pointed out that he could not be a monarch without any land to his name. Gene then discovered that for a fee, he could buy one square foot of historic land in Scotland. He did so, has the deed to prove it, and now uses it to back up his claim of being the once and future Balloon King.There is a reason, however, that the name of the business is plural. He is backed up by an amazing team of people. For example, Kathy has been with Gene since before he left his job in the sign business. Gene shared that he was working in his grandfather’s old store on 83rd Street as a third generation sign manufacturer. He had been hand painting signs since the sixth grade and he simply got tired of it. A friend, who Gene used to make signs for, was selling her place on 80th, and Gene took advantage of the opportunity, choosing to enter the world of balloons. He also took Kathy with him. “This is my kingdom,” he said with a smile, picking up his plastic scepter that a customer had given to him.Gene has done a lot of research on balloons and what keeps them afloat. He told me that the reason why balloons end up on the floor the morning after filling them up is because helium is the second smallest atom, and so it is able to seep through the pores of the balloon. As a result, Gene adds gel inside of the balloons in an effort to fill up these pores. Additionally, he only uses American-made balloons. I learned that other countries tend to make their balloons with a lot of chemicals, which causes them to give off the awful rubbery smell that many people associate with balloons.Gene showed me a few examples of jobs he has done, including a series of see-through bouquets that he made for an event at a grand ballroom in midtown. He also informed me about an exciting installation he was a part of when Target was releasing a new bath product. He and his team blew up 3500 clear balloons that were arranged in rows of forty by forty by twenty in Grand Central Station. They were all different sizes and were blown up and deflated before being properly filled, in order to make them perfectly round. What makes Balloon Kings special, however, as Kathy pointed out, is “You can come in for just one balloon or one million balloons.” To drive that point home, Gene asked Olivia, a Manhattan Sideways team member, her favorite color. He then blew up a green balloon inside another see-through balloon with geometric shapes and presented it to her. Before handing it over, however, he tied the ends of the ribbon and curled it. “When you walk out, it should always have a curl,” Gene announced. As Olivia, in her twenties, grinned like a toddler while Gene tied the balloon to her wrist, Gene said, “Any kid that comes in with a parent gets a balloon, no matter what.”We quickly understood that every visitor to Balloon Kings receives the same special treatment that we did. Kathy pointed out, “Every single balloon is done by hand. We have to touch every part of it,” and then added, “We want to make the customer’s vision come to fruition.” I was impressed by the organized rows of different kinds of balloons. There are sixty-seven colors represented with at least 600 of each in stock every day. The easy-to-follow set-up and code are thanks to Gene, who prides himself on his organization, which he developed in the sign business (for anyone curious about his previous work, the signs in the Jazz at Lincoln Center building are his). “I brought structure to a fragmented industry,” he explained. But mostly, he has brought a sense of fun and whimsy to the neighborhood, which I experienced within just a few minutes of him whisking me around the store and calling me “my lady.” And then ended by saying, “It’s fun! Balloons are fun!”
The ceiling of this long, narrow shop is studded with chandeliers in all shapes and sizes. Behind the counter, hundreds upon hundreds of keys dangle from hooks on the wall. The window display is piled with doorknobs and old telephones. “Antiques,” Mr. Charlie told me. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”Born in Iraq in 1935, Mr. Charlie was raised in Israel before moving to New York as a young man. He speaks six languages: Arabic, Hebrew, English, Turkish, Farsi, and “a little bit” of Filipino. The evidence of this incredible linguistic ability is scattered throughout the shop - a bottle label in Hebrew, a conversation with a client that swings between Arabic and English, and in his voice itself. His speech is soft, quick, and underscored with a hard-to-place accent. He likes to talk, maybe almost as much as he likes locks.Mr. Charlie fell into locksmithing by accident - or perhaps by fate. While visiting friends on Long Beach, Long Island, he helped one of them jimmy open their truck door in a matter of minutes. And thus, a locksmith was born. He speaks of his work like the expert he is: with the love and pride of one who knows they do a good job. “I’ve been in business a long time and never had a problem. I love to serve, to help people.”His customers seem to return the devotion. In the back of the shop, Mr. Charlie showed me a small collection of antique Iraqi pots and synagogue decorations given to him by one of his clients, a Lebanese woman who works for the U.N. He pulled two wooden combs from one of them. “These are just like the combs my mother would use,” he said, tracing his fingers over their hand-painted surfaces.Mr. Charlie’s own children do not share his passion for antiques and locks. With no one to take over the store, Charles Locksmith Inc. will close when Mr. Charlie retires. Without a doubt, the shop is worth a visit before its doors are shuttered for good. It is a gem of old New York, steeped in history from the antiques on the shelves to the man behind the counter.