I have lived on the Upper West Side for several years, but it was not until I walked on 70th Street one evening that I discovered Shalel. It is tucked away down a set of stairs with no signage during the daytime. Curious what this was, I descended the steps lined with rose petals and herbs, and entered what seemed like a magical cave, decked out in Moroccan décor and candles. There were secret nooks behind curtains and around corners filled with pillows, couches and tapestries. In the back, erupting from a mysterious darkness, was the fountain for which the restaurant is named - Shalel means “fountain” in Arabic. When I visited with the Manhattan Sideways team, I was able to learn the history of the restaurant from the owner. Vasilis Katehis, who hails from Greece, bought the basement space in 2000. “It was terrible, ” he said, describing an uninhabitable, dark piece of real estate that apparently had never been used for anything except storage. He began by lowering the floors by a foot and exposing the sheet rock, which he cleaned. The waterfall, he explained, used to be a pile of dirt. Despite the difficulty of the project, Vasilis greatly enjoyed the endeavor, since he considered it a labor of art. “I like anything having to do with design, décor, and poetry, ” he lyrically stated. “I had a vision. ” By the time Vasilis was done with the renovation, the difference between the beginning and end product was “like night and day. ” Even though the nooks and crannies had all existed before - and Vasilis's vision was to do “the unfinished thing, ” - he succeeded in completely transforming a basement into a romantic restaurant. Shalel immediately attracted customers, drawn to the idea of an underground eatery. Initially, it used to be more of “a date place, ” but in 2015, Vasilis told me that he tends to attract an older clientele. He also shared with me that he is the mastermind behind the entire menu, which is Mediterranean with an emphasis on Moroccan cuisine. As for Vasilis’s own background, he recounted, “I grew up as a farmer and a fisherman, ” and then added that he knows how to make both olive oil and wine, thanks to his upbringing on a tiny Greek island without a name. “For us, it was natural. ” Though he had other restaurants scattered around New York, Vasilis has sold them, with the exception of Shalel. He casually mentioned that he hopes to drift into semi-retirement and spend more time in Greece restoring his olive groves. It is unclear what the neighborhood would do without him, though. As he declared, “They know me on the Upper West Side. ” We had a long chat about the local businesses in the area, including those that have had to shutter over the years. After discussing raising rents, fallen culinary comrades, and the future of New York, Vasilis turned to me and added something rather poetic - If worse comes to worst, “We can all just go back to making olive oil. ”
Like many surgeons, when Dr. Thomas Romo III graduated medical school, he hopped on a plane to India and Vietnam in order to fix cleft lips. "We felt like we had time and a reason to give back, " he said of himself and his peers who choose to travel the world doing medical procedures before settling down and developing a practice. Though Dr. Romo operated on numerous lips, he realized after a while that the program he was traveling with was only fixing a quarter of the problem. After the lip healed, the palate still did not close correctly and teeth did not grow straight. Patients would experience chronic Eustachian tube problems, resulting in earaches. Dr. Romo wanted to fix the rest of the palate, but the mission that he was with focused solely on lips. "I wanted to change the paradigm, " Dr. Romo declared. Back in New York, he began developing a plan to help children with facial birth defects through all operation stages, not just cosmetic. Dr. Romo admitted that he did not have any experience putting together a foundation, "I did not go to business school, " he pointed out, and therefore it was challenging for him to lay the groundwork of his new venture. He decided to accept only newborns through age twenty-one who were on Medicaid or required other financial assistance, with emphasis on those from the United States. As he phrased it, "Little Baby Face Foundation helps "children from Harlem to Ethiopia. "With his mission in place, Dr. Romo then recruited thirty doctors, including pediatricians, plastic surgeons, and various specialists. This impressive brain trust assembles each month to discuss fifteen to twenty children whose financial statements have been checked. They ask, "Who does this child need to see? " If they are not sure, they bring them in for a "look-see" with each of the doctors. He then went on to say that when these children come in to meet this large group of doctors, they are experiencing something unique - this number of medical professionals is rarely seen in one room. For the entire stay, including during the operation and recovery time, the child and his or her family are taken care of every step of the way: their flights are paid for, "Mario picks them up in a car service, " and they are welcomed with open arms at the Ronald McDonald House. What most impressed me about the Little Baby Face Foundation is that every doctor volunteers his or her time. It has been worked out so that no one needs to perform more than a handful of procedures each month. Occasionally, when Dr. Romo is met with slight reluctance from one of the doctors, he often responds with a poignant, yet witty response: "How much fat do you want to suck and how many boobs do you want to do? Or do you want to change a child's life? "Dr. Romo performs a significant number of the operations. He sometimes ends up doing as many as ten during the winter holidays. Speaking with him is an enlightening experience, as he is so full of energy, compassion, and joviality. He shared a few stories of patients who had touched his heart. He told me about operations that involved a Texan child with nerve paralysis and another from Harlem who was born deaf and missing an ear on one side. On the latter, Dr. Romo performed a cochlear implant and that the child "heard his name said at graduation. "Speaking about a few other patients from abroad, Dr. Romo continued to touch my own heart as he spoke of a child who came from farther afield - in Ethiopia. The girl had a large mass on her neck that no other doctor would touch. Dr. Romo said, "We had to fly her from a small village to Addis Ababa to Dubai to New York. " Not only did the girl have the mass removed, but she also got to have a New York adventure. As he continued on, I learned about a couple from England who came with their eighteen-month old son, who had a tumor falling over his eye. The parents, who were only nineteen and twenty-one, themselves, were given the opportunity to spend several weeks in Manhattan while their child was having his life changed. Dr. Romo is proud of how far the foundation has come since it began in 1990. He recently experienced a year in which he raised enough money in order to pay a small staff. One of the members of his team is his own wife, Diane Romo, who is the surgical coordinator. She deals directly with the children and has the extreme pleasure of contacting families to tell them, "We're going to bring you to New York. "Now that he has a model and a brand, Dr. Romo hopes to expand. "We can helicopter to Chicago, LA, or San Francisco, " he told me excitedly. But he is also devoted to New York, and emphasizes the concept of "New Yorkers helping New Yorkers. " He wishes that more people knew that the Little Baby Face Foundation existed. He said that a lot of hospitals are in the red, which should not be the case, since there are so many doctors willing to occasionally work for free for the sake of the greater good. His need to give to the community in any way he can is inspiring. As he perfectly phrased it for me, "I'm a surgeon. This is the only way I know how to give back. "
In 1832, the Reverend Dr. McVickar found a large group of "destitute" boys playing on Stanton Street. He asked them why they were not at church, and they replied that there was no church. He immediately started raising money to start one. He managed to find a place to worship in a tiny room over an engine house. The first assembly occurred on January 6th, 1833, on the Festival of the Epiphany, hence the church's name. Since then, it has had many homes throughout the city and merged with a few other congregations before finding its current location on 74th Street. The parish moved in 1944, over a hundred years after it was first formed. At the time, the "Far East Side" had no Episcopal churches, but Epiphany chose to move in order to meet the needs of the New York Hospital complex.
Coach Jellybean, a man who was only introduced to us by his universally-used nickname, has endless good humor. He told us, "I am world famous on the Upper West Side among kids aged nine to twelve. " He added with a cheeky smile, "I'm a big deal. " He is often spotted on the street or at the zoo by gaping mouthed kids who are shocked to see their coach outside his natural habitat. It is not surprising that he is recognized so frequently, since two to three hundred kids go through the batting cages each week. It is, after all, the only place in Manhattan with an indoor facility. Jellybean took us past the large bank vaults that are a permanent part of the Apple Bank basement and into the Green and Blue rooms chatting enthusiastically. The Center can host six different classes at the same time, thanks to its size and equipment. It has every kind of pitching mechanism one can imagine, from a big ancient beast that is still "one of the best machines in the business" despite its age, to an LED display that lights up to resemble an actual pitcher. There are even simulators that can show where the ball would end up going in Yankee Stadium (with handicaps for younger batters). Not only does it motivate kids with a little firework display for home runs, but it also serves as a helpful statistical tool for older players hoping to improve their technique. One of the most impressive machines was the "pro-hitter" which can shoot out balls at 100mph and can basically mimic any kind of major league pitch. Jellybean also showed us the party room, which was decorated on one side for the Mets and on the other for the Yankees, in an effort to appeal to fans of both teams. As I was admiring the countless photographs of kids that lined the hallways, Jellybean pointed out that the center is not just for children. Far from it: the facilities have been used for bachelor parties, special needs adults, and even "big league guys" who want a place to practice in between seasons. The Center is also popular among foreign tour groups who want to try out America's pastime while visiting New York. Jellybean was particularly proud of the charity events that the Center hosts, where people pledge money for hitting pitches at a certain speed. After our tour, I took the time to speak with Jason, who told me more about the programs that the Center offers. There are tournament teams, after school programs, summer camps, and birthday parties, weekly classes, and, during the warmer months, outdoor leagues. He explained that the space's main purpose is to "Promote the experience of baseball. " When I asked how the Baseball Center accomplishes its mission, he replied without hesitating: "the coaches. " Some of the coaches played in college, some are former professionals, and some are still playing, but what binds them all together is their love of the game and their ability as teachers. "A good player doesn't always make a good coach, " Jason admitted, and assured me that each of his coaches is thoroughly trained as a teacher. With a grin, he told me that a mother had recently said to him, "I don't think I've ever seen so many men who are good with children. " With pride, Jason pointed out the sign that marked the Baseball Center as a designated New York City "safe house. "Though Jason has seen some real baseball stars come through the Center's programs - including Clayton Kershaw of the LA Dodgers - he was pleased to tell me of a child who had been coming for years, and had recently been offered a full ride to Stanford via baseball. He went on to say that he enjoys seeing every child thrive, no matter what level they ultimately achieve. He told me that his favorite part about working at the Baseball Center are those happy moments when he witnesses a child get their very first hit. "It's magic, " he gushed. It is a personal victory not just for the child, but for everyone at the Center. "We are a part of each child's team. "