Community Crazies: The Heart of Queens
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
I remember the “Raffle Lady.”
I inherited her along with the desk and office when I took over as Trib Publisher almost a quarter of a century ago.
When my friend and partner, Gary Ackerman, handed me the keys and the newspaper and went off to run the government, he also left me with several people who were, let’s say, peculiar. The “Raffle Lady” was the most memorable.
I don’t know
if Gary or I ever knew her name, but she showed up at our double storefront
office on Kissena Boulevard with the regularity of summertime mosquito
bites, peddling her raffles. Apparently, her church was always involved
in fundraisers for a variety
The “Raffle Lady” was odd. Now, “odd” is a kind word to choose to describe her peculiarities. She was persistent, intrusive, and rejection didn’t faze her. She almost welcomed abuse. As a matter of fact, she thrived on rejection. She would have made a wonderful salesperson. In fact, she was. She was there several times a week, asking for a dollar or five or 10 for some cause with a space cadet’s demeanor and a twinkle in her eye. She combined mildly bizarre behavior with the tenacious dedication and drive of a woman on a mission – a mission to do good for someone. I never really knew where the dollars were going. Yet I was pretty sure they were going to do some good.
It’s amazing, 25 years have come and gone since I first met her — perhaps I haven’t seen her in 24. Gary always kept the characters closer. However, her face, manner and presence are still with me – her downright annoying, intrusive but yet usually welcome presence remains. Yes, the “Raffle Lady,” like hundreds of others across the borough who are on their small missions to do good or bring about change, often march to the beat of the proverbial “different drummer.” They see the world and people through a unique perspective and the world and people usually respond by labeling them.
“Community Characters” was our ultimate choice of title as we went around the borough to compile profiles of the Queens folks who exhibited, let’s say, “non traditional” behaviors to achieve the ends they perceived as worthwhile. More often than not, their quirky behavior or mannerism or focus became part of their persona, or at least the rest of us so perceived.
When this issue started off as an idea in this writer’s head, its working title was: “Community Crazies.” It was a title of affection. Around the newsroom, we refer to a lot of the marvelous contributors to the Queens scene as “crazies.”
Crazy is often a term of endearment – especially in our newsroom. Some of my best friends are “Crazies.” Some of us and some of you are, too.
We mean no offense. We say it with a smile and we picture that “big tuba” as the beat to which some march. They just hear different music. And much of it is beautiful.
Now Pete Gelling, the editor of this special glossy-bound edition, has on page five given you the official Trib spin on what had to be done to qualify for inclusion in this Tribune tome. And although I’ve yet to read Pete’s intro, he and I see it pretty much the same.
We‘ve all known them. Some of us are them. Many of us like them. And sometimes elected officials hate them. They are civic leaders, environmentalists, people with causes, people on a mission, people who love their neighborhood, people who hate progress, people who lie down in front of tractors, people who picket legislators who vote the wrong way. They are people who attend meetings; they raise their hands and speak; they are occasionally disruptive and sometimes asked to leave. Sometimes they chair the civic group and everybody knows, they are the characters. But they are more committed than most and usually work very, very hard.
They are people who contribute to the fabric of our society.
I remember Peter Chahalis; he was the “Mayor of Maspeth,” when I first took over the Trib. In Flushing, there was Aaron Weiss whose strange vision brought us Flushing Fantastic, the single best one-day celebration in downtown Flushing’s history. Peter and Aaron are no longer with us and I fear the Raffle Lady may be peddling her duckats on some heavenly cloud, but they were in a tradition that has been nobly carried on by dozens of Queens locals.
As I shared this edition’s vision with the newsroom, I regularly referred to the person who I felt was the Queens embodiment of the archetypical “Community Crazy.” He hasn’t changes in the more than 40 years I’ve known him.
I first met Frank Skala when I was a student in Campbell Jr. High (JHS 218). Campbell’s building on Main St. in Kew Gardens Hills now houses the CUNY Law School, but to me it was home for the sixth through ninth grades. My class opened the building – we were the first ones through Campbell. And Frank Skala was a teacher. He was young and bizarre. I really can’t recall specifics, but Mr. Skala left an impression. He taught us; he made us think; and he was a little strange.
Maybe a decade after graduating from junior high, I found myself teaching and the elected UFT Chapter Chairman from P.S. 219 – the school right next to Campbell. Their Chapter Chairman was Frank Skala. Occasionally we attended district meetings together. Frank and I both cared about kids, teaching, education and politics. Only he just always seemed to see reality a little off center – at least off my center. Now that’s not a political spectrum reference, that’s just a view of the world. Those of you who know Frank, understand.
A decade later, I was steering the Trib and we were occasionally writing about Skala the teacher. And not too long after, it was Skala the civic activist. For the past umpteen years, Frank has served as president of the East Bayside Homeowners Association, written us letters, led causes, stopped by our office and been Santa Clause at our holiday parties.
Frank has been a thorn in the side of an awful lot of people and a rose blossom to a few. Frank is all those weird adjectives and all those wonderful things that one thinks about when you think “civic leader.”
I don’t often agree with him, but I almost always admire his contribution.
As wrong as he usually is, he’s right on. He cares.
Frank Skala, for
the creative month and a half that we worked on this volume, has been
my “Community Crazy.”
We’ve selected almost five dozen “Community Crazies Characters.” But our list is ongoing and changing. Sure we left some out. My apologies to them.
To Mike Sidell, the Mayor of Kew Gardens Hills, I called your name in well past the deadline. I don’t know how Mike missed the list. There are others, perhaps many others, who have earned their way onto the list, but won’t appear in this edition.
This list is just our beginning. Please share those missing from our quirky Queens do-gooders list. Read this issue and let us know who we missed and how to reach them—my email address is below. We shall occasionally share them with our readers.
With all true conviction, we salute the Queens Community Characters. They deserve our admiration and applause. It is their dogged determination that helps to keep the government on the right track, helps to keep the parks green and the walls clean. They often do so without recognition or gratitude.
To the entire group contained on these pages and to the dozens we’ve yet to meet, we say thank you.
We salute you.
And we occasionally
just scratch our heads.