Greg Kritikos is pedaling his bicycle on 30th Avenue near 42nd Street.
This is the place he grew up in, and everything – the good and the bad, the things he can’t forget and the things he doesn’t want to remember – happened to him in this neighborhood, which he’s called home for most of the past half century.
Greg, a producer, stand-up comic and actor who has been compared to Jackie Gleason, is a larger-than-life lovable tough guy with slicked-back black hair and a diamond pinkie ring. His New York accent is as thick as cement shoes.
If you are not acquainted with his work, you soon will be: He’s the co-writer, producer and star of the feature-length film Charlie Boy, which was shot on the streets of Astoria and will be playing in local theatres around Christmas time.
The movie, about a retired gangster who becomes a comedian to work through his grief over the killing of his son, is largely and loosely based on events in Greg’s life.
Greg, who was born in Athens, Greece, arrived in Astoria with his parents and older sister when he was 7 years old.
“We came for the American dream, but it was more like the American nightmare,” he says.
Things went sideways right from the start.
Greg’s father, a professional soccer player, ended up opening a shoe-repair shop, and Greg, who didn’t know any English (“I once mixed up the word ‘beach’ with ‘bitch,’ as in ‘I went to the bitch’”) was ridiculed because his mother dressed him in the European style.
“With my sandals, white tube socks and shaved head, I stuck out,” he says, adding that his was the only Greek family in the Irish-Italian neighborhood. “It was the early 1970s when boys wore their hair long. I got picked on a lot, and I had a lot of fear. Kids started calling me Hamburger, a word I didn’t pronounce properly, but in my mind I wanted to tell them that someday I would be the Burger King.”
The family determined to stick it out for five years, but right before that self-imposed time limit was reached, Greg’s mother was hit by a drunken driver. Her leg was amputated above the knee.
“The driver didn’t have insurance,” Greg says. “The medical bills were high, and we didn’t have the money to pay them.”
Greg became a member of The Steinway Street Boys, which was more of an association than a gang although one of the members was deported and became the John Gotti of Greece.
He pulls up a photo of the boys on his smartphone; all are ominously clad in black leather.
“Hey, it was the Eighties – everyone was wearing leather,” he says.
By the time he was 17, Greg had dropped out of high school to work in his brother-in-law’s Manhattan deli. He started drinking at 18 and began using coke at 23.
The drug trade was his main occupation, and by the time he was 25, Greg was doing six months in Rikers for assault and narcotics trafficking, charges lodged during a sting operation he got caught up in.
While he was on the inside, he was attacked by three inmates whose intent was murder.
“One had an ice pick, one had a razor and one had a Master Lock tied up in a tube sock,” he says. “They sliced my ear, and I lost one tooth.”
Greg dramatically pulls back his left ear to reveal the wound.
“I never told my mom I was in prison,” he says. “She thought I was working with the Merchant Marines.”
At any rate, when Greg was released, he didn’t change his habits, he escalated them, hustling and using coke and pot and drinking a lot.
“Prison enhanced my reputation in the neighborhood,” he says. “The people who picked on me, let’s just say I returned the favor, and I hurt a couple of people’s ‘feelings.’”
Eventually, he got a job as the director of security for a Greek developer, got married and had a son, who is now 24.
By 2000, Greg’s life, by his own admission and fault, was pretty much a mess.
“I hit rock bottom,” he says. “I was like a boat with broken sails. My wife and I separated (we are happily divorced now), I blew up to 385 pounds. I was drinking a bottle of Dewar’s every night and smoking coke and cigarettes. I developed a lot of problems – I was depressed, I had sleep apnea, high cholesterol and diabetes, but God kept me alive.”
It took him nearly a decade to get his life back in order. After spending seven days detoxing in a hospital plus nearly four months at Phoenix House, Greg was ready to face the world head-on and head-clear again.
“I make it a point to give back – I give anti-addiction speeches at detox and rehab centers and prisons,” he says, adding that he was proud to recently give a talk to students at Lake Erie College in Ohio.
Ironically, he found his new life while sitting on a barstool.
“I met a bartender at Cronin’s who thought I was a funny guy,” he says, adding that he continued to frequent drinking establishments after his recovery but didn’t imbibe alcohol. “She got me booked at the New York Comedy Club.”
Greg’s six-minute stint was a success.
“I wore a hat and sunglasses because I didn’t want anyone to recognize me,” he says. “I just said random things, and people laughed.”
He ditched his disguise and became a punch-line factory.
“After I got sober, I briefly moved to Spokane, Washington, which is where my comedy career took off,” he says. “I wasn’t going to come back to New York, but a part in a movie, plus free air fare to the city, lured me.”
Today, Greg’s a regular on the comedy circuit – his third one-man show, Sober Is the New High, typically sells out.
The Witless Protection Program, an animated series he developed with former Marvel Comics editor Mike Rockwitz, will be released next year.
Greg says Charlie Boy has opened new doors for him. He’s already writing another feature film, The Shoemaker’s Son, which is a semi-autobiographical account of immigrant life in Queens that he’ll have a cameo role in.
As part of his research, Greg made a mammoth 42-day trip to Greece for the first time since he came to America.
“I did a lot of soul searching, and it wasn’t easy,” he says. “I wasn’t with family, and I was all alone. It was an incredible experience, and the people in the islands were very genuine.”
Conceding that his real life reads like the improbable plot of a B movie, Greg says that he hopes his experiences help others make positive changes.
“Everybody has an opportunity,” he says. “I’m 56, but I have so much energy that I feel like I’m 15. I’ve been through so many things. I’m grateful every day that I’m alive.”
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling