Astoria Characters: The Ditmars Dawners

In a city that never sleeps, I’m a dawner.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

I get up at 5 in the morning all seven days of the week.

It’s a habit I established about a decade ago when I got a puppy who was endowed with an adorably tiny bladder, and I took an administrative job at a university that required me to be at my desk at 8 a.m.

The puppy grew up – Zora will be 10 on the 21st of January – and the job dissolved when my boss unexpectedly died.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

But for no plausible reason that I can come up with, I have continued this radical routine.

Bleary-eyed, I stumble out of bed, put Zora on her leash and go out to greet the other people on Ditmars Boulevard who rise before the sun.

Ditmars Boulevard may not be Penny Lane, but it does a possess a gritty sort of charm that can’t be found anywhere else, which is probably a good thing.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

As the metal gates of Ditmars Deli & Grocery close with a clang, the commuters, the joggers and the sleepless are joined by the straggling all-nighters who have reluctantly called it a day.

“You’re out really late,” says a guy who walks by.

“Actually, I’m out early.”

“I guess it depends on your point of view.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

At the bus stop across the street, the plumber who works in a Manhattan apartment building snuffs out his last cigarette before he boards, and the aging waitress whose hair is in a bleach-blond beehive rushes to join him, just making it inside before the doors close.

 The young woman from Connecticut who is an aspiring actress is walking to the subway on her way to the Manhattan restaurant that’s her day job.

 She’s in charge of the a.m. opening. She’s smiling. She has her backpack, which means she’s going home to visit her parents for the weekend.

The woman walking briskly to Starbucks – the one who never greets me when I say hello and who stops and waits at every red light even when there are no cars – looks away as she passes by.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A 27th Street, there’s a bearded bear of a guy passed out at the curb, his legs sprawled dangerously into the street.

Before I can stop her, Zora nudges him with her nose, and his eyes pop open like crocuses breaking through the snow.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been there – he had a couple of drinks, OK make it too many beers, at Rocky McBride’s on 23rd Avenue.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He just lives up the street, he can even remember the exact address. But he can’t make it home alone.

He’s too heavy for me to lift so I call 911, and two big EMTs in an ambulance arrive to help him up.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran,” he says to me as they examine him. “God bless you, you’re an angel.”

Early morning, I have discovered, either makes people hit the mute button or encourages them to spill their guts out to strangers.

At Astoria Bagel Shop, a gray-haired man in a Con Ed uniform is waiting for the doors to open.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He lives on a farm upstate near Albany in an area he calls New York’s Swiss Alps.

Even when there’s no traffic, it takes him hours to get to work.

He pets Zora; he misses his year-old chocolate lab puppy.

He admits he’d rather be baling hay than buying a bagel, but what can you do?

He’s biding his time until retirement – he’ll be free before the end of 2022.

As we get closer to Immaculate Conception, where, lately a homeless couple have been sleeping on the front steps, I see the tiny, senior woman with the giant collie.

It’s not her first dog. She used to keep company with an aged collie who was trained to walk leash-less by her side.

This replacement, now obedient, was one hell of a wild puppy; he used to drag her around the block.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

I’m admiring the window display at Ditmars Flower Shop when John Hoey, the longtime proprietor of O’Shea-Hoey Funeral Home, parks his ghost-grey stow-and-go van out front.

As he wheels in a bagged body, he says hello and smiles.

The dead are silent; he probably doesn’t get to talk to many living souls at daybreak.

There’s a lot more early-morning commotion on 31st Street than there used to be only a couple of years ago before it became a bustling mecca for the big, bad box stores.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Now, there’s always lot of activity at TJ Maxx, where white trucks pull up and disgorge boxes and boxes of stuff – so much stuff it’s hard to believe that there are enough people in the world, let alone in Astoria, to buy it all up.

Next door, the lights at sugar-sweet Krispy Kreme spotlight the sidewalk; the shelves are empty. As I turn away, the doughnut delivery truck pulls up.

I check my iPhone; it’s nearly 5:30.

Time to turn around and head for home.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling