Street Seens: Uncle Albert Lives

And even if his name is Mr. Turvy, (who knew there were so many magical Uncles in the six sequels P.L. Travers wrote from 1934 to 1989!) I firmly believe he is the Mary Poppins relative who can be credited with the rare gift of being able to fix “everything but broken hearts.” And more to the point, I have evidence that he is alive and well and working in this urban village’s zip code.

Here’s how you can recognize the aforementioned “fixer.” When you have an issue that has no obvious “go to” person to address it, you decide on a sort of hunch, that you will listen to the third-party endorsements of your neighbors. Or you might just decide to launch a test balloon to see whether Marco or Nick or Lyle might have some talent developed in their primary businesses that would prepare them not to laugh when you come to them with an unpredictable request.

nick1Nick Bender of Ciel Bicycles

In short, these are the “tip-offs” that a local entrepreneur is living proof that Uncle Albert lives. And better still that he can invest that skill in providing unexpected solutions to your problems. Here are some examples. A person in this village depends upon well engineered crutches to support the mobility of her amazingly active life of teaching and socializing. Now here’s the surprise “Uncle Albert” effect. She told me that one of the vital secrets for her peace of mind and security is found in the unlikely precincts of a bicycle shop. A bicycle shop?

Having been launched into the realm of the unexpected by her fulsome praise of the bicycle shop and its proprietor, I had a lightbulb moment. I can’t imagine how the cycling expert has helped my neighbor. But I can imagine how a cycling guru might be able to solve a problem closer to home. Now that I look at them with my neighbor’s insight, I notice that the cables that allow a bicycle to put on the brakes have a remarkable similarity to those that keep a walking device from rolling down the length of a city bus, destroying its value as a defense mechanism. The wise advice of a practical therapist was that such a device was a handy way to protect against the extreme enemies of navigation to be met on the streets of this urban village. It functions as a sort of “wake up call” to distracted walkers focused on texting and makes sidewalks ravaged by subway construction less challenging.

ciel interior

That’s what brought me to Ciel Bicycle Stores to meet Nick Bender, the Uncle Albert of two-wheeled devices and all their supporting mechanics. Believing it was worth a try, I stopped at the shop on East 65th Street and wondered aloud whether the bicycle/rollator relationship was worth pursuing. Fortunately, I thereby found by just opening the door, a Brown University alumnus who decided to apply his pre-med degree to a more varied set of mobility issues. While I sat, and became the center of a most energetic frolic of the resident French Bulldog Pogli, and his current amour, a 4-month old kitten, Nick worked his magic and I set off with my reborn/re-secured “Rolls Royce.”

On a return trip to take some Android photos, I found Nick at work on what he said was his favorite sort of project, one he describes as “finding a way to solve a problem for which there is no easy solution.” Nick was at work rebuilding a gear changing mechanism that the manufacturer placed at a lower level and the bike owner wanted to have nearer the handle bars. But that would not be achievable by just moving the gear from point A to point B. So, Nick figured out that he would have to build a new gear mechanism from scratch.   He had just achieved that when I visited Ciel. That’s the thing about “Uncle Alberts”: they specialize in creative answers to unexpected questions. So, evolution moves on and the son of two physicians imagines and performs highly imaginative operations.

marcoMarco Andrade of Marco Shoe Repair

I call Marco “the Uncle Albert” of shoe repair. Like Mary Poppins’ uncle he seems truly to be able to fix everything but broken hearts. And I wouldn’t rule that out, given his unfailing “can do” attitude. When his own heart was broken by the fact that his beloved dog Chulo’s walker dropped his leash when threatened by Upper East Side traffic, Chulo disappeared into the winter snow and traffic.

But true “Uncle Alberts” don’t retreat into regret. So, Marco prepared a flyer with Chulo’s photo, contact numbers and the promise of a “Good Reward,” and papered the streets and local newspapers with them. Many weeks later the phone rang and a kind woman who lived in the West Village reported that she had seen the ad, and thereby rejoiced that she had solved the mystery of how this obviously cherished pet had found his way to her door and would soon enjoy a homecoming. “Soon” was an understatement. Marco turned the key in his shop door and virtually flew the scores of blocks to reclaim a pal as resourceful as he.

Marco Andrade, the craftsman whose eponymous shoe repair establishment is to be found on Second Avenue near 63rd Street, descended from the Third Avenue shop presided over by his father. When Marco opted to move here from his native Ecuador with dreams of attending art school, his father urged him to pursue a different form of creativity. As one who had himself been first a mechanic and next a self-taught photographer, Marco’s father taught his son the shoemaker’s art. Although Marco now sketches and draws at every opportunity, he earns his living and his customer’s gratitude as an artist in repair and reconstruction.

I met Marco when I dared to present a handbag so ancient it could, if human, had qualified to vote. In its long life, the once elegant black cross body bag with just the right number of compartments, had visited dozens of airports and trade shows, freeing my hands and allowing me to negotiate the various challenges of life on the streets of our urban village and the mind-numbing demands of convention centers in more than a handful of states. Noting that Marco advertised an ability to “repaint” the soles of shoes that started life with a certain crimson designer panache (or any other you might prefer). Again, the phrase, “It may be worth a try” brought me in Marco’s door. And once again, I found a craftsman who didn’t laugh but threw himself into the miraculous transformation of a gently greying leather bag reborn as a glamorously black 21st century beauty.

marco shp

That was just the tip of the iceberg. When a well-meaning friend insisted that my walking companion of a “Rolls Royce” would indeed fit into the sleek trunk of her sleek little car and smilingly slammed down the trunk lid, I was left with a paraplegic. And then, you guessed it, Marco to the rescue. “I can fix that,” he said when “the patient” and I went to his shop to collect the shoes he had brought from torturous to downright comfy. And fix it, he did, revealing the unique combination of the mechanic’s skills and the artist’s eye that he inherited, and now advances every day. If this were a math formula, I would interrupt the narrative by noting: Point Two of the Uncle Albert Recognition standards: For him, nothing is impossible!

My discovery of another “Uncle Albert”, this one named Lyle, occurred when I first began writing Street Seens. I told our publisher that I was so curious about the gardens that “frame” my landmark parish Church of St. Vincent Ferrer. When she determined that I knew nothing about how any garden grows, she warned me that the creator of our nearby horticultural miracles did not seem to be eager for self-promotion; and she warned me that he might be more interested in speaking with his trees, shrubs and flowers than in being interviewed by me. Warned, but not deterred I approached Lyle Steele one August day and asked if he might consider answering a few questions about the genesis and flourishing of the gardens so many find enriching, inspiring and altogether amazing.

Uncle albert 3The Garden at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer

I offered to put together a few questions he might consider. Not only did he not laugh at me and my amateur’s questions, but he returned to me multiple pages of pure gold, marked by everything from impish humor to sensitivity to the surprising description of what he called the “community” over which he presides, and how it challenges and rewards him. Having begun by saying it was like presiding over a group of mischievous school children, he amended the description to say that it was perhaps more like presiding over a community of homicidal sex maniacs, all bent on grabbling the most of sun, soil and space for themselves and their relentless drive to reproduce. That definitely got my attention. There it was: proof positive that I had found an “Uncle Albert” of garden design.

Like our other two, this “Uncle Albert” came to his current niche from a world far away: that of publishing in the prestigious world of Manhattan-based business media/publishing. I was learning that it takes bold and brave decisions to release one’s inner Uncle Albert. I will invite you to return to the archives of to revisit the story that grew from a summertime exploration of his responses to my questions and his lyrical insight about the history and growth of the six gardens that are his gift to our urban village. (Maybe he illustrates why I associate the Uncle Albert gift with the laughing Ed Wynn character in the film Mary Poppins!)

Which brings us to a third tell-tale sign that you have encountered an Uncle Albert (even though his website reads He doesn’t laugh at you when you suggest exploring a new path of inquiry or discovery or doubt that he will find, plant and grow the “holy grail of lotus” on East 65th Street.

And like the other magical spirits portrayed here, he does deal in fixing everything, including broken hearts. I learned that recently, when he invited his list of email contacts to join him in a search for new homes for the two elegant Siamese-blend cats a dear friend had to part with when moving to an assisted living facility. The last time our paths crossed, he was braving the cold winter weather to meet with a potential adopter of his dear friend’s cats. May that hope have taken root and bloomed, as does all that he touches in the gardens that touch me and his grateful neighbors in our urban village.

About Annette Sara Cunningham (119 Articles)
Annette Sara Cunningham comes to Street Seens and Woman Around Town as a “villager” who migrated from Manhattan, Illinois to Manhattan 10065. She is currently the recovering ringmaster of a deliberately small three-ring enterprise privileged to partner with world-class brands to make some history as strategist and creative marketer. The “history” included the branding, positioning and stories of Swiss Army’s launch of watches; Waterford Crystal’s Millennium Collection and its Times Square Ball; the Orbis flying eye hospital’s global assault on preventable blindness; the green daring that in a matter of months, turned a Taiwan start up’s handheld wind and sun powered generator into a brand standing tall among the pioneers of green sustainability; travel to Finland’s Kings’ Road and Santa’s hometown near the Arctic Circle; the tourism and trade of Northern Ireland; and the elegant exports of France. She dreamed at age 12 of being a writer. But that dream was put on hold, while she became: successively, teacher of undergraduate philosophy, re-brander of Ireland from a seat at the table of the Irish Government’s Export Board; then entrepreneur, as founder and President of ASC International, Ltd. and author of Aunts: a Celebration of Those Special Women in our Lives (soon to be reborn as Aunts; the Best Supporting Actresses.) Now it’s time to tell the 12-year old that dreams sometimes come true.