Saturday, July 12, 2008

Taking To Two Wheels

Use of bikes, mopeds on rise in Long Beach

By Joseph Kellard

Not everyone is upset with $4-plus gas prices. In fact, some not only welcome them, they actively root for them to rise fourfold.

“I’m the only guy who hopes gas goes up to $20 a gallon,” John Merritt, owner of Buddy’s Bikes on West Beech Street for the past 30 years, said half-jokingly. “Business has never been so good.”

Mark Marshak, a Long Beach resident who sells mopeds at Scooter City in Island Park, said, “I’m about the only person in town happy about gas prices.” Marshak opened his shop in June of 2006, and sold 15 mopeds by the end of that year. He sold 85 in 2007. In February, before gas hit $4 a gallon, he noticed that more people were buying his mopeds, and already this year he has sold 135.

“I knew this was going to happen,” Marshak said. “I felt it and made provisions and have stockpiles of mopeds in my warehouse.”

With its 2-mile boardwalk and stretches of straight streets, Long Beach has long been inviting to cyclists. And while bike shop owners like Merritt say higher gas prices have positively affected business of late, the city’s notorious problems with parking have made cycling nearly a necessity for many residents.

“I think people continue to buy bikes because it’s always been like this in Long Beach — that is, it’s just easier to ride a bicycle than to drive a car and try to find a parking spot,” said Ray Fusillo, who owns Long Beach Bicycle on East Park Avenue.

For the past two years, West End resident Peter Meyers had pedaled to the Long Beach train station on Park Avenue each weekday so that when he returns at night, he doesn’t have to circle his neighborhood looking for a place to park. He starts his day by riding his hybrid racing/mountain bike along the boardwalk on his way to the railroad station. “There’s nothing better than riding on the boardwalk each morning,” said Meyers, who works at Lincoln Center and catches the 8:08 train to Penn Station.

He and other cyclists have noticed that many more commuters are riding their bikes to the station each day, and that additional bike racks that have been installed around the station have filled up.

“The number of bikes out here is insane now,” said Jennifer Hicks, who has taken the 7:04 to Manhattan each morning for the past three years. “Now it’s hard to find a space on the bike racks.”

Like Meyers, Hicks rides her bike for both the convenience and the exercise. She also uses it on weekends to run errands to the post office, library and supermarket. “I grew up on Fire Island — you have to have a bike there,” she said, “so I’m used to riding.”

Roger Gengo, the head custodian at East School, who cycles to work every day, is among those who never lost his childhood interest in bike riding. “We all rode bikes as kids,” said Gengo, who lives in East Atlantic Beach. “It’s kind of part of everyone’s life. Some of us went back to it, others never try riding again.”

For years Gengo rode his bike in triathlons, and after he stopped competing he turned to cycling for transportation. Today he rides a Raleigh bike to the local supermarket and the beach, having built contraptions to hold his groceries and surfboard.

While Gengo drives a 1997 Ford Expedition, he uses his bike primarily because parking in his neighborhood is “horrendous,” he said. “Also, a lot of things annoy you on the road when you’re driving your car. The bike is heaven sent.”

Cosmo Donato, a general contractor who lives and works in Long Beach, bought a scooter from Marshak last year to do routine estimates and minor jobs instead of burning gas in his work truck.

“Especially from June to September, there’s no place to park,” Donato said. “So to go see a customer by truck is ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense.”

Donato also hops on his moped when he needs to buy small items that are easy to carry, and on weekends he rides it to Island Park, where he docks his boat. The moped gets 80 miles to the gallon and costs him $75 a year in insurance.

Marshak’s mopeds start at $1,300 and go as high as $5,000. Their top speeds rang from 30 to 80 mph, most of them get between 80 and 100 miles to the gallon, and insurance can run as low as $50 a year.

“It’s cost-effective when you think about what gas and insurance cost,” he said.

Marshak said that many Long Beach residents, from the West End to the canals, have bought mopeds from him to ride to the train stations in Long Beach and Island Park each morning. Mike Puma, an NYPD detective who lives on the Baldwin-Oceanside border, bought one a month ago to get to and from the train station, but on weekends he rides it to the West End beaches. Puma’s moped goes 100 miles on $5 worth of gas.

“When I went to register it,” he said, “the woman at the DMV said that she’s registering more scooters than cars right now.”

While the state Department of Motor Vehicles was unable to provide statistics on the number of mopeds registered so far in 2008, its data shows that Nassau County had 687 registered mopeds in 2007, the third-highest county total in the state, behind Suffolk (1,069) and Erie (741).

Long Beach restaurateur Tom Corning registered his first moped this year, retiring a Volkswagen Bug he used for deliveries. Corning’s drivers now use the moped at his Caffe Laguna in the West End and ride a three-wheel bike at Olive Oil’s, his other restaurant, in Point Lookout. He estimated that he saves hundreds of dollars on gas a month.

“It’s great on gas, and the biggest thing in the West End is the parking,” Corning said. “It’s really convenient. My delivery guys love it.”

West End resident Susan Hilberer said she has noticed that more delivery businesses and residents in her neighborhood are using mopeds. Hilberer is now on her third moped, having bought her first a few years ago from Black Ice, a shop on West Beech Street that has since closed, in order to avoid having to park her PC Cruiser.

“But it was so much fun to drive, I started taking it everywhere,” said Hilberer, who rides her moped to Waldbaum’s on Park Avenue, Roosevelt Field and even as far as Montauk. Its speedometer tops out at 50, and she gets 80 miles out of $6 in gas.

Does she ever drive her car anymore? “Yes, for long trips and car- pooling,” she said. “But if it means losing my parking space on the weekend, I’m not driving it.”

Despite the growing popularity of mo-peds, bikes are still king in Long Beach. While the Hampton cruiser-style models have been the rage with kids in the past few years, both Fusillo and Merritt said that more adults of varying ages are buying them, too.

“They’re just very comfortable, and they require less maintenance and are easier to ride,” Fusillo said about his cruisers, which start at $216.

Merritt said that most of the bikes in his shop are priced in the same range and go has high as $400, and that the cruisers remain the most popular model in town. “Everybody’s riding them now,” he said.

“There’s no maintenance, there’s no cables, it’s one speed, it’s got wide, comfortable handlebars so there’s no leaning over. It’s a perfect bike for Long Beach.”

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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'He was a brave and fearless little boy'

Tarantino Jr., 8, loses battle with leukemia

By Joseph Kellard

It turned out to be Thomas Tarantino Jr.’s last trip to his favorite restaurant, but it was the first time he walked in, ordered a Happy Meal and paid for it all on his own.

"He was so proud that he went and did it himself," Thomas Tarantino Sr. said about his 8-year-old son’s trip to McDonald’s on June 23. "It was a big deal to him.”

A few weeks earlier, Thomas’s parents had been told that their son had a month to live after a five-year battle with leukemia.

At McDonald’s, his father had sensed, from the boy’s rapidly deteriorating appearance, that day would be his last. That afternoon, Thomas went home, played cards with his uncle and sat in his favorite spot on the living room couch. After he fell into a deep sleep, his immediate and extended family sang his favorite songs, "Sweet Home Alabama," by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and "Take Me Out To The Ball Game," and his sister Michelle, 15, read him his most beloved book, "David Goes To School." Shortly after 8 p.m., Thomas took his last breath.

For the next three nights, his brother and two sisters slept on the couch together.

Thomas Matthew Tarantino Jr. was born with pervasive deficit disorder, a type of autism, at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre on Nov. 16, 1999. Three years later he was diagnosed with leukemia. In the following years, he suffered two relapses that considerably reduced his chances of healing. He underwent "grueling treatments," his father explained, involving routine trips to the hospital for chemotherapy and various tests and operations.

"He was a brave and fearless little boy who taught us all how to appreciate our lives, our friends and family," Thomas Sr. said. "And I don’t know if he was that way because of his mental incapacity or because of all he went through since he was 3."

Thomas attended the Children’s Readiness Center in North Bellmore, but he could only say a few words at a time and couldn’t spell. Yet he was unusually adept with electronics. By age 4, he could access and operate any feature on any cell phone.

"He could take your cell and show you things on it that you never even knew you had," said his father, whose "Sweet Home Alabama" ring tone introduced Thomas to the song.

When the supermarket delivery man, Tony, came to the Tarantino home on East Hudson Street, Thomas routinely had him check his cell phone with him. "Thomas would call the man’s wife while he delivered our groceries," said his mother, Samantha.

Thomas would also text-message people, pressing successive rows of numbers or letters that instantly told them who it was. He would do the same with instant messaging on the computer to his siblings’ friends while he visited his favorite Web sites, including

While the boy mostly kept to himself, he was still outgoing with strangers. "He was always friendly, always greeting people," his father recalled. "He wanted to congregate with you. It didn’t matter if you were white or black, young or old. He loved everybody."

Samantha said it didn’t matter who you were, Thomas would say hello to you. "If we were driving in the car and the windows were open and we pulled up to a red light, he would say hello to the people in the car next to us," she said.

Samantha said that her son taught her, above all, how to be kind and compassionate to others. "He had nothing to offer anybody but his gentle nature," she said. "And if you were kind to him, forget it; you had a friend for life."

When Thomas left his house, he particularly enjoyed going to Gino’s on Park Avenue, Adventure Land Amusement Park in Farmingdale, East Buffet restaurant in Huntington Station, and, most of all, any McDonald’s. His parents stepped up their trips with him to his favorite places when they were told in late May that his leukemia was terminal.

About 10 days before he died, Thomas rode with his father on his motorcycle, alongside his uncle and several others from a biker club. The armada of motorcycles roared along Park Avenue and West Beech Street to the Atlantic Beach Bridge, then back to East Hudson.

Thomas watched and rooted for both the Yankees and Mets, he attended Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Island Park with his grandmother, Sylberta Tarantino, and he could often be found playing with his siblings, Michelle, 15, Victor, 13, and Theresa, 5.

"He was an innocent little boy who offered a lot of love," Thomas Sr. said. "And I never knew I could love so much as I loved my son Thomas. “I love my wife and all my children. But Thomas was special because he had been through so much, and I had a deeper love for him because of what he had to endure."

At Thomas’s burial at Greenfield Cemetery in Hempstead, Rabbi David Rosenberg, of Shuvah Yisrael Messianic Synagogues in East Williston, sang the boy’s favorite song: "Sweet home Alabama/where the skies are so blue/... Lord I’m comin’ home to you."

But it was the lone bagpiper who played at his funeral at Sacred Heart, which was attended by more than 350 mourners, that hit his father the hardest. "It was so powerful — it was so beautiful," Thomas Sr. recalled.

His brother, Thomas’s godfather, Anthony Tarantino, a head usher at the church, hired the bagpiper, having been inspired by a scene from the movie "Braveheart."

"When the king died," Thomas Sr. explained, "there was a lone bagpipe. And Thomas deserved to be compared to a king."

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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'Just the greatest guy you could ever meet'

Family, friends say goodbye to Leo Vann Jr., 14

By Joseph Kellard

“His smile — that’s all you needed to know about him,” Chris Ferrante said before the funeral service for his friend, 14-year-old Leo Vann Jr., at the Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church.

Inside, that smile — along with Vann’s benevolent, optimistic spirit — figured prominently in speeches the drowning victim’s family and friends gave at the two-hour service on July 3. They remembered that Leo was full of joy, excitement and jokes, and some likened him to the sun or a rainbow that shone through dark clouds.

Lakesha Thomas, Leo’s mother, highlighted her son’s smile and his upbeat personality when she stood beside his gray casket, microphone in hand, in front of hundreds of mourners who packed the church’s pews, lined its walls and spilled outside the front doors.

“Whenever I was down,” said Thomas, who wore a button sporting her son’s image on her black blouse, “Leo would always say to me ‘Ma, it’s not that serious. We don’t have time for that.’”

Even in a remembrance piece she wrote about her son that appeared in the service’s program, Thomas mentioned his pearly whites and his carefree attitude. “Although you were only 14,” she wrote, “you taught me how to relax and enjoy life.”

Wayne Vann, a deacon at Christian Light, called his nephew “one of God’s instruments,” and said, “Leo’s smile — that smile — changed complexions in people … If you didn’t have love in your heart when you met him, you certainly did after that.”

“That Leo is gone just really breaks my heart,” said his younger sister, Zariah Simone Vann. “He was just the greatest guy you could ever meet. It seemed like he never had a bad day in his life.”

But Leo’s worst day came on June 27. That afternoon, while skateboarding with friends at a park near the Recreation Center on Reynolds Channel, he jumped into the bay to cool off and never resurfaced. His body was found later by rescue personnel, but they could not revive him.

Leo was born April 12, 1994 at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, on the birthday of his aunt, LaSheena Neals, who recalled that day.

“‘I don’t want this,’ I said,” Neals joked about being presented with Leo for the first time, and the mourners managed a collective laugh despite their sorrow. “But he was the best birthday present that I ever got.”

Leo’s father, Leo Vann Sr., taught him how to shoot a basketball and throw a fastball. His son developed into a versatile athlete who played football, volleyball and soccer and ran track.

A week before he drowned, Leo graduated from Long Beach Middle School, where he was honored with the Mags Humanitarian Award, presented by teachers to “a student who goes out of his way to help people and tries their best,” said Keith Biesma, the school’s assistant principal.

During his power-charged eulogy, the Rev. Isaac Melton told the mourners — a racially mixed crowd — that Leo didn’t treat others according to their racial group or other irrelevancies. Some mourners recalled that Leo liked to attend church, while others noted what he enjoyed most: riding his skateboard with his friends.

Kelli Ann Santaniello described how she was baffled when her daughter, Lauren, told her that she wanted to give her skateboard to Leo, who was without a board but would later collect 10. “‘If you knew Leo the way I know him, you’d understand,’” said Santaniello, quoting her daughter, a co-winner of the Mags Award. Santaniello said her daughter was glad that Leo died doing what he loved.

Leo Sr., who had planned to have his son visit him in Georgia this summer, was taken aback by the number of Leo’s friends who attended prayer vigils and other gatherings after his death. “Who knew that your charm and charisma would make you everyone’s star?” he wrote in a note about his first child.

Leo’s friends wore T-shirts, buttons and hats that featured his smiling image, and in unison they did his favorite rally-like clap during the service, which also featured his relatives singing gospel classics like “Walk With Me Jesus.”

“He was friends with the whole class,” said Caitlin O’Connell, who had graduated with Vann two weeks earlier.

“He was not mean to anyone,” said J.T. Forkin, another LBMS graduate. “He gave everyone a chance.”

Outside the church after the service, Coby Thomas told reporters that his cousin’s goal in life was to protect kids who were being beaten up. “How better can you get than that?” he asked. “You can’t get no better than that.”

Leo’s wake was held at Jordan’s Funeral Home in Island Park, and he was buried at Greenfield Cemetery in Hempstead. In addition to his parents and sister, he is survived by a brother, Quamel Dejuan Mclaurin of Long Beach; grandmothers Virginia Crawford of Long Beach and Yvonna Presley of Hempstead; grandfathers Shawn Presley of Hempstead and Harold Washington; a great-grandmother, Pinkie Vann- Williams; aunts LaSheena Neals and Shamona Crawford of Long Beach and Ayanna Vann of Dallas, Ga.; uncles Terrele Boyce of Denver and Larry Strevens of Long Beach; and cousins Jayden Serrano, Luvv Michee’ Scott and Zion Boyce.Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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