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The story seeker

Illustrator and writer Zina Saunders portrays the New Yorkers who don’t typically make headlines.

There is Astoria resident Natalia Paruz, the “Saw Lady,” a former dancer who plays a toothless saw in the subway stations of New York. Or Ashook Bally, a native of Trinidad and former professional cricket player in his homeland, who competes on a “scruffy” field at Idlewild Park in Rosedale.

These are just some of the 68 denizens of the city who Saunders, who resides in the Gramercy Park vicinity, interviewed and illustrated for her book, “Overlooked New York.”

Saunders, a native New Yorker, began work on the project in 2004, after working for years as a freelance illustrator for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Nation and the San Francisco Chronicle, she said. She was fascinated by the older Puerto Rican men whom she would see riding bikes adorned with Puerto Rican flags around her neighborhood, and decided to investigate further.

“One time, right around my neighborhood, I saw one of these guys riding down the street — he was a one-man parade — and I flagged him down and asked him about his bicycle,” she said. Saunders “wormed out of him” where he and his fellow cyclists hung out, and visited the whole crew the next weekend near their East River hangout.

“I took his picture, and the next weekend, I went back and gave him a painting, and that caused quite a stir,” she said.

This encounter with one of the myriad subgroups in New York whetted Saunders’ appetite to ferret out other quirky and interesting characters in all five boroughs, including participants in a duck curry contest in Idlewild Park, bike messengers and people who keep rooftop pigeon coops. Saunders would hear about these people through word of mouth, she said.

For example, she interviewed men who designed costumes for the Brooklyn West Indian Carnival Parade, who mentioned playing cricket in Queens. When she attended the cricket match, Saunders received a flier for the first duck curry contest held at Idlewild Park.

Saunders said that she “loves all of her subjects equally.”

She would interview them first, then take their photo, and go home and sketch a drawing from the snapshot. Saunders would sometimes apply traditional paint before scanning each photo and painting it further in Adobe Photoshop. Each mixed media piece took a few days to complete, she said.

The subjects stayed with Saunders while she was working on the portraits.

“These are people who have figured out how to squeeze the juice out of life in the city,” she said. “These are joyous obsessions. The whole time that I’m painting them, I keep thinking about their passion and how their eyes lit up. I sort of think of it as collaboration, because I interview them as well.”

The perennially curious Saunders said that she inherited the quality from her father, who also worked as an illustrator.

“It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble, but also brought me the greatest joy in life,” she said of her curiosity. “The most gratifying and rewarding projects that I’ve worked on have been when I’ve followed my curiosity.”

Working on the book has made Saunders feel much more connected to her fellow New Yorkers, she said.

“Before, I used to work on projects that were given to me,” Saunders said. “It’s made me feel more connected to other human beings.”

Saunders said she plans to “continue working on ‘Overlooked New York,’ and see where the road goes.”

“I feel that I share with them their joy and I’m excited with bringing their stories to the world and showing the extraordinary nature of ordinary people,” she said.

“Overlooked New York” is self-published and available exclusively on

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