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Volume 77 / Number 29 - December 19 - 25, 2007


Villager photo by Patricia Fieldsteel

Leo Ruszewski and friend Jane the cat

Leo Ruszewski, 84, a life on the water and Jane St.

By Patricia Fieldsteel

Leo Ruszewski, 84, a beloved fixture in the lives of Jane Streeters for nearly 50 years, died on Nov. 25 at St. Vincent’s Hospital of complications from treatment for throat cancer. He was buried among family members in the coal region of Luzerne County, Pa., where he grew up.

Everyone knew and liked Leo, but few were aware he was a seasoned world traveler from his long career in the Merchant Marine and had accompanied Harry S. Truman on his morning walks aboard the S.S. Independence. He was also a state champion high school football player and had been offered a half-dozen college scholarships.

His minute apartment was on the basement floor of 47 Jane St., to the left of the front door. Many people mistook him for the super, which he wasn’t, though he performed jobs and did favors a super would normally do.

Until a few years ago, when the landlord forbade it, he planted petunias, impatiens and begonias every May, as well as three tomato plants in large pots in front of his window. One year he grew corn. On a wall calendar in his Pullman kitchen, he marked the dates — every two weeks — to apply Miracle-Gro when he watered in the late afternoon. People would stop to chat and marvel at his tomatoes and beautiful flowers. Tourists snapped photos.

When he finished with his little garden, he would go inside to start dinner. He loved to cook and made everything from scratch. He always prepared chicken gizzard stew on Fridays until he had to restrict his cholesterol intake. Initially, I found the odor, which would permeate the building, revolting, but after a while I came to associate it with home and almost missed it once he stopped.

Jane, my cat, could sense through the walls when Leo started cooking. Every night the ritual was the same. I’d phone to tell him his “girlfriend” was on the way downstairs and he’d respond, “She is, is she? Well, I’d better hurry,” and he’d open his door. She’d sit on the counter keeping him company while he cooked and drank vodka or gin from a juice glass.

After dinner, he’d settle into his black Naugahyde lounger, read and watch TV — the news, then often Channel 13 or cultural programs — with Jane asleep under the crooked-neck reading lamp. When she was ready to come home around 11, he’d phone and the ritual would be repeated in reverse. Sunday afternoons they’d watch the ball game together.

Leo adored animals. He always had one or two dogs — Chihuahuas and Boston terrier/Chihuahua mixes that he got from a special breeder in Pennsylvania. There was Minnie, a Boston bull, and Small Andy (named after Big Andy, Leo’s dad), a Chihuahua/terrier mix; then Minnie and Andy’s son, Muggsy; also a blind Boston bull he saved from being put down by a pet shop; and then Cha-Cha, a rescued Chihuahua puppy who was nearly 20 when he died in the late ’90s. One summer he found a wounded sparrow and nursed it back to health, only to be devastated when it suddenly died.

He was a familiar neighborhood sight for decades, a great big friendly bear of a man walking the tiniest dogs. In the old days, he and Minnie were regulars at The Palmes Restaurant on Greenwich Ave. where Leo liked the Austro-German-style veal cutlets. The chef would prepare a separate bowl of meat for Minnie, who’d follow her feast with a bowl of coffee with milk. When they ate at Carmine’s Italian up the block, Minnie would march straight into the kitchen.

And of course there was Mary’s, a favorite hangout with World War II vets on the corner of Greenwich Ave. and W. 13th St., where Bruxelles is now, and Jerry Foley’s “Paddock,” where Tavern on Jane is today. Leo spent a lot of time in there and always recalled Miss Kitty, Jerry’s sister, with fondness. Miss Kitty did the cooking and was known to stand at tables to make sure customers finished their heaping plates; then she’d pile on seconds and wait, ordering them in her thick Irish brogue to eat all their vegetables. After his retirement, Leo hung out at the Anglers Club in a rented basement on Horatio St. They’d play cards on folding tables, chew the fat and have a huge clambake/barbecue at Greenwood Lake every summer. Leo cooked the lobsters. 

Leo loved the circus. When Ringling Bros. came to town, he bought tickets to go with his close friend Jean Cullen — “Big Jean” — and would make a night of it with dinner out on the town.

Leo was big on holidays. The Christmas son et lumière in his apartment took weeks to assemble with glittery garlands, twinkling lights, wreaths, little Santas, elves and reindeer and a crammed display on the mantelpiece of objects he’d collected over the years, all carefully placed on mounds of fake snow and tinsel. There would be piped-in music from his enormous collection of LPs — Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Belafonte, cowboy songs, tunes of the 1940s, operas — and tapes.

He also gave the best Christmas presents, all chosen with great thought and care. His favorite gifts were reserved for the animals. My Westie here in France wears the blue-and-white-striped and blue-black-and-white argyle sweaters Leo chose so many years ago for each of my New York dogs. His Christmas cards were always among the first to arrive, mailed out promptly Dec. 1. He kept in touch with friends around the world. At Thanksgiving he cooked a turkey and all the trimmings in his tiny oven, even if it was just for him and his dogs. 

Leo was a true patriot — he loved his country and made a big ceremony of putting out the flag for every American holiday, including the more obscure ones. He may have been a patriot, but he was definitely not right wing and railed against racism and prejudice of any kind. Bigotry was one of the few subjects that could really get him going. He had spent a lifetime traveling around the world, visiting places and countries most people never see, being invited into homes to eat and drink and share conversation, even when there was no common spoken language.

He was born and grew up in coal country, as did his parents. His father worked the anthracite coal mines. As a small child, Leo would be awakened by the creaking wheels of the cars descending into the mines. His mother, a secretary, taught him shorthand. Leo was her first-born (there was a sister two years younger who died 19 years ago) and she dressed him “as a little Lord Fauntleroy.” He had a photo taken in 1927 when he was 4 years old — a cherubic child with golden curls and clothes befitting a little prince.

He fell in love with traveling at a young age and at 9 years old terrified his parents when he disappeared, hitchhiking to New York to visit an aunt who owned a rooming house on 103rd St.

At Kingston High School, he was the only freshman on the football team when they won the state championship with Leo, an offensive lineman, playing guard and tackle. He was recruited by the famed Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans of the New York Giants, who wanted him to accept a football scholarship to George Washington University, but Leo had pretty much decided on La Salle University in Philadelphia.

He went up to Buffalo to look at a few other schools that had offered him scholarships, and friends there persuaded him to get seaman papers to earn money before college. He worked as a deckhand, bringing iron ore down from Minnesota to the steel mills on the lower Great Lakes.

When war broke out, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine, serving as an able-bodied seaman, running supplies on “rust buckets from World War I until they built the Liberty Ships.” He was on the first convoy to go through the Suez Canal to the Persian Gulf and up the Tigris River, finishing by land through Iraq as part of the Persian Corridor Lend-Lease Program, running supplies to Azerbaijan. On V-J Day, he was in Antwerp, loading ammunition to invade Japan.

After the war, he remained in the Merchant Marine working passenger and cruise ships, mainly the S.S. Independence and her younger sister, S.S. Constitution. Built in the early 1950s to symbolize the finest in American culture, design and engineering, they were the world’s most famous and popular ocean liners. Leo was the delegate for the entire deck department, serving as boatswain, deck storekeeper and quartermaster.

In June 1958, Harry S. Truman boarded the Independence in Naples with his wife, Bess. Every morning before the other passengers awoke, Truman walked the decks for an hour alone with Leo, the two of them deep in conversation.

“He was some guy, that guy was,” Leo said. One day the former president asked, “Do you think it was wrong what I did, dropping the bomb?”

Leo answered, “You saved a lot of lives, including maybe mine.”

Truman replied, “That’s why I did it.”

Another time a boatswain asked Leo if he could arrange for him to have his photo taken with Truman. When the awestruck seaman approached, Truman beckoned, “Hey c’mon. Put your arm around me like we’re buddies.” Leo snapped the shot, though he never asked Truman for one with himself. A first-class passenger, Leo described as “a flirty-dirty type,” called out, “Hey, Harry, Harry, I want my picture with you, too!”

Truman tersely replied, “Madame, the name is Mr. Truman to you and the answer is No.”

“But, you’re having your picture taken with a common seaman!”

“Madame, this man is the salt of the earth,” he replied. “Now get lost!”

Afterward, Truman was fuming: “I guess I told that bitch off!”

“You sure did, Mr. President,” Leo agreed.

And in case there’s any doubt about Truman’s allegedly salty language, the man who was most likely one of the greatest American presidents turned to Leo: “She thinks her shit tastes like ice cream — let her just try eating it!” Leo always recounted this story with relish.

Other prominent people with whom Leo had direct contact were Princess Grace and Prince Rainier and their royal wedding party. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were also passengers, but he didn’t see much of Tracy. “Miss K” was different; every morning she swam alone at 6 a.m. with Leo as guard. She always asked the pool’s temperature. When he assured her it was cold, she’d say, “Mah-velous! I hate the water heated,” and do a swan dive right in.

Leo loved traveling: the Adriatic, Middle East, India, North Africa, the Azores and Canary Islands; South Africa, the entire coastal ranges of east and west Africa, the Philippines, British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Portugal, Spain and all the ports of the Mediterranean, as well as China, Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, South and Central America.

“I loved getting to see how the rest of the world lived,” he used to say. “We’d hit a bar, meet some guys” and they’d invite him home to meet their families. He always brought gifts, especially food. In Shanghai in 1947, hordes of people living in sampans would pull up midship; Leo instructed the cooks to lower food. He recalled, “Onboard, you could have all the beer and whiskey and good food you wanted,” but too many others “were close to starving.”

In 1959, he retired from the Merchant Marine to the studio at 47 Jane — $91.50 a month, though because he was a vet, he paid $90. He worked the docks in Red Hook, Newark, Hoboken and Lower Manhattan, in charge of loading and unloading gear. He was the super for several other Jane St. buildings and occasionally did roofing work.

In the 1980s, he nearly died from a burst appendix and peritonitis. During the 1990s he beat liver, colon and prostate cancer. Stoic and private, he told very few people. He said, “I don’t want anyone fussing, feeling sorry for me,” but he was always there for others. Until he died, he made the trek up five long flights of stairs to deliver mail to his buddy Lenny, who’s 91.

Trendies come and go on Jane St. Rarely are there gems like Leo. A neighbor remarked, “They just don’t make them like that anymore. I can’t believe he’s gone.” No one can.

Jean Cullen is hoping to hold a Jane St. memorial celebration for Leo Ruszewski in 2008.

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