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Astoria Characters: The Old Kid on the Block

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It's going on six decades. Even Jimmy Bejanis is astounded when he does the math. That's a long time -- his entire life -- to stay in one place and in one house.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jimmy and Margo have been married 11 years.

But what are you going to do? He shrugs.

The house belonged to his parents, who are long since gone. It's a modest two-family, and Jimmy doesn't know much about the first floor because he's always lived on the second. He and his older sister shared a room until she married in the early 1970s and did what no one else in Jimmy's family has done -- moved out.

Jimmy can't forget his boyhood days even if he wants to. Block for block, the memories come marching back, and he sees himself playing stickball in the street. He can't walk more than a few steps without bumping into relatives and friends who go back to his diaper days.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jimmy has lived in the same house all of his life.

In his youth, virtually everyone was an immigrant; Jimmy's father came from Albania, and his mother was raised in Greece. He learned English in the public-school classroom and Greek at the kitchen table.

Jimmy, a gentle, even-keeled guy with a crowning wisp of black hair, did everything all good boys are supposed to do. He stayed out of trouble, and after high school, he tried his hand at college. It wasn't a good match. He found the business of business more to his liking. He quickly quit and happily settled into bachelorhood and a desk job in Manhattan.

"I know people generally move out when they reach a certain age," he says, lying back in his living room recliner. "But living with my parents had a nice comfort level."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jimmy in his crib; he shared a room with his older sister.

The most daring thing Jimmy has ever done is get married. In the days before online dating sites and Facebook, chat rooms ruled the Internet. That's where he met Margo, a nice Greek girl born and raised in Chicago who has big brown eyes, a stunning smile and winning ways.

"It turned out that the chat room was about Athens, Georgia, not Athens, Greece," Jimmy says. "The mistake didn't matter. I fell in love with her before I even met her."

Margo, too, was screen smitten. They called each other daily and conversed while watching their favorite TV shows.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He used to play stickball in the streets.

"I had never seen him, but I picked him out of the crowd the first time I came to New York," she says.

She likes to joke that she knew Jimmy, a Johnny-come-lately, was serious about her because when they did meet, not only was he on time, but he also was early. In the last 11 years, that has happened only when they exchanged vows at the altar.

"I was a quiet guy until I met Margo," Jimmy adds. "Even so, everyone knows me as Mr. Margo or Margo's husband."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He spends much of his time looking for work.

He grins when he says this; he likes to put her in the center of everything, even the telling of his life's story. Standing behind his Koukla is a role he relishes.

When they married, Margo gave up her management job in a supermarket to live in Jimmy's family home. She says she didn't mind. The first couple of years, she devoted herself to taking care of his aging, ailing parents, who had moved to the first floor.

She missed her family -- "we're so close that if one of us goes to the bathroom everyone knows it" -- but made up for it by befriending everyone she met. So many people stop to talk to her that it can take her an hour and a half to go five blocks on Ditmars Boulevard.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Margo traded Chicago for New York and Jimmy.

It was only when Jimmy lost his job that Margo started earning a paycheck; she continued even after he got a position with a food service company in the Bronx. She's a fixture at Astoria Fuel Corp., where she serves as secretary/manager.

The years went by, quickly as they have a tendency to do when the world is on your side. Then everything happened at once. Last year, Jimmy got sick on the job; the trip to the emergency room turned up a gastrointestinal stromal tumor the size of his hands. Surgery, chemo and medication just about got things under control when Jimmy's longtime employer let him go.

"Yes, it's been difficult to lose my job at my age and be ill," Jimmy says, "but my prognosis is good. I'll have to take the chemo pills for three to five years. I look at it this way: It could have been worse."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Many of his childhood friends stayed here.

Jimmy sends out reams of resumes every day and tries not to get discouraged.

"Most of the jobs I'm seeing pay only $10 an hour and don't come with health insurance," he says. "Because of my illness, I really need the health insurance. And I only need a job for five more years. Then I can retire."

Margo has taken up some of the financial slack, ramping up her hours. She loves working and chatting with the customers.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Sitting around doesn't suit him.

Jimmy and Margo are stressing their blessings.

"I know something good will come from this," Jimmy says.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Worse gets better when they're together.

Having time off has given Jimmy the opportunity to re-think things. He's pressing for a dog he can watch Turner Classic Movies with. Margo's not so sure. She thinks the 6-inch-high Waterford statue that sits on the end table next to Jimmy's recliner is the perfect pet.

Come to think of it, if things don't work out here, they can always move to Chicago, where Margo's people are. Jimmy says the change might do him good.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2014 by Nancy A. Ruhling