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Astoria Characters: The Down-to-Earth Traveling Salesman

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In the living room, kneeling against the ruby red wall, is a Thai goddess. Above her head, in golden frames that match the trim of her royal raiment, are three Chilean oil paintings -- the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the center and an archangel on each side. On the ground, grazing on the Turkey carpet, is a herd of wooden elephants from Africa.

When Rambo and Daisy Mae, two cheeky Chihuahua mixes, lead Joseph M. Santana inside, the goddess smiles a cheery welcome with her cherry lips.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Joseph and his puppy pals, Rambo and Daisy Mae.

Once he's on the sofa, Joseph sees it. Daisy Mae, who is prone to sneak a pee in his sneakers, bad, bad girl, has left him a fragrant coiled-snake present on the rug. He sighs; she and Rambo are rescues. They have their issues.

"She's so lovey-dovey that I forgive her," he says. "I've learned in life never to be upset about anything."

Up until he retired about a decade ago, Joseph, a solid man with silver hair, spent so much time flying around the world that he didn't have the luxury of sitting on the sofa and petting his pups.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The house is filled with travel souvenirs, including this Thai goddess.

Joseph, son of a Spanish mother and Cuban father, was born in Manhattan. He always wanted to be a doctor, but while he was at New York University, he ran out of money and ended up earning a bachelor's degree in economics instead.

He started traveling in his 20s. "My dad sent me out on trips," he says. "I went all over -- Thailand, England, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark."

His career as a salesman in the import business also kept him up in the air. In his last job, for a pharmaceutical company, he sold sterilization equipment abroad.

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Photo Courtesy of Joseph M. Santana
Joseph getting off the Queen Elizabeth in the late 1960s.

"I felt good about this because I knew I was helping people," he says. "I remember watching one of the procedures being done in Panama. There was half-eaten food in the operating room, and insects were swarming around it."

Russia. Chile. China. Japan. India. Indonesia. El Salvador. These are the postcards of Joseph's past. "I used to make four major trips a year where I would be gone 2 ½ to 3 months at a time," he says. "I'd be in Beijing, and I'd get a call at 4 in the morning from the boss telling me to get on a plane to Bogota to handle an emergency. It was exciting for the first five or six years then it got tiring."

It was in India that he was invited to stay in a palatial home outside Mumbai where meals were served on solid-gold plates. It was in Argentina that he hung out with polo players. It was in South Korea that he ate dog stew. ("I would never have eaten it if I had known," he says, cuddling Rambo and Daisy Mae.)

In El Salvador, he was shot at as he walked down the street in the middle of the night. ("It was during the civil war," he says. "My cover story was that I was a missionary with the Red Cross who had come to feed the poor children.")

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
These days, Joseph is content to sit on the front porch.

In Chile, he ate some bad food and blew up like a balloon. ("The doctor sent me to the public marketplace to get a shot in my rear," he says. "I had to drop my pants while everybody was staring at me. After that, nothing has ever bothered me.")

There was the time he and Gizmo, the Chihuahua pug he had before Rambo and Daisy Mae, took a vacation to France. "I had so many frequent-flier miles that I bought him a first-class seat," Joseph says. "We toured the Bordeaux country and the Italian and French Rivieras. We had a great time. Everybody loved him, especially the women."

Joseph gets tired just thinking about all these adventures. "I don't have any family, but I don't have any regrets," he says. "I still get letters and calls from some of my customers."

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Photo Courtesy of Joseph M. Santana
After donning a skirt over his shorts, Joseph enters a Bali temple in the 1980s.

Five years ago, Joseph was diagnosed with prostate and colon cancer. Today, the only traveling he does is to an Astoria clinic for his radiation treatments three times a week. "I've been sleeping a lot in my retirement," he says.

He's up at four every morning for his hour-long walk with Rambo and Daisy Mae. At 7 a.m., he has his radiation treatments. When he gets home, he sleeps until 1 p.m., takes the dogs out again then settles in for a night of TV.

"I don't want to see a plane again," he says then quickly adds that "maybe I will travel again."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
All is forgiven: Joseph and Daisy Mae make up.

His eyes light up. If he goes anywhere, it will be Sardinia. "I'd love to live there," he says. "The climate is beautiful, and the people are nice. I had some of the happiest moments of my life there."

He puts the pups down and goes for the paper towels to scoop up the poop. In the dining room, he passes by the Thai goddess' twin sister. As she does to all who leave the house, she frowns in sadness.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2010 by Nancy A. Ruhling