Kingstonian reflects as 100th birthday approaches

 

Ralph Danger. (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

To many of his regular customers at Boulevard Liquors in Midtown Kingston, Ralph (originally Raphael) Danger, who turns 100 on Oct. 23, is simply amazing. “He’s a marvel,” said one customer. “I’m 44 and he has more on the ball than I do.”

“He comes in every day, opens up in the morning and relieves me at night,” said former son-in-law Robert Wolff, co-owner and manager of the busy liquor store. Customers come and go in a steady stream, bantering with the old man standing erectly behind the counter. Most know he’s “way up there,” though few realize he’ll be a century old soon. He greets people by name, exchanges pleasantries, speaks to some in his native Spanish, knows what brands they like. In between ringing up liquor sales, Danger (pronounced “dan-jay” in French) also sells Lottery tickets, a complicated process that requires close concentration and strict adherence to state regulations.

The Census Bureau reported that there were about 55,000 persons 100 or older, about two in every thousand.

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He remembers events that happened 80 years ago, or last week. “He likes to reminisce,” says his daughter, Dolores Liebergot. He speaks carefully, occasionally pausing to recall a date or a story, or to correct himself. He laughs easily, seeming more 70-something than a centenarian.

Danger credits genes in part for his longevity. His father was “only” 83 when he died, his mother was 92. His grandfather, an artist, lived to be 100. He had siblings who lived into their 90s, a sister, now 93.

He said he drinks or smokes when he feels like it, eats what he wants, exercises occasionally. “I was no angel, understand. I never denied myself, but I didn’t abuse anything, either,” he said. He has a glass of red wine with dinner every night, keeps up with his medications. Danger drives a 2008 Ford from his home on nearby Washington Avenue, but doesn’t walk for fear of falling. “I socialize as much as I can,” he says. He works probably four hours a day, run errands for his son-in-law.

Widowed in 2005 after 62 years of marriage, Danger lives with his oldest daughter, Dolores. His has a younger daughter, Diana Lou Wolff (named after his father), four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A native of Cuba, Danger immigrated to join Brooklyn relatives when he was just 17 in 1935, the year Babe Ruth retired. He spoke hardly a word of English. These days there is but barely a trace of an accent.

“Conditions were very hard then,” he said of his youth in Cuba. Wolff likes to say his future father-in-law arrived in America “on a banana boat,” but it was actually a ship carrying Bacardi Rum to New York City. The families were friendly in Cuba, he said.

Danger secured a visa in Santiago and a work permit in New York. He sought citizenship immediately after arrival but was delayed a few years.

“I think a friend played a prank on me,” he recalled. “I filled out the papers and gave him the five-dollar fee to take to the authorities. It usually took about two years then (closer to 14 years now). I waited every day for the mail, only to find out my friend kept the five dollars and never filed the papers. I filed again.”

Danger said taking the oath as an American citizen, “was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was the only courtroom I’ve ever been in.” He met and married his wife Theresa in 1940.
Danger was working in the family magazine distribution business when World War II broke out. He reported for the draft in 1943, but the man who would live at least another 74 years was rejected for a heart murmur. He had cancer of the bladder in 1995, but was cured. He retired in 1966 to care for his ailing wife.

“His family always came first for him,” Dolores said. “No matter what it was, an accident, a sickness, some problem, he was always there.”

Danger worked at defense plants around New York during the war. Pretty good pay compared to pre-war Depression wages? he was asked. “Hell no!” he said. “It was awful.”

After the war, Danger went into the cigar business with relatives in New York and Cuba. He found his way to the area in 1956, working in and later managing the former Back Cigar factory on Wilbur Avenue.

“I moved my family here on the Fourth of July. It’s always been a very special holiday for me,” he said. Danger returned to Cuba for a month in 1938. “I was homesick,” he said. He paid another visit with his family in 1946, the year John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were elected to Congress. He said he has no desire to go back. “It’s changed too much,” he said.

Danger, who never lived under either leader, dismissed Fulgencio Batista as “a crook,” but was ambivalent about Fidel Castro. “He did some bad things, but he helped the poor, especially in terms of health care and education,” he said.

“I never met a man who was 89 who didn’t want to be 90,” said Will Rogers, but Danger says he doesn’t think about future milestones. “One day at a time,” he says with a shrug.

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