Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween and God Bless The Dead

"Every one of those unfortunates
during the process of existence
should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as of the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests."

- George Gurdjieff 

That picture came from a random blogpost I came across by a writer from Argentina who wrote a very nice little analysis of James Joyce's story "The Dead." The final scene in that story is what makes it so famous, in fact, I met at least one Joyce scholar who thinks it's the greatest piece he ever wrote. Long before the enormous epic novels.

"The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached the region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out in a gray impalpable world: The solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight."

It starts to snow, interrupting his transportive trance while staring out a hotel window at night.

Over the weekend, my home city of Staten Island saw its worst October snowstorm in recorded history. The whole northeast was absolutely blasted by snow worse than ever before. Millions of people lost power, Connecticut had its worst power outage in history.

"Snowfall like blankets of death..."
is a line heard in the album that I published a review for today.

Today I learned that an old friend, a man who worked for my father for as long as I was alive, passed away at age 91. He had been sick with pneumonia for a little while. Tony Bassolino was a big man, tall and sturdy with a gruff Brooklyn accent. He'd been a Marine in World War II and then worked for many years as a New York City Sanitation worker; a lifelong garbage man. He was in his 70s and 80s when I got to know him best. Even at that age he was something like a giant bear who didn't even know he had clothes on---roughing it up with heavy, enormous, gooey bags of garbage he would get nasty slop all over himself with no regard. Often he'd be wearing some old football sweatshirt or something.

I spent a few summers working alongside him, picking up garbage all around my neighborhood and loading it into a truck to be personally delivered to a dump in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was afraid of nothing, and shocked if I was afraid of anything, even a maggot-infested half-opened bag of old garbage. Or enormous pieces of wood or old trees covered in old rusty nails or spiders and ants. We always bonded on the trips to the garbage dump. His attention was curt and he didn't really prefer to listen to me all that much, just a few questions here and there ("heh?" he'd bark loudly when he couldn't hear me) to get him started on talking about something and I was ready to listen.

On one of those trips he let me hold the steering wheel for the truck, first time I can ever remember controlling a car in any way. On another of those trips he let me drive the truck, at age 16, for a little while on a service road. It was the first time I ever controlled a vehicle on my own. I remember being amazed at how loose the steering wheel seemed, so easy and soft to move it.

On just about every one of those trips, he'd always stop at the Burger King on Route 1 & 9 in New Jersey so I could eat breakfast (we always worked in the morning and I could never wake up early enough to eat breakfast at home). He was always very obliging, he'd just sit in the car and wait as I went and picked up french toast sticks, always the same meal. On one occasion he came in with me and ordered the same thing as me, we sat there sharing a breakfast of french toast sticks with syrup, me at 16 years old and Tony in his early 80s. It must've looked to people like I was having breakfast with my grandfather but instead he was my co-worker (and superior), he was also old enough to be my dad's father and since my dad was old enough to be my grandfather (I was conceived in his late 40s), I could've been sitting there sharing breakfast with my great grandfather.

But he was my co-worker and friend. And we were about to go down the road to an indoor dump, where I would don a little mouth-mask to guard my senses from the foul and oxygen-smothering stench of a garbage dump the size of a football field. Tony never wore a mask. And when we'd get out and quickly try to empty a truck full of garbage in under 5 minutes, he'd fling heavy pieces of scrap and garbage with a ballsy voracity and zeal unlike anything I'd ever witnessed. Towards the end of the load were always the biggest things; huge blocks of wood or brick, whatever it was he would attack it like battling a dragon or a huge whale. I remember the sight of him overtaken by an object's enormous weight one time, he looked like a sea captain hanging by the very end of his ship's mast in a vicious storm. It was so beautiful I burst out in uncontrollable joy and laughter. "Get back in the truck!" he screamed; I was in danger and not offering much help. 

When we were done he'd drive us back home, his brown-spotted bare hands bloody or dirt-strewn, his face sweaty, the radio blaring WFAN 20-20 sports. Back at home, my workday was done before 11 AM most days and I'd relax and do whatever the hell it is teenagers do on lazy summer afternoons.

I will never forget those mornings. I hope big Tony rests in peace now, the winds of time having finally eroded that sturdy temple of his.

Here are those final words of "The Dead":

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


  1. That is a very nice tribute to Joyce and to your friend. I am happy to have read it. And just to get all literary for a moment, I am sure Joyce would like the 'lowness' of the garbage and garbage heap--a very Joycean midden. Did you see any hens?

    Happy Halloween and Feliz Dia de los Muertos, PQ.

  2. Oh, I forgot to say congratulations on the article! I read it and it sounded good, though I have no real basis of comparison.

  3. What a nice tribute to Tony he was one in a million and will be greatly missed by his family
    friends and the residents of Village Greens

  4. As I read this it brings back such great memories of when I used to work with him he was my grandfather, a great man and this was a lovely article thank you for the memories

  5. Seana: thank you! I didn't make the connection while I was writing it but yes the heaps of garbage and stench is right up Joyce's alley. And yes there were hens picking at the garbage in the form of enormous cranes speeding around lifting huge chunks and placing them in the back of trucks. It was always a hectic, stinky, and amazing scene.

    And thanks for reading my new article, always appreciated!

    Linda: Thank you for reading and for the kind words, "one in a million" is pretty accurate for Tony.

    Anthony: Thanks very much for reading and leaving a comment. Your grandfather was a lot of fun, he also took his work very seriously. Glad I was able to flash you back to those times spent with him.

    I've been thinking about Tony a lot these past few days, he really was a great man and I'm gonna miss him.