the diary thing 
MONDAY | WHAT'S UP WITH EASTER MONDAY? As K. got dressed this morning, she grumbled, "It's on days like this that I wish I was a government employee." We get no mail today, and if you had garbage pick-up scheduled, you'd be shit out of luck, but no one thinks of that as they dutifully bring their bags and cans to the curb this morning. 

What is the deal with Easter Monday, anyway? Is this the day when the apostles sat around having coffee, and Peter said, to no one in particular, "Is it just me, or was this a really weird weekend?" "I know what you mean," James answered, looking up from his latté. "And by the way, has anyone seen Judas?"

TUESDAY | STILL NO GARBAGE PICK-UP. From my window, the sidewalks up and down the street are filled with garbage bags, cans, and heaped-full recycling boxes. From the looks of it, the squirrels have had a busy night -- every other bag has a hole gnawed through it, and the contents spill out onto the pavement, little damp piles of paper towel, plastic wrappers and onion skins. I didn't know there was an Easter Tuesday holiday as well. What's up with that? Is this the day the Apostles sat around and said things like, "Do you think we can get our jobs back on the fishing boat?" and "I'm serious, has anyone seen Judas? He owes me forty talents."

WEDNESDAY | I MEET WITH THE 28-YEAR OLD director of a funeral home, to talk about tailing him around for a week or so for a story on young undertakers, or "youngertakers" as the magazine has been referring to the piece. We agree that I should show up the next day, chat about what kind of angles I can cover, and where I have to be sensitive to the families who have funerals booked in the next few days. "Do you have a dark suit?" he asks. 

The Elian thing is still all over the papers. I have to say that one major part of my feelings about the whole sorry spectacle is the aversion I developed a long time ago the Miami Cuban establishment, the kind of people who organize the protests and pay for the legal help Elian's uncle and cousins can hardly afford at this level. The kind of people who threaten to bomb newspapers and radio stations who allow dissenting voices in their own community. The kind of people who will return to Cuba one day demanding their pound of flesh from a county in dire straits when Fidel shuffles off to dictator heaven.

I can't say that the photo of Elian screaming while the INS agent demands he be handed over is quite as shocking as it's supposed to be. In a country where it can be assumed that children can get access to firearms as easily as snack food, it's safe to assume that an agent might need to be armed while entering Lazaro Gonzalez' home (or "compound" as the press has called it, summing up images of the Kennedys in Hyannisport. Does everyone under seige from the media automatically live in a compound?) Considering how many prominent conservatives favour the same tactics in the regrettable "War on Drugs", I regard much of the outrage as stage grief, best accompanied by a swoon and a faint, fists banged on tables and vows to heaven on bended knees. Political melodrama for a nation that lives by the logic of soap operas.

"Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world."
Mark Twain
- Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

A not-so-typical week in the life.

THURSDAY | MY FIRST DAY THE THE FUNERAL HOME mostly consists of a tour of the premises, which is more than merely interesting as Bates & Dodds is the oldest funeral home in the city still on its original premises. Around the back, the funeral director's motorcycle and the company van (an unmarked dusty purple minivan with rollers for the casket on the floor where seats might otherwise be) sit in the garage that once held funeral coaches. A ramp once led to the horses' stables upstairs. There are caskets everywhere, next to a pile of furniture and boxes that belong to the daughter of Stanley, one of the owners. She's storing her stuff there while she looks for an apartment. In one room, between a disused shower stall and file cabinets containing the home's records going back over 100 years, a low table holds a group of boxes, wrapped in butcher paper and labelled, just smaller than a shoebox. These are the ashes of people buried out of the home, many of them unclaimed. The oldest box is dated 1968.

I watch as Stanley and Steven lift Mrs. Walker off of the table in the preparation room and into her casket. As they fuss with arranging her in the box, her nephew Mervin, a former pro football player, walks through the smoking lounge and finds them at work. Steven quickly takes him by the arm and leads him back to the viewing lounge and chapel at the front. Stanley looks at me, eyes wide open. They're rattled -- customers aren't supposed to see them at work. As Stanley finishes up and wheels Mrs. Walker to the front, I notice Mrs. Liu, under a sheet, on another table in the corner of the room.

There's a myth that the greatest shock of a funeral is the seeming absense of the dead, or rather the unusual way that something essential seems to leave the corpse of a loved one, diminishing their remains in some mysterious way, leaving a drained vessel, somehow lacking in the dynamic force of the same person when alive. It is a story that, I suppose, is meant as proof of the soul. I have to say that I've noticed exactly the opposite in my time at Bates & Dodds.

Far from being mere shells, little better than furniture or meat, the bodies lying in state here have a remarkable presence, and not just for members of the grieving family. I find myself drawn to them, and frequently stare at Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Liu as they lie in state, in the little alcoves in the chapel and the viewing lounge. I suppose it might be because, unlike the living, they can't stare back or confront me for my rudeness, so I can gawk with impunity. More than that, though, they have an undeniable air of gravitas, a stillness that can only be described as profound. 

FRIDAY | MRS. LIU IS TAKEN TO A CEMETERY in the suburbs for her service. I accompany Stanley in the rented hearse, while Barry, the hearse's driver, is following behind with the Buddhist monk in the funeral home's lead car, a black Chevy sedan. 

At the chapel, Mrs. Liu's family is waiting, somberly, at the deepest moment of their grief. While Mrs. Liu's husband, in a retiree's uniform of baseball cap and shades, sits in his pew, unmoving, her daugher, wearing a black fur vest and carrying a bike courier's bag slung across her shoulders, is fighting back sobs. A grandson, in a white sweater and baggy pants, seems as distraught. Outside the building, Stanley helps the family burn paper offerings in a pail, stirring the ashes with a steel rod. The monk finally arrives, and hurries off to get prepared. 

I stand at the back of the chapel and watch the service, a long, metronomic chant in Cantonese accompanied by rapid tapping on a wooden block by the monk, bracketed by the ringing of bells. At the graveside, the family stuffs a backgammon board and various pieces of luggage into the heavy lead vault that snugly holds Mrs. Liu's casket. The vault's lid is rolled on, and two groundskeepers winch the whole heavy container into the ground. I wonder to myself what future archaeologists will speculate about us from our, varied and inconsistent, burial customs. What kind of wildly incorrect assumptions are we making about the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Vikings and Celts?

On the way back downtown, Stanley tells me that he has to stop and pick up a watch for the monk, who sits in the front seat with him, laughing and haranguing Stanley in Cantonese. In an industrial park in the suburbs, Stanley gets out and returns with a small package that he hands to the monk. Inside is a Baume & Mercier wristwatch, gold with a ring of diamonds around the face. The monk giggles as he hands it back to us, and Stanley tells us that he has a collection of several Rolexes, a few Patek Phillipes, a Cartier or two, that he keeps in a vault. Normally, another monk from the temple would have done this service, but he was able to get the head monk since the wristband needed repair, and the distributor was near the cemetery. We admire the watch, and hand it back to the monk, who slips it back into its suede wallet, then falls asleep in the front seat.

SATURDAY | MRS. WALKER'S CASKET is heavier than I thought, and I grunt as I help Steven lift it into the back of the hearse. We're due at the Grant A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) church in a half-hour, so I help Steven and Stanley load flowers into the back of the lead car. At the church, Steven and Barry walk through the route the casket will have to take, up two steep sets of stairs, around several tight angles, and up the side aisle of the church. With six pallbearers, it's even more tight, but Mrs. Walker makes it on time, with no misadventure. 

While I stand outside the church chatting with Barry, Dudley Laws, a prominent local black activist arrives late, and glances at us with undisguised hatred. Laws is an old-style, Black Panther-inspired character, one of the first to bring American-style race politics to Canada. I'm not saying that Canada is a paradise on earth if you're black, but our problems are a little bit different from south of the border, for a lot of reasons. In any case, I don't enjoy being regarded with such visible disdain by someone I don't know. "Just two white men in suits," I suppose he was thinking -- "What right do they have to be here?" Barry is an ex-cop, and looks it, so that might explain something. And so it continues, the never-ending cycle of fear and hate.

SUNDAY | THE END OF A  BEAUTIFUL weekend. K. is working out on the deck garden, transplanting the chives and tarragon that began sprouting again immediately after the snow had melted off of the dried twigs and stalks left over from last year. We make note of the two hardiest plants in our garden, which managed to survive the winter in pots, out at the edge of the deck, three stories up in the north wind.

Yesterday, after I got home from the funeral home, we went off to the hardware store for bags of soil, and picked up seedlings from the corner store at O'Hara. I planted thyme and lavender in a galvanized tin window box, while K. filled a plastic trough with parsley, spearmint and red basil. She put pansies in another big container with the daisies our neighbour gave us, and so the new season begins.

I spend much of the day on the couch in the living room. I change the needle on my turntable back to the LP stylus, and dust off vinyl records I haven't played in years. I'm in a Modern Jazz Quartet kind of mood, and play Django and No Sun in Venice, along with a Sandole Brothers record I bought at a record fair two years ago and never played. I play half of Mozart's Requiem, and a side each of Herbie Nichols and a live Italian bootleg of Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" band. The jazz is a nice break from the techno I've been playing lately. It used to be just the opposite. Somehow, I don't mind getting up every twenty minutes to change sides. I nip into Victor Klemperer's tense and terrifying diaries, and a book on the home front in WW2 Britain. Nothing can get me down; in spite of the reading material, it's a good day.

writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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