Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dumpster Yardsale From Beyond The Grave - A Eulogy for Uncle Ray

My Uncle Ray died last week.

From what anyone can determine, he was at a subway station in Boston, fell on the stairs somehow, and suffered a fatal brain injury. He never regained consciousness and might have died alone had a nurse at Tufts Medical Center not done some extra investigating to locate family.

That's the thing about Ray. He was a mystery.

Ray lived alone in a low-income, government-subsidized apartment. His quirky mental make-up allowed him to live in government-subsidized housing, while simultaneously decrying any sort of welfare system. Loudly and often.

"These illegal immigrants come over here illegally and then expect the government to pay for their housing!" Ray would shout.

"Ray, the government helps pay for your housing, too," someone might helpfully point out to him.

"But I have a job!" he would counter.

"Some of those immigrants have two or three jobs, Ray," someone might also point out.

"And some of them don't have any jobs at all," he would answer. And then he would walk into the kitchen and celebrate his linguistic victory with a half gallon of ice cream.

Ray’s unique mental wiring left him entirely unencumbered by concern for the nuances and mores of etiquette. Inviting Ray to any sort of social event was a sure-fire way to create a lifelong memory.

Music too loud at a wedding?

That’s Ray with six inches of wadded up napkin sticking out of each ear.

“I didn’t come here to listen to this noise,” he would complain, “They should be playing Rudy Vallee!”

Crying baby in a restaurant?

Ray to the rescue!

"Will someone shut that brat up?" he would bellow. “Where are the parents of that thing? Why haven’t they covered its mouth with duct tape?”

None of us are without flaws. Ray's flaws were just louder than other peoples'.

And yet, in spite of his eccentricities, Ray was one of the kindest people I have ever known. For all his bluster and bluff, there was nothing he wouldn't do to help someone out.

My Great Uncle Eliot had a long history of renting a bedroom, for $5/week (meals included), to members of the family who needed some transitional housing while they worked or went to school in Boston.  My mother and several cousins enjoyed Eliot’s hospitality and generosity over the years. I stayed with Eliot during my first year at art school. Ray's transitional stay with Eliot lasted for a few decades. Ray was devoted to Eliot and he worked hard to make life more comfortable to anyone staying in the house with them.

While I was living with them, Ray would often bring home "treasures" to surprise and delight Eliot and me.

"Look!" Ray would bellow, marching through the door, "I found this 8-track player lying on the sidewalk! Now we can listen to all those 8-tracks I found at that church flea market last winter!"
And we would be subjected to many, long hours of “Lawrence Welk’s Polka Parade” at ear-shattering levels. Ray would lean back in the perfectly good Naugahyde recliner he had dragged out of a dumpster, close his eyes, and revel in the golden, musical sounds filling the house. I would cower in the kitchen, close my eyes, and wish for deafness. Eliot was nearly deaf and therefore immune to the noise. He would sit in his armchair, smiling contentedly and contemplating the infinite.

Ray would also occasionally surprise us with a quart of ice cream or a box of doughnuts. Many of those treats did not come from a dumpster or a flea market or the sidewalk.

I hope.

Even after he moved into his own apartment, Ray always felt the need to bring home whatever shiny baubles, trinkets, and knick-knacks captured his attention. His deep love of treasure hunting lead to the greatest Dumpster Yard Sale that the city of Lowell has ever witnessed.

My mother called me after Ray died and asked if I would be willing to help her and my Aunt Esther clean out Ray's apartment.

"Bring gloves," she recommended.

I brought 3 pairs. Just in case.

Arriving at Ray's apartment building, I was greeted at the door by the Smokin' Old Ladies Welcoming Committee. They lined the benches beside the door, their wrinkled, bewhiskered faces barely visible behind an acrid cloud of cigarette smoke. They cackled merrily as I approached the door. From somewhere deep within the billowing cloud of smoke, The Gatekeeper pointed a remote control at the doors and pressed a gnarled, arthritic finger to the button. The doors swung open before me like the gates of some great and mysterious fortress.

A fortress that reeked of stale smoke and commercial grade air freshening products. Every resident in Ray's building, with the exception of Ray himself, smoked like a Chinese toy factory.

I finally managed to find Ray’s apartment and, opening the door, was greeted with, "Why in the world would anyone need this many pens?"

Indeed, this was to be a pervasive theme throughout the afternoon.

Several family members had been conscripted to help clean out Ray’s apartment. We waded through the the innumerable treasures that Ray had collected over the years. He seemed to have a preference for stereo equipment, writing implements, and–being a very pious man–bibles and rosary beads.

I believe that my cousin Karen, at one point, mentioned that she had found at least 50 bibles. Before lunch. There were enough rosary beads scattered throughout his apartment to make a New Orleans Mardi Gras party look drab and lifeless by comparison.

We began hauling boxes of Ray’s treasures down to the dumpster and soon it was filled well beyond its capacity.

That's when the fun began.

Load after load was hauled out of the apartment. We arranged things in an enticing manner around the dumpster. Word spread quickly throughout the building.

The Gatekeeper of The Smokin' Old Ladies Welcoming Committee warned me, "Hey! You leave that stuff there and people are gonna TAKE it!"

"They're welcome to it," I answered cheerily, "In fact, can I interest any of you delightful ladies in this 800 watt portable CD player or a few hundred 'Sing Along with Mitch' 8-tracks? How about 65,000 pens? Thirteen dozen #2 pencils?"

They were not interested. The Smokin' Old Ladies were tough customers; even declining my cousin Kathy’s sweet offers of 22 almost-new bags of egg noodles. The rest of the building’s residents were not so difficult to please, however.

Soon, people were swarming around the dumpster and, some, seeking to get the jump on the competition, met us en route to pick items off the hand trucks we were pushing.

It may have gotten ugly at the dumpster if Kathy hadn’t charmed a resident into helping out by offering him several dozen strings of giant rosary beads. With the beads draped around his neck like some twisted mockery of Mr. T, he assumed the role of Dumpster Yard Sale Manager and attended to the myriad details that we simply didn't have time for. Without his invaluable assistance, we certainly wouldn't have done half the business that we did.

He advertised the sale by calling out to passers-by, "HEY! Come check it out! Someone passed away. You KNOW that's the only time there's really good stuff like THIS! Hey, Pedro! Wasn't you lookin' for a new microwave? We got one here!"

He saw to the orderly conduct of the customers. "Hey, Showanda. Put that clock down, honey. I'm saving that for Jung Hwa. You can have this other clock. The one that plays music every hour. No. That one is saved for Pedro. Don't make me ask you to leave."

He displayed the products with an artist’s eye for detail. "You guys got any shelves up there in that apartment? Well, bring 'em down. I'll put all these beer mugs out on the shelves. Make 'em look nice. Then people will take ‘em."

Those beer mugs were one of the many surprises that awaited us in Ray’s apartment. For a lifelong tea-teetotaler,  Ray had an impressive collection of beer mugs, including one with the slogan, "Beer Drinkers Make Better Lovers" another with the provocative word, "Sexy" stenciled across it in the shape of pursed, red lips, and a giant mug, tastefully outfitted with a bell on the handle, presumably to signal to your wife that you were in need of more beer.

My cousin, Jim suggested that a mug like that would bring about the end of even the happiest marriage.
And, although Ray was never married, we also found several baby-name books inexplicably squirreled in among his belongings.

After several hours of grunting Ray's accumulated belongings away, our previously brisk business at the yard sale began to slump. Whatever people didn’t take, we were going to have to haul away.
So we pulled out the big guns.

Ray's mighty collection of fedora hats was an instant hit with the entire neighborhood. People flocked to the Dumpster Yard Sale clamoring for some of Ray’s fashionable haberdashery.

"Hey! Whoa! One to a customer!" bellowed The Manager as people groped and clawed for one of the hats. Everybody in the neighborhood seemed to be wearing one. Even the guy in the sweatpants and yarn slippers who swaggered into the toxic cloud encircling The Smokin’ Old Ladies, his new hat tipped at a jaunty angle on his head.

"What the hell is that ugly thing on your head?" The Gatekeeper barked at him.

"It's my new hat," he bragged, striking a pose of awesome manliness.

The fedoras rekindled business enough so that there was very little left by the dumpster at the end of the day.

Ray's lifetime of collected treasures had spread joy far and wide.

"You know what Ray would say if he knew all these immigrants were getting his stuff?" Jim laughed as we hauled out the final load of the day.

We howled with laughter. Ray would have foamed at the mouth, spouting off about a welfare state, quoting Rush Limbaugh, and generally making a fuss. But I truly believe that deep down, Ray would have been happy to know that, in death, as in life, he made lots of people happy.

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