I happened to be traveling through Galveston, Texas on June 19th two years ago. I went into a store to buy some Texas BBQ spice rub and the black female owner of the establishment had hung a large sign in celebration of Juneteenth. In an effort to get to know the people of Texas, I asked the storeowner about Juneteenth, as I had never heard of it. This woman explained to me that Juneteenth honors the day when enslaved people in the State of Texas were set free. “The Emancipation Proclamation had happened two years earlier, but Texas didn’t have a lot of Union soldiers around to uphold the new laws,” she explained. “Texas was late to the party, until June 19th, 1865, when a Northerner read federal orders for black Texans to be set free from slavery.” I was completely humiliated by my ignorance of this historic event. Juneteenth is now gaining the recognition that this day has deserved since it was declared by the State of Texas in 1980. Why, like the State of Texas had been after the Civil War, had I been so late to the party in learning what this day was all about? The following story is about a man who wasn’t from Texas, nor was he black. His name was Domenick and he lived in East Harlem, New York. But I believe that the woman selling me BBQ spice rub would have seen him as kin. Perhaps we will all see Domenick as kin after hearing his life’s story.
Domenick Guidice was born in 1920 to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Naples, Italy. At age 18, he was drafted to the United States Army during World War II, but served as a typist within the States, which suited him well. After all, Domenick wasn’t one to fight; he was a lover of words and a poet who scrawled words on every napkin of each diner he frequented through his teenaged and young adult years.
After the war, Domenick went to college and became an accountant. He worked for MGM Studios in New York City and made good money. But something else was happening during those years. The Civil Rights Movement had begun to unfurl, and Domenick started attending underground meetings to fight for racial justice. Domenick realized that being an accountant held little meaning for him. When the MGM office for which he worked relocated to California, Domenick declined to go. Instead, he began attending protests for Civil Rights in New York City. And by the year of 1963, he became a Captain Leader for the March on Washington. That was on August 28th of that year. Just two weeks thereafter, on September 15th, four black schoolgirls were killed in a bombing with sticks of dynamite at a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Domenick got in his car and drove from New York to Alabama to protest again. It was during this year when he met the love of his life, Joan Ferguson. Joan had been an actress in Greenwich Village. She watched a white American man being arrested with a few local priests during a rally for Civil Rights on the television. Joan joined the picket line after witnessing the quiet fury behind Domenick’s countenance as he was being hand-cuffed by New York City police officers. She married him less than one year later.
Domenick and Joan had two children. They moved to the South Bronx, and Domenick went back to college at the Long Island University to get a second degree. This college experience was far more in keeping with his personality, and Domenick secured his first teaching job educating 5th graders in the Castle Hill Section of the South Bronx. It was there that he instilled his love of poetry and reading to children of all races. Domenick brought a briefcase to work each day; because of his savoir faire with language, he referred to this briefcase as his “valise”. Within the valise, Domenick kept letters from his 5th grade students. These were the letters that were written towards the end of the schoolyear, which, as any teacher knows, are typically both flattering and apologetic in nature.
Because I know Domenick’s daughter, I was able to go through his valise just last week. Amongst the many writings therein were two letters from the principal of his elementary school which thanked him for organizing assemblies to educate the students on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though Domenick was now a teacher and a father, he refused to stop fighting for racial equality. From his initial beginnings of working as an accountant for MGM, to his years of protesting publicly for Civil Rights, Domenick had redirected his life’s work towards teaching children. Because the pay for a schoolteacher was not nearly as good as what an accountant would earn, Domenick drove a taxicab each night to make ends meet for his wife and children.
Domenick’s life path was one that was imbued with great meaning, but it was not without personal sacrifice and anxiety. He kept a leather-bound book within his valise where he wrote his poetic musings. One can picture him with a furrowed brow in the teacher’s lunchroom in the 1980’s, scribbling his thoughts, concerns and worries about the future that the world held for his students. Amongst the many penciled scrawls in his leather-bound book, Dominick wrote this: “Humanity can be blessed many times over and also be incomprehensible. The long history of torture and degradation of the weak and innocent is yet to be eradicated by us. Many tears have been shed by the innocent and brave.”
Towards the end of his teaching career, Domenick developed early dementia. Very few noticed his forgetfulness and difficulty finding words, except for the black female principal at the Community School 6. Her name was Eloise and she was concerned for this teacher, who had only two years left before he could retire with a full pension. Eloise loved Domenick and knew that she needed to protect that pension for which he had worked tirelessly in helping children learn to read. So, she took Domenick out of the classroom, kept his status as a full-time teacher and created a position where he could assist other teachers in reading activities in the school. (Perhaps this was what Domenick had marched for all along; equality in work for all people, and the overriding belief that people could care for each other with justice and compassion. If only they dared to try).
Going back to the modern-day tale of my ignorance of Juneteenth, I am struck by many things about Dominick’s life. While the March on Washington was incredibly bold and daring, as was his trip to Birmingham Alabama two weeks later, it was Domenick’s day-to-day work which made him a true leader in the fight for racial equality. It makes one ponder and imagine, what if more people had done this in 1963? Even if they didn’t attend these large and famous protests, what if people took a personal stance on ending racism as they lived and raised children and performed the most mundane of tasks? Where would we now be as a society if there had been more Domenicks who cared about every child, every person, no matter the color of their skin, and who wanted to stop the tears “shed by the innocent and brave”?
It goes without saying that we wouldn’t be where we find ourselves today. As the world will finally celebrate with reverence a holiday as potent as Juneteenth on this very week, may we all learn from Domenick. May we be very careful about what letters, stories and ideas we carry within our ‘valises’ and bring forth to the world. May we remember that it needn’t be a holiday to carry out racial justice in all that we do. Domenick grappled with fear for the future, but what if our actions now would have eased that fear? What if we challenged ourselves about the nature of racial divide and did something every day to narrow the distance between each other?
In Domenick’s own words, “Humanity can be blessed many times over.” Let us celebrate Juneteenth with the soul of Domenick Guidice and the souls of the many people who suffered without reason from racial inequality. And let’s not stop on June 20th, either.
As people are living longer than ever before, the need to care for our elders is increasing. Having worked in healthcare for a long time, I have noticed some trends in how we view people in their eighties and above.
Perhaps those in my line of work are a smidge more understanding in dealing with people in this age bracket; but even those who excel at caring for the elderly would be lying if they said it is easy to understand or have endless patience for people older than eighty. We are all guilty of becoming irritated with those who take too long to push their carts in the grocery store, expound on lengthy tales of health maladies and doctor’s appointments and who remind us that we don’t understand the hardships that these eighty-somethings have endured. But there is another way to view this age gap, one where we can meet older people as versions of who we might become one day. This opens up an entirely new dialogue of commonality between “us and them”. Below are some theories on aging that might facilitate improved respect and understanding between those in mid-life and those nearing the end of theirs.
Lots of older people have no idea that they would fall into the category of being “elderly”. They remark on the appearance of their contemporaries, they label others as ‘old’, but they do not classify themselves as such. In my days of working in a nursing home, the staff often encouraged new members of the facility to hang out in the Day Room and make friends with the other residents.
What we heard all of the time was the same statement in reply: “I don’t want to hang out with these people. They are all so old!” I have asked many people who are under 80 years of age as to why this might be. Perhaps it is denial. No one wants to face their own mortality. But maybe a bigger and more existential explanation for this refusal to accept advanced age is evolutionary; maybe we need to deny our proximity to death in order to stay in survival mode. This may help us keep living and not give up. Another simpler rationale could be that the minds of eighty-somethings are often quite keen. Maybe their minds have not aged along with their bodies and they just don’t feel old. While this can aggravate the young, it could be one of the greatest blessings of old age that exists.
For newlyweds, the master bedroom and living room might be the only two rooms that are used. Lust and companionship on the couch are where this couple will reside at this stage. Once children are born, the family will move into the kitchen with a hearth for cooking. The library will be important, as children do homework and learn the academics that take them through their youth. The bedrooms surrounding the kitchen will also be in use, so that the children are close to their parents. This young family is taking up the center of the home for the functions needed to raise that family. As the children move out and the couple reaches midlife, the kitchen and central living space may not be utilized as frequently. The couple might retire from outside work and spend time in various other wings of the mansion, while pursuing new interests, often apart from each other. The basement might be utilized for hobbies, or the outdoor grounds for cultivating a garden. Towards the end of life, the inhabitants of the home, if there are still two, will begin to go up the narrow and creaky attic staircases. He or she will begin to open the chests of the past. She will uncover the dust of her lineage. He will sort through old letters and photographs and begin to make links between his story and the story of his ancestors, contrasted against the reality of the lives of his grandchildren.
These eighty-somethings can look through the highest windows in the house and see the vista of the land. They can make arcs of consciousness that they were unable to see when they lived in the heart of the mansion. Which leads to the next point…
When I spend time with them, they often tell me that whatever it is that I am worried about on a given day in this stage of my life is utter bullshit and will likely be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. They remind me that they have lived through wars, through losing friends and loved ones to death and through the loss of their health. They smile as they show me their childhood photos and say, “Your life is going to go so fast, you have no idea. Time passes more quickly for me than it does for you, which sounds strange, because I do a lot more sitting and thinking than working.
Life is so fleeting. Stop worrying so much and live in the moment. Don’t hold grudges against your parents. If they are both still alive, you are lucky. Take trips now. See the world. Don’t put too much money in your retirement fund, because a nursing home will take it anyway. Work hard, because work is what will sustain you. When you can no longer work, you will miss it. Your children will never do what you tell them to do. And that is okay. I never did what my parents wanted me to do. Reach out to the people who you don’t like, because you can learn from them. If they don’t reach back to you, then that is fine. You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself. Keep moving, in any way you can: physically, mentally, emotionally. Go on a walk after a major surgery, even when you think you can’t. Find the parts within yourself that you don’t like. Learn to like them anyway. Look for beauty in the world. It will seem impossible sometimes, but the craggy landscape of your soul is evidence of some sort of Higher Being. This knowledge will come to you when you are my age, but wouldn’t you rather want to know it before then?”
Maybe it is because they are not concerned about being old. No amount of meditation or mindfulness can get us to a place of expansive omniscience if we are too young to be there. We haven’t yet earned that perch in the rafters of the top floor. But wait…what if we did go up to the attic, before our time? What if we tried to make peace with “the craggy landscape of the soul”, and stopped worrying so much about becoming old? While nobody wants to fast-forward time and get older, maybe we could recognize our wrinkles and achy joints and ability to look at the entire landscape as heralding something worth celebrating. Perhaps we could listen to those in their later years as they console us, we could relish in their memories, and we might gain a glimpse of the broad vista which will await us one day.
We should all make a sojourn into the attic of the mansion, especially when we think we are too young to bother. We should try to prepare as best as we can for living under those sloping ceilings and attempt to age well. We should also remember that one day, we will be just like all of the other eighty-somethings, and we will not know that we are old. Get back to me in a few decades and let me know if this is true for you. Though you likely won’t acknowledge it. Your grandchildren will roll their eyes and say that you are living in the 1980’s. From the viewpoint of your grandchildren, they will be correct. But as for you, you will nod your head and think, “I remember living in that part of the mansion. It was great! But this attic is quite lovely, too…” May you hear the footsteps of the next generation come up those creaky stairs to find you and listen.
About 25 years ago, I was sitting in a university classroom at the beginning of my training to become a physical therapist. There were under fifty students in the class and we were thrilled to embark on our professional paths. There was the typical fanfare of inspiration from the professors who boosted our sense of excitement. Yet there was one professor who quieted and humbled the room when he said, “You are all likely here because you want to help people. That is a noble goal and purpose. But I would like to remind you that your average sanitation worker will help thousands more lives than any of you ever could. Furthermore, sanitation workers are not awarded the respect that most of you will receive as physical therapists, nor would they classify their career choice as a helping profession.” This was back in the days when nobody brought laptops to class, only notebooks and writing utensils. The classroom fell silent after this statement; one could have heard a Bic pen fall to the floor.
I have treated many sanitation workers since then, for various injuries they sustain in their line of work. Many of them have strained backs from lifting garbage containers and twisting their spines to empty those bins into the back of the truck. Others develop tennis elbow, which is searing pain on the outside of the elbow, which renders grasping anything with one’s hand an exercise in pure torture. The reason that sanitation workers get tennis elbow is because of the repetitive motion of grabbing the handle of a garbage can and then turning the wrist to upend the can. Also, think of how many sanitation workers you’ve seen holding that slender metal pole on the side of the truck as they stand on the back of it when riding between houses. This necessity of the job would worsen the symptoms of tennis elbow.
Fajri was of medium build, he had black skin and a well-shaped beard. He often came to the physical therapy clinic dressed in his uniform after a shift in high summer, dripping with sweat. Fajri was married with two kids. There was nothing striking about him, when I look back. But he had this remarkable presence, there was something special about the way he strode into a room which commanded attention.
After his injury, Fajri displayed tricep weakness, as well as numbness and tingling in some of his fingers. This made sense, because the radial nerve runs through the tricep muscle and supplies sensation to the hand. The physical therapy treatment involved strengthening Fajri’s shoulder, elbow and wrist, as well as doing soft tissue work along the scar where the surgeon had reattached his muscle after the mirror had cut it.
Fajri was progressing very well and the strength in his right arm returned. He was seen in the physical therapy gym, lifting weights and singing along to the radio. I often ate lunch with a Physician’s Assistant who also worked in this clinic. Her name was Heather and she had red curly hair. Heather didn’t seem to enjoy working in Newark, due to the rampant crime in the area. She was often sparing of words as she chomped on her spinach salad at noontime.
Yes, Heather was sparing of words. Until we talked about Fajri.
“What is it about this guy that is so unusual?” I asked Heather.
“I agree with you that he is most unusual!” Heather exclaimed. “When I think of a garbage collector, I don’t usually think of a guy with such intention, such charisma. But when The Faj walks into this office, I can feel his powerful sense of duty.” It was from that moment forward that we began to refer to our patient as The Faj.
The Faj was doing beautifully after his injury and was back to working full-time. But he continued to report an irksome symptom. “My fingers are tingling all day long. I cannot stand it! Is there anything else we can try to make the tingling go away?” He begged. I spent a lot of time working on his right upper arm and stretching the nerves that ran into his hand. Despite this treatment, the tingling in The Faj’s right hand would not dissipate.
I became so frustrated by my patient’s lack of progress that my mind returned to the classes I took at the university. I remembered the professors who gave us difficult case studies so that we could problem-solve and help patients who were not responding to the traditional treatments. It was on one fine morning when The Faj came strolling into the clinic that it hit me. The nerves that lead into the hand originate in the neck! If I treated his neck instead of focusing on the tricep muscle, perhaps The Faj could get some relief from the tingling in his fingers.
He lay face-up on a treatment table and I worked on the vertebrae within his neck. We had the best conversations during those sessions. The Faj told me about the birth of his two sons, about how his mother had literally died of a broken heart when one of her children was killed in a drive-by shooting in Newark and how much he enjoyed collecting garbage and cleaning the streets of the city. In time, the tingling in his fingers subsided.
The Faj was amazed at his recovery. “How in the world did this happen? How exactly does you pulling on my neck stop the tingling in my fingers?”
“I was so overly focused on the mirror injury in your arm, that I neglected to see if you had an underlying neck problem. I was chasing after a red herring,” I replied.
The Faj had never heard the expression of a red herring. I told him that a red herring was a false trail, something misleading or distracting. He absolutely loved this turn of phrase and for his final sessions of physical therapy, he entered the clinic, rubbing his palms together with vigor and announced, “We are going fishing today, my lady!”
In thinking back on this story, the university training given long ago allowed me to help The Faj. But is also provided a very valuable lesson, as stated by that one professor who stunned a room full of enthusiastic new students. I would like to remind you that your average sanitation worker will help thousands more lives than any of you ever could.
Now, in the present state of the world as we humans are forced to confront the coronavirus, those professor’s words ring truer than ever before. Sanitation workers are not only up against the multiple musculoskeletal ailments which will befall them at some point in their careers. These days, sanitation workers are the people who are as close to the cells of COVID-19 as anyone can get. They work to remove garbage from our homes, jobs and streets. They work to protect us from the spread of this dreaded virus, all while placing themselves directly in harm’s way.
I am not sure if The Faj is now retired from his job, receiving his well-deserved pension. But I still imagine him in his uniform, proudly ridding the city of trash, leaving the streets clean and safe. I pray for his protection and the protection of all who perform this essential job during the outbreak of COVID-19. They are helping more individual people than MOST of us ever could. Let’s hear it for the sanitation workers! Let’s hear it for THE FAJ!