Two weeks before Larry turned 61, and about 8 months before he was due to retire after more than 30 years, many as a supervisor, down at the city’s ports, he died the other day.
Indeed, unexpectedly… which may be, to most of us, the preferable way of departing this mortal coil.
Nevertheless, the timing of Larry’s death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it. Especially to us cigar guys down at South Philadelphia’s Twin Smoke Shoppe where always-helpful-without-being-asked Larry was just about the only regular who could figure out how to help out a new customer. That is, he somehow could navigate Anthony’s, the owner, high-tech cash register that is as unsystematic and disorganized as low-tech Anthony ‘disenabled’ it to be.
Indeed, I mean Anthony is the effervescent glue that keeps us planted there — despite possessing the attention span one second less than a gold fish. He’s a guy who can’t find his keys, his office or personal phone, or his glasses about nine times a day.
Hmm… We know him well, and love him anyway.
Just as much as we loved Larry. In fact, we loved him enough to never dare mention his most impeccable of hair pieces that even he wouldn’t acknowledge. For the Twin Shoppe is family. We’re all a bunch of elephant-sized asses who can’t figure out why the world just doesn’t act like we think it should.
Including Larry, who would often smile beneath that knife-edge mustache while introducing his latest revelation with: ‘I just don’t get it. Why don’t people just…’ And then something as cockamamie and dark as a lunar eclipse of the sun would cast a shadow of ambiguity upon us.
Look, for most of us – especially in America – life is mostly pleasant. And I understand that death is pretty peaceful. It’s just the transition, as with Larry’s, that is so troublesome.
In other words as a much wiser man than me once said: ‘I do not believe that any man fears to be dead, but only the stroke of death.’
But meanwhile, we don’t even know — we, meaning the guys he regularly smoked cigars with at the Twin Shoppe — if it was the car accident that killed him.
I mean, he was reportedly only going 25mph when he hit the back of that highway maintenance track. Then again, the police reported there were car-scraping-marks impressed upon the highway’s concrete barriers as far as a mile prior to the crash. I guess this might suggest that something more akin to sudden death syndrome was in play.
Yet we may never know. His parents, reportedly, have no interest in a coroner’s report.
Look. I get it. I know, most death is sudden. A brain fart. Or something dropping down the heart’s death canal. A brick wall. Or a bullet with your toe-tag on it. But whatever it was, the fact remains that Larry’s ‘sudden’ death on his hour drive from South Philadelphia to New Jersey seashore last Saturday night, has become an inconvenient truth for us guys.
I mean, even if it occurred before our very eyes, or could be conjured in our mind’s eyes, we still wouldn’t know whether it was an accident or crime scene? Or simply the Big-Guy-in-the-sky plucking him to come up yonder.
Naturally, we’re bewildered. Staggered might be a better word. We don’t understand. Our thoughts are adrift, like the smoke of our cigars. And certainly, at times like this, true wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.
As I said to Whitey, one of the more forthright in the smoke shoppe and the only guy I know who really means it when he tells you straight up he just doesn’t give a shit what you, me, or his tattooed neighbor thinks of him. I told him ‘we all live to die. But like the bug that suddenly splats on our car windshield, we just don’t see it coming.’
In other words, as Whitey clarified, living may be in the rearview mirror, but death comes through a laminated, safety-glass front window shield.
Hmm… I thought I already said that. But obviously Whitey sees things more transparently.
Anyway, at times like these we sink into unanswered questions about our mortality. We pause a moment to confront ourselves. You know: Today is the tomorrow we weren’t promised yesterday. And all that stuff.
But this time it isn’t a glib conjecture. No one was being cavalier. And-of-course it’s a pensive moment that no one can really provide clarity. Another one of those mysterious, enigmatic queries that science can’t answer and religion only provides us with G-d’s mercy and grace.
But at these moments, even through the clouds of smoke, the certainty is riveted that our days are numbered. We understand that. And then again, we really don’t. And it makes me wonder out loud why most of us are merely frittering this life away, waiting to donate our bodies to science fiction.
Or, in the words of my bourbon sippin’ pappy: ‘Most people die at 25… and just hang around to 75 to get buried.’ And then often times he would add, while exhaling on his corn cob pipe: ‘The purpose of life is a life of purpose.’
But for what purpose? Really? When I honestly feel we are dispatched to this penal colony mostly to serve out our life sentence.
And then, just-like-that it unexpectedly ends. It’s sort of like a parole from the here and now. Just as Larry’s here-today-and-now-gone-last-night it all becomes very real. At least momentarily. Once again. For all of us. Especially those of us puffing smoke at one another after Larry’s viewing, trying to make sense of everything that doesn’t make sense in a world of unending wonder. Eternal mystery. Interminable uncertainty.
Even Carlo, the muscular, shaved-headed, cop and warrant officer, who’s been shot more times breaking down doors and watched a partner eradicated before his eyes, couldn’t wrap his beefy paws around this.
“I don’t know why,” he said in his deep and now plaintive intonation, “but Larry’s death is the first one that’s gotten to me.”
And so it has. To all of us.
We all, like Carlo, don’t know why. No doubt because life’s real tragedy is that we become old too soon. And wise too late.
Like I said before, we’re family at the Twin Shoppe. Men need a place to hang. And that’s where we do it. Larry didn’t have a wife and kids. There is only his parents who he planned upon retirement to live with and help care for at the seashore three or four days a week. And then stay with his sister in Philadelphia at least three days a week while he continued to puff and kvetch with us at the smoke shop – his family.
Those were his retirement plans. But as the old joke goes: If you really wanna make G-d laugh — tell Him your plans.
Obviously where my head is at this place and time Larry’s death has reached somewhere inside the corners of my mind and humbled me in places I haven’t dusted in years. All I know for sure is that our aspirations of immortality must be interrupted by death.
And as sophomoric as I know I sound throughout this toast to the memories of all dead men and women like Larry, I can’t help but remember an old lecture from back in college, when a profound philosophy and religion professor expounded:
‘The greatest dramas in the world are all about sex, violence and death…’ he said and then proceeded with: ‘Hamlet is one of the most dangerous things ever set down on paper. All the big, unknowable questions like what it is to be a human being; the difference between sanity and insanity; the meaning of life and death; what’s real and not real. All these subjects can literally drive you mad.’
Indeed, the questions are much bigger than my – or even the greatest bard’s — answers.
But I am not ‘driven mad.’ Just as I am not here to grieve Larry’s death. I am merely here to thank G-d that such a man lived.
In the end, the life of the dead is placed in the memories of the living. And the person doesn’t really die until the last person who remembers him expires. We’re going to be fondly talking about Larry for years to come. And that’s grand. For, not being talked about, can be far worse.
Certainly some lives may seem more precious than others. But in some way and means, all lives are treasured. All lives should provide us with something to remember. Something meaningful, or something just as simple as to: Taste too much. Drink too deeply. Love too passionately. And embrace our fear of death. For only then do we live in the moment we are meant to live.
Hmm… something more to ponder.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…