The first time I saw Francisco, he was emptying my garbage can into the rear-end maw of the garbage truck. I don't know why I even noticed him, except there ws a peculiar look on his face when he saw me gazing at him. Was it a look of familiarity or was I just imagining things?
He hurriedly dropped the garbage can into the hole in the ground and had to run to catch up with the truck that had moved on with hardly a pause. He hopped on the truck's running board, grabbed the iron handle that he used for support, looked back at me, and gave me a wave with his free arm.
I opened the car door, got in, and sat in the seat a full minute trying to remember where, or if, I had ever seen that fellow before. My mind raced back over the years trying to place the tall, older but still agile and free-moving trash collector among all the friends and relatives that I could recall. My thoughts covered everything that I had ever done in the past, travel, service life, working life, vacations, leisure hours. I tried putting his face and body in any picture that would fit, a face with its square, bewhiskered jaw with a perpetural smile, his strong hands, easy strength as he lifted the garbage can out of the hole in which it is kept, his quick movement to the truck in his jean-covered legs and returning the can to the hole in one smooth and swift movement.
Nothing came to mind that said, "Bingo!", or even gave me a clue as to recognition. I emptied my stuffed brain of any thought regarding such an insignificat greeting for the time being and continued to my desintiaion, thinking next time I'd pay more attention.
The next pickup day I was standing on the sidewalk just returning from walking my dog when the truck arrived at my garbage pickup point. Francisco had his wide-shouldered back to me as he bent down and retrieved the can and turned away, back to the black hole of the truck without seeing me. But, when he turned to return the can, he caught a glimpse of me out of his dark eyes, and once the can was settled in the hole, he straightened up, stared at me or through me, smiled a big smile, ran to the truck and hopped on, waving as the final act before turning his attention to the next pickup.
BINGO! By golly, that was old Frank Martinelli! It had to be, couldnt be anyone else! The Wop from Brooklyn! What the Hell, what was he doing working as a garbageman? His close friends on the ship always talked about him as the Wop from Brooklyn, saying it in a non-derogatroy but affectionate way as comrades in arms do to friends. He was in my division, but I never paid much attention to him or any of the lower rated men, other than from a boss viewpoint, but he had what it takes to be one of the best sailors around anywhere. I was older by maybe eight or ten years, but you couldn't help but notice the smart way Frank wore his uniform, even dungarees. I don't kow how he did it, but his dungaree shirt and trousers were always pressed, his shoes shined, even the work shoes worn every day for duty in the engine room. And he moved in a smooth, graceful manner, almost a glide, like a boxer. In fact, he was a good boxer in all the "smokers" (bouts) held on the ship. Nobody was ever declared the winner of these amateur fights, but they were always entertaining.
Why? How? What was he doing now a s a city worker on the lower rungs of the so-called social strata, a garbage man? That was a long time ago when I last saw him in his dress blues, standing on the deck, awaiting liberty call, and I waved my last goodbye to the gray hulk of the ship from the dock and headed off to a new assignment.
I had to find out more about him, so I contacted his boss downtown and made an appointment to see him about the city's garbage-handling practices.
"Can;'t tell you much about him," the man said. "He started working for the city maybe a year ago and he has settled right in, good worker, never misses a day, says he really enjoys the job because he gets some good exercise every day. We haven't had any complaints aobut his work, is that why you're asking me all these questions?"
(END OF PART ONE OF THIS STORY. PART TWO WILL BE NEXT POST.)