Cypress Hills Cemetery

Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn. My summer job two years in a row in high school. First my junior year, and then in my senior year when my first summer stock experience in Benton Harbor, Michigan ended with the company closing after two weeks because of protests led by the two directors over unfair working conditions. But that is another sordid tale full of intrigue, sexual deviation, drunken pool games, and why I’ve always mistrusted the Midwest. But now it’s summer in Brooklyn and I’m getting a great tan under a hot merciless sun among tombstones and some people I used to know.
First there was Theresa Farrell, my mother’s cousin and daughter of Aunt Lizzie, who we saw quite a bit of and whose husband, Whitey Farrell, got me the summer job at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Theresa was a big woman, dark haired, laughed a lot, and loved my mother. Whitey was a former weightlifter, had tattoos on his arms of dragons, stilettos, a laughing Hot Stuff Devil complete with pitchfork, who would only smoke unfiltered Camel cigarettes because that was what a real man smoked, and chewed on toothpicks when he didn’t have a cigarette stuck on his lips. He was a gravedigger at the cemetery and drove one of the gravedigging machines that broke the ground. He loved to show how strong he was by letting someone dangle from his arms and if he wasn’t barechested, he wore his Mickey Mouse t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a pack of Camels tucked in one sleeve. When not working, he could always be found playing poker in what was a sort of breakroom for the workers, drinking his draft beer in the paper cartons they would get from the bars to make it look like they were drinking something else, though everyone, including the foreman, knew exactly what was in those cartons. Whitey would always drive around in the mornings just before breaktime to take coffee and buttered roll orders from everyone and there actually wasn’t anything in life that quite equalled to what that coffee and roll tasted like during those long summer mornings, sitting under a tree at the cemetery and letting work stop for twenty minutes while watching the world go by. Afternoon breaks brought that draft beer in those cartons and again, beer was never as cold or refreshing as it was those hot afternoons in Brooklyn.
The workers were all Italian, Irish, or Portuguese, they being the newest immigrants to take these jobs, and most never finished high school. It was a dream of many of the younger ones to pass the GED test (General Education Development) so that they could apply for a job with the NYC Sanitation Department. But like most dreams, no one that I knew or heard of actually did that.
I worked with Rosario Rizzo, who did not like to be called by his first name and was constantly teased by our co-worker Danny Gallo who would sing out “Rosie” whenever he was far enough out of reach of Rizzo’s hands. Rizzo, it seemed, was actually a distant cousin of mine, his mother being a Durso related to the mythic Frank Durso who was at one time the head of the Durso clan in New York and to which I also belonged somewhere in that genealogy.
Danny Gallo, also the son of one of the gravediggers, was a skinny kid from Jamaica, Queens, with a broad smile and eyes filled with the promise of better things to come. I never saw a dark cloud pass over his face, nor heard a curse, or a sigh. He was always happy, always content, perhaps because he expected nothing more from life than what was in front of him.
Rizzo was a big young man: fat, but with strong arms and legs, like a weightlifter gone to seed but still retaining most of the strength. He had a deep laugh and loved to sing Italian songs when we worked, a booming tenor among the tombstones. And though Rizzo himself was not the prototype of my favorite fictional creation, I did borrow his name for that character and adapted the lack of a first name for him.
Then there was Phil, the son of a Portuguese gravedigger who spoke a little more English than his fellow countrymen, but still did not understand most of what Phil said. Phil was entering college, like me, and loved books, the only one who actually read more than a menu who worked there. He was a typical NYer, sarcastic, a bit jaded, he looked at life through tired, mistrustful eyes, knowing that no matter how bad things were, they would only get worse, and if things were good, it wouldn’t last till nightfall or morning, whichever came first. We went to a Broadway show together, he took his then girlfriend and I took Karen Deene. It was Baker Street, based on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, with Fritz Weaver and it was the first Broadway show I actually went to. And later that week, during lunch, Phil and I would recite lines from the play, sing the lyrics of the songs we could remember and make up others to fill in the gaps, pretend we were Sherlock and Dr. Watson, amusing the other green attendants.
Lunch was sitting under trees near the entrance and away from the tombstones, eating hero sandwiches, drinking Coke or beer, speculating on how hot it would get that afternoon and whether or not they would let us go early because it hit over 95 (a union regulation, and we were all card carrying union members: AFL-CIO Local 365).
There were others, too, whose names elude me but the faces are clear, the way they talked, the walks, the dreams spun on those lawns, the purr of the trimmers as they skirted the tombstones, the power mowers, the raking, the pitchforks we needed to load the garbage truck, and my favorite job: stoking the fire that burned the grass, the discarded wreaths, the dead flowers, the leaves. Danny and Rizzo worked the truck with Dick, an older year round green attendant who drove the truck and liked to stop by the overpass of the parkway and watch the cars, hoping to see a woman pass by with her skirt pulled up exposing legs.
There was Reilly who once told me to sit in the truck going up the road to drop us off at our individual work spots when I was standing because, as he said, you would stand enough in life so you should sit whenever you got the chance. Reilly was a big Irishman with the red nose of an alcoholic who was a seasonal like the majority of them, working from March through November before being laid off to collect unemployment until March 1st when he would get the call to come back to work.
The foreman, our immediate supervisor, was Ned, medium height, wiry, wore glasses that he was constantly pushing up his nose, and always had a Yankee’s baseball cap on. I actually never saw him without it. He didn’t laugh much, but he would smile at all the workers, chain smoke Lucky Strikes, and knew everyone of us by name, age, and where we lived, who we were related to or knew at the cemetery because no one got a job there without some kind of connection to someone else who worked there. He coughed a lot and I imagine he must have paid dearly, like Whitey did eventually, for all those cigarettes.
I cut myself on one of those trimmers one afternoon, a stupid mistake that earned me five stitches in a doctor’s office without any anesthesia while Ned waited patiently by my side. The scar is still there, a white line just above my left knee, to remind me of those summers, those people, a life working class people much like my family were destined to live, a life I somehow avoided because of my senior year in high school that was sandwiched between those two summers at the cemetery. I like to think Phil escaped it, too, though I know Danny’s and Rizzo’s ambition was to work full-time among those tombstones, among those men, till they were eventually laid to rest under those trees in a discounted plot reserved for employees in good standing.
And whenever I would visit my mother’s and father’s graves at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, I would think of Danny, Rizzo, and Phil, and wonder who would burn the flowers I left behind when they dried up. And thank whatever power there is in the universe that it is not me.

11 thoughts on “Cypress Hills Cemetery

  1. I was an assistant to the assistant gravedigger for a spring (before I went to Alaska) when I first came to Oregon in 1973. It was a good job for a hippie. Lots of stories and interesting characters.

  2. Hi. At the Cooper Avenue entrance to Cypress Hills cemetery there is a wooden bench with a plaque inscribed: In Loving Memory of “Whitey”. Presumably this is the same individual you describe in your piece.

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