Spending most of my days behind a desk, I have acquired the habit to go for a run around the town early in the morning. It is the only time I have for doing it, and I usually start quite early, between 4.30 and 5 a.m. At this early hour the town is quiet, unpolluted and almost empty. Few people in Ireland get up that early, and only if they have to. So apart from the odd taxi and an occasional Garda patrol I encounter only three kinds of people: the few who make early morning deliveries to shops, the very few who might be heading for the first bus to Dublin, and a handful of men from the city council who clean our streets every day.
They are always there, like the cats, the seagulls, the rooks and jackdaws, going about their work quiet and efficiently. I know that most people would not give them a thought or even a second look, but as I am slightly different, I always say "good morning" when I pass them, and sometimes even stop for a brief conversation. You might think that there would not be much to talk about with dustmen, but there you would be wrong. The idea that they are those who have to get such a "dirty" job because they could not get a better one is a very out-dated view of the world. These days, in the 21st century, dustmen are well paid public employees who receive the best civil service bonuses, since they work at the most unusual times (starting between 3 and 4 a.m.) and under every weather condition. So the job attracts a whole range of different people, including a university graduate, an evangelical lay preacher and a poet. When they are on the early shift, they are finished with work and can go home, free to do what they like, by the time I finish lunch and begin the second third of my working day.
When I lived in Cork, I actually became so friendly with one of the city's street sweepers (who is engaged in much local charity work) that we are still in contact now, years later, and when I have work in Cork, we might meet in a nice little tea shop in the city, have breakfast together and a really good talk.
Of the dustmen here in town, the most gentle and friendly, is called Jim, and we have spent many a morning talking for a few minutes about almost everything, from the weather to business and politics, from the strange behaviour of people (and what they throw away) to favourite books and philosophy. He would be one of the "old guard", having been in the job for most of his life, and coming close to retirement age. And he would always have a smile for me.
Sadly this will be no more, and my early mornings will never be the same again, as Jim has died, suddenly and unexpected, at the age of 57. Today, on a cold, miserable morning with pouring rain, he was laid to rest, mourned by his family, his colleagues and many more, myself included.
The Emerald Islander