San Diegans who do our dirty work

Dead-animal collector, embalmers, paramedics

Lieutenant Jim Wright: “We have rabbits and guinea pigs and we have iguanas... You name it, we deal with it."
  • Lieutenant Jim Wright: “We have rabbits and guinea pigs and we have iguanas... You name it, we deal with it."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Why we wrote these stories

Happy holidays, holy-days; Merry Christmas, Christ-mas. Once again, a voice cries out in the wilderness, this time a wilderness of shopping malls and office parties, saying, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!" Now as then, the path is interior, leading to the heart; now as then, the path is crooked, blocked by the triune thickets of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Christmas, meant to be a clarion call from the heavens to take note of the Incarnation of the Divine Word, now threatens to be the biggest smoke screen of all, the quintessential celebration of materialism. The merchants aren’t just in the temple anymore — they’ve converted the temple into a Theme Mall, with all the Old World charm and elegance of Jerusalem herself.

The tradition of gift giving to remind ourselves of the Father’s gift of the Son has been hollowed out. The significance has been drained; the shell, the exterior action, remains with a vengeance. But without that significance, Christmas is so much consumerist bluster, full of warm fuzzy feelings — “Don’t just buy, feel good about it! It’s for somebody else!” Without Jesus, Scrooge was right. Christmas is humbug, and divisive humbug at that.

Instead of a holiday that celebrates the universal salvation from the tyranny of death offered by Christ, we have an occasion for the have-nots to feel their want with an added sting. “Everyone should get presents at Christmas,” proclaims the world. But if you can’t afford any, or the right ones, Santa skips your house, and you lose. Some holiday. Speaking for the worldly “we,” we don’t feel too bad about this. We are not the poor, and they should be grateful for whatever we see fit to give them. Besides, the poor are spiritually rich. As for me and my house, we shall serve Mammon.

Of course, we’ve heard all this before. We’ve seen the “Jesus is the reason for the season” billboards, heard the reminders that the poor are with us always, not just for the holidays, to the point where we enjoy the prick of guilt. We feel better if we can admit that it’s all a sham, albeit a fun sham, and go on our merry way. As if the mere acknowledgment of the humbug made it okay. “Ouch, we’re spiritually bankrupt, selfish, and materialistic. Whatever. Isn’t this a darling sweater?” The pang of conscience is eased by the shrug of the shoulder. We find it’s actually easier to wallow in the indulgence of our baser inclinations if we possess an ironic awareness of their baseness.

And besides, a lot of us don’t believe in Jesus. We just like the idea of presents and decorating and traditional songs, and so we’ve co-opted the whole thing. If Christians wanted to keep Christmas to themselves, they should have made it less fun, less compatible with the world. We don’t appropriate fasting and penance, do we?

So much for Christmas. But whatever it is now, it started with a baby born in a stable. A humble beginning, yet one that brought wise men to their knees. When the baby Jesus grew up. He claimed to be one with the Creator of the world, but the humility continued, and he gave up his life for the sake of mankind. Along the way, he told us that “whoever would be first among you must serve the rest.” And, “ The first shall be last, and the last shall be first." And, “I give you a new commandment — love one another as I have loved you.” He said this last after washing the disciples' feet. The meaning was clear: If you would be great, humble yourself before one another in service.

Now anyone who provides goods or services to others may be said to serve them. But some work is more service, and more humble, than others. St. Francis of Assisi used to call his body “Brother Ass,” and while the body is more than an ill-tempered vehicle for the soul, it provides its share of frustrations and unpleasantries — sickness, deformation, waste and hunger, to name a few. The job of tending to the body, its needs and functions, is essential to man. It has a nobility and a primacy that stem from its concern for man's first goods: life, health, nourishment, shelter. It is also messy and humbling.

Bill Gates gave us Windows 95, but he’s not the late Mother Teresa, or even Paul Maxwell, paramedic. Gates doesn’t wash our public bathrooms, change the diapers of developmentally disabled people, or pick up our trash. He doesn’t rebuild the faces of the dead for the sake of the bereaved. For that matter, he doesn’t pick the produce we eat, stitch the clothes we wear, or man the factory assembly line. His work is abstracted from our bodily lives and functions, free from the sight, smell, and feel of the material world. He doesn’t do the vast number of things we want done but don’t want to do, the dirty or unpleasant jobs that make our pleasant lives possible.

I’m not picking on Bill Gates. If he built a better mousetrap, good for him. I’m saying that somebody who’s not Bill Gates does all those basic, earthy things. And even if Christmas means nothing more to some people than thinking of somebody else for a little while, those particular somebodies deserve at least that much. They deserve a pause, a thought. They deserve gratitude for the work they do. They deserve recognition.

— Matthew Lickona


17,000 Painless DeathsOverpopulation solutions among the animals

The Remains of the DayThe smell of hot guts on asphalt

Lord of the RatsNeedles, drugs, and thin slices of brain

Life LessonsTrials and triumphs with autistic kids

The Patience of a Strong HeartA labor of love in Lakeside

Men Behind the SirensWho arrives when times are traumatic

Dead, But Not BuriedWhere you go between death and the grave

Poop PumperIt smells like money to him

Ten Pounds of Toxic WasteMatthew Lickona experiences (w)hole body health

The Abhorrent Nature of VacuumsWho cleans the cleaner?

Public WorksA man in the women's bathroom

Talking TrashJunk left by sports junkies

Who You Wrote About

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