Monday, April 16, 2007

My Grandfather Was a Janitor

On occasion, I'm required to put in a few extra hours, if not to make up for coming in late, than to meet, in true government lingo, my desired levels of achievement, i.e., quotas. I've stayed late often enough to have become familiar with the custodial staff's names and schedules. They're a friendly bunch, and most of them have been here since I started working for this department four years ago, so they know me by sight if not by name. Many nights I find myself the lone person in the office, and the squeaky sound of the custodian's cart, the hum of the vacuum, and their puttering around the office somewhere beyond my cubicle, become comforting noises.

One night not too long ago, after I bid the last of my coworkers goodnight, I found myself alone again, with nothing but the hums and beeps of my computer and other office machines to break the silence. Burying my head in yet another file, reviewing numbers and reports, I barely registered the jangling of keys and the familiar clatter of someone pushing a cart into the office. What did catch my attention was the whistling of a familiar tune. I remember being very impressed by the clear and skillful whistling and thinking there was only one other person I knew who could impress me with their whistling skill. I remember feeling some chagrin as I remembered that person, and made a mental note to check up on him soon as I had not seen him in a while.

I listened carefully to the melody, trying to place it. It sounded like a classical piece of music, but words were coming to me. As I picked up the tune, I returned my attention to my work, letting the vague lyrics play out in my head as the custodian continued to whistle. For some reason the melody was tugging at my heartstrings, and I grew wistful. Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I continued to read file notes, while I idly tracked the custodian's progress in my mind's eye. The distance of his whistling told me he'd gone into the conference room. I guessed that in a no time he'd emerge and make his way around to my area of the office. He was still whistling the same tune as he drew near my area and the words flew stronger through my memory, growing louder as I remembered .

"....love to love you, till the stars burn out above you, till the moon is but a silver shell...No other love..."

"Hey!" I exclaimed, before I could catch myself. "I know that song!" The whistling stopped abruptly and I realized I probably just scared the person with my outburst.

"Someone's der?" a voice called out, and I frowned in puzzlement at the accent. The regular custodians I was familiar with were Heather, Chico and Lenny, Caucasian, Hispanic and African-American respectively. This gentleman's accent sounded distinctly Filipino.

I called out, "Just me!" and I heard him make his way to my cubicle. I waited at my desk, ready to apologize for startling him. I was right, he did look Filipino at least. A short, wiry man, with graying hair and dark, tanned skin. I placed him at about early to middle to 60's, but I've learned when it comes to Filipinos, they're one of two things: they're either really older than they look, or really younger than they appear.

"Oh!" he said with a start as he spotted me. "I thought there's no longer anyone here anymore!" I smiled at his quaint English, correct, even if overstated.

"I'm sorry, if I scared you, I should've said something when you walked in," I apologized. He waved his hand and shook his head as if to say I hadn't scared him.

"You're a hard worker. You're working very late," he started conversationally after an awkward silence.

"Oh, I'm just finishing up some work. Please don't let me hold you up. The other staff always just go about their business." He nodded in understanding and raised his hand again, this time apologetically, as he stepped away. I winced internally, knowing I had sounded dismissive. I still had a lot of work to do but I was compelled to let him know I didn't mean to be so abrupt.

"Uh...I enjoyed your whistling. You're very good!" I called out.

"Did you say you know the song I was whistling?" he asked as he pushed his cart back to my area.

"Yeah! I mean, yes, it was my grandparents' theme song," I explained. "'No Other Love', right?"

"You're very smart to remember it," he smiled. "Does your grandfather sing it to your grandmother?"

I gave him a sad smile and shook my head. "Not anymore. My grandmother passed away a few years go."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," his voice was full of sympathy. "Are you pull Pilipino?"

Acknowledging why the melody made me sad had sent my thoughts another direction for a moment. Mentally shifting gears, I was a little slow to reply. "Pull Pilipino?" I repeated silently to myself. "Oh! Yes. Both my parents are Filipino. I was actually born in the Philippines."

"Oh, really? I am asking only because your last name is Miller," he nodded at the nameplate on my cubicle. As I silently predicted his next question, he asked, ""What is your family name?"

"DeGuzman, on my dad's side, Salonga on my mom's side." I replied. I answered his next question before he could ask. "I was born in Paniqui, Tarlac. I left when I was three, so I don't really know much about the Philippines."

"That was a long time ago then," was his next comment. Before I could figure out whether or not I should feel insulted, he asked, in that Filipino fashion of making a statement into a question, "So you must not understand the language anymore."

"Tagalog, I can understand. Ilocano, not really."

"But you don't speak either languages," he stated the next question.

"Hindi po gaano. If absolutely necessary, I can stumble my way through Tagalog. Ilocano, I only know a few words, and they're not really the good kind." He laughed in complete understanding.

We kept up our conversation for a few minutes, in a traditional Filipino effort of trying to find mutual acquaintances. I don't remember the names he rattled off of the places he lived and people he knew, but he soon realized we wouldn't find a connection with my limited knowledge of Philippines' geography, though he claimed to be familiar with my family names.

In a span of a few minutes, I knew practically his life story. In the Philippines he owned a fleet of four tricycles with his sons. His one daughter married a sailor now stationed in Bremerton, and was able to petition him and his wife a few years ago. Essentially, the lure of States was too tempting, and he left his home and business in the Philippines to become a janitor in America. His American dream is to bring his sons to the States, but the money he is sending them is helping them sustain and grow their business to include a jeepney. His wife was a teacher in the Philippines. Now she babysits the neighbor's children.

He realized he had been doing all the talking while I just asked simple questions. He then asked me about my job as he stayed busy, his movements efficient and automatic as he emptied wastebaskets and replaced the plastic bags in the cubicles around me. I politely encouraged him to speak Tagalog when he struggled with his English. Occasionally, I threw out a few Tagalog phrases myself, as I explained what I did for a living, and he made noises in reply that sounded impressed and appreciative.

"Oh, you must be very smart to have such an important job," he nodded encouragingly. I grinned and quietly pondered if maybe I was doing some overstating of my own. He talked as he worked. Sometimes as if to himself. "Alam mo, natutuwa ako pag meron akong nakilala na Pilipino na katulad mo, na magaling, at mabait pa kahit lumake dito! Ewan ko ba kung bakit, pero yung ibang Pilipino - makita lang nila kayo ay janitor lang, ay ayaw na nila makahalabilo sa'yo. Maski 'hello' man lang, ayaw." He paused, "Siguro, kung gusto ko, pwede ako maging bus driver or taxi driver. Pero, nakakabuhay ang trabaho ng janitor."

English translation: "You know, I'm so pleased when I meet Filipinos like you, who are not only good at what they do (?), but nice also even though you grew up here. I don't know why, but there are other Filipinos who, just because they see you're just a janitor, they don't want to socialize with you anymore. Not even a hello. Surely, if I wanted to, I could be a bus driver or tax driver." The last sentence made me think. "Nakakabuhay ang trabaho ng janitor." Did he mean, being a janitor enlivened him or did he mean he made a good living as a janitor. Or that being janitor brought people to life. I think any translation we come up with fits well.

I could only reply with an understanding "Hmmm" not quite sure what to say. But his comment brought a story to mind, and I smiled inwardly at the memory. It was a story I'd heard of Tatay asking my cousin Elvin and my older brother Jonathan what they wanted to be when they grew up. This was when both boys were still in the single digit ages, with Kuya was still speaking Tagalog more fluently than English.

Elvin quickly replied, "I want to be a doctor!" Kuya was slower to reply. When prompted again, he said shyly, not quite able to pronounce his "r's" yet, "Janitol, po."

I've always interpreted that story in a way most people may not have seen it. Most would just chuckle at the contrast of aspirations. But I always saw it, if very idealistically I must admit, as Kuya's way of telling Tatay, "I want to be like you, Tatay."

Because that's what Tatay was. A janitor. I know that wasn't what he was in the Philippines. I know Tatay takes great pride in his career in the Philippines. But I wonder if he knows he should take just as much, if not greater, pride in what he was here in the States. Because I do.

I have to admit I know embarrassingly little about my grandfather. I know he's a gruff man of few words. I've always found him hard to approach, but once I got over my awkwardness, he is easy to talk to. He's usually so stoic and formal, keeping a straight face even when he tells a joke. To see a smile on his handsome face and to see him genuinely laughing was a surprising pleasure. It's even more of a delight for me when I'm the one who's able to make him smile or laugh. Just as I do with my dad, if for some reason I couldn't view the full benefit of his smile, if I could just see the creases in his cheeks, it was good enough for me to know I had made him smile.

Tatay left the Philippines just a few days before I was born. I didn't "meet" him, until he came back to visit. Although I have pictures of us together when I was a toddler in the Philippines, I wasn't truly aware of his role in my life until I came to the United States. And then I knew him as a disciplinarian, the one who spanked me when I leaned out of the second story window of the small, two-bedroom apartment we shared with him and Nanay in San Francisco in the mid 70s. I knew he took naps regularly in the afternoon, and one day when I was lonesome for the mom and dad, I felt I hardly ever saw, I cried myself to sleep on his and Nanay's bed, and woke to find him snoring beside me. It's a comforting memory to this day.

He and Nanay were constants in our young lives, with Nanay preparing our lunchboxes and Tatay driving us to school, picking us up and attending my field trips and Kuya's special assemblies. I wonder how many of my cousins share this kind of memory.

I never really understood what he did for a living. I remember he worked in a hospital, and I remember he collected cans. I don't quite remember where they all came from, but I know he was forever crushing them in the kitchen, and his Chevy Nova never lost the sweet sour smell of the bags of cans he recycled. It wasn't until I was much older did I realize what value recycling those cans held. They supplemented an income he was gladly and unselfishly sharing with his family, here and in the Philippines.

I wonder how much it cost him to come to this country and put himself through the humbling physical labor of cleaning after others. Did he hone his talent for whistling like this man, his music his only company, after the "professional" people had left the building. Did he ever feel the rejection that this custodian spoke of? Did he ever feel belittled by his own countrymen for earning an honest wage as a janitor?

I watched the old man dusting and vacuuming, and I wondered if his sons in the Philippines knew how hard he worked. Then I thought about Tatay and I wondered if I've shown him enough or at all, how grateful I am that he put family first before his pride? Have we, the family he helped bring to the States, given him enough credit for working so hard so we could taste the "good life" on both sides of the ocean?

Memories have been haunting me since meeting this unassuming stranger. Did I ever thank Tatay for driving me to school when my parents couldn't? Did I remember to hug him and thank him for being with me on field trips because my parents were working? As a teen, instead of bemoaning a pair of jeans ruined by a spot of bleach, why didn't I see it as his way of taking care of my brothers and me? I'm grateful for the time Peter and I had him to ourselves for nearly a year, for I did learn more about him and his side of the family, but to this day I still feel a greater opportunity was missed. When he set out to establish a new life with a new partner, even as my heart broke, I let him know in a letter that I was happy for him. With a letter in reply, he eased the pain I didn't think I let him see, by telling me how much he'll always love my Nanay. Even as he sought to retrieve some happiness for the remainder of his life, with his letter to me, he sought to eternalize the happiness he once had.

When he was hospitalized late last year, even in his weakened state, he still made an effort to make us laugh. He entertained his visitors and charmed his nurses and hid his fear for when he was alone. He's been a constant and reliable pillar of strength for the family for so long, it's so hard to realize and accept that he's old and needs us as much now as we've always needed him.

I know myself well enough to know that this email won't change my nature. I am envious of those who can easily demonstrate their affection, for I know Tatay is a person who thrives on it, even as he remains brusque and stoic. I'll keep to myself just I normally do, undemonstrative, but always hoping people just know how much I care, for that is one of many traits I inherited from Tatay, along with his eyes and his formal face.

I'll continue to wonder if Tatay knows how proud I am of him. And I'll continue to wonder if I'll ever be brave enough to tell him. Maybe I'll surprise both of us and tell him one day. Somehow.

As for the kind gentleman who cleaned up after my coworkers and me that night, I haven't seen him since.

The last thing he said to me as he moved on to the next office was, "O, sige. Baka magkita tayo ulit. It was nice meeting you. You're the kind of young Filipino who make me proud. I hope my granddaughter grows up to be like you." I was flustered by the compliment, and for a while could only smile speechlessly at him.

But I finally did manage to say something.

I told him, "My grandfather was a janitor."

The look of understanding we exchanged held more than words could say. My eyes, I'm sure, were thoughtful, while his eyes were not only gratified, but triumphant.

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Written Jan. 30, 2002, before Tatay's 86th birthday. He returned to the Philippines a year ago this month after turning 90. On his 90th birthday, the family had a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to him and let him know how much he was loved. I'm glad we took that time to do so because Tatay passed away on August 15, 2006. But since he passed away & was laid to rest in the Philippines, I feel like I haven't had my chance to say goodbye properly. I still feel like he's alive, waiting for us to visit. I post this today in honor of his memory.

1 comment:

tracy said...

thanks for sharing the story! i really enjoyed reading it...