pipe dreams, dad. i'm a janitor's son.


my dad called my mom tonight to tell her that he'd gotten written up by his supervisor. for those of you out of touch with low-wage jobs, an employee gets written up whenever he errs or steps out of line. in my dad's case recently, it was the latter. as the story goes, my dad works with a muslim guy, and my dad doesn't like this guy, most likely because he's muslim. in all fairness, though, the muslim has been working for uc davis for two years, and my dad has been there for ten years, so he deserved to feel slightly indignant when the muslim allegedly told him how to do his job. when my dad told the muslim to leave him alone, the muslim reported this incident to their supervisor.

things escalated to the point where my dad said, "fuck you" to the muslim. it's hard to imagine this scenario, since my dad never says anything, and he especially never swears. whatever the muslim said or did, he must've had it coming. and tattle-tale that he is, the muslim again reported this incident to their supervisor, and this led to an actual write-up. my dad claims, though, that he wasn't able to tell his side of the story, and so my dad called up their union rep. the union rep said, next time, just walk away. but they're still going to talk to about it.

it's depressing to think about two low-wage custodians bickering with each other. they should be unified and demand a free education from uc davis for their work. sometimes i'll see my dad lying on the couch, and i'll wonder, is this all you wanted out of life? i know this couldn't possibly be his dream - an educated yet unemployed son, a mother who hates her job and continually has to wonder about the right time to retire. i think about what he thinks about his accomplishments. maybe coming to america and being a homeowner was enough. i just don't get why he didn't ever try to learn an instrument, or write a book, or draw a comic strip.

he took adult education classes when i was in elementary school. he stopped going, though, when the math got too difficult. another factor might've been that the adult education school, winterstein, was located just a few blocks from my elementary school, and he was aware that parents from my school saw his car there. "tell your classmates he teaches there next time," my mom advised. luckily, no one ever mentioned it again, so i didn't have to lie about it.

i had already lied enough times to save face. "my dad's a pilot," i once told my kindergarten class. to be fair, though, at the time, i really thought my dad did have something to do with airplanes. he told me he visited mcclellan air force base once, so what else was i to conclude? a few months later, i realized my dad actually wasn't a pilot. but my classmate, jennifer, must've been quite impressed because she remembered this until the third grade, and i had to unfortunately admit to everyone it wasn't true.

the truth was, my dad was unemployed. he was unemployed at the worst time, too, during those early years of my private schooling where all friendships and social circles were based on a continual game of one ups manship. "my dad's a doctor. what does yours do?" i don't know. "how could you not know?" i don't know. "why don't you ask him and tell us tomorrow." okay. i couldn't believe that teachers would actually make us share our parents' professions with everyone. each time, i squirmed in my seat, dreading the moment i would have to plead ignorance. "my mom's a nurse, and my dad...well, i don't know what he does."

what the hell did he do during those five years of unemployment? he went to to-toy's a lot, some filipino wigmaster who lived near antelope, and he would go to the broker. i vividly remember him dropping me off at my grandparents' or else my cousin's house, and he would say he was going to to-toy's, or to the broker. at the age of seven or eight, i suspected momentarily that he was having an affair, but i quickly brushed it off. our lives couldn't possibly be exciting enough for an affair.

before i entered st. ignatius, my dad owned a store called mike's food store on 28th and capitol. it was a little convenience store run by my dad and his family. i was too young to remember any of it, but there was a little backroom where i once took a nap, and my mom told me not to sleep there ever again, since there were cockroaches. i also remember eating drumsticks from the mini-freezer. it was cool to just take something, eat it, and not have to pay for it. i also remember hearing about the store getting held-up by thieves. once, an fbi agent came looking for patty hearst. there was one point, too, where my dad came home everyday with a five-dollar bill just for me. i saved it up as best i could, but my best wasn't good enough. my savings was gone by the end of summer.

then, when i was four, i was sitting on my parents' bed, and i was watching tv with my mom. he came through the door and triumphantly announced, "i sold the store!" we were both shocked. i can't help but wonder now what he was thinking. i try to recall how the scene played out, but the details are hazy. i could be imagining this, but i think my mom asked something to the effect of, well, what the hell are you gonna do now? and my dad sat down, dumbfounded. his face said it all: i don't know. i guess i really didn't think this through. but i could be wrong. maybe he did have a plan, and it just didn't work out. either way, he was jobless for the next five years.

by the fourth or fifth grade, i could finally tell people that my dad owned a care home. a care home was just a regular home, except that it housed mentally retarded patients. that's what my dad did. well, he didn't actually own the home - his sister, my aunt, did - and he didn't really "run" it, either. he paid a woman named jeanie to live there and watch the mentally retarded women. except they weren't really mentally retarded, like you would think. they didn't have down's syndrome like our neighbor did, and they could function just like normal people. the only thing was, some of them were schizophrenic, and some claimed they heard voices. they also suffered from depression and drug abuse. they also smoked a lot.

my dad's main duty was to drive them to appointments and to pay the house bills. but i couldn't just say my dad was a chauffeur for mentally retarded women. no, he was a "care home manager." people asked what that meant. "it's like a house for mental patients," i said. i tried to sound as vague as possible, hoping that people would picture him with a lab coat and stethoscope, directing his minions to take away the criminally insane in their stray jackets. yeah, my dad works in that big, creepy mental institution located on the hill. the kind of place where they administer shock treatments and lobotomies. it's pretty cool.

that didn't last, though. while he made good money from it, he eventually got tired of the bureaucracy or stigma or whatever it is that attaches itself to successfully managing a care home. he was unemployed again. thus, my answer had to change. "he used to run a care home, but he doesn't do that anymore." that was my actual answer. "between jobs" or "in transition" wasn't yet incorporated into my vocabulary. soon, though, by means of his brother, he acquired a position at enterprise rent-a-car, where the two of them drove cars from one location to another, usually from the foothills to the bay area. what does your dad do? "he works for enterprise rent-a-car." what does he do there? "i don't know."

after a short while, both brothers quit and found work as janitors at uc davis. by then, i was more grown up, and i shouldn't have cared then that this is what he did, but i did still care. all throughout childhood, it was made very clear to me that a good education was necessary to avoid becoming a garbageman or working at mcdonald's. do you want to clean toilets for the rest of your life? no? then do your homework and finish your dinner. how awful. i couldn't tell anyone. i still remember sitting in my college professor's office, and him asking me, that awful question, that personal question that got underneath my skin every time, ever since i can remember, and constantly made me feel bad that i couldn't admit to something so simple. clear evidence that i was ashamed of not just what he did, but who he was.

my mom's a nurse. and my dad, well, he works for uc davis.
what does he do there?
i don't know.
you don't know? how long has he been doing it?
eight years probably.
he's been there eight years, and you don't know what he does?
no.
is he a professor?
no. i don't know, maybe he works in the offices or something.
hah. you should probably find that out.

i could feel my twenty-two year old face reddening. the shame of it all. now i wasn't just ashamed of my dad's profession. i was ashamed at myself for being ashamed of him. i thought about what my grandma, his mother, would think. ashamed of your dad, are you? you should be ashamed of yourself. you know, people up here in heaven don't look too kindly upon scenarios like this. the fact of the matter was that he was working, working very hard every night until 2 in the morning just so i could be here talking to this white man about my half-hearted attempts at short stories.

and now here i am again, writing, while my dad is inhaling chemicals and wringing mops just so we could drive our cars, run the air-conditioner and eat. i owe it to him to do something great, to become one of those people with the quintessential american story: he was just the son of a janitor, but look at him now, they'll say (yes, in scenarios of greatness and victory, they'll do the opposite and leave out my college-educated registered nurse of a mother). the son of a janitor, he is the first filipino-american to win a prize in...and then they would name the prize. it would most likely have the word "honorary" or "achievement" in there somewhere. they would call me a recipient, and this would make my dad very proud.

maybe there's something greater in accepting a quiet life, a life of humility and service. is it more noble to do the work no one else wants to do? how can we be noble if nobody's watching, and nobody gives a shit?

when i was in college, i often thought about how i would come back home and tell my parents, but especially my dad, about all these great short stories, about st. ignatius' idea of the "true self," about the allegory of the cave. i was going to return to the cave and rescue not just him, but everyone, from the shackles of reality television, dead-end jobs, and an unsustainable way of living. i was going to get everyone to rally behind me, and together, we were going to take down corporations, educate the poor, stop the war, and be healthy, well-connected human beings.

but it didn't happen. i forgot that, upon his arrival, the rescuer was ridiculed, and the prisoners refused to leave.

since then, i've been clawing at the dirt, and trying once again to find a way out.

2 comments:

EasilyEntertained said...

A damn fine entry. Best in months.

EasilyEntertained said...

....except for your jacob entries, those are obviously the best.