Tribute to my Father: Stories from our elders

POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

Tony Robles/Special to PNN
Wednesday, December 19, 2007;

"When I die, bury me facedown so that anybody that comes to visit me can kiss my ass."

--James Robles

I was about 14 or so when my father said those words to me. My father was a joker to everybody but me. When he did joke with me, it was usually while we were working together as part of a 2 man work crew known as the Filipino Building Maintenance Company. Our motto was "Cleanliness is happiness." The problem was that I didn't really know how to clean.

"Man, where did you learn how to clean?" my father would ask me. "Look at all those piss stains you missed!" I'd stand before him with a dumb look on my face and a limp dust rag hanging from my ass pocket. I remember the sweeping, mopping, vacuuming carpets and cleaning toilets.

My father was a worker, like his father before him. He grew up in San Francisco's Fillmore district in a family of 10. My grandmother told me that when my father was a young boy, a Chinese man looked at his hands. He told my grandmother that he saw wealth in her little boy's hands. "That boy is going to be rich," the man said. He offered to buy my father from my grandmother to which she replied, "Get out of here you old Chinese fool."

Our family was one of the first Filipino families to migrate to and settle in San Francisco. Unlike today, my father and uncles did not have the opportunity to learn to speak Tagalog or Pilipino. Learning one's native tongue was not encouraged in those days. You were encouraged to speak English or "talk American." You can't really blame them back then they were on survival mode; they all wanted to be screen idols like Tony Curtis or Kirk Douglas (Never John Wayne).

My father grew up in the 50s and 60s, a time before the Filipino Channel or cable networks existed. What he had was the neighborhood and the smells of soul food, ”black eyed peas and ribs and cornbread” wafting from open windows mingling with the smell of tomato beef chow mein at SooChow's restaurant in Japantown and the smell of adobo and rice cooking in his mother's kitchen. The high and low notes of jazz accentuated the deep tones of African American voices laughing and hollering and singing and preaching and moaning and protesting and settling underneath the fullest of moons while waiting for the sun to rise and start all over again.

My father lived through the injustice of redevelopment in the Fillmore; being displaced while a neighborhood with history and memories tried to survive the siege of the downtown and political interests.

I think about my father often. I am a writer and native San Franciscan. So many people of my father's generation are dying by violence or ill health or a combination of factors.

I remember my father as a hard-working man. Martin Luther King once said that "If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted." This statement applies to my father.

I watched him go from a janitor at the War Memorial Opera House to a small business owner, starting his own janitorial business. He'd complain about his job at the opera house and how he wanted something more. He met many famous people while sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms in those halls of wealth and privilege, Frank Sinatra, Leontyne Price, Jimmy Carter among others. But he felt he needed something more, felt he was something more.

I worked with my father in his small business and to be honest, he was a bad boss. He was overly strict and overbearing but what I did not realize was that he was trying to make me like him, not a janitor, but someone who had pride in his work.

I would curse him under my breath. One time he heard me mutter the word, "asshole" and he responded by throwing 20 rolls of 2 ply, industrial grade toilet paper at me. (He had very good aim, hitting me with about 15 or so rolls). The point he was making to me was that you have to do things you don't want to do, that you have to get up and work and take care of business.

The man was a hard ass but I'm thankful for it. But despite his workman's pride, there was something missing. He never told me what it was but I felt it. Most of his friends were janitors and most of them settled into that because that was all they knew. They grew up in a time of limited opportunity. From Junior High through High School, they were passed over as the failures; those young men destined to do menial jobs with no possibilities of reaching beyond.

My father was a hustler, working 2, 3, 4 jobs to support us at the young age of 19. He worked and landed that job with the Opera House that he would keep for more than 10 years. One day he decided he was going to make a change. His wife was from Hawaii and he decided to move the family to Oahu. I did not want to go because it was my senior year in high school but my father was determined to make a new start.

We packed everything, including the janitorial equipment, and made the trek to Hawaii. It was tough, high prices and a tight job market. My father got a steady job but still pursued his aspirations of having his own business. He eventually secured enough accounts to work his own business full time. Things went well for a while but there was something lacking.

I talked to my father this morning; the sound of ocean waves coming over cell phone static. His business has been defunct for about 10 years due to economic downturns on the island. "I'm riding my bike to work," he says. He rides 4 miles each way to his maintenance job at a condo on Waikiki. We talk a little more and he tells me of his new love. "I've been carving. You know, I've always liked wood, ever since high school. Did I ever tell you that I took wood shop when I was in school?"

I listened as he told me of his woodcarvings. I never knew he took woodshop. He explained that he carves faces on wood. "I carve African faces," he says. "I think they're pretty good." I think of the years and the places and faces he's seen and the people that have come and gone in his life. I think of the days and hours he put into his work, the soul and spirit--now I can laugh at it all.

My father never stopped dreaming. His true purpose is in the forests of Hawaii. He knows the stories told in the faces of wood. The trees breathe through him and he is one with them; and the African faces he carves on them are beautiful. I'm sure those faces are the faces of his friends and family that have passed on to another place, another journey; Bobby Richard, Carol Player, David Scobie, Uncle Remy, Bill Sorro, Rudy Tenio, Richard Rekow; and those still with us; Uncle Anthony and Russell, Adrian, Charles, Rose and others. And I am his son.

I currently work for a non-profit organization in San Francisco. Ironically, I help low-income people obtain employment as janitors. But a job is a job, it's just a gig, you know? It isn't who you really are, my father is proof of that. And if you got a dream inside you, look at those trees. Dad says if you listen close enough, they'll tell you something.


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