Birth of the Carabao Cleaning Service (Later known as “The Filipino Building Maintenance Co.)
By Tony Robles
It started the moment my uncle, the poet, wrote the lines—
A handful of carabao
Dung has more spirit
Than 10,000 white men
I thought my uncle was crazy. He wore a ponytail that flapped and swung in the wind when he meditated or did Tai Chi. He hung out with old Filipino men for hours in Chinese restaurants. One old man had a mouth like a billiard pocket, except for one tooth the shape of an axe blade. Another old man had one finger on each hand—the middle finger. Claimed to be a writer. My uncle would sit and listen and tell stories afterwards. My father got a kick out of my uncle’s lines about the carabao dung. He copied it on a small strip of paper and stuck it in his wallet. He’d stand in the mirror and recite it mimicking John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney, Sidney Poitier. He’d laugh. He rarely laughed. He was a janitor who woke up at 5am and left us with the sound of jingling keys as he slammed the door. He went to a garage sale and picked up a stack of National Geographic Magazines. Sure enough there was an issue that featured carabaos. He looked at the pictures transfixed, each photo teleporting his soul—his spirit—to an ancestral homeland or at least an ancestral state of mind. I picked up the magazine and went to the toilet. I sat looking at the photographs. Outside the window a cat meowed and meowed.
“Will you shut up!” I said.
I flipped the pages, focusing on the mountains in the pictures; mountains laced with green and rain and lushness with all kinds of stuff underneath that the camera didn’t catch. The words “mountain tribes”, “rice terraces”, and “various dialects” slid past my eyes like rocks slipping off a mountain. I turned the page and saw it—2 big horns, 2 eyes that carved itself into anything it looked at and 2 nostrils leaking rainforest snot. It was a carabao. In one picture it was in a rice field, mud all over its body. In another picture it was on a street pulling a cart with a boy atop its back. In yet another picture it was in front of a church, bowing on all fours, asking God for the things that carabaos ask for. I looked at its face, its ugly face. It resembled a guy I went to school with named Andre Watts. Andre had a face that looked like a shoe print. He used to beat me up; he beat everybody up. I kept looking and I began to see other resemblances. Soon the carabao looked just like my father with his large nose and distrustful eyes. I nearly dropped the magazine when I heard a loud knock on the door.
“What are you doing, sleeping in there?”
“Get outta there. I gotta take a shit!”
“Don’t ok me…get outta there and don’t use all the toilet paper”
I wiped, flushed and put the National Geographic nicely in the rattan book holder next to the toilet for my father to read.
The next day I went to school. I couldn’t concentrate on the math scribbled on the board. I kept thinking about the carabao’s face. I started thinking about carabao shit—first a handful then a roomful. Soon the classroom was filled with carabao shit, knee deep. I imagined the teacher screaming, saying, “what is it?” I saw myself, chest puffed out like a frog answering “it’s spirit Ms. Fargo, we’re knee deep in school spirit”. I got home to find my father in the living room. He was sitting on the floor Indian style with a pair of 1940’s Everlast boxing gloves wrapped around his neck with rips and tears. He kept repeating “a handful of carabao shit has more”…
“Dad” I said, “I thought it was a handful of carabao dung has…”
“Don’t give me your lip”, dad shot back, closing his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?”
“I ain’t sitting. I’m meditating”.
“Can I try?” I asked, squatting on the floor.
“Why don’t you meditate on going to the store and getting me an eskimo pie…oh yeah…and bring me a paper”
Dad gave me a dollar and change. I faithfully delivered his order like the good slave that I was. When I got back, dad was sitting at the dinner table. On it were sheets of paper with designs painted on them.
“Sit down” dad ordered.
He tore open the eskimo pie and bit into it.
“What do you think of this?”
“Think of what?”
“The papers goddamn it! The drawings!”
I looked at the papers. It was hard to make out what they were. They looked like designs that psychologists gave patients to fuck their minds. They looked like watercolor blotches randomly set to parchment—basically abstract explosions of insanity confined to an 8.5×11 space.
“They’re ok, I guess”
Dad flipped through the papers.
“I’m trying to make a logo”
“A logo…for what?”
“For my…I mean…for our new business”.
“What new business?”
Dad gesticulated as if he were a famous artist or photographer who’d gained fame by producing chickenshit art that no one could afford.
“It’s gonna be called the carabao cleaning service…where cleanliness is happiness. You gotta go for what you know sometimes…go for broke. I need to make some real money. Need to take a chance. Now, which one of these drawings do you think should go on our business card?”
I looked at the pictures next to dad’s watercolor paint set. I looked and looked. I thought to myself, I could do better.
“I’m making you vice-president of the company” dad said. “My second in command”.
I laughed silently. I had just been fired from my first job 4 months ago. I was a delivery boy for the San Francisco Examiner. I was fired when I failed to deliver the paper during a holiday. I thought it was a holiday for me too. Vice president of a janitorial company? My immediate answer was no, I wanted no part in manning the phone, swinging the mop or swishing the toilet with the mighty toilet brush. I wanted to play ball. I had no choice. Dad held one of the papers to my face. I looked at the watercolor frenzy on the page.
“What does it look like” dad asked.
I took the paper in my hands. I ran my finger over the watercolor blotch. I spoke.
“It looks like a mound of carabao shit”
The curtain at the window rose in panic like a skirt in a storm. My father’s jaw clenched. He yanked the paper from my hand.
“It’s a carabao!” he said, holding it up like a special edition newspaper. “See the horns?”
He slammed it on the table and began pointing out all the details of his watercolor blotch until I fully comprehended.
“It’s gonna be our logo for our business card!”
I looked at the papers scattered about. I thought about my uncle with the ponytail and Tai Chi moves. I sat down and watched my father meditate on what lie ahead.
© 2009 Tony Robles