Holidays: The Custodial Artist as Writer

I remember long ago my introduction to the holy trinity.  My father made the introduction.  He was not a religious man.  He inched his way towards the house of worship—The Catholic brand—at the untimely (or timely) death of a friend or loved one or perhaps Easter.  He would sometimes regale me—a kid of 11 or 12—with tales of some of the goings on in the church.  “There’s lots of punks in the priesthood” he’d say, alluding to the penchant priests had for young boys—recalling his own visit to a parish priest as a boy in search of a job.  “Well, son, let’s have a look at you” said the priest, who made my young father stand in the middle of the room.  “Turn around” said the priest, “A little bit more to the left…ok, now bend over.”  What did you do? I asked my father.  “What do you think? He’d reply.  I got the hell outta there”—showing wisdom beyond his years in knowing that such an encounter with the pristine collar would put him in quite the motherfucking wringer.  In getting the hell outta there he proceeded, in quick fashion, to go to the restroom where he proceeded to climb out of the nearest stain glass window.  He weaved such tales while on the couch or driving his brown Cutlass with the tan roof on Van Ness Avenue past the Opera House, the place that employed him as a janitor.  That grey edifice wielded much influence on his life, as much as a church’s effect on other souls.  The building, whose walls contained the voices of world class sopranos and tenors, pop vocalists, and a myriad of other artists also held the sounds of my father—a janitor, a custodial artist of the highest order.  I think of him and my introduction to the holy trinity—an introduction that still amazes me—and led me to become a writer.

 

I think of my father as I make my way to City College of San Francisco where I have been invited to speak to a morning English class.  I have received an increasing number of requests for such presentations since the publication of my book of poems and short stories last year.  The poems and short stories, offering goofball insights gleaned over the last 3 decades of my life in my city—firings, epiphanies of a solitary nature, the eviction crisis, the decay of the city spirit—not to mention various wisecracks—have gone over quite well with readers and, for the first time in my life, people appear genuinely interested in what I have to say.  I take the same bus I used to take when I attended this institution more than 2 decades ago.  I disboard and see the buildings—so a part of my life when I had no idea where I would end up—a chair or perhaps on land, sea or air—I had not the faintest idea. With stumbling innocence I walked the halls to my classes, to the bathroom, in search of something or in the quest to convince myself I was in search of the ever elusive it.  I roam the halls some 20 years later.  I see the same floors, doors, structures—new and old—incubators of dreams, thoughts, disappointments, heartbreak—the collective tissue of the human experience.  I see the faces of aspiring artists in the Creative Arts building, sitting on the floor with sketchbooks and boards, waiting for class, waiting for inspiration as droves of their fellow humans pass by in either direction in a runway procession which is the hall.  I find, in my search for the classroom that awaits me that I am in the wrong building.  I am directed to the correct building by a kindly art teacher.  I finally arrive at the classroom.  It is nearly full with students, some sitting, some arriving.

“Mr. Robles?” a voice announces.

I am not accustomed to such formal introductions.  I am more accustomed to hey, what’s up, what up, what do you want, who you here to see, etc etc.

“Mr. Robles?”

Who might this person be?  In a lifetime of encounters with the mirror I am still half sure of who it is a see on the other side.  Mr. Robles, I say under my breath as I look and search for my father.

 

Getting back to the holy trinity, which was initially addressed, I became acquainted with this bell curve trifecta via janitorial work—the daily duty endured by my father to keep, as he would put it, a roof over my head and food in my gut.  Perhaps this trinity possessed a spiritual quality as engendered by the church and its texts.  There is a father and son—a division of labor that is one in the same. To that we have a commonality or affinity, may I dare say, to the divine.  However, the trinity of which I speak is much more tactile to the senses of those of us who are sentient beings. The trinity that my father so deftly introduced me to was the bucket, mop and wringer.  What, you may ask, do these items or implements have to do with an academic setting, or anything, for that matter, of any consequence whatsoever?  My father, as custodial artist, likely never thought of himself as an artist, or a custodian.  The custodian title was bestowed upon him as a result of circumstances permeating his life.  He came of age at a time when opportunities for young men of color (or young colored boys) were very limited.  The limitations imposed reflect more on the limitations of the institutions themselves and the moving,–that is—human parts that make them function.  But my father was an artist.  That is not to say a formally trained artist but art and expression moved in his blood.  Let me communicate to you that he was an artist from the moment he rose from bed to the moment he showered to the moment he put on his shoes.  His mundane movements, his moving from point A to B was a dance, a flow, an exhibition of a story imparted to him that lived in his bones and moved across his skin like the songs that kept us alive, filling our empty pots with something that would sustain us when we could barely look into the mirror to confront who we were.  In the expanse of his dreams, sprinkled with Horatio Alger notions and delusions, he started his own janitorial business—a two man crew—he and I in an attempt to climb the socioeconomic ladder for him and a baptism of fire for me in the name of the bucket, mop and wringer.

 

I am in the classroom with a respectability gleaned over time, glistening with the patina of failed efforts and requisite idiocy that plagues those of us blessed by the human condition—a c+ average student who managed to somehow make it.  But I remember myself before I became Mr. Robles, before I became this scribe, this imbiber of words—in short, I recall myself when I wasn’t shit—no title, neither Mister or author, fish nor fowl or otherwise.  I look at the faces about me, not unlike my face 20 years earlier when I walked face first into the walls of this hallowed institution searching for direction. I remember sitting in classes, writing my name on endless sheets of paper, scribbling quickly—barely knowing the meaning of my name—that is—the meaning of my life.  Hours in the typewriter lab pecking away at the keys like some hungry bird too burdened to fly.  “Mr. Robles” I hear again.  And just as quickly as it is said I find myself in a room with my father.  It is a room not unlike the classroom I am visiting—roughly the same dimensions.  I see his face.  It is riddled with urgency and impatience.

“Hey, step on it!” he says

“Step on what?  I’m an author”

“Well, you might be an author but you ain’t shit when it comes to mopping a floor”
“Look at that floor…does it look clean to you?”
I look at the floor. It glistens and the air is heavy with the scent of industrial floor cleaner whose aroma burns the nostrils.

“I don’t see anything wrong”

My father looks at me as if I have lost my mind, and perhaps I have.

“Look at that” he says, running his finger over an area of the floor.  “You missed this”

I look at the area and he is correct, I missed a few spots.

“The mop must have…”

“Oh, it’s the mop’s fault?” my father says

I look at my father. His dustrag hangs from his back pocket, his key ring brazen with a dozen keys dangling from his belt loop.  His mind is moving in pace with his body.  His eyes notice everything, every speck on the wall, every fly on the wall documenting the event.

“Those are holidays” my father says.

“What’s a holiday?”

“It’s when you mop a floor and you miss spots.  You never want to have holidays.  I thought I taught you better than that.  You disappoint me”.

“But…”

“But my ass.  This was supposed to be a simple operation…boom boom, in and out.  Now instead of finishing the job we have to backtrack over your half-assed work.  We could be eating hamburgers and French fries right now but instead we’re going over your work”.

“I like hamburgers”

“For the half assed job you did on this floor, I wouldn’t give you a packet of ketchup. If anything, you deserve a foot in the ass.  Mop the floor again—wait, better yet–let me do it.  Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.  Learn something”.

I watch my father wring out the mop and glide it over the floor. Wide strokes, cutting at the corners in a loop, a rhythm ensuing that is part music, part urgency, part dance that—when added together—gets done what needs to get done.  No wasted movement, no wasted energy.

“See, that’s how it’s done” my father says.  I look at the floor.  Every inch mopped over, no holidays to be seen.

“Now go and take care of the toilets and let’s get the hell outta here”

 

I needn’t belabor the point that when one encounters a toilet, particularly one in a public space—especially when you have been entrusted with the maintenance and cleanliness of said toilet—that your encounters with the shitstain are inevitable.  The quality or tenor of these encounters can be measured by any number of factors—not the least of which is the mood or state of mind of the one wielding that spiritual baton, aka, the toilet brush.  In my case, the scrubbing ensued. A back and forth frenzy reminiscent of a club DJ scratching a record, creating rhythms and sounds he didn’t know he had. I worked up quite a sweat with my toilet brush.  The shitstain was stubborn—as shitstains usually are—and the more I scrubbed, the more the porcelain seemed to mock me.  Mind you, this is only one variety of shitstain, as many more varieties exist, in one manifestation or another—oftentimes in the form of other persons, who are far more difficult to make disappear.

“Don’t take all day on that toilet” my father calls out.

I scrub until my eyes hurt.  I not only scrub the shitstain in the porcelain bowl but, in my effort, maintain to scrub the shitstain of the world, the shitstain that smears across the mind, the shitstain that clouds the imagination and begets more shitstains.  My assault is not for naught as my father inspects my work and announces that I’m finally getting the hang of it, that I—if you will—halfway have my shit together. But this is temporary relief, for the shitstain does not retreat into obscurity for long, but makes consistent and, at times, cameo appearances in the form of family, friends, and neighbors.  So, while my father laments “holidays” on a mopped floor, one can never hope for a holiday from the shitstain.  An ever bigger quandary comes when in the process of scrubbing the toilet you realize that you, at that moment, must use it.  But this is another topic for a future essay.  I help him load our janitorial supplies in the van before taking off for a hamburger and more father and son dialog.

 

My father’s office is his van.  He talks while steering, controlling the wheel with his forefinger and thumb—head tilted slightly to the side.  We are moving through familiar streets.  I recall him letting me drive when I was a small boy.  He put me on his lap and told me to take the wheel. I took a hold of the steering wheel.  Relax, relax, my father said, urging me to loosen my grip.  We move across the wide and narrow streets.  When are we gonna get a hamburger?  I ask.

“What do you want to do?” my father asks.

“I want to go get a hamburger”

“I said, what do you want to do…with your life?

I looked out the window not knowing what to say.  Then I blurted it out.

“I think I want to volunteer”

We came to a jolting halt.  An old woman carrying grocery bags walked in front of our van.

“Damn, watch out lady” my father says under his breath.  The van moves slowly through the intersection.

“Volunteer for what?

“To teach people how to read”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’d like to help people learn how to read”

“And how are you gonna make money by volunteering?”

“Uh—“

“What’s wrong with you?  Can’t you see I’m trying to build something?  You think I’m swinging a mop and cleaning toilets for my health?”

“No, but—“

“I’m building this business for our family.  I want to build it up so I can give it to you.  So you’ll have something”

“ But I don’t want to—uh—“

“You don’t want to what?

“Clean toilets”

My father is quiet.  We weave through traffic. I look at him from the corner of my eye.

“Volunteer” my father says, sarcastically.  We pull to the curb in front of our home that the landlord owns.
“Well” he says, “I volunteer you to unload all this equipment into the garage”.  He takes the key out of the ignition.  I get busy unloading the van.
 

Mr. Robles? A voice says.

I look around the classroom.  I learned much within the walls of this institution yet I cannot extricate myself from my father–for he was the one who taught me most about what would ultimately become my craft—writing.  When telling me, “Don’t leave any holidays” when mopping a floor, he was speaking of the lines that I would eventually attempt to write.  His mop strokes, thorough and fluid, were lines, were art—communicating an intention that lived in his core that would not accept anything less than the truth.  “Don’t leave holidays” could easily mean, do not lie, do not deceive, do not take for granted the time or attention of your reader.  He was truly my first editor, spotting my omissions, flaws and holidays. I rise from my chair, ready to impart to these students my story and, hopefully, some inspiration, in relating my experience as a poet, that is, a teller of truth that only the poet can report and is bound to report just as he or she is bound to breathe.  Don’t leave any holidays, I whisper to myself as I rise to speak before this class.  The class gleams with everything my father taught me as I have the student’s undivided attention.

 

 

 

© 2016 Tony Robles

 

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