Under their Noses

Tiny - Posted on 16 February 2011

It happened under their noses, noses of different angles and dispositions; noses shaped and molded by uncalloused fingers leaving imprints of corporate logos, collegiate acronyms and other indentations.  One such nose belonged to my supervisor, the blonde, who took more than her share of oxygen whenever close by.  I would hyperventilate, overriding my breathing’s natural cadence, gasping for something I couldn’t see.  She would breathe—inflating herself with the vigor of a fitness instructor and lung capacity of a bullfrog—training me on policies and procedures she’d written—reviewing each item (100 in all)—breathe in…breathe out.  Our training “get-togethers” would sometimes last more than 2 hours.  I’d look at the round-faced clock on the wall.  It said, “You should have been out of here a half hour ago”. 


The blonde would eventually leave me to breathe on my own.  I’d sneak to the bathroom and look at my nose. I’d look at the bridge, the cartilage that sloped in a downward angle.  I wanted to find the Filipino or African parts of my nose, the parts that took in air and blew them out—on toilet paper, handkerchiefs and, occasionally, into an imaginary indigenous nose flute that was, in reality, my snoring--on those nights I was able to sleep. 


I am a door attendant, or doorman, or—as some folks would say—concierge.  Prior to this I worked as a security guard for three years, employed by 2 different companies with nearly identical uniforms but different arm patches—one showing a raccoon, the other a bear.  The security company dispatched me to a newly built high-end apartment complex in the city’s Richmond District.  I sat and greeted high end people in my guard uniform.  In several days I observed that some ends were higher than others, for even in the high end world, ends come in varying degrees, like a good steak—low high end, high low end, medium high end, high high end, and no-end-in-sight high end.  I greet these souls with a “Good morning” or an occasional “Buenos dias” for flair, and other requisite pleasantries one must use when encountering people whose monetary worth, when compared to your own, puts you into the status of a dwarf.  All this takes place from the vantage point of my “New York style hotel front desk work station”.


The property management somehow liked me and, it so happened, had an available position for a door attendant.  I applied and got the job. I turned in my security guard jacket with the raccoon patch and told my father in Hawaii the good news via text message:  Hey dad, I got a house Negro job paying me 3 dollars an hour more than I was getting as a security guard.  Ten minutes later I got my father’s response via text message that seemed to have drifted across the pacific on a gentle Hawaiian breeze: You ain’t got no house Negro job…you got an uncle tom job…congratulations. I was given a new uniform--a pair of tan dockers, a baby blue long sleeve shirt, a blue jacket, tan shoes and a sweater vest.  The sweater vest bothered me, but i was happy it did'nt have an argyle design.  Sweater vests make you look paunchy and soft--giving the impression that you have basically surrendered your manhood, dignity and residual bits of revolutionary spirit.  I hate sweater vests.


As the front desk Uncle Tom, I am becoming acquainted with my duties, not the least of which is cleaning my work area.  As part of a long lineage of custodial artists (janitors)—namely my father and uncles—I am aware of the need for cleanliness.  I greet bottles of assorted cleaning products and grab a rag.  The place is spotless and I would assume, free of any virulent microbes that could invade this temple of the high end.  I spray and wipe constantly.  The countertops, windows, windowsills, doorknobs, marble walls—even the chandelier--all cry out “Please, no more…it hurts!”  But I ignore the pleas, the screams, scrubbing and buffing, getting it cleaner than clean—so clean that I begin to cry from the stinging in my eyes.  I prop and re-prop the pillows on the couches next to the fireplace, I neaten the stack of newspapers—of the proper variety—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and SF Chronicle (One morning I placed copies of the Bayview and Street Sheet on the table which were promptly whisked away, by whom, I have no idea for I was too busy cleaning to notice) and I begin to think of Mr. Rogers and how he loved his (high end?) neighbor.  “Hey Uncle Tom” a voice calls out.  I look and all I see are pillows upon a couch devoid of people, a window without reflection and a variety of surfaces cleaned to extinction.  Then a whisper: “You are on sacred Ohlone land…this building was once a hospital where people endured many sufferings”.  I looked at the fire place and pillows and lobby area.  There was no one.  Then another whisper: “Take back your life”.  I stop scrubbing and go back to the front desk. 


One by one they pass me on their way out, the hedge funders, the marketing consultants, the CEO’s, the medical professionals—most, if not all, newly arrived to the city.  I open the door and they whisk by, leaving a bit of high end air for me.  I go to the kitchen area and make coffee, making sure the pots are gleaming and that the proper amount of sugar packets, creamer and wooden stirring sticks are displayed. 


The environment is a strange one, corporate and detached, yet in the pores of everyone within it. All is contrived and controlled; laughter and anger—the emotions that make us human—are only accepted in forms that are sanctioned by the corporation.  I look out the window.  I see the neighborhood I grew up in, the street where I delivered papers, the street where I was hit by a car while delivering papers, the street where grandma and grandpa could not rent an apartment because Grandpa was black and Grandma was white.  I see the street where my Filipino Grandparents walked on after being evicted from the Fillmore to make way for redevelopment.  I am jolted out of my dream when a resident drops their dry cleaning off at the desk.


While I’m opening doors and calling cabs and scheduling dry cleaning deliveries, there is this guy who works at the residence, the janitor, Marco.  We hadn’t exchanged a word for about a month into my employ yet I noticed him; something real, something familiar about him.  He pushed his mop bucket, its wheels rumbling across the cold floor—the sounds coming from some deep place that can only be felt.  He walked over that floor that had been scrubbed until blue and he told me he had worked at the residence for a few months; before that he had worked as a janitor at an Indian casino up north. One day he told me he was Filipino—on his mother’s side.  I was half Filipino too.  Slowly we began to talk like Filipinos, laugh like Filipinos, and our bellies grew with Filipino hunger.  Soon that sterile floor, that sterile environment seemed different.  The microbes that were banished returned and laughed along with us. 


Marco told me that he’d been to the Philippines and had met his mother’s relatives.  I told him that my grandparents had come to America in the 20’s and that I’d never visited the motherland.  He spoke in measured tones.  I sensed that this was a side of him that he had somehow been made to feel ashamed of.  But slowly I felt that shame die as he swept and mopped.  He spoke about his favorite Filipino foods.  I got hungry.  I told him I’d make pork adobo for our lunch one day in the week.  He mopped with more vigor. 


The smell of adobo filled the break room that following Friday, breaking through with a spirit of community, breaking whatever was designed to break us; permeating the walls and sterilized floors, swirling and rising through every inch of that former hospital until the spirits rose and came to life, sharing their stories, songs, tears, fire; the pork and vinegar and chili peppers spread like fire on our lips as we spoke of our families, sharing brown people words and brown people thoughts—the rice sticking to our fingers and corners of our mouths like memories that refuse to die.


I just got my first probationary job performance review.  As usual, I got average/below average scores in all categories except for attendance and punctuality.  I sat while my supervisor spoke with corporate sanctioned words and sanctioned emotions.  You have to be more of a team player and orient yourself with more high-end businesses in the neighborhood to recommend to our residents, she said.  As she spoke, I heard nothing.  I took a deep breath and smelled the fragrance of my community—of the adobo that Marco and I shared—that was now in the floors and walls and ceiling and could not be scrubbed off or erased. 


My supervisor finished my review, signing and dating the review under her eyes.  But she had no idea that while she was doing that, Marco and I had taken back our lives, its sweet fragrance undetected under her nose.


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