We were at a a self-service restaurant watching this man, perhaps in his early 60’s, with his tray lined up at the cashier. There was a lightness to him – could have been his smile which felt very familiar, or his Hawaiian shirt in cool blues and greens, or his lively yet gentle gait which made him look like he was floating.
He paid, and walked over to a table where his wife was waiting. He sat right beside his wife instead of across from her as most couples do in restaurants and at tables for two. It took quite a while before I realized why he, that smile, looked familiar… who he was.
He was one of two janitors we were friendly with at the University of Baguio. We’ve done a lot of projects with the school in the past, and almost all of those projects were done at this quite run-down wooden house at the parking lot, and the two of them took turns being assigned to keep the area clean – Ernesto and Joseph. It wasn’t only my RL and I, almost everyone we worked with easily liked these two very gentle men.
They almost always have a smile on their face no matter what they were doing or what time of day it was. When I was an artist-in-residence at the university, I would come to work at around 9am and Joseph, at times Ernesto, would already be done cleaning the office and rehearsal areas. I would usually arrive to one of them tying up a garbage bag filled with the previous day’s trash. The floors would be so shiny you can almost clearly see your face looking down on them. You’d almost be embarrassed to use the bathroom – the walls and floor would so clean and it would really smell so fresh.
“Good morning, Sir,” he’d greet me with a big smile on his face.
The rest of the day, I’ll bump into Joseph in different places inside the campus – at the gym hauling chairs for an event, along any one of the corridors mopping the floor, or even somewhere along Session Road whenever someone asked him to go for an errand. And always, he’s smiling. He’s happy.
One time we were running a political campaign and we were headquartered in that same old house. This time, the house served not only as an office for an artist-in-residence but for an entire campaign staff. And it wasn’t only a play’s cast that came and went each day but hundreds of people from campaigners to suppliers to media personnel to whoever else you see hanging out at a campaign headquarters at election time. This time, they weren’t taking turns, both Joseph and Ernesto were assigned at the same time to the headquarters. I must say that among all the people who came and went during those campaigns (we did two in that house), senators, congressmen, candidates for senator and congressmen, councilors, lawyers, engineers, deans, principals, professors, and what-not, I would have to say that I had way more respect for Joseph and Ernesto than most of those people. They were polite, they were professionals, they did their job very well with passion, and a smile on their face. They were genuine, most of all.
Ernesto was a janitor, and if he had any regrets about it, he never showed it. And no, I don’t think he had any regrets nor resentment, he took pride in what he did. And why not? He may have been “only” a janitor, but he was one of the best janitors I’ve ever known.
The last time my wife, RL, saw Manong Joseph was during a graduation ceremony to see his child walk up the stage to receive that degree. That was one of this benefits of employees of the school – their children get to be scholars of the university. This was last year.
And then I realized why Joseph looked different in that Hawaiian shirt having lunch with his wife that day. Perhaps that was his youngest he escorted on stage last year and now that his children have all earned their degrees, he must have retired already. Now he can rest, go out on a Tuesday for a lunch out with his beloved wife.
He looked so happy, fulfilled, contented and his eyes smiled an even happier smile.
And I thought, Ernesto was a janitor, but right at that moment I was looking at a much bigger man. Framed by the window next to their table, there was a portrait of a devoted father and husband, a good provider despite his circumstances. Yeah, at lunch today somewhere along Session Road, I was looking at a portrait of an honorable man.
He called me Sir, but I must confess, if I could be just half the man he I believe he was, is, then I could be proud of myself.
Well done, Manong Joseph, well done.
/ KM Altomonte