Family First

Sal mops the floors where I work.

He vacuums the carpets and wipes the baseboards down. He empties the trash.

He cleaned up all the blood next door, in the hallway of the apartment building my boss owns. No one knows how it got there one night, three months ago, although this neighborhood becomes pretty lonely at night, a good place for junkies and prostitutes and anyone else whose preferred pastimes are best enjoyed with a low profile.

“Needles,” Sal told me. “Marijuana joints, too.” At first I couldn’t understand this last bit through his thick Filipino accent. “Roach!” he said, pinching his thumb and forefinger in front of his pursed mouth. “I see them on the front steps. In hall.”

His brother is a colonel in the U.S. Army; their father was a captain.

“Me,” he says, “I was a Major Problem.”

The office manager calls him “Mr. Sal.” She just calls me “Sutton.” I’ve wondered what the difference means. I sit at a desk and type on a computer all day. Sal cleans toilets and cuts the grass. Is calling him “Mr.” supposed to compensate for something, or is it just a way of holding him at arm’s length? [FN 1]

Sal doesn’t speak English very well; he’s also shy, although maybe that’s because he doesn’t speak English very well. I get embarrassed for him when he tries to talk to me, because I have to keep asking him to repeat himself, and the more he repeats himself, the more he mumbles, the more jumbled his pronunciations grow. But I figure the only way out for both of us is for me to make sure I understand what he’s trying to say. Down at the copier one day, in the course of one of these awkward exchanges, I finally understood him to be asking about Montana, where he knows I’m moving. He had looked it up on a map. He listed some of the states around it.

“What pretty place is there?” he asked, or that’s what I thought he asked. Eventually I understood that he was asking about parks and attractions, as in, what famous place would one visit there? I told him that Yellowstone was near Missoula, and that seemed to satisfy him. “Beautiful,” he said. “You are lucky.”

“Lots of mountains,” I added. He had told me that he was from the mountains in the Philippines. He asked if there were pine trees, and I took him up to my office to show him some pictures. “Beautiful,” he kept saying. “You must be looking forward.”

“Yes,” I said. “I don’t know if I would ever have decided to move out there on my own -” I was going to finish with something like “but now that we’re doing it, I’m really looking forward to it.”

But Sal interrupted before I could finish.

“To be with your wife!” he said. “Family first!”

I nodded.

“Like me,” he said. “I had a good job in the Philippines, but my wife wanted to come here, so I came here. I was in agriculture.” After a lot of misunderstandings and repetitions, I finally grasped that he had not been a farmer – he had been an official in the Filipino government agency that regulates veterinarians.

“That must be a hard switch,” I said.

He shrugged.

“Family first,” he said, before heading down the hall, a rag dangling from his fingers.


FN 1: I don’t think this is related, but, around Baltimore town, they teach the children to address familiar adults – friends of the family, a tutor, etc. – this way. “Mr.” or “Ms.” and the first name. For some reason I hate the sound of it. Just like the office manager’s usage, it feels like a performance of respect, rather than the real thing. And in the case of the children who are made to do it, it feels like the respect is only required to flow in one direction: from younger to older. Watching a Baltimore mother whack her two-year-old as hard as she can on the rear in the supermarket, or listening to the foul-mouthed children in my neighborhood scream at each other, “respect” is not a word that comes to mind.