Woman With the Smiling Eyes

Mam, I have to admit, I was watching you. You probably didn’t notice me sitting across from you on the AC Transit bus leaving the Oakland Coliseum. It was a warm day and I was sweating, glad to have gotten a seat. I’d just come from SF where I’d taken part in a rally for housing rights. So many evictions across the bay in San Francisco. You’re probably aware of the situation but one can’t assume. But if you are aware of what’s going on, you know exactly how bad it is. But there you sat, and my eyes somehow fell on you as if there was no other place for them to fall—on this day or any other day.

Your face was a story—a book, a battlefield, a poem, a song, a season—all held in your two eyes that somehow warmed the bus. Your eyes slid over towards the front of the bus—a familiar face. “Clarence” you called out, your eyes warm in the familiarity of a face that held recognition of story and history. Clarence came by and sat down. How you doin’? You said, your eyes drawing me in. And Clarence said, “I’m heading to my old lady’s place”. And you continued to speak and you looked at Clarence and ran a gentle hand through his hair. “I’m older than you and look at all that gray hair you got” you said, as Clarence leaned away, laughing.

You continued to talk and I couldn’t hear much of it because of the bus engine. But I heard you say, “I don’t give no man no money. The only man I give money to is my son and he’s in college. He’s gonna be a doctor.” And the bus jerked a bit, causing a young woman to lose her balance. Clarence steadied the woman’s arm and helped her regain her balance. “Thank you” the woman said.

And you were firmly in your seat, maybe carrying 20 or so extra pounds but no doubt, the weight of a life survived and endured beyond anything I can begin to imagine. And I looked at your eyes as they melted into the moment. And in that moment you became my aunt and Clarence became my uncle. And the bus became the living room, and the barbershop and the kitchen—a place that we could be who we are.

And I see the black faces all around me on the bus—a mural of faces and skin and eyes and teeth—bright and alive with the glisten of lives reflected off the skin of the river of life, a mural that moves across space and into the soul through the eyes of the woman sitting across from me. And through my own eyes I see a black community; maybe lifelong Oakland folk or exiled black folk from San Francisco via eviction. It is a community that has been lost in SF. The evicted eyes, heart, spirit—the broken landscape under the skin that is the whole of San Francisco. A community decimated by San Francisco, a city that never deserved it.

Oakland, thank God you haven’t lost your soul. Thank God that the black community is there—that the black laughter, black fire, black feeling is there. And while some people would say that Oakland is violent, that people there shoot each other etc., I’m thankful that the people I see are real, they are people that say good morning to you on the street, and acknowledge your presence with a nod. I know it isn’t a perfect place, but it acknowledgement is a form of respect and I can’t remember the last time I was acknowledged in San Francisco except for the transit fare inspectors and other bullies like them who appear to enjoy their work. Thank God for the woman on the bus. Thank God for the woman with the smiling eyes.

(c) 2014 Tony Robles

The Great Brown Hope By Tony Robles

Security guards are a dime a dozen. How many guards are undercover poets? I don’t know. I have run into my share of undercover drunk guards though. Their problem–they’re not good at keeping it undercover. I recall a song by the great R & B singer Wynonie Harris called, “Bloodshot eyes” where he describes the redness of a certain woman’s eyes as looking like, “Two cherries in a glass of buttermilk”.

I was the great brown hope at one time. Loads of talent I had, or so it seemed. I could imitate people, celebrities like Clint Eastwood and Muhammad Ali. I was in college and landed a job as a radio announcer in a small town. The station was located in a cow pasture near a small airport. I worked the overnight shift, spinning records and saying such unforgettable things as “much more music KSHT…now, for your 3 day weather forecast!” When my shift ended I’d have to navigate my way past heaps of steaming cow dung to get to my car. The most memorable thing that happened was when, during a newscast, a moth flew into my mouth. I coughed and gagged over the air. Luckily I had the presence of mind to toss in a commercial for the US Army before running to the bathroom. Be all that you can be!

I went from small town DJ to big city security guard on the graveyard which is where I’ll be until Mr. Obama comes through with the stimulus sandwich on rye (topped with pickle). Getting back to the buttermilk and proverbial cherries, I ran into a security guard friend, Orlando Brooks. He constantly goes to the bathroom to gargle the alcohol from his breath but nothing helps. One of the best guys I know in security (one of the best guys I know, period) but the best guys soon end up in the scrap heap of tin badges because their parts are obsolete. What parts? Answer: Their hearts. I stand guard–writing poems on the graveyard trying not to lose mine.

##### ##### ##### #####

I’ve been riding Muni all my life. My grandfather was a muni conductor in the days when operators wore moneychangers on their belts. The fairness/unfairness, justice/injustice of life can be witnessed on the muni bus. There you are, waiting for a seat, standing for what seems like forever when a seat becomes available. You make a move but the seat gets yanked by somebody sneaking in through the back, someone who hasn’t waited, invested, endured. The bus is filled with loads of metaphors, among other things.

What is this thing called the hipster? Call me old-fashioned but my radar goes up whenever I hear a word that contains the word “hip”. When I see the word hip, I immediately assume the opposite to be true. I think I see them in my city walking in packs on Divisadero, or in the Haight or on Valencia complete with bells, whistles, armpits and obligatory tattoos. Some have bad names like Dylan, (or Dillon or DHILLON?) Shiloh or Caleb. They don’t look like real people somehow. They walk in packs of 9 or 10 looking for buildings to occupy, many that house our elders but the elders can’t live forever I suppose–so they get replaced by the hipster(s). I go back to Emilio Castillo and the Funky Doctor of Tower of Power (www.towerofpower.com) who wrote the great song, “What is hip?” :

“What is hip, tell me tell me if you think you know. If you’re really hip, the passing years will show (and sometimes hipness is…what it ain’t”)

Nothing hip about gentrifying neighborhoods and displacing elders. I hereby on this day, take the word “hip” out of my vocabulary. What’s needed is a hip replacement.

##### ##### ##### #####

I saw the funniest thing the other day. I was on the #5 Fulton going down McAllister when I looked out the window. A man was walking his dog–one of those large poodles with hair that resembles a bathroom throw rug. Anyway, the dog is sauntering along in doggie ether when I notice what’s on its head–a shiny do rag! A kick-ass ghetto poodle. ‘Sho you right!

My mom is a sweet woman–a native San Franciscan of African-American and Irish heritage. She had a very poignant observation about so-called San Franciscans. She said, “A San Franciscan is someone who knows everything there is to know about the world except his or her own neighbor”.

Well said, mom.

##### ##### ##### #####

My aunt’s take on the economic crisis, “At least you got a couple of ducats and a pot to piss in”.

##### ##### ##### #####

I asked my cousin in Seattle what I thought was the burning, eternal question: Cousin, do you sometimes think you haven’t truly reached your life’s potential?

His answer: You’re not alone. Bernie Madoff, AIG execs, Al Capone & Ziggy Stardust all have the same problem

That’s all from the graveyard shift.

 

Mural Of Eyes

2 eyes,
Sky and
Water

Passing over
Evicted flesh
Of the sacred body

Scooped of
Light

Left for dead
In unblinking
Florescent pools

The evicted eyes
Evicted heart
Evicted limb
Evicted tongue

The murdered mural
Of our skin, the murdered
River of our skin

Evicted by the
Color of no
Color

By the movement
Of no
Movement

The unmurdered
ritual that is born
over and over

Evicted eyes that
Cry stories in
A thousand colors
That dry into the
Stone carved history
In our faces

That saw who got
Born on a morning
That blended into night
In a mural that filled the
Lungs with the light
Of our first song

Evicted eyes
Pulled from an
Evicted face

Evicted teeth
Hair
Nails
Dermis
Noses
Ears

Laying under
The foundation of
Houses that were
Once ours

Our bodies rising
Up with evicted eyes
That see everything

© 2014 Tony Robles

Making of a Writer

I don’t know why exactly, but I elected to take a typing class in my sophomore year in high school. I hadn’t given much thought to my future plans outside of school, but I thought I’d perhaps like to work in an office. What my capacity would be in an office, I had no idea. An office job or perhaps working at a newspaper. This didn’t make much sense, actually, because I neither read the paper nor knew how to type. My Grandfather kept telling me, “Get a trade, be a carpenter or a plumber.” My father saw I was useless with my hands from an early age and discouraged me from entertaining the idea of plumbing, saying that I’d smell “like shit” or a “gutter rat” and “What woman’s gonna want to have anything to do with you then?” I saw my choices as limited. I wasn’t good with my hands and I still did mathematical computations using my fingers. I figured the least I could do was learn to type. The first day of typing class we were greeted by our teacher, Mrs. Lefferdink, an older lady who resembled the women you see on old TV reruns in black and white. If you could genetically splice DNA from Lucille Ball, Our Miss Brooks, and Jackie Gleason’s TV wife, you’d end up with Mrs. Lefferdink. She wore dark-rimmed glasses attached to a gold chain, which swung like a jump rope. She ended up teaching typing and shorthand to the future office-workers of America before being put out to pasture.

Practically all the students in the class were girls. If there was another guy in there, he was well hidden. Most of the boys took wood or metal shop. I did miserably in those classes, nearly cutting off my thumb and a classmate’s arm at the elbow. I still don’t know how I managed that. I was petrified of the pretty girls in the class. They came into class with their books and shapely bodies. They made no eye contact; they were all business, each with the air of an executive secretary in the making. They sat with perfect posture. We sat down at separate desks each mounted with typewriters. On my first day of class, I sat at my typewriter and thought there had been some kind of mistake. I looked at the cold metallic machinery weighing down on the desk and discovered there were no letters on any of the keys.

Suddenly, Mrs. Lefferdink instructed us to begin our typing exercises. The keys popped and clicked; each strike reverberating across the room off the windows, sprinkled with the tinkling of bells. All those lovely girls with long lovely red fingertips ready to be worn down. Their toes were oftentimes the same color. It was difficult to concentrate on blank keys when there was so much to look at. I could barely move those typewriter keys. My mind flexed every which way, conforming to the curvature of each girl, their lovely legs and shoulders, my fingertips caressing their backs, their necks, running through their sweet smelling hair. I could paint a thousand masterpieces with my fingertips, but I couldn’t type a lousy 10 words per minute. Finally, Mrs. Lefferdink’s nasally voice ruined a good imaginary streak I had going when she said, “Ok class, stahhhp!” Many of the girls typed in the 50-WPM range, some even got as high as 75 WPM. When Mrs. Lefferdink checked my paper, I had typed all of 8.5 words a minute. I could feel the eyes of every girl in the class scrutinizing my paper. All of my spellings were incorrect except for the word “The.”

The girls seemed to remember all the keys and type consistently fast while I was always slow, not able to remember what letter corresponded with what key. I consistently got “D’s” or worse on typing tests. Perhaps there wasn’t much of a challenge for me. I couldn’t get too excited about typing such things as:

 

John Dough

Acme Bakeries

 

Dear Mr. Dough:

 

We have obtained accounts receivable information, and have discovered a discrepancy in regards to your bread (and so on).

 

The scripts we had to work from were so unimaginative that only a sadist could have thought them up. At any rate, the girls in the class were comfortable with the exercises, the scripts. They were fast and accurate and on the right track to that office job with the Acme’s of the world.

I thought I was doomed with my slow typing, destined to become a janitor or a security guard or cafeteria worker wearing a transparent shower cap—something along those lines. As I continued hitting the keys like slow feet upon mud, I heard a sound. It was clear and beautiful; although I didn’t realize it at the time.

Tink…tink…tink. Tink…tink…tink. 3 tinks and a pause, in a steady, rhythmic cadence; distinct—not drowned out by the rain of the other keys chiming and clambering upon the windows and floors like a rainstorm. No, this tinkling was like delicate raindrops, falling in a pond, dissolving into shimmering light. The sounds came from a girl sitting 5 or so seats away. I hadn’t noticed her until I paused during a memory lapse. Her name was Karen. She was the girl in school everyone was ambivalent about, including her teachers. She was below average looking, and seemed to waddle rather than walk down the halls. She held her books tightly to her chest. She very rarely spoke to anyone. She was the girl in the yearbook whose head was too big, more than the ordinary or professional camera could handle. This was the girl who smiled, but blinked as the photographer snapped the shot. In the overall ambivalence toward her, the photographer decided not to retake the picture because no one would care anyway.

Tink…tink…tink! Those were magic sounds. It reminded me that there was another like me, a bad typist. But it made me feel satisfied in a sinister way, in that while I was a bad typist, at least I wasn’t an outcast like this girl with the large head. My ears focused on the tinkling of her typewriter and I raced her toward something. For every one of her tinks, I pounded 3 tinks, sometimes 4. The satisfaction came when Mrs. Lefferdink strolled by and declared “Anthony, you’re much improved. 15 words a minute!” Karen typed all of 8 or 9 words. I felt good but it was soon forgotten. It was on to more exercises and tests. Karen sometimes tossed a squint over at me; we’d catch each other’s eyes, knowing we were both in the same boat, but I’d avert my eyes, denying any connection. Once, after class, Karen spoke to me.

“Hi, I’m Karen.”

“I’m Anthony,” I replied.

Karen looked at me with clear, full eyes. She smiled then dropped her eyes to the floor, then glanced up again. She had beautiful teeth. White like piano keys.

“Typing is pretty hard, huh?”

I shook my head and looked beyond her to the bodies walking to and fro in the hall. Karen walked alongside me, saying nothing. I had nothing to say.

“Well, I gotta go. See ya.”

I walked off to the next class leaving Karen someplace.

 

I wanted glances from the other girls, the pretty girls, which never came. The class eventually ended and it was on to my junior year. I still saw Karen from time to time, often sitting alone nursing a carton of milk. I once saw her reading a book of love poetry. She always seemed to be alone, jotting things down in a book. During our graduation ceremony, she was there, sitting a few seats away. I caught her squinting eyes again. The other girls in that typing class were surely going places. Their tassels dripped ambition—college, office work, families and success. I never ended up with a job at Acme. I’ve worked mostly average jobs—security guard, janitor—things like that. Right now, I work at an insurance company downtown. But I always remember the little bit I learned in Mrs. Lefferdink’s class. And Karen is probably still hitting the keys, no doubt a poet, making sounds like leaves hitting water, which I can hear right now. Her light sparkles in my memory like a big moon floating. And I’m proud to tell you that I’ve typed this story for her with my eyes closed. Tink … tink … tink.

 

 

© Copyright 2005, Tony Robles

 

 

 

 

 

Death of the Cool

Cool don’t live here
No more

Cool left like
Yesterday’s headline

Cool left like yesterday’s model,
Like the B-side of a record that
Never got played

Cool came and went
And in the breeze of
Coolness the cool
Disappeared

Cool used to show up
In the morning and
Stay a while

Now the morning don’t
Even show its face
And cool doesn’t either

Cool was in the empty
Breezes between words
when nods and the span
of an arched eyebrow filled
in what connected us

cool would show up
with a spare key
when you were locked out

cool don’t live
here no more

cool said good morning

cool shook your
hand, a coming together
of finger/palm prints
that told our story in
the unsaid cool that
you only had to feel

cool don’t live
here no more

cool done packed
up, took a hike,
packed up and said it
was time to leave it
alone

Cool took the
A through Z train
Out of here, one
Straight shot

Rest in
Peace

© 2014 Tony Robles

SAVE THE DATE, MAY 10th: Film, Delano Manongs at I-Hotel Center

More details to comeImage

The Brother Who Won’t Go Away

I was in line at the Civic Center post office in downtown San Francisco when the far off smell of salty air hit me.  I looked around for something that resembled the ocean and saw a passel of light blue shirt clad postal clerks weighing and affixing postage to letters and parcels, each doing the job with a personalized diligence gleaned from years of repetition.  How can one inhale the vast blueness of oceans and seas in a post office?  I was in line, in whose juxtaposition I occupied a place behind 15 others whose postures ranged from assertive, hurried, bored, fatigued, ambivalent or misguided aplomb—each holding sway to the pendulum of impatience moving within.  The post office is always crowded but I don’t mind standing in line.  Standing in line at the post office to send a handwritten letter is a resistance to our techwashed reality where everything is done via a click or press of a button.  As the second hand on the clock ticks its tiny steps of supplication towards eternity, the salty air smell becomes stronger and soon my face is awash in a breeze coming from somewhere. 

 

“Excuse me” a voice cut though from behind.  I turned and saw him—an African-American man who I’d seen around the city since I was a kid.  The man was about 5 foot 5 or 6.  He was dressed the way I remembered from back then—rugged pants, boots, denim jacket, turtleneck sweater—topped with a wide-brim leather hat.  “Do you know how much it costs to send a certified letter” he asked.  I’d sent only 2 certified letters in my life and didn’t remember what I’d paid.  “No, I sure don’t” I replied.  His thick fingers held a fanned out set of certified mail forms as if they were US currency.  He looked about for a list of postal rates.  If they are posted they are well hidden, along with the machine for those whose only wish is to purchase a single stamp.

 

On the man’s jacket was a patch that read: Karate.  I tried to imagine what he’d look like in a Karate gi.  He is short but solid.   I remember driving somewhere with my uncle years ago when he spotted the man walking down the street carrying a shoulder bag.  “That guy is a karate man” my uncle said.  My uncle practiced Okinawan Karate and came across the man in that world.  I looked at the man was we passed him.  He looked as if he’d just returned from a long journey by ship.  A merchant seaman, maybe?  I’d see him from time to time, always with that shoulder bag and sometimes a guitar case.  He’d pop up in different places in the city, always unexpectedly.  Somehow I felt I knew him.  Hey there’s that guy…I’d think upon seeing him.  I was just a little kid living in the Projects of North Beach, running in every direction except the right one.  Once while running, I came upon the man again.  This time he was among a crowd of tourists.  “Do you speak German?” he asked someone in the crowd.  “I do too”.  He smiled and strummed his guitar and said something that sounded like:

 

                                    Spreck-a-dee doych

                                    Spreck-a-dee doych

                                    Stop ‘n drop…thank you!

 

And the tourists showed teeth that spread as far and wide as the bridges that connect one place or person to another, smiling and dropping coins and dollars in that guitar case.  I was just a kid watching.  Hey, it’s that guy…I thought again, offering only a smile exposing the bashfulness of a boy in the presence of a guitar case that was a wide mouth that knew about laughter and hunger in any language. 

 

The man stood jotting information on the certified mail receipts.  I’d never spoken to him yet I felt I knew him.  He was someone from the landscape of my childhood, the feel of which is on the bottoms of my feet–in the sand and pebbles and shards of glass that have collected in my shoes.  I looked at the man’s face.  It seemed he hadn’t aged at all.  He didn’t have his shoulder bag or guitar case.  He glanced at his cell phone that was tucked into his denim jacket pocket.  Standing in that line, I wanted to ask him his name, where he was from, what he did for a living.  The only thing I could say was, “I remember you when I was a kid”. 

 

Displayed on the circumference of his leather hat rests a multinational array of pins proudly bearing the flags of many nations as well as the emblem of the state of California.  Had he been to all those places?  I remembered him talking to those German tourists long ago.  I mentioned this to him.  He explained that he spoke 15 different languages, including Asian, African and Polynesian tongues.  I wanted to know more.  Where did he live?  Was he married?  Where was his guitar?  The line was moving and now I was at the head.  The postal worker at the counter called out, “Next in line!”  I turned to the man and said, “It was really nice seeing you again, sir.  By the way, my name is Tony”.  The man just smiled and nodded.  I went to the counter to take care of my transaction.

 

I wanted to hug the man.  I was so glad to see him.  The feeling I had was ineffable.  Seeing him gave me the feeling that the city was still mine, still strumming with memories which move slowly though the crowds, the traffic—memories still alive, memories that still breathe.  I wanted to thank him for still being here.

 

I walked out of the post office and the smell of salty air hit me again, reminding me of where I was and of that brother who didn’t—who won’t—go away.  Neither will I. Image

Shine On

Brother Paul,

Was that you I saw

Wearing a baseball cap

Shielding your eyes,

Leaning against a pole

With a sign that said

No parking day or night?

 

I was walking across the

Street and matching me

Stride for stride was a woman

Who was quite attractive

 

The sun was out after

Hiding for several

Weeks

 

The woman pulled ahead

Of me slightly and I thought

About not going back to

Work

 

That’s when i

Saw you

 

You usually say

Hi to me, always treating

Me like a long lost brother

 

But today your eyes

Didn’t see me

When I waved at you

 

I waved at you

Up and down and

Side to side like I was

Trying to flag down a

Motherfucking cab

 

Your eyes followed

That woman

Like I wasn’t

There

 

(and I wasn’t)

 

But I know

You saw

Me

 

You motherfucker

You

 

 

© 2014 Tony Robles

Hayden and Magdangal

These two Frisco boys

Came to my

Office one day

 

I was an employment

Counselor at an

Organization that claimed

It swore off any allegiance

To money

 

And the two Frisco

Boy’s names were Hayden

And Mc Daniel

(Which sounded like a

Pair of cops)

                                     

They were no longer boys

But they were still in Frisco

And Hayden was trying

To help McDaniel

Find a job

 

McDaniel had been

A painter by trade but

Had fallen 3 stories,

Landing on his back

 

Hayden had seen hard

Times, all his teeth

Were gone but the aching

Urge to smile was carved

Into his face

 

McDaniel wanted to

Be a security guard

Saying, “Security guards

Don’t fall out of a third

Story window” so I told him

I’d help with his resume

 

McDaniel was Filipino

With a thick Filipino

Face and with his thick

Filipino lips said

 

My name is Magdangal

But everybody kept

Getting my name wrong,

They kept calling me McDaniel

So I keep it

 

He sat with his

Back straight wearing

A badge of two

Names

 

And I worked on

His resume starting

With his name:

 

Magdangal

 

 

© 2014 Tony Robles

Benito’s Drum (For Eviction Fighter and Son of The I-Hotel, Benito Santiago)

Benito’s Drum
By Tony Robles

Do you hear that sound?
The sound of skin from
Benito’s drum is the sound
of resistance to eviction

The skin of Benito’s drum
is the skin of
Mission Abuelitas
Fillmore black elders
South of Market Filipino veteranos
and lolos and lolas and children
and Chinatown elders carrying
their lives in plastic bags

The skin of Benito’s drum
is the skin of his life,
the skin of Manilatown,
the skin of the lechon Pilipino
struggle, the skin of the I-Hotel,
the skin of poets who wrote on
the walls of their minds:

“Hell no…we won’t go!”

Benito’s drum is the beat
of struggle from the heart
of struggle from the mind
of struggle

The drum bone beat of
hands carry the
dirt poems of the I-Hotel
rising out of the ground

Benito’s drum skin,
drum beat life
awakes the city
from its sleep

It wakes the elders
the children
the workers
the forgotten

Benito’s drum
is awaking the
city

with the sound
of his I-hotel
heart

(c) 2014 Tony Robles

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