Hit Me Bruh!–Thoughts on The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Hit me with something real.  Hit me with what I am.  Hit me with my pent up rage.  Hit me with everything that’s been taken from you, me, us—our city.  Last black man, first black man, and all black men in between; hit me in the solar nexus, the crossroads, the migration, the displacement, the toxicity—I want it all, I want it all back.  Last Black Man in San Francisco, a pause in the sound of the heartbeat of two young black men, a pause that expands and captures the history of a people—the black community of San Francisco—in all its love and anger and brilliance and contradictions.  In a city that has betrayed its black community for all to see, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, through art and respect for what has come before—the foundation upon where we stand—sings a song of dignity of our black community—a dignity that is under attack without relent.

Remember your truth in the city of facades

As a born and raised San Franciscan, I see black faces every day in my city, faces that show the history of neglect, the forgotten faces, disrespected faces, faces paved over with scars—faces that have become a landmark of the city’s shame.  In the pause of chaos we see the toxicity of indifference that is so thick in the San Francisco air that one must wear a hazardous material suit to navigate it.  But I also, in the madness of the city, see in it—what my friend and activist David Woo describes as “Frisco humbleness”—a going with the flow and surviving without forgetting who you are and where you came from.  This movie comes with a big dose of “Frisco Humbleness”. 

In the backdrop of Hunters Point, at the movie’s outset, a community prophet/preacher warns: We were put through hell to be purified!  In the eyes of two young men, best friends—Jimmie and Mont (played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors)—the quest for purification begins.  The writer James Baldwin–who visited San Francisco in the early 60’s as part of a documentary and who immediately sensed its subtle yet toxic racism–wrote that if one can describe one’s environment, one can control it.  To describe it, one must pause and reclaim what is one’s own through new eyes—and what is to be reclaimed is community.  To pause when a white person appears out of nowhere and asks “What are you doing here?”  A pause containing the complexities of surviving a place that doesn’t want you, intent on stripping you of your dignity—if you are black—by its bureaucracies and systems whose very existence depends upon the disdain it holds towards you. 

The dignity and complexity of caring for a home that was lost, a brush, applying paint, adding color to what has been stripped, reclaiming a home, reclaiming a self, an identity; loving a house no longer yours so much that you know that the new occupants do not love it as you do, do not know it as you do, do not have the same respect for it as you and your family did.

“Our Sweat is soaked in the wood”

A pause in the mirror, in the drama of street corner conflicts and dramas that pull us down and build us up—giving birth to and destroying us—in postures and phrases and bullets and blessings and finally an embrace and tears and wails that never end—wet with the salty water of the bay which is in our blood.  “Hit me bruh!” one young black brother dares another.  Challenging one’s courage, one’s manhood—with voices that slash, cut—leaving scars that cover the scars inside, worn with honor as the streets are carved from under us.  Again, the preacher/prophet who sees the lurking powers of the toxic bay, the toxic cloud who warns: They got plans for us!   Why does renewal often bring with it a renewed sense of death?  As James Baldwin said, it is the report of the artist, and the report that only the artist can give that is, in the end, our only hope in showing anybody who makes it to this planet how to survive it.

The constant play, the drama acted out day after day, seen through the eyes of Mont, a playwright—acting it out in Hunters Point on a wooden plank, in a landscape where we all play our part in a drawn out tragedy that is the city of St. Francis.  Mont lives with his grandpa (Played by Danny Glover) who is blind.  They sit together—along with Jimmie—watching old mystery movies to which Mont describes the action—scene by scene.  In the small room he shares with Jimmie he sketches the people and places of his neighborhood, and is inspired to write a play about a young brother named Kofi.   Upon the tragic death of Kofi—who often gathered with other young men of the neighborhood—a  young man with the words “Life after Life” tattooed on his chest—the question the playwright poses is: What if Kofi could have shown all forms of himself?  Followed by the declaration: He was put into a box!

Kofi is one of many who live with the lingering and present trauma of eviction, displacement, environmental racism and a tech industry without accountability in a city whose continued hostility towards communities of color, the same communities that made the city great, manifests itself in laws that target poor people and result in the loss of community, a loss of spirit and dignity,  The complex lives, the traditions, the complexity of  black laughter and view of the world—unique to Frisco (yes Frisco)– gets erased without an afterthought in the most impersonal way which has become signature San Francisco.  From this place, they hop on a skateboard, or on Muni to Jimmie’s family home in the Fillmore—a home that the family lost—encountering a changing neighborhood that is less black.  He reoccupies the home and, for a time, brings it to life after the former occupants lost it in an estate battle.  In occupying the home, Jimmie and Mont bring their complexities and emotion and creativity in the most befitting of places—as rightful occupants.  Then, ultimately, there is the threat of police by a real estate agent intent on making a profit—who has tossed Jimmie’s possession’s onto the sidewalk–a scenario that is played out over in over in the city.

And there is still love, despite the toxicity of the city, one that doesn’t love you when, on a bus, a pair of transplants speak disparagingly of the city.  Jimmie, the young black man whose life is in the walls of the house that he believes his grandfather built, a house that he is trying to reclaim interrupts the pair and says, “Do you love it?  You don’t get to hate San Francisco unless you love it”, to which there is silence.

The Last black man In San Francisco was co-written by actor Jimmie Fails, who plays Jimmie in the movie.  Fails fails to rely on stereotypes, he fails to overlook complexity, he fails to overlook his elders, he fails to show disrespect to what came before him.  He succeeds, as does the cast, producers and writers, to create a film with much love and grace.

I can still hear the voice of Mike Marshall, singing his rendition of Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco. 

If you’re going to San Francisco

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

If you’re going to San Francisco

You’re gonna meet some gentle people there


The gentle people surely appear in this movie.  However, in real life, they are getting harder to come by in this city.

(Photo Credit: Paste Magazine)

© 2019 Tony Robles


Man in Demand

In the late 70’s I attended a small Christian school in central Florida called Agape School.  I’d never heard the word agape and the first time I said it, it came out wrong.  I mouthed it as it appeared–a word whose definition was a “wide open mouth, esp. with surprise or wonder.”  Unbeknownst to me, agape had another pronunciation and meaning.  I formed the word, mouth ajar–with wonder–and said: AH-GAH-PAY.  Florida was a culture shock.  I was a Filipino-Black kid from San Francisco who barely found his way to class—homeroom or any room—flinching at the ubiquitous barking of gym teachers, suffocating in the stifling odors rising from locker rooms permeating with the ever evolving glandular functions of post-pubescent boys in a terrarium of Junior High absurdity.  I was put on a plane and dispatched 3000 miles away to my mother in the sunshine state.  Florida was palm trees, orange juice, Disney World and golf courses—that’s what I was told. 

My father saw that my grades failed to rise above the C mark.  He foresaw for me a janitorial future and constantly tried to motivate me to improve my grades. This strategic motivation strategy included the imminent threat of a foot (Namely his) up my ass, indefinite restriction (IE: No TV, No playing ball etc.) and something he referred to as Military School.  “They’ll shape your ass up” he’d say as I analyzed my options in silence.  My mother had remarried.  I wrote her at the behest of my grandparents. She sent me birthday cards adorned with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck that I discarded in search of legal tender.  She lived in a home with a new husband, a swimming pool and a room waiting for me.  I didn’t recall many moments being with my mother and father.  As far as I knew, their split had been amicable:  No hard feelings, right?

Florida—land of oranges.  When I arrived I expected orange bulbs to drop like hail.  Across the street was a house with orange trees in the front yard. Orange dotted the trees like shrunken suns.  The fragrance eventually seeped into me. Lawns spread in front and behind every house.  The sound of a sputtering mower always loomed.   My mother was glad to see me after so many years.  I had grown like a weed that needed yanking. “You’re gonna love it down here” she said.  “The weather’s hot but you’ll get used to it.  And you might see a roach or two.”   My 6 foot stepfather added, “They’re called palmetto bugs. They live in the palm trees. They’re harmless.’’ Palmetto sounded like a tropical bug spray.  I forgot about it when mom served a plate of red jello that had been elegantly shaped in a decorative mold–topped with a spoonful of whipped cream.

I had experiences with multi-legged creatures when I lived in the housing projects in San Francisco’s North Beach.  They would crawl on the walls and across the kitchen table. I prodded them with a knife towards the silver toaster. My eyes would watch them dash up the side of the silver monster. I’d flick them into the gaps where they would fall into the coils, popping and crackling before ejected upwards towards the heavenly yellow ceiling.  I wasn’t vicious or devious but when it came to roaches, I transformed.  Upon my landing in Florida I had images in my brain of Mickey Mouse, oranges and space rockets.  Roaches were the farthest thing from my mind.    

Before bed my mother kissed me goodnight.  I hadn’t seen her in a long time. I couldn’t see myself in her face but everybody else did.  She washed her face with Noxema and I liked the smell.  Her kiss was a blink, a small leaf landing in water. She exhaled a puff of air through her nostrils hitting my eyelids causing me to shut my eyes. I opened them and I saw myself in her face–for the first time. Mom turned off the light. The air was thick and sticky like wet cotton candy–the smell of orange trees and the symphonic drone of crickets that were seemingly stuck on the same tune.  I woke in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  I opened the bedroom door and saw my stepfather—peeing. I was told that older men often peed in the middle of the night. I went back to bed.  The toilet flushed.  I got up again, turned on the light. 

I heard a buzz.  My eyes came into focus when I saw a dark object flying towards my face.  Before I could blink I realized it was a cockroach.  I flinched, attempting to shield my face but I was too slow, the roach flew square into cheek. My mother’s kiss was gentle, the roach’s was like a bottle cap.  I hit the light switch and dove under the covers. It was steaming hot.  There was silence then buzzing.  Was it the roach?  Or was it another type of bug?  Had I known about these flying cockroaches…palmetto bugs, I would have stayed in San Francisco.  I peeked from under the blankets, allowing myself a gulp of air but each time I did, the buzzing ensued.  I kept myself airtight under the blankets.  It was suffocating.

“Welcome to Florida” a voice said.  A raspy voice, the kind soothed with a cigarette.    

“Who are you talking to?” I asked

“Who do you think?”

I closed my eyes hoping that the voice was my imagination.

“Leave me alone’’ I said 

“What’s wrong, you afraid?  I thought you were tough, from the big city.  All those cockroaches in the toaster”

“How you know about that?”

“Ahhhhh…everybody knows.  Cockroach grapevine”.

Silence.  I began to think. I am under a blanket, hiding from a roach—a palmetto bug—that I must outweigh by more than a hundred pounds—not to mention my height advantage.  But in the area of wingspan, I was no match.  I was suffocating in my cowardice.  I felt like a worm–or worse–a maggot.  A 13 year old boy—on his way towards man or maggothood.  What kind of man was I going to be?

“Hey kid” the voice said.


“Ever heard of Kafka?”




“Don’t worry, you will”

And with that I sweated myself to sleep. 

School was different. Unlike the large brick reinforced fortress of a school I attended in San Francisco, Agape School was situated in an office park. The building was a corrugated metal structure with a corporate facelift that suggested florescent lights, air conditioning and multi-stalled, air-freshened toilets fully stocked with toilet paper.  I was a dot in a sea of white; a lone Filipino and black kid among freckled, pimply, innocent, sinister and other variations of white faces—boys and girls—from elementary to high school age.  We began our days reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American and Christian flags.  Our principal, Mr. Collins, led us in prayer and bible scripture recital.  He was an animated guy who, had he gone into pharmaceutical sales or cruise ship hospitality, would have surely succeeded.  We wore uniforms—red, white and blue. Some wore red shirts, blue slacks, while others wore white shirts, blue slacks. Plaid skirts for girls.  The white shirt clashed with my skin which had, thanks to the burning Florida sun, darkened to the hue of burning sugar cane. 

I sat alone in the lunch room.  A few boys looked at me.  One approached.

“Where you from?”

“San Francisco?”

“Do you like snakes?”
“I’ve never seen one”

Kilmer was the class jokester.  He had a laugh smeared across his face until it became a sneer.  Brown hair hung damp on his head with a hint of a mustache struggling on his upper lip.

He produced a book, drawing it from his pocket like a comb or knife.  On the cover: The Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. 

“I got a rat snake” said Kilmer.  “And a corn snake, and a boa, and a black racer, and an indigo snake, and a—“

“What do they eat?” I asked

“Rabbits and mice.  They wrap around them and squeeeeezzzz them to death. Then they swallow ’em whole. It’s so cool. You wanna seem ’em sometime?”

“Yeah, I guess”

Snakes, I thought.  How would I react to one up close?  My duel with the flying cockroach was fresh in my mind.  If I hid from a roach, how would I deal with a hissing snake? 

“What’s your name?” asked Kilmer

“Anthony” I replied. 

Another boy walked over. His name was Johnstone. He was big. Over six feet.   He snatched the book of reptiles and amphibians from Kilmer’s hand.

“You and your snakes.  You’re nothing but a toad.  The only snake you have is a rubber one—dangling between your legs”

“Hey, give it” said Kilmer.

I wanted to laugh at the rubber snake remark but didn’t.  Kilmer seemed an oddball, but he was a nice oddball.  The bigger boy handed the book back to Kilmer.  He looked at me.

“You play football?” he asked

“Yeah, a little” I replied.

The boy had dark brown hair whose strands teased his eyelids. He rubbed his palm into his reddened eyes.

“We play during PE”

“Yeah” said Kilmer

Johnstone looked at me.  His eyes fell on my face as if looking into it and coming out the other side.

“What are you, Indian?” Johnstone asked.

“I’m Filipino and black”

“Filipino?  Never seen one of those before”


Silence. Maybe I should have told him I was Indian.  But in the movies I always rooted for the cowboys.  I looked around and saw the glances.  Maybe they were wondering what I was too.  I began to feel like Cochise being pursued by those cowboys blasting everything in sight.  I felt a warm chill spread across my face.

“We play football in the afternoon.  If you wanna play…”

Johnstone walked off. 

“He’s an asshole” said Kilmer.  Thinks he’s some hotshot athlete. Hey, do you know what herpetology is?”

Kilmer opened his book again and we looked at snakes until lunch ended.

Upon consulting the encyclopedia, I learned that herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles.  The subject held my fascination when tossed in with a few things: 1) The story of Adam and Eve, 2) A TV movie I’d seen where a psychopathic scientist gives a serum to an unsuspecting man who gets transformed into a cobra and, 3) The stories I’d heard of pythons swallowing crocodiles whole.  I was fascinated by snake’s ability to shed its skin and the decorative yet complex patterns adorning on their bodies.  They, unlike us, had no pimples, dryness, or ashy residue that teens had to endure.  Perhaps I had a future in herpetology. 

I was under the blankets again.  It was cool—75 degrees.  A few minutes followed by the buzz, the voice.

“How was school?”

“It was ok”

“Did you meet snake boy?”

“Snake boy?”

“The kid with the reptile and amphibian book”

“How do you know about him?”

“I told you before, cockroach grapevine”

“Why don’t’ you go and fly to someone else’s house?”

“I like this house”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s the problem.  All you do is buzz around and keep me under the blankets. You’re quite inconsiderate and you’re ugly too”

“I’m a roach.  I’m supposed to be ugly”

I tried to ignore his presence.

“I can’t sleep”

“Try counting roaches”

“Count roaches?”

“Yes, instead of sheep.  Count all those roaches you tossed into the toaster.

I closed my eyes tight and thought of sheep.  Baaah…baaah.  They wouldn’t come.

“Did they ask you?” said the roach

“Who, what?”

“What you are?”

“What do you mean?”

“Black, white,yellow…turquoise?”

“Oh, you mean my nationality?”

“Did they think you were an Indian?”

“One did”

I’m starting to think that you have a little cockroach in you. In this Florida sun you’re as brown as me–a cockroach. That’s what I’m gonna call you—cockroach brown.  How ya like that?”

“I don’t!

“Ha ha ha!” the roach laughed, on his back, wiggling his little legs.

“What about you, you got a name?”

“Yeah, Metto”

“Metto? Bullshit.

I lie in silence as the crickets laughed.

I was in my room looking at the blue paint on the wall.  I’d caught a turtle that I’d kept in my desk.  I’d snuck it in without mom or my stepdad knowing. 

My stepfather walked in.  His afro had grown wide.  Wet spots announced themselves from under his arms.

“Are you gonna sit there all day?”

“There’s nothing to do, I’m bored.”

“Boredom…is a luxury”

He always had things for me to do; pulling weeds in the backyard, cleaning the swimming pool.  I was lazy in San Francisco.  The Florida heat didn’t make me any more energetic. I went to school but I procrastinated on assignments.  When he saw me he was always shaking his head.  He told me stories of when he was a young man.  He worked all kinds of jobs and in every job, he was the best: the best dishwasher, the best busboy, the best shoe shiner, the best…

The phone rang from the kitchen.  I heard my mother’s muffled voice. 

“Anthony! Mom called out.  “It’s your dad”.

I went to the phone, mounted on the wall near the kitchen counter.


“It’s me”

“I know”

“How come you don’t call?”

“Mom says long distance calls are expensive”

“She can afford it”

“I guess”

“Anyway, how’s school. You learnin’ anything?”

“It’s a Christian school”

“Christian?  They teaching you catechism?

“No, it’s not Catholic.  We say the pledge allegiance to the Christian flag”

“Christian flag?  What kinda goddamn school she sending you to?”

“It’s a good school, with nice kids.  One of them has snakes”

“You better stay away from them snakes. They liable to crawl up your ass”.

“Yes, dad”

“Any hurricanes, Mickey Mouse, palm trees?”

Dad’s voice grew fuzzy in the static of the phone.  His voice grew distant and tinny.

“No” I replied.  But they got roaches”


“Roaches” I repeated, louder.

“You smokin’ a roach? What the hell is going on down there?

Dad’s voice grew louder, cutting through the static.

“I said, there are roaches down here”

“Smokin’ a roach?  Your mom’s got you smokin’ weed?”


“Don’t raise your voice to me or I’ll put my foot in your ass”

Dad’s voice rose. I had no doubt–being the omnipresent force in my life that he was–in his ability to somehow transport his size 7 1/2 shoe (With his foot in it), and insert said foot in my waiting and deserving ass.

Dad said something I couldn’t make out, perhaps speaking to someone close by.

“Put your damn mother on the phone!”


“I said, put her on the damn phone!”

I called mom over and handed her the receiver.

Our principal Mr. Collins was a nice man.  He wore a red short sleeved shirt, blue clip tie and blue slacks. A small golden cross was pinned to his tie.  He gathered the young men of our school in monthly discussions on topics that would mold and shape us for the future.  Staying away from drugs and alcohol was stressed, naturally, as a path towards a Godly life.  One day he asked our group, all of us—hormones, sweaty armpits and all—what is love?  One of the boys, a limp haired blonde named Wilbur blurted out “Tammy!”  Laughter swelled in the room which Mr. Collins defused. 

“Ok, ok…we know Tammy”, said Mr. Collins.  “But I want us to think of love, what is it?”

I sat with my tongue melting into the roof of my mouth.  I’d never had a girlfriend but I liked the girl who sat at the cubicle next to mine, a blonde girl who always caught my glance—terrifying me.

“Young man” said Mr. Collins, gesturing at me.  “Can you tell me the definition of love?’

I looked around. Why was I always being put on the spot–first by a flying cockroach and now a guy in a red shirt and bad tie. 

“Love is, uh, I think it’s…”

The overhead florescent lights buzzed as my pimple faced schoolmates waited for me to say something foolish.

“Love is…” I said, “Being kind

One of the bigger boys rolled his eyes.  Another formed a weak fist and moved it in a lewd up and down motion.

“Ok, ok boys…knock it off” said Mr. Collins.  “It’s true.  In the bible it says that love is patient, love is kind, love holds no grudges.  It’s agape…from the Greek. It means God’s love.

He went on about love and the golden rule. I truly paid attention to what he said, sensing that it held some kind of value.  We were given a book called “Man in Demand.”  In it were practical things that young men should know: Table manners, good grooming, good posture, how to tuck in your shirt.  It included a useful equation that went something like this:

Food intake + no exercise= Weight Gained

Sufficient food intake + sufficient exercise= Weight maintained

Insufficient food intake + Sufficient exercise= Weight drained

I flipped the pages of “Man in Demand”.  I came to a page on grooming one’s hair. There was an illustration of properly groomed hair and unkempt hair. The unkempt hair looked like mine.  Why couldn’t I be a straight haired blonde boy?  Perhaps it was a question I could pose to my friend, Metto, the cockroach or, palmetto bug later in the evening.  Man in Demand–a book that was supposed to mold young men.  Some good stuff was in it.  And with a bit of herpetology tossed in, I learned that people, like snakes, can shed their skin.  Perhaps even a cockroach.

© 2019 Tony Robles

Corn Broom

“Go get me a corn broom” dad said.

I stood before him under the din and hum of institutional florescent lights.

“What are you laughing at?” he asked.

My father was a serious man, especially at the job.  No goofing off at the job at hand.  He didn’t smile when we worked together, a team of two making up a small janitorial service—an entryway into the American dream; mops, buckets, dust rags and chemicals with names like Simple Green, trisodium phosphate and Ajax.  I suppose working with such an array of equipment did not engender him with a fast and easy smile, that is, except when the client happened to be around.  Then it became yes sir, good day sir and I’ll get to it immediately sir. 

“What are you, deaf?  I said get me a corn broom.”

I tried to stifle the giggles that were brewing in my throat.  They were persistent.

“Is something funny?” dad asked, walking up to me.  I had grown so now I could look at him eye to eye—for I too was 5 foot 5, with potential for even more growth. 

“Spit it out…what’s so funny?”

“Corn broom”, I replied, smiling.  “It’s kind of a funny name.  Why is it called that?  Are you supposed to sweep corn with it?”

Dad wiped his forehead with his wrist.  His arms showed through his sweatshirt cut off at the sleeves—16” biceps.  How did he get that?

“Don’t waste my time with stupid questions.  I ain’t got time for bullshit.  Are you trying to bullshit me?  Don’t shit a shitter, understand?  Now go get the broom.  I’m not gonna tell you again.”

I was left with the slight scent of dad’s drugstore cologne that lingered in the air.  For a man who worked so hard he had that steady scent, not overpowering but understated, able to give one a headache if breathed incessantly.  I, on the other hand, outside of these janitorial excursions, never truly worked. However, I had a lingering odor in the armpits reminiscent of a raw onion.  Dad, on occasion would—when in close proximity—sniff at the air in an exaggerated manner.  “What’s that smell” he’d ask.  The funny thing was that I could barely smell my own stink, my own odor.  “You need to get your hygiene program together” he’d say.  The implications of this were serious.

“Women like clean men” he said. 

“But I don’t have a girlfriend” I replied.  “How do I get one?”

Dad looked at me, shook his head. “Just grab that broom and sweep…and quit asking stupid questions.”

With the frustration of my lingering body odor, which I felt was no fault of my own, I proceeded in the direction of the corn broom, standing at a slight angle against the wall.  With one swipe I took ahold of it and slammed it to the floor, bristles first.  I let go of the handle.  It stood there, next to me, as if at attention.  It was slightly shorter than I—a standing broom.  It was magical. I heard sniffing noises. 

“What’s that smell?”

“You can talk?” I asked.

“Yeah I can talk.  I can fly too.”

“Can you sweep the floor by yourself?”

That I can’t help you with, that smell though, don’t you shower?

“Hey, don’t start that shit with me or I’ll shove a broomstick up your…”

I stopped myself upon realizing the absurdity of my words.  The corn broom stood straight, causing me to adjust my posture. 

“Why do they call you a corn broom?”

“It’s because I’m made of corn fibers”

“It’s a stupid sounding name”

The broom leaned to a slight angle.  The institutional lights mounted on the ceiling accentuated the sheen that radiated from the grain of its handle.  The broom had scuff marks and dust had collected in its bristles.  But it was a broom that had seen many jobs, had come into contact with dirt of many kinds.  It had made disappear—the lint, dust, dirt, the refuse—all those things that a janitor is entrusted to make disappear.  I began to laugh, corn broom—ridiculous. 

Corn is something you eat, not sweep with.  I turned my back on the broom. To hell with it, If the broom was good enough to fly, it was good enough to sweep the floor–by itself.  I continued to laugh when I felt a slashing sensation against my buttocks.  It was a swipe, a slap that didn’t hurt anything but my dignity. It caused a slight sting.  I spun around quickly. 

“Did you do that?”


“Kick me”

“I’m a broom, I sweep not kick”

“Ok, did you sweep me?”

“Yes I did”

“What’ya do that for?”

We stood face to face, or, face to handle.  I thought about sweeping and mopping and scrubbing toilets—all those duties I couldn’t perform with any proficiency whatsoever.  These imposed duties were decreed by my father—and his 16 inch arms–or “guns” as he referred to them–so I had no choice.  He had me by the broom handle. There was no getting out, no avoiding his quips about the odor of my underarms.  Now I was getting kicked around by a lousy corn broom.  Where was the justice?  The broom inched up closer to me. 
“Look kid” said the broom.  “I know it’s tough with your old man telling you that you stink.  But I think I can help you with your problem.”

“Buy some deodorant.  It’ll cover the stink.”

“Yeah, deodorant…good idea”

“Put some on and your old man will get off your back in no time”:

“It seems everybody else smells it but me”

The broom leaned a bit, as if surveying me head to toe. 
“You know, you are dirty.  Dust and litter all over you–all of that insecurity and melancholy, feeling sorry for yourself.  You’re a runt. I’m gonna straighten you out–do a number on you”

“A number?”

“Yeah, a number, corn broom style”

And with swift and deft precision of one of those martial arts masters on the big screen, the broom—in a sweeping motion—maneuvered me to the floor.  I landed like a banana dropped from a tree.  The broom swept all the lint and dust and refuse that had clung to my body and mind.  I tried putting up a fight, grabbing it by the throat…I mean, handle.  We rolled around on that dust covered, scuffed floor.  It was a fight to the death. 

“Punk! Exclaimed the broom

“Son of a bitch!” I replied

I heard a noise from down the hall, my dad no doubt.  I quickly got to my feet, renewed. 

“How you feel, kid?” the broom asked.

“Pretty good” I replied.

“A brand new motherfucker, you are”

The broom and I embraced then cut the moment short as Dad walked in.  He looked at the floor with his keen eye, trained in spotting even the most infinitesimal of dust particles. 
“Hmmm, pretty good” he said.  “Now go and clean the toilets and let’s wrap this thing up.  I grabbed a toilet brush and headed to the bathroom.  I scrubbed hard wondering if it too, could speak.

© 2019 Tony Robles

Fish Bones

I’d lost my voice.  I wasn’t certain if I’d actually possessed it.  A voice–the movement and vibration of molecules melding into a unique sound with timbre, resonance, pitch—all blending in unison.  There are, however, obstructions in the throat that impact one’s ability to impart one’s vocal prowess—hoarseness, a sore throat or the unfortunate occurrence of having something “go down the wrong pipe” while eating.  There is nothing that stifles resonance or vocal tone than a hacking cough.  As a child I was told by my grandma to be careful not to swallow fish bones.  She would cook fish and rice, big, thick, juicy pieces of fish with orange flesh beneath charred skin.  I would shove the fish into my mouth, the crispy skin crackling like leaves in a smoldering fire.  Then—on the way down–I would feel it, a puncture, a sharp piercing in the complex inner workings of my throat.  There it was—a fishhook down the gullet—my bone to pick.  Of course grandma had a remedy: eat a spoonful of rice to wash it down.

There are other obstructions to one’s voice that keep it from taking shape in the physical, molecular and other ubiquitous worlds. For many, it is an imposed silence that builds over time.  A silence is resembling a wax build up, however, this wax inhabiting the throat is made of the phlegm of uncertainty, timidity, tentativeness—to name a few.  This imposition is often carried out by other individuals or institutions that are not interested in the uniqueness of voice or perspective but rather in the carrying out the dictum in an ever moving charge towards hegemony—the aspiration to sound like everyone else, with no variation. 

I am reminded of when I studied broadcasting.  My ambition was to become a radio DJ.  To me, there was no higher calling. I was a young man in search of a voice. I thought that speaking over the radio to thousands of faceless faces would give me a voice, would give me some sort of recognition.  I would practice my diction and my pronunciation of words.  I would repeat the call letters of our college radio station as if it were a religious scripture.

KCSF…90.0 Cable FM in San Francisco.

I had gotten ahold of a record album from a well-known broadcasting school.  The record instructed on how to be a proficient announcer.  It warned against lazy mouth and to be mindful of regional dialects.  All words had to be pronounced clearly and exercises were given to help improve one’s announcing ability.  Among such vocal exercises were tongue twisters:

Peter piper picked a peck of

Pickled peppers


Betty Botter

Bought a bit of butter

I had trouble with the Betty Botter tongue-twister, mistaking Boner for Botter (Unintentionally, of course).  But as I progressed, it seemed to me that I was speaking like other people on radio.  I’d landed a job as an announcer.  I was quickly becoming the vocal equivalent of Kraft American Cheese.  Soon I didn’t recognize my own voice and I barely heard what came out of my mouth—news, weather reports, etc.  I was given radio station slogan cards to read at various times. I deluded myself into believing that repeating radio station “liner cards” and running off meandering muses of a wide but limited variety was somehow profound.  I sought the advice of a morning drive time radio DJ I my city on how I could improve.  He said, in order to improve my sound, I should take a bag of marbles and, one by one, insert them in my mouth while sounding out various words.  He advised that when I “You’ve lost all your marbles” you’ll know you’ve arrived. The reality was that I was a failed DJ–someone highly insecure of his thoughts, his voice but did not fail to realize that I was saying, essentially, nothing. My voice was lost. 

The wax build up in the throat that I mentioned earlier seems to migrate, by osmosis or some other mode, to the ears of others.  To lose your voice or not be recognized as possessing one is to speak with lips aflutter minus the marriage of sound.  In other words, you are not heard.  It is to question if you have a voice.  For some it is to be marked, chosen as if by a higher power, to be cut off at mid-sentence continually, interrupted or responded to with silence and mouths ajar (or agape) if a word or sentence should manage to escape from your lips. 

There are a myriad of ways in which one is denied his or her voice.  What I have described is the subtle approach with the harshest of this variety being the perpetual purgatory of “shut up, listen and learn” or just plain, “Shut the fuck up”, regardless of how asinine or absurd the issuance of words from whomever you are forced to listen to happens to be.  However, there are harsher realities for some in terms of presenting their unique voice to the world: imprisonment, death, ostracization, torture—very big fish bones to swallow.

In terms of the writer, the voice is the life’s blood, the DNA, the bell that rings into an increasingly tone deaf world.  As writers we lay claim to our own voice and the timbre of its uniqueness.  We seek out clarity in the feelings and experiences we wish to convey.  In order to find, or gain one’s voice, one must oftentimes be denied of it or lose it completely.  In this way we come to respect it, cherish it—to tune it and replenish it.  We come to recognize the voices of others and, in that recognition, our own voice becomes clearer, more acute.  To earn one’s voice you have to fight for it.  There will be fish bones but, as grandma says, wash them down with some rice.  You’ll find clarity, you’ll finally be able to say what only you can; articulate only what you can when the time is truly right.  When your voice comes, you’ll know.  Use it well.  Watch out for fish bones.

© 2019 Tony Robles

In my Country

How are you my friend?”  

Marco picked up a broom from the supply cabinet.  His eyes drank the light of a partially open door down the hall.  He’d been in the basement since eight a.m. clearing out trash, mountains of it.  Much of it was paper that had been piling up for the last several months.  This is a goddamn fire hazard, the maintenance supervisor said.  Marco was the new guy, just hired three weeks ago.  He was given the coveted job of cleaning out the basement.  His hair was covered in gray dust, making him appear old.  The bristly mustache hanging above his lip, turning downwards at the corners, remained its brilliant black.
Marco hurried towards the door.  He wanted to breathe the sun. 
“Hey Marco!”
Marco stopped, turning away from the light.
“Yes my friend”
People knew his name.  They sung it.  It traveled like an arrow. 
“Marco, I need you to clear out room 403”
Mr. Franklin was the maintenance supervisor.  He had a policeman’s head and the body of a journeyman plumber.  He carried a leather bound notebook containing work orders.  Marco turned completely around. He followed Mr. Franklin.
“The guy in 403 died a couple days ago.  I need you to go and clear out the room.  Bag and tag the stuff in the unit”
“Who died”
“Willie…you know…older black guy”
Mr. Franklin handed Marco a key.  Marco tried to remember the man.  There were many older black men in the residential hotel. 
“What happened?”
“He was lying on the couch and died. It was three days before anybody noticed.  The guy in unit next to him got this bad nasal problem…couldn’t smell a damn thing.  A health worker found him when she came to visit”.
Marco shook his head and whispered something to himself.  His thoughts were back home.  He thought of his grandmother and how she walked, her steps heavy on the ground, leaving stories that the rains couldn’t wash away.
“I go upstairs”
Marco came to the bottom of the staircase.  He distrusted elevators.  He climbed the stairs, walking over each step like a stone in a river.  He listened to the sounds.  Each step had a different sound—squeaks, moans—muffled notes in a building made of parts long obsolete.  He heard someone call his name as he ascended the stairs.  He stopped.  He looked down and saw a small circle of people gathered around a bald woman in a black robe.  She gently tapped a metal gong.  The sound made Marco stand still for a moment, as if he were being transported: His heart taking the form of those things that had been hollowed out, cavernous and holding every sound, even the sounds that one could not hear but feel.  Marco had felt empty and collected all the unsaid words and suspicious glances of others —suspicion of his mother tongue and his immigration status– but also ambivalence of those who only saw him and people like him as subservient, entitled to treat an immigrant like him any way they pleased.  All those sounds he kept inside waiting for the chance to free them. He finally reached the top of the staircase.  403 was at the far end of the hall.  Marco walked, his keys jingling at his side. 
In my country I walk in the mountains.  I listen to the birds.  They tell me if rain is coming.  When the soldiers come, I hide.  Sometimes I sneak away to the mountains and look at the sky.  It is big.  I feel like I could swim in it like water.  I see every color in the sky and I close my eyes and sleep.  The gunfire is loud; I wake and see only red like the flowers in my grandmother’s hands.  I run so fast that I feel like my legs are running away from my body.  Sometimes I feel like I have no legs, only eyes that see the beauty and the sadness of my country.  Sometimes my eyes only see red mountains.

He put the key in the lock.  It was stubborn.  It clicked.  He opened the door.
Marco stepped inside.  The air was warm with maple and cigarettes.  A kitchen table sat with jars and cups with burned on stains. 
“Who is it?”
Marco saw the figure of a man sitting on a couch partially covered in shadows.  It was a black man with grayish hair and a bright beard. 
“I’m maintenance.  They send me to clean.  They tell me the man who live here die”.
“Man, do I look dead to you?
“You damn right I ain’t dead. I been living here for 20 years.  Now get out of my room!”
“I’m sorry”
Marco went downstairs to the maintenance office.  The door was shut.  Mr. Franklin was on the phone, gesturing with his hands.  Marco waved but Mr. Franklin didn’t look at him.  Mr. Franklin hung up the phone and motioned Marco to enter. 
“I’m real busy right now”
Marco looked at the stack of papers on the desk.  He felt small.
“There’s a man in the room”
“What room?”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know.  He’s sitting on the couch”
“Tell him to get out. We need to get that room clean for the new tenant”
Marco went back upstairs, this time trotting.  He opened the door.
“You back for another visit?”
The man was standing now.  He peered out the window at the expanse of a large brick building with faded advertisements. 
“You have to leave, my friend”
The man looked at Marco for a moment then sank into the couch.
“They been telling me to leave all my life.  Ain’t got no place to go…”
Marco watched the man lay back on the couch, struggling to lift his legs.  A table with flimsy legs stood next to the couch.  On it was a procession of pill bottles with faded expiration dates.  Marco walked over to the man, leaned over.
“I help you”   
Marco lifted the man’s legs and gently lay them atop a pillow at the ankles.  The man craned his neck, searching for a comfortable spot.  Marco looked at the pictures on another table, wrinkled black and white photos of young faces.  Another picture showed a man in a suit on a stage, a dancer perhaps.  The man looked at Marco through squinting eyes.  He took a hold of Marco’s wrist. 
“What’s your name, son?”
“I’m maintenance…I”
“No, no…your name?”
“My name is Marco”
“Where are you from?”
“My country?”
“El Salvador”
“Do you miss your home?”
Marco did not answer.  He took the man’s hand in his own and lay it gently at his side.
“Can you get me a cup of water?”
In my country I live close to the river.  I used to walk with my brother to the sound of the river. We would run with the river and the sound would cool our faces and we would swim with the fish.  My brother, he was older.  He loved to sing…his voice was like the river.  I would listen and his songs flew like birds over the hills and trees.  We would laugh, and he would chase me like the wind.  Then the sounds of the guns came and the water no longer sang but stayed still in the color of the dead. 

Marco found a glass in the sink. He rinsed and filled it.  He saw a roach on the wall, climbing like a man scaling a mountain.  Marco saw a plant, green with reddish leaves.  He pressed his fingers into the dirt.  It was dry and went under his fingernails. He poured water on the dirt and placed it on a windowsill.  He brought the glass to the man.

“Thank you son”

Marco’s eyes fell on the picture of the man in a suit on a stage.  He saw the man’s legs move and suddenly there was applause.  He looked to the window and saw a bird’s flapping wings.
“I used to dance when I was young.  I danced all over.  I tapped, you know about tapping, right?  I danced all over the country…down south and out west.  I had women, lord how I had ‘em.  My daughter, she grown.  She’s a teacher somewhere down south. Let me get another sip of water”.
Marco raised the glass to the man’s lips.  The man took the glass and drained it.
“My mother saw me running by the river one day.  We were poor, real poor.  She said my legs would take me places one day.  Now my legs give me nothing but problems”.
The man sighed and looked up at the ceiling.  Marco reached over and massaged the man’s legs. 

In my country…

The man felt renewed.  He smiled then stood. He danced.  Marco sat and watched the man tap and bend and jump high until he reached the sky.  Soon the man was the man in the picture, young again.  Marco clapped as the man danced across the room.  The man danced until it became dark. He sank back into the couch, gray hair and old bones.  He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Marco covered the man with a blanket.  He opened the window and placed a glass of water on the sill.  He lit a candle and placed it next to the glass.  He looked out at a bird perched on a nearby sill.  He filled the plastic bags with old clothes, pill bottles, papers, and garbage.  He cleaned the bathroom and kitchen.  He took the plastic bags to the basement storage room.  He brought the apartment key back to the maintenance office. 
“You finished with that room?” Mr. Franklin asked.
“Yes, I finish” Marco answered, handing back the key.
Marco put on his jacket and walked to the door.  He opened it.  The light washed over him.  He thought about the man in the picture and about his grandmother back home.  He looked out into the empty street.  It was like a river.  He walked and listened to the night, his legs taking him somewhere.
© 2009 Tony Robles


San Francisco, what did you do with the ashes?  Who did you dispatch to separate ash from kin?  No, I do not refer to the ashes falling from the end of a cigarette.  There are ashes, remains of homes, apartments that burned like the anger whose remnants linger all over the city–the remains of walls and staircases that mix with stone and twisted pieces of metal that contort like gnarled limbs and perhaps figurines or toys that a child once played with that ended up in an expanse of rubble that is blinding as it cuts into the depths of our spirits and flesh.  But what did you do with the ashes, the ashes of the mother of one of your many houseless people?  You took them, 10 years ago—remember?  Where are they?  Did you handle them with respect?  Did you look to see that they were ashes or did you mistake it for cat litter?  Please, just tell us where they are, tell the son who held them–to remember and honor his mother–when there was so much he wanted to forget but couldn’t.  I’m sure you didn’t mean to separate those ashes from the son, those ashes that, along with memory, were the only things that he possessed.  We all make mistakes, right?  What truck came by and took them?  What officer stood witness?  Did you scatter those ashes?  Did you take them to a secluded area and offer, at the very least, some peace?  We’re they released to the wind, carried to a place where a mother can find rest, where her spirit can be free?  Did you look at the ashes when you took them or did you assume it was trash?  Did you look upon the family who possessed those ashes as trash?  Did you take for granted that all they had was trash?  Pictures, tents, keepsakes,  bibles, scraps of paper, needles, candles, prayers—all those things that bring joy and pain that we hold on to because the world is getting colder and it doesn’t matter if you have your mother’s ashes—its trash and it’s getting dumped just like a senior’s metal walker.  Perhaps the intent is to turn all to ash—the memory of the city and its people.  The Filipino-American writer Bienvenido Santos wrote that to not have memories is to die. Perhaps the point is to strip every ounce of dignity from a person who happens to be houseless, poor, disabled—mentally and/or physically.  Somehow it seems that SF takes a perverse joy in stripping away the dignity of people.  And, in its aloofness and false sophistication lives on the notion that it is somehow enlightened.  But where are the ashes?  What did you do with them?  We trust those you have deemed worthy of looking out for our well-being.  They would never betray that.  You wouldn’t take the ashes of a deceased person and discard it was if it were trash, San Francisco.  Would you?

© 2019 Tony Robles

Oscar, Me and Aiiieeeee!

Recently I was asked to read poetry at a Filipino American History commemoration at the public library in the Bay Area town of Hercules.  Also invited to speak was poet, historian, educator and friend, Oscar Penaranda. I have known Oscar for many years and have much respect for him as a writer of great depth and humor.  He has been a positive influence on my life.  He was a close friend of my uncle, the late poet Al Robles of Manilatown and the I-Hotel and, after my uncle’s passing, honored him by starting an exchange trip called “The Al Robles Express”. The mission of the Al Robles Express was to bring Filipino Americans who had never been to the Philippines to the motherland, to connect with their cultural roots.  Al Robles had never travelled to the Philippines but his work was centered on the cultural identity of Filipinos and, prior to his unexpected death in 2009, a trip was planned for him to visit the motherland for the first time. It was through the Al Robles Express that I was to make my first journey to the Philippines in 2015, a trip that was life changing and continues to influence and shape my life as a poet.  Oscar, it can be said, is a man of specificity and details.  But in details, I do not refer to superfluous accounting of the minutia that spreads as freely as volcanic ash but in the details that provide a glimpse in to the connections of why one—or a community, specifically ours—behaves as it does.


Never one to be sucked in by the superficial, Oscar always delves below the surface.  In this sense, he is an explorer, donning his goggles of historian, teacher and poet to mine into the past and to present the evidence, the story, the patterns and, eventually, the glimpse into the future and its possibilities.  He presents us in our dignity, insisting that we do not speak or communicate in dialects but languages.  He has delved into our deep structure as Filipinos, exposing—for example–how our concept of Utang Na Loob—debt of gratitude–has been bastardized or corrupted to fit the colonizer’s concepts and capitalist notions whereby our relations to each other become predatory, or, at the very least, self-serving—using guilt to minimize or betray our true cultural selves in an indigenous sense. 


I had not known, early on, that Oscar was contributing author to Aiieeeee! Nor I had known the extent of his history at SF State College in the fight for ethnic studies.  I had read Oscar’s books, “Full Deck: Jokers Playing” and “Seasons by the Bay”, poetry and short story collections. I’d come across Aiieeeee! In a Goodwill store back in the late 90’s.  It was in immaculate condition.  I think I bought it for a dollar.  Upon glancing over the pages, I came across Oscar’s name and his story, “Dark Fiesta”.  I also came across other names: Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, Toshio Mori, Wakako Yamauchi and others.  I wasn’t familiar with any of them.  I put the book on a shelf and there it sat.  It moved from shelf to box, surviving multiple moves, relationships and changes of jobs.  I took another glimpse of it at one point and noticed that a thick layer of dust had formed on the cover.  I wiped it and dropped it back into the box, where it would remain.


Aiieeeee! When I first saw the title, I thought, what the fuck is an Aiieeeee?  I formed the word in my throat.  I thought it was perhaps a sound associated with constipation.  How many times had I entered a public restroom and heard some poor soul straining on the pot, crying out for relief from his maker to put him out of his state of misery—temporary but seeming like a lifetime?    I was later to learn that it was the sound was a cry, a grito, that was heard in martial arts movies.  The implication was that this, somehow, was the only voice that Asians had and that there were more sounds, more voices that begged—no, demanded—to be heard.  The faces of the authors in Aiieeeee! looked like the guys in my neighborhood, that is, a group of ghetto ass Chinese and Japanese guys who referred to each other as “blood” and could throw down and fight in the street.  I saw these guys in the playground, playing ball, smoking and doing whatever.  I had no idea what their history was, had no idea what they learned in Chinese School (If they went to Chinese school at all).  All I knew was that they sold my father bricks of fire crackers and that several went off in my hand.  The result was the feeling that someone had taken a gun and shot off 3 of my fingers—one by one.


But I saw guys like that when I looked at the faces of Inada, Chin, Wong and Chan.  One day I went to the playground to play basketball.  One of the Aiieeeee look-alikes happened to be the recreation monitor, responsible for dispersing basketballs, kickballs, tetherballs etc.  He was also a default babysitter, dealing with the requisite idiocy that comes with dealing with pre-teenaged boys.  Somehow, during my basketball game, the monitor and I exchanged words.  And somehow, one of the words that made its way out of my mouth was: chink.  What made me say it, I don’t remember, but it was directed towards the monitor, who was probably in his mid-twenties.  In response, he grabbed ahold of my trapezius (Not very well developed) muscle and squeezed, reminiscent of Mr. Spock on Star Trek.  However, unlike Spock’s vice grip, the monitor’s grip did not send me off into the world of the unconscious but did, however, cause much pain. 


I left, red-faced and teary eyed.  I went home and told my dad.  My 2 uncles were there.  I told them my account of events.  They left.  My heart grew a sort of shield of courage.  I had dispatched the commandos to whip that Chinese dude’s ass.  My dad and uncles would surely shove that basketball, tetherball—the whole sporting good shop—up his ass.  30 minutes or so went by.  My father and uncles returned.  My father approached me.  “Did you call that guy a chink?” he asked.  My tongue refused to move.  I looked at the floor.  “What you lookin’ at the floor for?” he asked.  “Answer me!”

“Yes” I said, softly.

“That Chinese dude was right to whip your ass”, my uncle said.

My dad pulled me by the earlobe and took me into the other room.  As I recall, he took off his belt and caused me to make much noise.  If memory serves me correctly (as well as my neighbors’ accounts of the audible histrionics), the sounds I made sounded like this:  Aiieeeee!   Aiieeeee!  Aiieeeee!  Each lash of my father’s thick belt sounded like blows I’d heard in Kung Fu movies—specifically Enter the Dragon and Kung Fu Mama.  The only thing missing was a pair of Kung Fu slippers.  Afterwards I cried myself to sleep, my Goodwill copy of Aiieeeee! and its thick dusty cover decades away.


Oscar Penaranda had recently contacted me, via the miracle of social media, and asked me if I had a copy of Aiieeeee!  He said that he’d been looking for a copy everywhere but couldn’t find one.  I told him I’d had a copy but it was covered in dust and that, if it was anywhere, it was in my storage unit in Alameda.  Another poet, with whom I recently travelled to the Philippines as part of the “Al Robles Express” journey had said that the criticism that white critics levied upon Filipino American literature was that it was, it seemed, inchoate.  The poet mispronounced “inchoate”, using a hard “ch”, as when you pronounce the word lechon.  Oscar corrected the poet with the correct pronunciation with an affected tone of, what we all recognized as intellectual bullshit.  But the point was that, somehow, the literature that our community or communities produced was not fully developed or in its infancy.  But our pain, our trials, our heartbreak, sorrows and joys were fully developed.  So, the consensus in that moment was that those who described our literature as “inchoate” were full of shit.  This was surely the sentiments of those who conceived Aiieeeee in the first play. 


At the library in Hercules, Oscar and I were in fine form.  Oscar read poems and clarified that our people speak languages, not dialects.  He spoke on the Philippine-American war, a history that many Americans (and Filipinos) know nothing or very little about.


At the program’s conclusion, I browsed the library and came upon a small shop that sold books.  As my eyes scanned the mystery and romance sections, they fell upon a book with a black, white and yellow cover.  I pulled it from the shelf.  It was a copy of Aiieeeee! in near mint condition.  I flipped the pages and came upon “Dark Fiesta”, Oscar’s story.  I bought the book and gave it to him.  I am going to ask him to loan me the book so I can finally read his and other stories that I have neglected to read.  I can say that I have, in other collections, read “The Woman who makes Swell Doughnuts” by Toshio Mori, perhaps the most beautiful short story I have ever read.  And Sam Tagatac’s “The New Anak”, a merging of poetry and filmmaking, made me wonder if I was reading a poem, a movie or both.  And Lawson Fusao Inada’s essay “The Real Inada”, written about his uncle, from his collection “Drawing the Line” inspired me to write “The Real Anthony” an essay about my own uncle and namesake.  And of course, Wakako Yamauchi’s gentle yet powerful probe into the soul of the dreams of the lonely and lost.


If and when Oscar decides to let me borrow his copy of Aiieeeee! I will make sure that no dust collects on the cover or pages.  The stories within it might be old but they are reborn when encountered by new eyes.


© 2019 Tony Robles