Manila Faces

Every face carries
A thousand
Stories

Feet that climb
The stairs, a
Thousand stories
Into the sky

Your face brings
Down the skies
And strips naked
The stars

In your face
You hold a
Thousand stories

In your eyes
You carry a
Thousand mountains

One drop from
Your eyes fills
Manila bay

Your mere gestures
Break the chains
Of silence

The slight tilt
Of your head
Turns a question
Mark into a musical
Note

Your face is a
Map of a thousand
Maps

Your face is a
Cracked porcelain
Pothole city of
Corrected caricatures
The remnants of
Canons

Your face holds
Sunken eyes that
Look into the deepness
Not seen with the
Naked eye

Your face

A clutter
Of gestures
Floating

In a glitter
Of traffic
Smoke

(C) Tony Robles 2017

Ampalaya

Nothing grows in
This room but
Debts
Swallows of beer
And stretches of
Time bending both ways

Stretched out
Waiting for the
Darkness to cover
Makati

And the elevator
Defies gravity

Sometimes
Failing

And we climb
The walls with our
Eyes as houseflies
Scale impossibilities

And she came
And spoke about
The ampalaya that
Her Lola grows

And things started
Growing in the
Room

And her tongue
Tells ampalaya
Stories

Her ampalaya
Eyes turn the
Soil over in my
Mind

And the fresh
Sweet ampalaya
Grows, its perfume
Leaving traces on
My skin

She speaks of
Slicing the backs of
Fish and filling them
With mountain vegetables

She says she
Doesn’t like her
Ampalaya nose

She says it’s
Ugly

But everything in
This room grows
Since she arrived

In this
Short

Season

(C) 2017 Tony Robles

My People

My people are
Great mimics

Just the other
Night I saw them
Swallow up the
Night, becoming
The night, wearing
The stars in their skin

A pinoy waling into
A microphone taking
The shape of a Philadelphia
Singer, chords plucked from
The Philly streets until the
Club became Philadelphia
And Then Pinoydelphia
And every color bird became
That other place where feathers
Were preened and glasses sat
Stoically in their ice

My people tap dance
On water and become
Water, moving, even
While still, at every pace,
Becoming the pace, the
Hop skip and jump

My people can
Pop wheelies on
A unicycle while
Popping popcorn
And the pimples on
Their faces

My people are
Great mimics, taking
The shape of an hour
Glass and turning it into
24 hours

My people are great
Mimics with their share
Of gimmicks, becoming
Ideas that do not sit
Still, cutting loose like fire

My people are
Great mimics

They become the
Tires on the road,
The nightsticks, the
Cars whose lips
Point towards you and
Away from you

They mimic the
Clouds, the lava
And the lizard

They mimic mirrors
That deflect any
Memory of mimicry

They take the shape
Of the wind as it
Collects in their
Palms

My people are
Great mimics

They mimic the
Flute with cavernous
Throats that pop off popcorn
Melodies, coughing up
Peanut shells and candy
Wrappers

My people are
Great mimics

But they do
Not mimic
Pain

Pain mimics
Them

(C) 2017 Tony Robles

Manila Walk

Walking the
Fault of your
Back

Tempting the
Turbulence of
Your spine as I
Tiptoe the taut
Tightrope that is you

Your wide canal
Spaces, a suppression
Of smiles

Your steady
Simmering stoicism
A procession of
Porcelain disarray

Maintaining the flow
Of marrow that
Navigates the stars

Walking in
Manila

Bumping into
Ghosts, bumping
Into bumper to
Bumper iterations
Of the self

Touching nothing
But warm air
Held hostage

And released

In the slow
Crawl

Brushing against
Time

(C) 2017 Tony Robles

Customs

What are
your customs?

How do your people
celebrate
mourn
sing
dance
worship
teach?

what do they
observe when the
sleep has collected
like cobwebs in
their eyes

it was a custom in
my family to knock on
the door of a friend or
relative with your
elbows when visiting

how do you
knock with your
elbows?

My father explained
that one knocks with
their elbows because
their arms are carrying
food

that’s about as
Filipino as he
got

and i walk
through customs
coming back from
Manila

what do i
bring back?

what do i
leave behind?

i make it through
customs

welcome back
home, the customs
agent says, to my
surprise

i proceed out of
the airport with my
pockets stuffed with
fish heads and Filipino
feelings

my feet head
towards Frisco

My eyes look for
a door to knock
on

with my
elbows

(c) 2017 Tony Robles

Lost and Found

Losing grace is
Like losing your
Teeth

You can’t smile
Your food doesn’t
Taste right

It’s like stepping
In dog shit while
Eating an ice cream
Cone on a Sunday
Afternoon

Losing your grace
Is like losing your
House keys or your
Balance on the reunion
Dance floor

If politics makes you
Lose your grace, give
Up politics

If jealousy makes you
Lose your grace, let
That jealousy go…go…go

If the ball game makes
You lose your grace, kiss
The ballgame goodbye

If religion makes you lose
Your grace, give up
Religion

If your maleness makes
You lose your grace, give
Up maleness

If feminism makes you
Lose your grace, show
It the door

If country music or
Opera makes you lose
Your grace, change the
Station

If magazines make you
Lose your grace, cancel
Your subscription

If hip hop makes you
Lose your grace, give
Up hip hop

If ketchup makes you
Lose your grace, switch
To mustard

If baldness makes you
Lose your grace, grow
Some hair

If your eyes make you
Lose your grace, keep
Them open

And don’t stop
Looking.

(C) 2017 Tony Robles.

A Different Kind of Cold up in here

That’s what the

Older black man said

As we sat together

 

Everything was

Cold, even our

Dreams

 

Another black man

Stood and snored

Sleeping while on his

Feet, walking a tight wire

Of a dream

 

There were others

Who snored and moaned

Waiting on a cold bench

 

It’s a different kind

Of cold up in

Here

 

An old white

Man moaned with

A bad hip

 

The cops beat me,

A 64 year old man,

The man said

 

Were you drinking?
another man asked

 

“I don’t remember”

 

And everybody

Laughed

 

And we sat

In our orange

Uniforms

 

And the air in our

Lungs was cold

 

And there we were

Attempting to warm

Ourselves

 

Man, I just turned

31 years old, a guy

Said while holding a

Bag of chopped carrots

That came with the plastic

Lunch sack

 

Happy birthday, another

Guy answered, now, maybe

You can use those carrots to

Make yourself a carrot

Cake

 

And I looked at

The guy, dressed in

Head to toe orange

Looking like a six foot

Two inch carrot

 

And I sat

On that cold

Bench

 

2 flies

Buzzing over

My head

 

It’s a different

Kind of cold

 

Up in

Here

 

© 2017 Tony Robles

At the Movies

On Market Street there

Was a theater where you

Could see 4 or 5 movies

For a buck

 

They were the same

Movie you could catch in

The afternoons on the TV

During a program called

Dialing for dollars

 

And during intermission

There’d be a raffle

Of some kind

 

My father went to

That show when he

Was a kid

 

He’d say that with a

Quarter you could do

A lot of damage back

Then

 

You could see a movie,

Get a coke, popcorn,

Hot dogs, an ice cream

And juju fruits

 

I saw a few movies

With my father and I

Got popcorn, if I was

Lucky

 

He once told me,

Go get me some

Bomb bombs

 

I went to the counter

And asked for

Bomb bombs

 

The woman at the

Concession stand said,

We don’t have bomb

Bombs, we have “bon-

ons”)

 

I paid and brought

Them to my father

 

On the screen, the cowboys

Were shooting the Indians

As my father opened the

Bomb bombs

 

The woman said they were

Bon-bons, not bomb bombs

I said

 

My father looked at me

As the gunfire rang out

Across the movie screen

 

“I knew that” he said,

Gingerly placing a bon-bon

Into his awaiting mouth

 

We sat through the

Cowboy movie and the

Raffle and waited for

The war picture to begin

 

 

© 2017 Tony Robles

 

Water Protector

My old man had
This thing
About water

He’d put his
Nose near my
Armpit and inhale

Man, you need
To get your hygiene
Together, he’d say

Get some soap
And get your
Ass in the shower

And I’d get in the
Shower and 30 seconds
Or later there’d be a
Bang on the door

Don’t stay in there
All goddamn day,
My father would yell

All day? I’d ask

He explained it

1. wet yourself down
2. turn the water off
3. soap down
4. rinse (but not too long)
5. Get your ass out of the shower
6. Don’t take all goddamn day

It was his way, I suppose
Of protecting the water

And in the years since
I have heard the sound
Of leaking pipes

Escaped tears

Looking for
Ground

Looking to
Water the earth
That covers our
Bones

And the seeds
Hidden inside
Us

And these days
My father calls me
On the cell phone
And says:

Hey man, you heard
About those brothers
And sisters in North
Dakota?

The man’s trying to
Run a pipeline
Through native land

It’s a cold motherfucking
Shot, from water canons
And rubber bullets

But you got
To protect the
Water, son
He says

His words
Falling like
Feathers

From a
Bird

© 2016 Tony Robles

R & B 101

It was the same stupid argument all over again–Isaac and Ernie sitting down at their usual meeting place—Wong’s coffee shop drinking the usual blend.  Wong’s was an institution on Market Street near Powell, having been there 30 years.  The clientele were mostly senior citizens who came in for a cheap breakfast—eggs, bacon and coffee for 1.99.   Wong’s didn’t have fancy coffee—they only had three blends to choose from—weak, weaker and weakest.  Isaac and Ernie liked Wong’s, not for the coffee, but for the music.  The owner had placed speakers on the ceiling and played the local soul station.  It was there that Isaac and Ernie would get into their stupid argument.

“Man…the Isley Brothers sang Twist and Shout better than the Beatles.  There’s no comparison”, Isaac would say, taking a righteous sip of righteously weak coffee.

“Well” said Ernie, “I wouldn’t say the Beatles’ version was necessarily inferior to the Isley Brothers, only different…that’s all”.

“Man, quit bullshittin’.  You can’t compare the voice of John Lennon to the voice of Ronald Isley.  Just listen to both versions…John Lennon is copying the Isley Brothers version note for note.

Both men sipped their coffee.  Ernie ordered toast.

“Exuse me, you got any grape jelly?” Ernie asked.

“Yeah…I’ll bring it”, said Wong, wearing a white short order cook’s hat.

“Here you go…”

“Thanks”

They had given him strawberry jelly in those square plastic containers—they always gave him strawberry and he’d have to ask for grape…again.  He didn’t mind—it was just one of those things.

“You take it too seriously”, said Ernie, spreading on the jelly.  “I’m not even a Beatles fan…I’m just trying to be objective about it…that’s all.

The 2 talked as workers passed by–some stopping in for a donut or a bagel; some in suits and ties walking in, some carrying their dry cleaning sealed in cellophane.  They seemed tired and zombie -like—as though they didn’t want to go to whatever destination that lay ahead.  Isaac and Ernie loved the music that filled Wong’s but the folks that came in didn’t seem to hear it.  For Ernie and Isaac it brought back memories.

“Hey, remember…”
They often sat reminiscing about their group, about their dreams to one day sing and record albums—dreams that swirled and rose again and again.

“You know”, Isaac said, “We could have been a good group…we had harmonies and we had some cold lyrics, my man…”

They had started a group 20 years ago…maybe 25 years ago, they didn’t know exactly.  They called themselves “The African-American Express”.  Isaac and Ernie co-wrote a song called “Ghetto Oasis”.

 

I’ve been so

Many places

 

Run so

Many races

 

But there’s no

Place I’d rather be

 

Than at the

Ghetto Oasis

 

The group played small clubs in San Francisco.  They were ahead of their time, calling themselves African-American before it became fashionable.  The group was made up of relatives and old high school friends.  They based their sound on the group called the Dramatics.  Frankie would hit the high-notes the way Ron Banks did.  Ron Banks was to the Dramatics what Eddie Kendricks was to the Temptations.  They were hooked when they heard the Dramatics song, “In the Rain”.  Soon after they formed the “African-American Express”, they were contacted by lawyers for the American Express credit card company.  They were told to drop their name—that it sounded too similar to “American Express” credit cards.
“We ain’t trying to sell credit cards” Isaac protested, “We’re trying to make music”.

The name “African-American Express” was homage to Curtis Mayfield, who had penned the song “People Get Ready” with his group The Impressions.

“…The greatest song ever written…” Isaac would say.

Tragedy soon hit the group.  The lead singer suddenly died.  Billy Swan lay dead in an alley near Fillmore Street, shot in the back of the head—his body injected with car battery acid.  The killer was never found but it was said that Billy had huge gambling debts and was supposedly having an affair with the wife of a policeman.  The group was never the same—Billy was irreplaceable.

“He had a voice like David Ruffin”, said Frankie, swirling his coffee.

“Damn straight” replied Isaac, rubbing his eyes.

The two had been so involved in their usual conversation that they didn’t notice that the radio wasn’t turned on.

“Hey Wong…can you cut the radio on…my man?”

Wong was busy spreading cream cheese on a Bagel but he nodded, knowing what was needed.  The radio, it seemed, was magic.  Every time he turned it on, a special song seemed to be on the air—a song that would spur on another topic of conversation.

A man walked in, an elderly Chinese man.

“One coffee please”

Wong poured coffee into the small Styrofoam cup.

“There you go”, said Wong, taking a dollar from the man.

“I heard you might be closing soon”, said the man, pouring sugar into the cup.

“Maybe…” said Wong”.  “Developers want to buy this building and the building next door.  They want to build a shopping center…”

The man poured cream in his coffee and sat down.

Isaac and Ernie nodded at the man.

“Hey pops…how you doin’ this morning?”

The man waved and sat down at to his coffee.

“Hey Wong…can you hit the radio?” asked Isaac again.

“Oh…I’m sorry”, said Wong, reaching up and flipping the switch.

A voice came over the speakers…

“Good morning…it’s 10:00 straight up on R&B 101…San Francisco’s new R&B station with your boy Poppa Ganda…This is new music from “Too Sly Foo…on R&B 101”

“What the hell is this…?” asked Isaac.

“It’s Too Sly Foo”, said Frankie.

“Who?”

They drank their coffee but the music didn’t sound the same.
“Hey Wong, you got it on the wrong station…”

“I never change the station” Wong replied.  “I’ve had it on the same station for the last 10 years…”

“Where’s James Brown, The Temps, Otis Redding, Aretha…?  Where’s…?

Wong didn’t answer.  He was busy wiping the counter top.

Isaac and Frankie listened to “Too Sly Foo”.  It was a vocal group, the drums sounded mechanical and they sang in harmony.

 

Bump it up

Girl, grind

It hard

 

I’ll jump in

Your stuff

When i get

It up

 

“That’s the thing about today’s music”, said Isaac.  “Where are the lyrics…?”

“Come on now…”, said Frankie.  “When we was makin’music, we was saying shake that thang and all that.  What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that we had a little more class.  We didn’t get too nasty about it, you know.  There was artistry to it.  You know brother, we was all singing about fucking, but we didn’t come out and say it.  Nowadays they put it out there like a piece of meat on a platter.  Remember when the Sherilles sang, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”  They was talking about fucking too but they did it with clever writing.  These days they come right out and say…you wanna fuck?”

“Well, we’re living in a different day and age”, said Frankie, drinking last drop of coffee.

Another song came over the radio, followed by another one.

“You know something man” said Isaac, “All these songs sound the same.  They’re singing the same way”.

“What do you mean?” asked Frankie.

“What I mean is that their inflection, their passion sounds forced.  They’re singing about love and hurt and heartache but I can’t feel what they’re saying.

“Are you saying that all the singers sound the same…?  How can you make a judgement like that when we’ve only heard 2 or 3 songs?”

“Look man, I’ve heard music outside of Wong’s coffee shop.  I don’t live in a funeral parlor, I do get—“

“You’re bitter…you don’t think the folks today have talent but your angry because our group never did anything”.

“No, I’m not bitter”, said Isaac, snatching his coffee cup, rising for a refill.  He gave his cup to Wong who filled it with hot coffee.

A voice came through the speakers.

“It’s the new R&B 101…R&B for San Francisco.  It’s our first day on the air and we’d like to show our new listeners our appreciation by—“

“They think they can buy us…that’s the problem”, said Isaac, pouring sugar into his coffee.

“Hey Wong”, said Issac, “What do you think of the new groups today…the rhythm and blues groups?  Do you think they sound the same?”

Wong leaned over due to his being deaf in one ear.

“I don’t listen too much”, said Wong.  “But I like Johnny Cash”

“Johnny Cash?”

“Yeah…that song about the prison was good”.

Isaac walked back to the table.

“Man…Wong is into that hillbilly music”

The traffic on the street was crowded.  The electric busses and trolley cars passed by as bike messengers weaved in an out of traffic like eels.  The sound of jackhammers pounding the ground could be heard, men with hardhats directed and diverted traffic as huge cranes rose in the background like big erect metallic penises.

“Man, the city is changing, said Ernie.  Remember when Market Street was classy.  Was a time when you dressed up when coming down here”.

“There’s so many homeless now”, said Isaac.

Most of the people were gone.  Isaac and Ernie remained drinking coffee.   The music didn’t stop.

“You know” Issac began, “All these groups sound the same.  Back in the day, you could tell a where a group was from.  Chicago groups had a certain sound, Detroit had a sound, Memphis had a sound.  Nowadays it sounds like they’ve all gone to the same singing school–like they’ve all attended R&B 101”

Ernie shook his head.

“I hear you brother”.

A voice came through the speaker once again.

“…It’s the new R&B 101…R&B for San Francisco”

Isaac shook his head and rose from his seat.

“Later on, Wong”

Isaac and Ernie walked down Market Street, disappearing into the Bart Station.  A week later they walked up Market, heading for Wong’s.  When they arrived, a sign greeted them.

 

Wong’s coffee shop out of Business.

Thanks you for many years support

 

“Aw man…what’ happened?” Isaac asked, looking through the glass.  The counters were torn from the ground and the walls appeared to have been bulldozed.

“Shit man, the place looks gutted” said Frankie, gazing at the building from top to bottom.

“Man, they ain’t too many places like Wong’s around no mo’…”

The two walked across the street, turned around and looked back at what once had been Wong’s coffee shop.

“Where we gonna go now?” Frankie asked.

“Hell if I know…” said Isaac.

The cranes in the city skyline appeared to have doubled since the day before.  Half-built high rises stood in the distance, dwarfing Wong’s, dwarfing everything and everybody on the street.

“Where we gonna listen to our music at?” Frankie asked, his eyes moist in the cold morning.

“I don’t know”, said Isaac.

They both walked up the street, heading somewhere else.

 

 

© 2005 Tony Robles

 

 

 

 

 

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