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

 

 

 

 

 

Wash (for the folks that went to George Washington High School)

Wash (for the folks that went to George Washington High School)

Did you go to
Wash?

What year did
you graduate?

I remember homeroom
like an heirloom

I can’t wash
it out

Mr. Chandler told
me not to bend books
back to the spine because
“books have feelings”

I can’t wash the
memory of the fine
sisters in the halls who
were more woman than
girl while i was more boy
than man

and that Chinese girl,
was her name Linda?
She was fine and her
mere presence brushed
across my skin like a sultry
fog that slid
then left

i can’t wash the murals
off the walls of my mind
that showed George Washington
and ex presidents as heroes until
we got out in the world and learned
otherwise

i can’t wash
wash out of my skin

and how the black
settled in my brown skin
to create something that
could never be washed out

i went to Wash
and you went to Wash
and i remember a young
Chinese cat who kicked
a tree branch

turned 360 degrees in
the air like a kung fu movie
and made the air pop

that won’t Wash
from my mind

and i remember taking
the bus, for a nickel
and seeing kids from Fillmore
on the 38 Geary

Kids that didn’t
remember me from
grade school, sitting
Alone in the bleachers
Contemplating splinters
That were to become poems

but i can’t
wash them from
my memory

can’t wash their
voices from my
mind

can’t forget the way
they were when
they were young

and went
to Wash

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

Carabao Necklace

I’d never seen

A mound of

Carabao shit

 

I’d never

Had a carabao

Nickel

 

My eyes had

Never been

Crusted by

Carabao sleep

 

But the carabaos

And their spirits

Trudge along

6th Street

 

The smells of

Filipino lives rising

Like fog from breath

Commiserating in

Pots of rice

 

I bought a

Carabao necklace

That fit nicely around

The stump of my neck

 

And I sat as its horn

Shape hung at a curved

Angle

 

And appeared out of

The mist and fog,

Seemingly from the

Pages of a fashion

Magazine

 

She looked

At my carabao

Necklace

 

That’s cheap,

She said

 

You can get

That anywhere

In the Philippines

 

And that carabao

Necklace got heavy,

Like a brick

 

I could barely

Move my neck

 

And I looked

At her necklace

 

I thought it was

A carabao horn but my

Eyes were playing

A trick

 

It was actually

A $500 shoe

 

(an expensive trick)

 

And through carabao

Crusted eyes I finally

See that mound of

Carabao shit that had

Eluded me

 

 

© 2017 Tony Robles

6th Street Skin

6th Street settles

On the skin

 

Years of built in

Built up

Torn down

Ruins renewing

Itself like a tire

Turning clockwise

With the seasons

 

And I lose my

Skin among

The stink of zen

 

Like an onion

Without

tears

 

On 6th street

In a car

 

The zen smell

Of detachment as

I look at my people

From inside the car

At a safe distance

 

The smell goes

Into the pores of

The poor

 

The smell of

Flowers

Urine

Incense sticks

 

(and fish sauce tossed

In for good measure)

 

And somehow

It isn’t

Right

 

The stink was

Too much

To bear

 

Get out of

My car! A voice

Says

 

Buddah’s breath

A vague

Hiss

 

And I get

Out

 

Leaving

The stink

Behind

 

On 6th

Street

 

Reclaiming

My skin

 

 

© 2017 Tony Robles

Once you get a taste

It happens when
you’re in the middle
of something

Like a meeting
or in line at the
bank or on the
toilet seat

Phone rings

You pick
it up

it’s a voice from
your past

a voice you
remember whose
timber was clear,
rising and falling
but mostly rising

Now the voice is
sluggish but still
manages to rise
to the occasion

It’s your uncle
or dad

And he says,
you know, i got
me a taste for
a cheese steak or
Fried oysters

They’d be real
good about
now

yeah, you say.
What’s that got to
do with me?

Don’t be chickenshit,
the voice answers

And you look at the
cellphone, you want
to flush it in the toilet or
stuff it into the ass of
an elephant

Then you think of the
cancer that he beat and
how the treatment deadened
the taste buds

and the voice says, I know,
you’re busy. It’s ok, don’t
worry about it, I don’t need
it

And you tell your uncle
or dad that you’ll pick up
those oysters or that
cheese steak

Just sit tight, you say

and there’s a pause
that lasts almost a
lifetime

and the voice cuts
through, rising

it says:

you know,
i just got a taste
for

…life

(c) 2017 Tony Robles

Thank You

Thank you to the black
men who taught me how
to laugh

Thank you to the black
women whose voices and
songs weave thru thick
weeds, leading me home

Thank you to those who
weave quilts to uncover
the truth

Thank you to
the ravens who
are always close by

Thank you to the
elders with one good
ear, one good eye, one
good hand because those
things are useful

Thank you to the
guy that said, hey
why don’t you leave
that kid alone?

Thank you to the
one who writes that
song in their mind
every day, too busy
to put it to paper

Thank you to the one
who signed their name
on the line that was
drawn and didn’t back
down

Thank you to the
mothers who had
to be fathers

Thank you to those
that took a shot
and missed

Thank you
to those whose eyes
never suffered a
drought

Thank you to
the poets whose
poems are stored
somewhere

Thank you to those
who sit in meditation
for they are in mediation
with the universe

Thank you for
those who keep
account

and those that
forgive

Thank you for
the grease stained
kettle on the stove that
screams when our lungs
can’t

Thank you to
those that didn’t
mistake kindness
for weakness

Thank you for
reading this
poem

Thank you for
adding to
it

PS: Thank you to my mother for
continuing to show me what
grace is

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

Eye to eye

Eye to Eye

Someone had short shrifted the Sheriff’s Deputy upon his baptism in the brass waters that rang in his ears as he inserted pinky and shook in an attempt to quell the echoes and reminders of his lack of vertical prowess.   He was a Filipino guy, from at least where I was sitting.  I estimated he stood, maybe, 5 feet 1 ½ inches.  The gun at his side seemed almost too big for him, as it sat deliberate in its holster—security and power in a pocket absent of any obstructions whatsoever– including lint.  And I was Filipino, the difference being that he had a gun, badge, a bull’s neck and 5 to 7 inches less height than I.  Maybe he was born in the Philippines, maybe not.  Didn’t make no difference, really, he wasn’t going to let my brown ass out of the holding tank or cell regardless of my ethnicity, no matter what race I checked off in the box when I filled out a job application, an application for an apartment, food stamps or customer service surveys.  My race, or if I ate rice—didn’t make a damn bit of difference.  I looked at him through the bars.  I wondered where he was born, if he spoke Filipino.  I wondered why he’d want to work in a jail.  He looked more like a short (no pun intended) order cook than a deputy.  I pictured him in a white hat and apron soaked in blood from offal holding his affections, loyalties and conscience.  Had he gone that route we would perhaps eat better in here—certainly he’d be able, with his thick brown hands—to conjure up some magic dishes rather than the heaping portions of lukewarm potatoes and culinary surprises that resembled mounds of horseshit freshly plopped on our trays and glowing in the blandness of florescent lights.  I was intrigued.  I knew there would be no solidarity of any kind between us, not even an extra cornbread square at chow. Another guy in the holding cell took notice of him too; a thin white guy with limp brown hair that stuck up like a chicken at the crown of his head.

“That little motherfucker messed up my shit.  He had my paperwork and now he’s fuckin’ around.”

The white guy paced back and forth.  Someone asked     him if he was going to eat his peanut butter sandwich.  He tore the sandwich in two, passed it, licked the thick peanut butter from his fingers.

“Goddamn stupid ass!” the white guy called out, hitting the door with his palm.  The others had been talking about everything from women, successful robberies, divorces, the quality of jail cuisine and the technicalities of certain court cases.

“Don’t worry” an older black man told a young brother who’d been given 3 years.

“Youngsta… you already served 700 days.  It’s in the bank.  You ain’t gonna do no three years… trust me.”

The white guy got louder, yelling to the deputies.  The cell got quiet.  Suddenly the door opened.

“Get over here” a voice called out.

The white guy with the stringy hair approached the door where he was met by the short Filipino deputy and a taller Latino one who  resembled a substitute PE teacher i had in high school.  The short brown deputy, in one swift move—one that would be the envy of Hollywood choreographers—cuffed the white guy and forced his head down.  The force caused the white guy’s knees to give.  He was led to an adjacent holding cell, walking in a semi erect position reminiscent of Cro-Magnon man or some other evolutionary distant cousin.   He could fit perfectly in one of those evolution charts showing man and his ancestors, falling somewhere between ape and caveman—a perfect model for such an image should he decide to give up robbing construction sites and pursue a caveman modeling career in the natural sciences—a more legitimate enterprise.   A tall African American guy in the tank, impressed with the Filipino deputy’s ability to manipulate and negotiate the white guy’s physical position to a lower one remarked:  I guess they seein’ eye to eye now

A chorus of laughter rang throughout the cell.  Five minutes later the white guy was lead back to the holding cell.  He walked to the rear of the cell and sat, with pants on, on the steel toilet mounted on the wall.

“Motherfuckers” he said, shaking his head, laughing.  He grabbed the rest of his peanut butter sandwich and finished it.

 

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

Black Eye

I was looking
For a shiner,
Something the
Shape of the moon
That you’d slap a
Steak on

And he kept
Saying that
He had a black
Eye, an eye
For black

I looked into
His face, under
His eyes

Maybe it was
One of those
Invisible injuries

Still he insisted
He had a
Black eye

And he lay
On his bunk wearing
The standard orange
Suit

He looked up at the
Bunk above
Him

Someone had
Carved the
Words: Fuck the police
Into the metal

And I looked
At him, searching
For his black eye

And he
Spoke

I got
A black eye

I see the
Black in
Everything

I see black when
I sleep, when
I wake and when
I weep

I see black in
The food I eat
And in the words
Carved into my flesh

I see black
In the face of
The moon

I see black as it
Falls off the bones

A feral shadow
That was once
Mine

And I see his
Black eye in
That instant

As clear
As the
Moon

©2017 Tony Robles

Frisco Orange

Frisco orange is
squeezed from
a stone

Words squeezed
dripping
dropping

words from
our blood

homey
cuz
homeboy
homes
amigo
O.G.
old man

Frisco orange
is loose and
tight

sometimes fits
snug around our
minds and other
private parts

Frisco orange
is the sun hiding
in our fist

Frisco orange
is a hidden star
glowing under our
eye lids

Frisco orange
Is the sleep in our
Eyes , the pulp
Of misdirected sunlight

Frisco orange
is brown, black,
yellow, white

asking the
standard issue
question:

you know what
I’m sayin?’

Frisco orange is
the peel of our
skin over our
bones

The peel of
our minds

turning over
again and again
like the keys that
control the bars

open/slam
slam/open

It’s what’s
underneath

it’s what’s
inside

In the turn
Of a key

Squeezed from
a stone

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

Dueling Strings

Two strings
Two hearts
Two pairs of
Eyes

At the Bart station
Downtown
Dueling for
Position

A spot in the
Middle of heavy
Foot traffic, the
Prize

An older black
Man plays guitar,
Familiar hits from
Another ear
Another era

His guitar case
Lays, open mouthed
Like a crocodile with
A taxidermist’s sense
Of humor

Picking and strumming
His voice leaping the
Circumference of memory,
Beyond echoes, settling
Into the spot he occupies

A younger black man,
Early to mid 20’s sets
Up shop a few yards
Away

He takes out his violin,
Sits the case on the ground,
Moves bow across strings as
The trains below ground
Travel both ways

And in the clashing of
Strings, the older black
Man puts his guitar down
And walks over to the
Younger black man

I’m trying to play
Here, my man, said
The older man

So am I, said the
Younger man. I’m
Trying to make some
Money too

There’s a way to
Do things, said
The older man

And the two spoke
Amongst themselves
For a moment as the
Holiday foot traffic
Muffled what was said

The older black man
Walked back to his
Guitar and resumed
Playing

15 minutes later
He was gone

Then the violin
Was heard, in the
Spot where the guitar
Had been

And the violin
Hit the spot just
Has the guitar had

No curses
No ill will welling
Up in the ears
Of those willing
To hear

Just
Two strings
Two hearts
Two pairs of eyes

The sweetest
Music

Of
All

© 2016 Tony Robles

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