City Skin

Someone fell and
Skinned their

Some poor soul
Twisted their
Ankle while marching
In a protest

I’ve walked the
Streets, back and
Forth, forth and back

I’ve paced, stomped,
Slipped, slid and tripped
Over various streets with
Various names

I’ve even stubbed
My little toe

I’ve have mistaken
Manhole covers for
Aztec calendars

And the streets
Are a tapestry
An insistent stitching


Canals cut
Into palms

A spiritual
Gulf for alms

And lives

These sutured


© 2016 Tony Robles

The Choir in the Backseat

A voice can speak the silence of mountains.  A blending of voices can bring us closer to the unity of body and spirit, the physical and nature and person to person.  Nothing speaks like a down home voice in a down home home.  A down home voice speaks of down home things that touch the heart.  Such down home voices are instruments that stir the soul like a pot of all those good things left to simmer before finding a home in our bellies.  I recently heard the call of such voices in Lake Lure–a place located 20 or so miles from Asheville in North Carolina.  Coming from San Francisco, I am homesick for a down home home.  Down home homes are disappearing and in their place are condos that pierce the skies.  One by one, the down home places, the living rooms with the pictures of grandmas and the history of heirlooms, the worn down circular rugs, the stained calendars with scribbled notations of birthdays and doctor’s appointments–all of these things that make up a page in the recipe of life–are discarded and forgotten as if it had never existed.

In Lake Lure I drive with my mother, step dad and Uncle Paul to the down home home that awaits my eyes.  There is green all over.  Trees are as numerous as skyscrapers and the fragrance it leaves seems effortless.  One cannot duplicate the serenity, that is, a man made replica would lose the fragrance, lose the feel–the spontaneity of nature as it leads  the eyes through the dips and turns and stretches of trees and vines that untangle the mind for miles.  My father tells me that the constant sharp turns in the road are called “Switchbacks”–there are 32 of them and are daunting for my overly sensitive stomach.  We drive and the landscape fills my mind–the trees, the Kudzu vines that grow into the shapes of everything is touches.  Somehow the trees and landscape make for the down home feelings for is it not nature that gives birth to all that is down home, when all is exposed, unhidden and receptive to the light as it touches and illuminates from every angle?  As we drive towards that down home home, I look upwards.  A cumulus cloud is above us.  its shape is striking, resembling a canyon in the southwest.  A piece of cloud appears to have been lifted from the celestial mass, as if it were a puzzle piece removed from the whole from itself–separated from itself separated from home.  We move onward to the down home home.

We turn of the road not far from a solitary church framed by mountains.  The shoulder of the road dips low and we make our way onto a winding path into a driveway surrounded by the omnipresence of trees (and cars).  We make our way to the house.  The heat is settling into the skin.  We are met by a choir of voices–Esther and Kim–mother and daughter.  The door opens and I see Esther, a woman whose voice is music, a brass burnished with the patina of the land–its sound conducted by the tree branches moving effortlessly on either side of Lake Lure.  In her skin I see the darkness of the mountains, covered by lush green–exposed, revealing a landscape of flesh that covers bone in a landscape of love that is her home.  In her voice is the song of grandmothers, of hymns that are hummed and burnished in the trees and passed down in memory.  “My Grandfather built this house” she says as she offers you a seat.  The walls and roof are a honey colored wood.  The grain is beautiful, as if freshly cut and newly erected to create the walls and doorways.  Esther explained that grandfather was not a carpenter or professional builder, yet he obviously possessed a natural builder’s ability in his spirit that was made manifest in his hands.  He, it can be evinced, was an instrument of the spirit that allowed him to build such a place in homage to that very spirit.

On the walls are pictures of family–of Esther’s brothers-who served in the military–second world war, one of whom died as a result of a motorcycle accident.  On the wall is a stately clock–a keeper of time whose hands reach back as well as forward as the honey colored walls of beautiful wood perspire the dew, the songs, the heart, the struggle and dignity that went into constructing this place and, in each moment, the memories of those that have lived here are no longer static but a moving spirit as if carried on the waters of Lake Lure.  I sit and my eyes fall to the floor where circular rugs adorn the wood.  I have seen such rugs in a down home home 2000 miles away–the rugs and the sounds of pots and voices whose singing rival the rivers.

My eyes rise and catch a glimpse of an oil lamp.  Somehow that lamp is illuminating all that I have seen and remembered about what a down home home is  I am brought back back to what Henry Miller wrote about the black folk in the south–that he, she–is the true manifestation of the landscape; their blood, minds, hearts are, in themselves, the landscape.  I feel this dignity in the walls and in the light that illuminates this house.

Esther’s daughter Kim is a lovely woman whose voice is beautiful, whose tone lifts and rises like clusters of birds.   She has a smooth face and a ready smile that must have been a joy among joys–a light among light.  But it is the voice that brings in the light, the music.  My mother and Kim talked about skin and hair care and Kim intimated that she uses Aztec Healing Clay for her skin.  She said that she added honey to it–making it more effective.  The ton of her voice held a lingering note as she formed the word honey.  Huuuuunnnnnyyyy she said, her voice drawing out the sweet moment of our visit.  I beheld the music of a down home voice and a down home home as Kim and my mother continued to talk.  Kim worked at a tax preparers office and a real estate appraiser’s business and is taking a break from the stresses of those endeavors.  She had attended bible college, which  prompted uncle Paul, a kind of devil’s advocate who delights in devouring all possibilities spiritual, to propose a proposition:  If I were in charge, there would be no suffering.  You would be able to eat whatever you want and not get sick”.  Kim listened politely before informing Paul, in her sweetest voice, “Back to reality, you’re not in charge…”

An engraved image of the last supper stands out, humbly, engraved in gold in a room adjoining the kitchen.  And I feel as if I am in communion in a first supper, last supper, and suppers to come.  And my stepfather, a man of details, notices everything–including an extension to the house–a laundry room built by a friend.  I imagine those hands that built it, building with the same spirit as Esther’s grandfather.  And other details are discussed, including blood sugar and my stepfather tells Esther she needs to check her levels.  And Esther clings to her ways of doing what she does with a loving stubbornness before excusing herself to check her blood sugar.

And this is a down home home as we get ready to leave for lunch at a nearby seafood restaurant.  We make our way to the car.  The warm air from Lake Lure rests heavy on my skin, relieving the stress of the city–some 2000 miles away–whose haunches bear down on

me.  I look at the bumper sticker affixed to Esther’s car, it reads:  My Travel Agent is Jesus Christ.  We load into uncle Paul’s car.  Esther and Kim sit in the back seat.  I lower the window.  Their voices sing out a song of this down home home, this down home place.  The car

moves, their voices fill the space, connecting all of us.  It moves us like the sound of a choir.

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

San Francisco Poet Laureates Statement of Support for North Beach Poet Diego De Leo, 81, who is fighting eviction from his home of more than 30 years


We, present and former poet laureates of San Francisco, fully support

the effort of North Beach poet Diego De Leo, his neighbors and community

advocates, in fighting an attempt by his landlord to remove him from his

home of more than 30 years by eviction via the Ellis Act.



Diego lives on Chestnut Street, his home for more than 3 decades.  He is

81 years old and a poet.  He came to the US in 1956 at the age of 17 and

describes his relationship with San Francisco as “Love at first sight”.

He married his late wife, Josephine, at Saints Peter and Paul Church and

helped build the community of North Beach, whose values of sharing,

preserving history and respecting elders are falling to the forces of

unbridled greed plaguing the city.



Diego’s landlord, Martin Coyne–owner of neighborhood bar, LaRocca’s

corner– is using the Ellis Act to evict Diego.  This is Coyne’s second

attempt to evict Diego–his first attempt was described as “fatally

defective” by lawyers representing Diego.  Coyne has enlisted notorious

Ellis eviction firm, Zacks, Freedman & Patterson in the upcoming trial

set for late August.



Of course, this is about greed.  Speculators and landlords abuse the

Ellis Act to evict tenants with the intention of “flipping”

buildings–selling quickly at a profit.  Seniors are preyed upon, some

end up homeless; others, such as North Beach tenant Elaine Turner, die

under the stress.



We condemn the eviction of Diego, a senior and treasure of the community

of North Beach.  He is a poet whose verses are a portent to what San

Francisco is becoming–a city devoid of memory and a spirit that is

eroding.  We, as poets, have a responsibility to speak the truth and to

denounce the unbridled greed and impunity with which landlords and

speculators are allowed to operate in our city.



We demand that Martin Coyne drop the Ellis Act eviction against Diego.

We demand that he not induce more stress upon an 81 year old man

whose health is dependent on a stable home.  Let Diego continue to

enrich his community with poems and the warmth of his spirit.






Lawrence Ferlinghetti, SF Poet Laureate Emeritus 1998-2000


Janice Mirikitani, SF Poet Laureate Emeritus 2001-2003


devorah major, SF Poet Laureate Emeritus 2003-2005


Jack Hirschman, SF Poet Laureate Emeritus 2006-2009


Diane di Prima, SF Poet Laureate Emeritus 2010-2012


Alejandro Murguia, current Poet Laureate of San Francisco 2013-Present


Leaving SF (For Candy)

A not so

On stand by
Standing by

The birds
Stripped of song
Pluck the sleep
From my eyes

Guitars float
Neckless across
The splintered
Face of the bay

My skin, taut and
built up with
Years of
Fog, mist and the
Unseen sediment
Of soil

Eye sores and
Faults plague my
Skin at a distance

Oh, San Francisco
An incantation of

Can’t leave
Can’t stay
Can’t remember
Can’t forget
Can’t deny
Can’t cry
Can’t love
Can’t hate

SF, a lump
Of feelings in
My throat

An inhale of


© 2016 Tony Robles

The City

It’s your heaven
It’s your hell
It’s your blue tears
Turned a shade of

It’s your birthright
Bath water
It’s your afterbirth

It’s your
Traveling circus
With rhinestones
Cut into the eyes

It’s your discretion
Or lack of

It’s 2 bridges
That don’t

It’s your
Passport without
A pass

It’s a dog run
Where everyone
Marks their territory

It’s recycled stories
And recycled lives
Sifted and resold in
Thrift stores and
Rest homes and
Single room hotels

It’s fog trapped
And stifled in

It’s imported jars of
Tails, eyes, noses,
Tongues and umbilical
Cords pickled, preserved
And pitted against itself

It’s a punch press
Postcard slipping
Inside oily microfiche

It’s the silent
Vendetta humming
In your pockets

Before they
Are picked

It’s the city

(C) 2016 Tony Robles

Finding your voice

I lost a set
Of keys a
While back

Keys to my
House, my
Job, my bike
Lock and keys
Whose holes
Are a mystery

The right key
Opens the right
Door and there
Are lots of doors
That you’ll walk
In to with the wrong

And sometimes you
Have the right key
And the right door

And the right sound
Hits you like a
Right cross and
That sound becomes
A part of you

And that key
Gets in your

Letting out
What you
Have to say

as only you
Can say it

In the right

(C) Tony Robles 2016

Painted Ladies

The ladies I see
Are not painted
But have been
Stripped of much


Somehow they
Keep going forward
Presenting themselves
In a harvest of hues
Despite the weather

And a lady
Carried the hurt
Down Mission Street
One Friday

Walking past the
Suitcases looking for
A place to unload what
Is left

Into her cellphone
She unloads:

Motherfucker, don’t
Give me that shit. I told
You not to mess with me

And her blackness
Was dyed another shade
And walking towards her
Was an older black woman
Pushing a grocery basket

And the younger woman
Continued into her
listen motherfucker…

And the older woman
Stopped, her head rising,
Her eyes following the
Younger woman

Excuse me sister,
She said

She walked over to
The younger woman
And gently took a hold
Of her arm

And words were

And soon the
Younger woman and
Older woman were laughing

And the younger woman
Waved her hand as if touched
By the spirit and said, “Lord
Have mercy, I know that’s right”

And they parted
With the words,
God bless you sister

And Mission Street
Kept going:

The street sweeper
Kept sweeping

The paletero kept
Selling his ice cream

The palm trees
Kept being what
They were

And the older
Black woman pushed
Her empty grocery basket


© 2016 Tony Robles.

Smiling Faces

There are people
In this city that
Haven’t smiled
In years

Faces with scars
That betray hearts
Carved into the bark
Of trees

Faces that carry
The legacies of
Languages alien
To the blood

Faces turned
Inward looking for
The illusive sanctum
Of smile

The black suppressed
Laughter of bones
Kindling the memory
Of spirits

The sphinx
Is a fallen crown
A frown

Smiles stored
In jars
Preserved by
Who knows what

There are people
In this city that
Haven’t smiled in

How many

Can you

In a smile?

© Tony Robles 2016


It was code
Before the
Coders blew in

And caught a code
And sneezed over
The city
Strands of
Digital tinsel

So shiny
So bright

It was code
That cannot
Be decoded

Nor can it be
Removed by any
Number of anorexic
Keys meant to pick
The locks of our homes

It was the code
That were our mother’s
Recipes that were too
Precious for paper

Or digital fingers

Code that can’t
Be bought, sold or

No matter how
Much snow is
Planted on our

Or crucifixions
By landlords decreed
By greed

It’s our


(C) 2016 Tony Robles

Fillmore Born, Still Here

Saw this cat named Terry on the bus the other day.  Some guys are like a breath of fresh air.  Not Terry.  He’s a breath of cologne.  I don’t wear cologne but there’s something about Terry’s cologne.  It’s a subtle scent that doesn’t overpower you.  You just know it’s there.  He wears these velvet jogging suits that are smooth and loose.  That’s Terry, smooth and loose.  We ran into each other on the #5 Fulton heading downtown.  Riding the #5 can be depressing.  All those faces, that twisted mass of tech-washed gentrification that has overrun the city of my birth.  I can barely stand it, that sense of entitlement of the techies, the coffee sippers—those financial sector technocrats whose presence radiates so much death of sprit. I try not to look but they’re all over the place so I close my eyes.


He got on board on Fillmore Street.  The door opened and that cologne hit me.  I looked up. “Hey Anthony” a voice called out.  I was drawn in by his gaze.  His eyes are somewhat unfocused yet radiate a smile contrived only of an honesty of the moment.  “What’s happening, Terry?” I said.  Terry moves a bit unsteadily, having been in a car accident years ago.  Sometimes when talking, his attention drops off.  Perhaps it is the area of lost consciousness that lands like a cloud, those precious moments when he slips into the subconscious street of his mind, where words and songs echo to the surface.  Terry—Fillmore-born, still here.  We got off downtown. We walked a couple blocks to Market Street.  I remembered the way he walked from when I first met him.  I was a vocational rehabilitation counselor for an employment training program run by a local non-profit organization.  Most of the participants in the program had developmental disabilities.  The training facility was an assembly center where the workers sorted, counted, weighed and packed mosaic tiles for shipping to retail outlets.  My job was to supervise the workers, which is always uncomfortable because I see myself as a worker and not a supervisor.


I hit it off with Terry.  We’d laugh and he’d sit and count those tiles like they were poker chips.  But he would sometimes lose count and have to start over again.  His eyes would drift to the women in the program.  He liked talking to the girls, always complimenting them on what they were wearing.  I’d say, “Hey Terry, you can’t do that.  Ain’t you ever heard of sexual harassment?”  Terry’s gaze would drift away for a few seconds.  “You’re a motherfuckin’ killjoy” he’d answer, smiling.  “You’re right about that” I’d answer.


We walked to Market Street. Terry has moved on to a profession better suited to his passion.  He sells mix CD’s.  Five bucks a pop.  He pulls out a small binder filled with CD’s in transparent sleeves.  He asks me what I like.  I ask him what he has.  Fast jams or slow jams, whatever you want, he tells me.  I tell him to set me up with slow jams.  He pulled a CD out of its sleeve.  He had a playlist to go with it, not digitized and impersonal but handwritten on good, old-fashioned lined paper:


              “Ole School Mixed Slow Ballads”

  1. Sho’ Nuff must be love—Heatwave
  2. Do Me Baby—Prince
  3. I’ll be there—Jackson 5
  4. Hanging Downtown—Cameo
  5. Got to Be there—Jackson 5
  6. Do Me—Rick James
  7. Never Can Say Goodbye—Jackson 5
  8. Between the Sheets—Isley Brothers
  9. What’s your sign—Danny Pearson
  10. Natural High—Bloodstone
  11. Oh Honey—Delegation
  12. Be My girl—Dramatics
  13. What’s come over me—Blue Magic
  14. Sparkle (in your eye)—Cameo
  15. Fell for you—Dramatics
  16. Didn’t I blow your mind this time—Delfonics


We parted ways.  I had my mix CD.  It sat in my bag a couple of days.  Terry called me and asked me what I thought of the CD and I told him that I hadn’t listened yet but would soon.  He called again and again I told him I’d listen as soon as I could.  I finally found a perfect time to listen—at work.  I popped in that CD and let it play. Now, I don’t know how it happened but I got mellow and loose and hell if I didn’t look at myself and see that I was wearing a velvet jogging suit.  And that smell, is it cologne?  Damn, Terry got me again.  How am I going to get any work done today?


Hey Terry, thanks for the music, thanks for being here.  I never knew a jogging suit could fit so well.  Thanks.




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