Thrift Store Writing Residence

I was listening to a radio news program reporting the country’s staggering number of positive Covid-19 cases.  The positive cases are on the rise with record numbers of infections; numbers that are shattered by higher numbers on a daily basis. With the holiday season approaching, the public is urged to avoid travel and gatherings—including Thanksgiving dinners—that assemblage of family and friends where political opinions are spilled like gravy on that uncle’s tie, rarely ending up in a food or fistfight where wisdom is spewed in double and triple helpings. The radio report included information on the numbers of positive Covid-19 cases among workers in a meat processing plant in South Dakota. The infection rate in the plant was so high that it became the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis in the state. The report indicated that the plant manager took bets on how many workers would test positive for Covid-19. Many workers have fallen ill, died. The family of a worker who lost his life has filed suit against the plant. I never gave much thought to meat processing plants outside of movies such as Rocky where the protagonist slugs away at sides of beef as part of his training regimen; not to mention the great heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who, in reality, worked in the slaughterhouses before achieving the ultimate in boxing laurels.  But there is a divide between where something comes from and how it is presented to the world—IE: marketed.  The great poet Jorge Argueta wrote of this disconnect in his children’s book, A movie in my pillow, in the way mangoes and chickens were different in the US as opposed to his native El Salvador.

                Here mangoes

                Come in cans

                In El Salvador

                They grew on trees

                Here chickens come

                In plastic bags

                Over there

                They slept beside me

President Trump signed an executive order months ago to keep the plants open during the crisis impacting thousands of what are now deemed essential workers on the frontlines with no options and no place to hide.

I live in North Carolina in an area known for apples and mountains. The poet Carl Sandburg called this part of North Carolina home in his later years. His home is a stone’s toss away from mine in Flat Rock. A committee entrusted to preserving his legacy selects an annual writer in residence at the Carl Sandburg Home Historic site. The home sits atop green green slopes and overlooks a serene body of water where visitors take meditative walks in what is known as Connemara, the place that Carl Sandburg produced poetry, along with the biography of Abraham Lincoln. During guided tours of the home, one is taken by the fact that the home has been maintained closely to the way Sandburg left it, inhabited by his library of books, desk, typewriter and household items–brick-a-brac–that would be considered treasures by those who scour thrift stores in search of such things. I applied for the residency and was selected. I was flattered. Next to being a saintly looking white-haired old man, Sandburg was a socialist who wrote about workers, the slaughterhouses, prostitution, unfulfilled dreams—centered in Chicago—the city that he described as the “City of the big shoulders.”  Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I did not live in the Sandburg Home farmhouse as is the norm for Sandburg Writers in Residence. I envisioned sleeping in the wood framed farmhouse with the aroma of coffee in the morning and the odor of goat shit wafting from the nearby goat farm that was lovingly started by Sandburg’s beloved wife Paula. My writing residence commenced remotely, minus the smell of goat droppings, morning coffee and native plants.  I conducted 3 writing workshops for the community and conducted myself as a community poet, involving myself in the life of the community as best I could during the pandemic.

Carl Sandburg is referred to as the poet of the people. In researching his life, I found his poetry to speak to the workers, the forgotten—those left out of the capitalist equation or at the bottom rung. I have, in the last few years, begun to refer to myself as The People’s Poet, but for different reasons than Carl Sandburg. I assert I am The People’s Poet because I write for and about people. This would be different had the focus of my poetry and writing been dogs or cats; then I would have assumed the title of the canine or feline poet.  Had my writing been focused on apes, I would be the primate poet; marsupials, the marsupial poet and so on. 

My month’s long writer’s residence at the Carl Sandburg home came to an end. Truth be told, I thought, for a brief moment that I was hot shit. However, my shit temperature dropped when I was stopped by a local cop for looking suspicious during an evening walk—that ambiguous description phoned in by a vigilant and concerned community member no doubt. I soon needed to get a real job. Writing is fine but I needed to invest in new underwear—among other things–as the elastic on my present pairs were sagging. I found employment at a thrift store, forgoing an opportunity to work at a supermarket deli. I didn’t want to smell like potato salad and fried chicken and instead opted to smell like musty old clothes, second hand knick-knacks and occasional treasures.  I became a cashier, something I’d always dreaded given my ineptitude with numbers. Thank the gods of modern day cashiering that the register calculates change. I assumed my duties with a smile concealed by facial covering. 

I observe that the clothes on racks appear to want to escape, slipping off hangers, slithering and falling to the floor. Some falls are not so graceful, such as a pair of pants—size 50 waist—that fall with a thud reminiscent of the legendary wrestler Haystacks Calhoun, who, donning overalls, landed on the mat, all 601 pounds of him, shaking not only the ring but our small black and white TV sets at home.  As I preside over my thrift store fiefdom, I see a woman.  I recognize here as one of the staff members of the Carl Sandburg home that selected me as Writer in Residence.  I somehow feel shame; shame that I am working as a thrift store cashier. I’m a writer, shouldn’t I be writing my stories behind a mahogany desk wearing a silk robe and snacking on bits of Melba toast?  The woman wore a facial covering but I recognized the auburn locks falling from her head flecked with silver as well as her green eyes. It was her minus the Park Service attire.

I need to hide, I think.  I can’t let her see me at the register.  I am a writer.  I could avoid her by ducking into the clothes rack, underneath the pants and jackets that would provide cover.  I slide underneath a cluster of jackets. 

“What do you want?” a voice asks.

It is a middle aged man with an ample middle.  He is playing some sort of game on his cell phone.

“What are you doing here?” I ask

“What do you think? The man replies, his voice muffled under a mask.  “I’m hiding from my wife.”

“Why?”
“You ever been married?”

“No”

“Get the hell outta here.”

I leave the man in the oasis of his used clothes bunker.

I look to my right towards the bedroom domestics section; lots of comforters, sheets and blankets; a good hiding place. I approach but there is a kindly white haired man reading the tag on a blanket.  He holds the tag close to his eyes, so close that if it was any closer he’d be able to inhale the small print through his nose. I’m tempted to bring him a used magnifying glass as he is taking forever. Move old man, I think. He finally walks away, leaving the blanket behind. He turns to me, winks and disappears into the household aisle. A dead ringer for Carl Sandburg, I think. 

I slide between 2 thick quilts.  I could lie low here for a while unnoticed.  It feels warm and fuzzy, like back in the womb.  Then I ask myself, how do I know what the womb feels like?  I breathe and smell the pungent stench of my breath beneath the mask.  I stand there for several minutes.  Suddenly I feel something moving towards me–a hand.  It gropes closer towards my crotch. I flinch. The quilts part and the florescent lights hit my eyes.  I see a pair of green eyes.

“Tony, is that you?” the voice says.

“Yes it is” I reply, a writer, an essential worker with nowhere to hide.

© 2020 Tony Robles

Lord of the Files

By Tony Robles

I was trying to write poems. I hardly knew what a poem was yet I was writing poetry, or what I thought poetry to be. But there were interruptions and not relegated to bathroom breaks. I was a file clerk at a university with a reputation for producing poets, artists, revolutionaries; as well as accountants, nurses, teachers, hotel and restaurant professionals and yes, file clerks. I ended up at this university because it was destined, the beaten path, a prescribed map of sorts. I was one of many who attended high school in San Francisco. The sequence was: 1. High school followed by 2. City College followed by 3. A transfer to San Francisco State. City College was a waystation, populated by students we knew from high school. We shared the halls and stairs and classrooms with each other but there was a change. There was a glint of importance in those waxed floors as we marched our way to class with a new found seriousness and striving absent from high school. Upon approaching ex-high school brethren in the hall, a polite nod was offered. Of course there were those who didn’t want to remember the high school experience at all and bypassed the nod altogether.

I landed a job as a file clerk while a student at San Francisco State University in the Foundation office. It was in a squat building covered by specks of rock. It was separated from the other departments and classrooms. It had large windows where one could see the glow of fluorescent lights. It looked like a place off-limits to students unless the students were delivering something; the kind of place where coffee oozed from non-disposable cups, paired with saucers lifted to waiting lips on faces attached to bodies sitting in chairs with colorful cushions.

The office needed a part time file clerk. Perfect for me as I was attending classes in the Broadcasting Department. How difficult could being a file clerk be? You had to know the alphabet and, having been indoctrinated in local schools, I knew my ABC’s. No less important was my steady diet of canned foods atd home, which included alphabet soup that would surely be of help in this important office endeavor. I surmised that this job would be easy–cushy as they say. I arrived on my first day. The file room was in the rear of an office staffed with accountants. The file room was in the path of the bathroom. My work area would be a waystation enroute to performing intimate body functions. But the job at hand, filing in alphabetical order–how hard could it be?

I was a fairly decent speller. I would have never competed in a spelling bee but I knew the difference between their, they’re and there. For some reason I had trouble with the word restaurant, spelling it restauraunt. However, I did know the difference between desert and dessert. I recall my stepfather, a learned man issuing me a challenge when I was in Jr. High School. He had attended a private college and kept all of his papers. Those papers tended to have a large “A” affixed to the top. In flipping through his old test papers, we came upon one that had a D+ printed at the top. An aberration, he said. You can’t be perfect all the time. “Do you know your alphabet?” he asked me while sipping warm jello from a cup (A favorite treat of his as he was too impatient to wait for the jello to solidify in the fridge). Do I know the alphabet?  

What kind of silly assed question was that? (Of course I couldn’t say that out loud but you get the point). “Yeah, i know my alphabet.” I answered, “Just like I know the nose on my face.” “Ok, if you know your alphabet” he said, “What’s the 14th letter?” “The 14th letter of what?” I asked.  

“Do I have to repeat it?”

“Uh”

“Uh is not the answer.”

I began counting on my fingers

“Don’t cheat”

I counted internally. My stepfather then did something that will live in the annals of my limited memory. He began reciting the alphabet–backwards. His recitation was so fast that it sounded like a record played backwards at the wrong speed. I couldn’t believe it. It was part babble, part speaking in tongues that i, on occasion, heard on Sundays at the Church of Christ. It sounded something like this: Z–Y….blobbablabbledaddble zeegrofromolgulattoppa blebblio lakaphocomma B-A! I was amazed. If I could only climb the highest palm tree and shout that across the ocean I could wake up my ancestors in the Philippines who would respond with the question: Do you know what the 14th letter is?

The file room is in disarray. The file clerk that I replaced was an aspiring comedian. I assumed she spent more time writing comedy bits than filing but perhaps that too was a form of filing. But I learned valuable lessons such as names beginning with Mc or Mac are essentially the same, that Mac is an abbreviated form of Mc. There were lots of forms to be filed, mostly invoices. I placed files in large metal cabinets. There was a file container that looked like an accordion., I pushed it in and pulled it out, pretending that I had some kind of musical gene but all I got was a faceful of dust. I was one in a long line of file clerks that had occupied this space, this way station en route to the bathroom. I was the king of the Manila folder. However, there were hazards; papercuts, leaving more knicks than shaving. I got cut by everything; envelopes, folders, papers of all sizes and thicknesses. I soon developed a thick skin and became immune to the cuts. I remember one such cut, on my index finger. I searched for a bandage when the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Who’s this?”
“Your step dad.”

“Oh, hi. What do you want?”

“To ask you something.?

“What?”
“What’s the 14th letter of the alphabet?”

I couldn’t believe his impeccable timing. Here I am in the middle of a possible medical emergency and he calls asking me a question he knows I don’t have the answer to. I usually have time to get into his shit but that time is not now. I paused then hung up. No bandages anywhere so I sucked on my index finger. I tried to write a poem but the only thing I got on the page was a drop of blood. I sat surrounded by file cabinets and stacks of files on the table. I feel them growing with the desire to swallow me. They said that J. Edgar Hoover had files on everybody, that’s how he stayed FBI director for so long. I’d never rise to that level. I’m not white, short, dumpy or possess an affinity for donning women’s clothing. However, I am fond of the alphabet, thanks to my stepfather. I sit in my filedom of ever-growing stacks of file folders. The phone rings. My stepfather? I inhale deeply and for the first time blurt out the alphabet: Z-Y sibbleskrheiolshrieslkmg iorgtuvdlknsoiub ofksdkfleil B-A!

Faster than a record played backwards.

(c) 2020 Tony Robles

Banana Tree, Anonymous

bananatree

 

I came home one afternoon and found a banana tree standing at the side of my house.  It was in a big black plastic pot, leaves splayed wide reflecting sunlight. A year ago at this time my current home was not my home. I occupied its spaces; I used its bathroom, cooked on its stove, did push-ups and sit-ups on its kitchen floor and played wide varieties of music at loud volumes.  This was my space but was it my home?  In July of 2019 I had traveled 3,000 miles to get here, to a place called Hendersonville, North Carolina surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I’d traveled by train with the romantic notion that I would see the country from sea to shining sea.  But the closest I would come to any semblance of sea on that journey was the seasick-like stomach sensations that would poke at my midriff as a result of the rattles, shakes and tremors on my extended time on the rails. Perhaps I just had a weak stomach or perhaps it was exacerbated by my railway diet of turkey jerky and pretzels, washed down by steamed vegetables and rice I had procured from a Chinese restaurant during a layover in Denver.  That 4 day trip was the longest 4 day stretch I’d ever experienced. Throughout the trip i gazed at the landscape sliding past the window–open air, clouds, bodies of water, green pastures, stretches of desert with edifices of rock more impressive than any city skyline, small towns–all of which had names, I am sure, but in the fleeting reality of the rails, names I had no way of knowing.  

People on the train were occupied–napping, gazing into laptops and phones or, as my late grandmother would say, sitting and watching the world go by.  On this train voyage I found myself settling into a state of anonymity.  Like most who travel, I assumed the position of an in-transit every man where I, like everyone else, had a destination, people to see, dreams to pursue, expectations to meet and so forth.  Perhaps this is presumptuous of me to assert since there are those who are in transit with none of the aforementioned objectives or outcomes lying in wait.  However, like everyone else, the complexities of our journeys were internal while we showed our postcard and/or passport faces to the world with our invisible stamps of experiences we’d all brought, those we’d like to remember and otherwise; both good and bad in various pieces of luggage. 

I was in a 3000-plus mile anonymous stretch, leaving one home to establish another.  I thought about the decision to move. Aside from 4 years living in Hawaii and Florida, San Francisco had been my home.  I was born there.  As a severe introvert I felt anonymous in a city teeming with culture and overflowing with the coughs, sneezes, hiccups, burps, as well as smiles, works of art and women I’d never talk to.  It was an internal earthquake, low magnitude but persistent.  Making the move from the land of earthquakes to the land of hurricanes, i thought, would be interesting.  Ironically, a 5.1 earthquake hit my current home of Western North Carolina last week.  I was in bed when it hit.  I thought, well, I guess this is home. 

You come to a new place, you look around.  You don’t know it, it doesn’t know you but you watch each other with wariness, if not weariness that is dependent on the burdens you either brought from your previous home or left behind. Then there are the things that one hears.  I’d  heard about the legacy of racism in the south. I have seen confederate flags breeze by on the back of pick-up trucks. But I’ve also had strangers wish me good morning.  One–a woman– even approached me during the holiday season and gave me a lovely cross studded with bright stones for salvation’s sake minus the bell.  But a familiarity eventually takes hold over time, floating about like a butterfly, landing on your shoulder or on the tip of your nose and says, “Hey, I’ve seen you around.  What’s your name?”

The banana tree didn’t appear out of nowhere.  It was a gift from my mother and stepfather, an early birthday gift coinciding with my 1 year anniversary in Western North Carolina.  I pulled into the carport in my 2-door Subaru with 265,000 miles on the odometer and front license plate that read Jesus Loves You and thought, where did this come from?  I walked over and touched the leaves. They were moist like large green tongues moving gracefully in the heavy air. I thought about my history with plants–not a good one.  The last one I owned was a cactus that ended up dying.  I’d gotten it because, I surmised, it would require minimal care.  In the case of my banana tree, I was true to form, forgetting to water it for several days.  The leaves turned as brown as the skin on my arm. I thought to myself, I am Filipino (or Filipino-American), shouldn’t I know how to care for a banana tree, instinctively?  Did this lack of instinctual knowledge make me a coconut? I remembered living in Hawaii for a little more than a year.  I saw banana trees and smelled sugar cane from the C & H factory in Waipahu, a small town with a large number of Filipinos.  I saw those banana trees and felt a connection with them.  Perhaps it was the shade they provided on hot and humid days.  Or perhaps the connection was deeper reminding me that I was Filipino and to not forget those leaves because they have not, somehow, forgotten me.   There is a Filipino community in this part of North Carolina but the community is spread apart by distance.  Perhaps this tree is here to remind me that the heart’s distance is closer than one thinks.  I quickly watered my banana tree and continued to do so diligently and, after a few days, it looked happy.  I looked at it  and it looked at me.  We are getting to know each other.  I removed the tree from its pot and planted it alongside my home–a mobile home surrounded by trees, squirrels and bird songs.  The tree is taking root in its new home, just as I am.  The roots are growing deep and new sprouts are shooting up from the soil.  I was asked what name I’d given the tree.  I hadn’t thought of naming it.  

I looked up the scientific name for banana trees, of which there are 3: Musa Acuminata Colla, Musa Balbisiana and Musa Paradisiaca.  A fine musa I find myself in.  The banana tree is feeling more at home, as I am. Its roots are growing deep.  New leaves sprout towards the sky.  When Fall comes I’ll have to dig it up and bring it inside.  I anticipate the conversations we will have when i bring it indoors about how we’ve taken root in this place in Western North Carolina, close to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  But why wait until then, why not have those conversations now?  But until that time comes, I’ll continue to water and care for this beautiful tree.  Now, what to name it?

© 2020 Tony Robles

The People Who Made You

Some were as absurd
as a Saturday morning
cartoon

Some exist
as clouds of
shapes and
contortions

they all had a
hand in molding
you

some used the
back of the hand,
some the palm

The nice and the cruel
and those who said the
right thing at the wrong
time and the wrong thing
at the right time

The one’s that tried to
break you made you
strong

so they served
a purpose

and the one’s that
loved you, the one’s
who pulled for you
no matter what

are old now

and you speak to
them and they speak
to you as if you were
still that kid on the
merry-go-round

Saying: I love you…
i’m praying for you

God bless you

and with their words
still in your ears, you
look into the mirror the
next day and think,

when was the last
time you prayed
for somebody?

(c) 2020 Tony Robles

Scale of Love (For Ronnie Goodman, RIP)

Scale of Love (For Ronnie Goodman)
By Tony Robles

Your music is in the walls
of the city
Your heart is in the streets
of the city
Your art is in the soul
of the city
Your tears are in the soil
of the city

You were the landmark
marking the land with
brush strokes
the scraping spatula
dipping into the palette
of pain and coloring the
city with your vision

The curvature of your thoughts
forging new roads
new ways to think
creating inroads without
shorcuts

(No cheating allowed)

With curves and cuts
and lines you presented
the mammoth problem yet
savored each moment with
a playful smile

You lived knowing that none
was invincible and inside
your studio covered by a tarp
you uncovered the city’s shame

And when they took
your brushes, your canvasses
and left you for nothing

you created a score on
your minds canvas
whose heart sounds vibrated
over the skin of the bay

And you ran the marathon
of your life across the
face of the city

Running into yourself
Running into your vision
Running into your art

in a city where everything
is stepped on

The city ran into you
Ran away from you
Pretended it didn’t know you

as you whispered
in its ear the mammoth problem

Your lips
curling into the note

of a playful smile

(c) 2020 Tony Robles

Covid-19 Hermit

My father used to call me a hermit.  I would spend time in my room, alone.  I liked the fog and gloom of San Francisco, thick fog that allowed me to hide.  I somehow felt better during foggy, gloomy days; the moan of the fog horn drifting over the water and piers, the deep low sound in tune with my internal pendulum between happy and sad, the sound of the horn providing a sometimes happy medium .  While others liked the sunshine, I associated warm weather with trips to Stinson Beach, traveling across the Golden Gate Bridge towards Marin and along the winding roads that never failed to get me carsick.  I didn’t know to sit in the front seat, that being in front allowed your eyes to anticipate sharp turns, mitigating any intestinal discomfort.  Nor did I know that pills existed that prevented “motion sickness”.  To my father, this was all in my mind.  On these trips, someone would inevitably bring up the subject of food, prefacing such gastronomic yearnings with, “You know, i can really go for…”  And the food yearned for tended to be greasy, the mere mention of which caused me to crane my neck in the direction of an open window and hope for the best.

I have been in self-isolation, quarantine and practicing social distancing.  I saw a post on Facebook that said something to the effect of, if your life hasn’t changed that much during the pandemic, it shows just how anti-social you truly are.  By nature I am a loner.  Even before the pandemic, if I saw someone on the street who gave off the wrong vibe, I would cross the street.    During the pandemic, I find myself crossing the street to oncoming foot traffic, as I always did but now with more frequency, with a justification, that being life and death.

With the numbers of positive Covid-19 cases on the rise, I find that I have to take occasional breaks from news reports for the sake of my peace of mind.  I find that paranoia and anxiety is perched close by–did I forget to wash my hands? Did I touch my face?  I inhaled smoke from someone vaping on Main Street–could they have Covid?  And so on.

I take my temperature daily.  It usually hovers in the 97 degree range; sometimes 98 degrees.  I took my temperature last week and it read 99 degrees.  I began to panic.  I took my temperature 3 more times and each time it read 99 degrees.  I thought 98 and 99 aren’t that different.  But the more I thought about it, the warmer I became.  Then I began feeling as if I were coming down with chills.  Just relax and calm down I thought to myself.  But I continued to worry.  It reminded me of when I monitor my blood pressure.  A high reading prompted more readings, each progressively higher than the previous.  I decided to go to sleep.  I woke in the morning and took my temperature: back to 98 degrees.

It sometimes feels like the virus is heading towards us.  The numbers of positive cases in Henderson County are on the rise.  But I think of the numbers in Florida, now the epicenter of the pandemic. Florida is our neighbor.  The anxiety I feel is the impending movement heading towards us.  The not knowing fills one with anxiety–have I been exposed, have I contracted it without knowing it?  

I think of my father.  He’s in an age category that puts him at risk.  He is healthy and  takes precaution.  I think of his assessment of my being a hermit those years ago.  Yes, his assessment was correct.  But in our current situation, it’s not a bad thing.