All of it
Has collected
In my ears

It has
Over time

All those bosses
And supervisors
And others deemed

and my uncles
chimed in too
from time to time

Their voices
Thick with the
Hoarseness of time

Let me explain
Something to you

Let me run it
Down to you

You must not have
Heard me the first time

Look at me when
I’m talking to you

If I got to repeat
Myself, I’m gonna knock
The white, black, yellow
Red, blue offa you

And it was
All explained
To me

I was listening

Those men had
Plenty to say and,
Most of the time, no
One was listening

And my ears
Became overloaded
With their excesses

But once in a
While those men
Would say something

It’s good to
See you

How you been?

You heard from
Your daddy?

What’s mom’s
Been up to?

And sometimes
They’d say

“you know, I wish
I had a son like

And those things
Stayed with

Too many to
Write down

Too much
To explain

So I

© Tony Robles 2016

Warmth (For Emiliano)

The city has
Grown cold

It was 90 degrees
A few days ago and
I found out that the
Meat market is shutting
Down after 30 years

All those soup bones
Destined for empty
Pots now with no
Place to go

Big bones
That melted into

My life’s
Marrow thick
In shadows

I walk in
Puddles of

And then it
Comes, some

I hear my
Name called

Not like in
The classroom
Where a wrong
Answer was expected

It’s a voice that
Knows me
Knows you
In a city that claims
It never did

And his voice
Breaks through
The cold air

And he remembers
Those things you

And somehow
Those candles that
Have been blown out
Come to life


He knows the fire
That’s in you because
The same fire is in

And you look
At him

And in him you
See your uncles,
Your father

And the song
Inside him
Comes out in
3 words

What’s happening man?

And his breath lights
That candle that has
Been out for too long

And suddenly
Your belly is
Filled with the
Warm broth

The marrow
To keep you

Bread broken
Bones mended

As you
Walk around
In the city

That has
Grown cold

© 2016 Tony Robles

Amusement Park (For Doug)

Funny bumping
Into you in the
Mid part of life

All the world’s a
Stage, they

And we show up
And the lines we
Want to articulate
Escape us

And they
Come back

Thoughts bumping
Into words like
At the amusement

You can learn
To take life’s lumps
In a bumper car

The hardest working
Men on earth,
You call them

Those fellows who
Construct the rides
At the fairs and

It requires strength
And balance, you say
As you grab ahold of
The side of the table
To get your bearings

It took strength to
Assemble those roller
Coasters, laying track,
Connecting the parts,
The swtiches

You constructed
Kiddie world, you

A hard, miserable
Job that you would
Do again

All tendons
And muscles

And grease to keep
That well-oiled machine
Moving from county
To city

And the bumper
Cars were

Many got hurt
Trying to unload

And here we
Sit in your

Words and memories
Bumping into one

God must be
One hell of
A pool player

© 2016 Tony Robles


Verses in

verses that
never bloomed,
never had a chance
to drink the sun

verses that
were erased
before hitting

all the red ink
ribbons turned
invisible, blotted
in the name of

verses vs hearses

welled up
curses unspoken

the battle of
the century
the battle of
the block
the battle of
the skin
the battle of
the landmine heart
the battle of
the nightmare

the battle of the
mural of our

the battle to
remember not
to forget

the battle
to reignite
the night

verses vs

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

Holidays: The Custodial Artist as Writer

I remember long ago my introduction to the holy trinity.  My father made the introduction.  He was not a religious man.  He inched his way towards the house of worship—The Catholic brand—at the untimely (or timely) death of a friend or loved one or perhaps Easter.  He would sometimes regale me—a kid of 11 or 12—with tales of some of the goings on in the church.  “There’s lots of punks in the priesthood” he’d say, alluding to the penchant priests had for young boys—recalling his own visit to a parish priest as a boy in search of a job.  “Well, son, let’s have a look at you” said the priest, who made my young father stand in the middle of the room.  “Turn around” said the priest, “A little bit more to the left…ok, now bend over.”  What did you do? I asked my father.  “What do you think? He’d reply.  I got the hell outta there”—showing wisdom beyond his years in knowing that such an encounter with the pristine collar would put him in quite the motherfucking wringer.  In getting the hell outta there he proceeded, in quick fashion, to go to the restroom where he proceeded to climb out of the nearest stain glass window.  He weaved such tales while on the couch or driving his brown Cutlass with the tan roof on Van Ness Avenue past the Opera House, the place that employed him as a janitor.  That grey edifice wielded much influence on his life, as much as a church’s effect on other souls.  The building, whose walls contained the voices of world class sopranos and tenors, pop vocalists, and a myriad of other artists also held the sounds of my father—a janitor, a custodial artist of the highest order.  I think of him and my introduction to the holy trinity—an introduction that still amazes me—and led me to become a writer.


I think of my father as I make my way to City College of San Francisco where I have been invited to speak to a morning English class.  I have received an increasing number of requests for such presentations since the publication of my book of poems and short stories last year.  The poems and short stories, offering goofball insights gleaned over the last 3 decades of my life in my city—firings, epiphanies of a solitary nature, the eviction crisis, the decay of the city spirit—not to mention various wisecracks—have gone over quite well with readers and, for the first time in my life, people appear genuinely interested in what I have to say.  I take the same bus I used to take when I attended this institution more than 2 decades ago.  I disboard and see the buildings—so a part of my life when I had no idea where I would end up—a chair or perhaps on land, sea or air—I had not the faintest idea. With stumbling innocence I walked the halls to my classes, to the bathroom, in search of something or in the quest to convince myself I was in search of the ever elusive it.  I roam the halls some 20 years later.  I see the same floors, doors, structures—new and old—incubators of dreams, thoughts, disappointments, heartbreak—the collective tissue of the human experience.  I see the faces of aspiring artists in the Creative Arts building, sitting on the floor with sketchbooks and boards, waiting for class, waiting for inspiration as droves of their fellow humans pass by in either direction in a runway procession which is the hall.  I find, in my search for the classroom that awaits me that I am in the wrong building.  I am directed to the correct building by a kindly art teacher.  I finally arrive at the classroom.  It is nearly full with students, some sitting, some arriving.

“Mr. Robles?” a voice announces.

I am not accustomed to such formal introductions.  I am more accustomed to hey, what’s up, what up, what do you want, who you here to see, etc etc.

“Mr. Robles?”

Who might this person be?  In a lifetime of encounters with the mirror I am still half sure of who it is a see on the other side.  Mr. Robles, I say under my breath as I look and search for my father.


Getting back to the holy trinity, which was initially addressed, I became acquainted with this bell curve trifecta via janitorial work—the daily duty endured by my father to keep, as he would put it, a roof over my head and food in my gut.  Perhaps this trinity possessed a spiritual quality as engendered by the church and its texts.  There is a father and son—a division of labor that is one in the same. To that we have a commonality or affinity, may I dare say, to the divine.  However, the trinity of which I speak is much more tactile to the senses of those of us who are sentient beings. The trinity that my father so deftly introduced me to was the bucket, mop and wringer.  What, you may ask, do these items or implements have to do with an academic setting, or anything, for that matter, of any consequence whatsoever?  My father, as custodial artist, likely never thought of himself as an artist, or a custodian.  The custodian title was bestowed upon him as a result of circumstances permeating his life.  He came of age at a time when opportunities for young men of color (or young colored boys) were very limited.  The limitations imposed reflect more on the limitations of the institutions themselves and the moving,–that is—human parts that make them function.  But my father was an artist.  That is not to say a formally trained artist but art and expression moved in his blood.  Let me communicate to you that he was an artist from the moment he rose from bed to the moment he showered to the moment he put on his shoes.  His mundane movements, his moving from point A to B was a dance, a flow, an exhibition of a story imparted to him that lived in his bones and moved across his skin like the songs that kept us alive, filling our empty pots with something that would sustain us when we could barely look into the mirror to confront who we were.  In the expanse of his dreams, sprinkled with Horatio Alger notions and delusions, he started his own janitorial business—a two man crew—he and I in an attempt to climb the socioeconomic ladder for him and a baptism of fire for me in the name of the bucket, mop and wringer.


I am in the classroom with a respectability gleaned over time, glistening with the patina of failed efforts and requisite idiocy that plagues those of us blessed by the human condition—a c+ average student who managed to somehow make it.  But I remember myself before I became Mr. Robles, before I became this scribe, this imbiber of words—in short, I recall myself when I wasn’t shit—no title, neither Mister or author, fish nor fowl or otherwise.  I look at the faces about me, not unlike my face 20 years earlier when I walked face first into the walls of this hallowed institution searching for direction. I remember sitting in classes, writing my name on endless sheets of paper, scribbling quickly—barely knowing the meaning of my name—that is—the meaning of my life.  Hours in the typewriter lab pecking away at the keys like some hungry bird too burdened to fly.  “Mr. Robles” I hear again.  And just as quickly as it is said I find myself in a room with my father.  It is a room not unlike the classroom I am visiting—roughly the same dimensions.  I see his face.  It is riddled with urgency and impatience.

“Hey, step on it!” he says

“Step on what?  I’m an author”

“Well, you might be an author but you ain’t shit when it comes to mopping a floor”
“Look at that floor…does it look clean to you?”
I look at the floor. It glistens and the air is heavy with the scent of industrial floor cleaner whose aroma burns the nostrils.

“I don’t see anything wrong”

My father looks at me as if I have lost my mind, and perhaps I have.

“Look at that” he says, running his finger over an area of the floor.  “You missed this”

I look at the area and he is correct, I missed a few spots.

“The mop must have…”

“Oh, it’s the mop’s fault?” my father says

I look at my father. His dustrag hangs from his back pocket, his key ring brazen with a dozen keys dangling from his belt loop.  His mind is moving in pace with his body.  His eyes notice everything, every speck on the wall, every fly on the wall documenting the event.

“Those are holidays” my father says.

“What’s a holiday?”

“It’s when you mop a floor and you miss spots.  You never want to have holidays.  I thought I taught you better than that.  You disappoint me”.


“But my ass.  This was supposed to be a simple operation…boom boom, in and out.  Now instead of finishing the job we have to backtrack over your half-assed work.  We could be eating hamburgers and French fries right now but instead we’re going over your work”.

“I like hamburgers”

“For the half assed job you did on this floor, I wouldn’t give you a packet of ketchup. If anything, you deserve a foot in the ass.  Mop the floor again—wait, better yet–let me do it.  Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.  Learn something”.

I watch my father wring out the mop and glide it over the floor. Wide strokes, cutting at the corners in a loop, a rhythm ensuing that is part music, part urgency, part dance that—when added together—gets done what needs to get done.  No wasted movement, no wasted energy.

“See, that’s how it’s done” my father says.  I look at the floor.  Every inch mopped over, no holidays to be seen.

“Now go and take care of the toilets and let’s get the hell outta here”


I needn’t belabor the point that when one encounters a toilet, particularly one in a public space—especially when you have been entrusted with the maintenance and cleanliness of said toilet—that your encounters with the shitstain are inevitable.  The quality or tenor of these encounters can be measured by any number of factors—not the least of which is the mood or state of mind of the one wielding that spiritual baton, aka, the toilet brush.  In my case, the scrubbing ensued. A back and forth frenzy reminiscent of a club DJ scratching a record, creating rhythms and sounds he didn’t know he had. I worked up quite a sweat with my toilet brush.  The shitstain was stubborn—as shitstains usually are—and the more I scrubbed, the more the porcelain seemed to mock me.  Mind you, this is only one variety of shitstain, as many more varieties exist, in one manifestation or another—oftentimes in the form of other persons, who are far more difficult to make disappear.

“Don’t take all day on that toilet” my father calls out.

I scrub until my eyes hurt.  I not only scrub the shitstain in the porcelain bowl but, in my effort, maintain to scrub the shitstain of the world, the shitstain that smears across the mind, the shitstain that clouds the imagination and begets more shitstains.  My assault is not for naught as my father inspects my work and announces that I’m finally getting the hang of it, that I—if you will—halfway have my shit together. But this is temporary relief, for the shitstain does not retreat into obscurity for long, but makes consistent and, at times, cameo appearances in the form of family, friends, and neighbors.  So, while my father laments “holidays” on a mopped floor, one can never hope for a holiday from the shitstain.  An ever bigger quandary comes when in the process of scrubbing the toilet you realize that you, at that moment, must use it.  But this is another topic for a future essay.  I help him load our janitorial supplies in the van before taking off for a hamburger and more father and son dialog.


My father’s office is his van.  He talks while steering, controlling the wheel with his forefinger and thumb—head tilted slightly to the side.  We are moving through familiar streets.  I recall him letting me drive when I was a small boy.  He put me on his lap and told me to take the wheel. I took a hold of the steering wheel.  Relax, relax, my father said, urging me to loosen my grip.  We move across the wide and narrow streets.  When are we gonna get a hamburger?  I ask.

“What do you want to do?” my father asks.

“I want to go get a hamburger”

“I said, what do you want to do…with your life?

I looked out the window not knowing what to say.  Then I blurted it out.

“I think I want to volunteer”

We came to a jolting halt.  An old woman carrying grocery bags walked in front of our van.

“Damn, watch out lady” my father says under his breath.  The van moves slowly through the intersection.

“Volunteer for what?

“To teach people how to read”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’d like to help people learn how to read”

“And how are you gonna make money by volunteering?”


“What’s wrong with you?  Can’t you see I’m trying to build something?  You think I’m swinging a mop and cleaning toilets for my health?”

“No, but—“

“I’m building this business for our family.  I want to build it up so I can give it to you.  So you’ll have something”

“ But I don’t want to—uh—“

“You don’t want to what?

“Clean toilets”

My father is quiet.  We weave through traffic. I look at him from the corner of my eye.

“Volunteer” my father says, sarcastically.  We pull to the curb in front of our home that the landlord owns.
“Well” he says, “I volunteer you to unload all this equipment into the garage”.  He takes the key out of the ignition.  I get busy unloading the van.

Mr. Robles? A voice says.

I look around the classroom.  I learned much within the walls of this institution yet I cannot extricate myself from my father–for he was the one who taught me most about what would ultimately become my craft—writing.  When telling me, “Don’t leave any holidays” when mopping a floor, he was speaking of the lines that I would eventually attempt to write.  His mop strokes, thorough and fluid, were lines, were art—communicating an intention that lived in his core that would not accept anything less than the truth.  “Don’t leave holidays” could easily mean, do not lie, do not deceive, do not take for granted the time or attention of your reader.  He was truly my first editor, spotting my omissions, flaws and holidays. I rise from my chair, ready to impart to these students my story and, hopefully, some inspiration, in relating my experience as a poet, that is, a teller of truth that only the poet can report and is bound to report just as he or she is bound to breathe.  Don’t leave any holidays, I whisper to myself as I rise to speak before this class.  The class gleams with everything my father taught me as I have the student’s undivided attention.




© 2016 Tony Robles


SF Realtor

mr. realtor

I saw you sneak

Into that elder’s house

The other day while she

Was at her Doctor’s



You stomped your

Feet on the welcome

Mat then looked underneath

For the key


You then pried

The window open

And with much contortion

Of limbs you got inside


And with the grace of

An architectural digest

Slug, you cased the



With your eyes you

Tossed out, arranged

Rearranged, condemned,



And then you sauntered to that

Old 1950’s model refrigerator

And poured yourself a tall

Glass of ice tea


Then you went to the couch,

The one with the floral

Prints and unseen stains


You put your feet up on

That couch, shoes on, and

Stretched out for a spell


And even though the

Couch’s length was sufficient

For your supine carcass, you

Wanted even more space


In your quest for

More space, you kicked

Over a lamp


mr. realtor

before I insert my foot

in your ass, I ask


didn’t anybody ever

teach you not to put

your feet up on a person’s



That you don’t walk

Into someone’s home

Like you own the place?


The ice tea has brewed

For a long time, and was

Not intended for you


Think on



Before I put

My foot in

Your narrow ass


© 2016 Tony Robles

Soul Medicine

Barbeque and corn bread and greens made by black hands.  Adobo and rice eaten with thick brown fingers.  A handwritten love note with a #2 pencil.  A street sax blowing colors across the sky.  Tortillas and rice and beans and abuelitas‘ voices rising through rooftops.  Murals on our skin, wet with our stories, our lives, our revolution.  Palleteros pushing cool cool cool flavors that paint the tongue a picture of community, finger painted portraits of our dreams.  Grandpa with a wrinkled racing form, transistor radio broadcasting voices of spirits dancing, splashing like flowers in the throats of babies.  Wrinkled photos and longhand notes written illegibly legible on the palm lines of leaves.  A belly full of pork noodle soup.  Familiar faces on Frisco streets.  Terry on the corner of 7th St selling slow jam CD’s–Delfonics, Isley Brothers, Dramatics.  Nella planting collard greens and kale and everything that is good, her brown Filipino hands offering her gifts from the soil in the Tenderloin.  Stories written in Russian rye bread.  Rice noodles whipping around block after block of the TL, Dreams fermenting on the corner of Turk and Larkin.  Black voices that never die.  Samoan church food passed from hand to hand, elder to child, heart to heart.  Sacks filled with Chinese vegetables. Fish eyes looking through tanks as rivers flow down Chinatown streets.  My grandmother’s cane that kept our unstable world stable as she walked to and from St. Patricks Church on Mission.  Mission Street palm trees that tell us home isn’t too far and can be heard in the conga drum that dreams of freedom from the pawn shop.  Fog horns moanin‘ wetness as the sun breaks though for the first time over and over again in my city.


A 4 lettered word,
part lisp
part partially
formed lump in
the throat

part of the
word family of
words ending
in U-G

(Sometimes mistaken for O-G)

but also including
uncles, nephews
dads and other
offspring regardless
of season

and in arms as
big as pythons
(also known as guns)
the stories are inked

epics dyed
in the skin

needles inserting
myths and hues and
dyes of memories
cast aside

living in that gray
area where vulnerability
breathes, expands,
contorts in an effort
to both hide and free itself

the thug cannot
remain a four lettered
word for long

and when that word
reconciles its sound
with matter and creates
itself again and again

it changes

(out of the clear blue motherfuckin’ sky)

from thug
to hug

no words
formed or

as it takes
on another

of its

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

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

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