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
Some were as absurd
as a Saturday morning
as clouds of
they all had a
hand in molding
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
so they served
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
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
(c) 2020 Tony Robles
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
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
(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
curling into the note
of a playful smile
(c) 2020 Tony Robles
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.
I’d stepped out for a walk. The lightning bugs blinked like passing embers charting my course towards the Greenville Highway. Above, splayed streaks of neon lit the sky followed by cracking sounds and an occasional boom. In the fanfare of the 4th of July there are requisite symbols of patriotism—the flag, the local radio station playing patriotic songs once an hour, BBQ’s and, of course, fireworks. A group of folks shoot off fireworks a short distance away and I note how close the sparks are to clusters of trees. On social media, a friend posted Frederick Douglass’ “What to The Slave is the Fourth of July?” Another posted that Juneteenth is the true Independence Day for African-Americans. Across the country statues and symbols of the nation’s identity are being dismantled by protest or legislative decree. People are in the streets in protest, questioning the very foundations of what it means to be a part of this country. 3 words: Black Lives Matter, stir emotions ranging from justice and reparations to deep seated hatred. I am a Filipino-Black man in a purple state. It is within this backdrop that I walk.
Earlier in the day I stopped at Ingles. A cashier at the deli smiled, walked over to me and, gently touching my shoulder, said, “I saw you in the magazine.” I’d been featured in Bold Life, Hendersonville’s local magazine in a profile of my selection as Carl Sandburg writer in residence. It was a well-written article that I didn’t know had been published until I’d run into the nice lady at Ingles. The author accurately portrayed my life as a writer and my journey to what would become my new home, Hendersonville, from San Francisco. The article quoted me as saying that I wanted to give something to this community, “Not just move here and take.” In my nearly 1 year in Hendersonville, I have met wonderful people as a volunteer with the Friends of the Henderson County Library, Meals on Wheels and, most recently, True Ridge. I found people to be most courteous and friendly; much different than the city I moved from. I have written much about my new surroundings—Main Street, the Oklawaha Greenway, the Greenville Highway, various jobs, an encounter with a snapping turtle, thrift stores, and ringing the bell for the Salvation Army—the landscape within a landscape surrounded by mountains.
I walked the Greenville Highway to Flat Rock. I turned onto a road leading to the Spartanburg Highway. I like the quietude, the sweet air on these walks. It gives peace of mind, allowing one to reacquaint with things forgotten, to behold one’s surroundings and to see with clarity things that are oftentimes overlooked. But it’s not only what you look at that is reality, it is, according to writer Barry Lopez, “What looks back at you.”
I approached the Spartanburg Highway. In the distance I see fireworks; bright showers of lights in the sky and some at ground level. The Spartanburg Highway is extra-crowded with traffic. People are gathered in the parking lots of local businesses, sitting in lawn chairs or standing near their cars, taking in the scene. I think of social distancing, don’t get too close, as the virus doesn’t take a holiday.
I turn left on Greenville Highway. I see a group of about 25 or so in a parking lot, mostly youngsters engaging in horseplay. I continue. I see a police car pass to my right, followed shortly by another. The police car cuts a sharp left turn in front of me, pulling into the parking lot of the Rainbow Motel. The officer gets out, a female officer, alone. “Hi, how are you?” she asks. In my hand is a plastic bag with my hand sanitizer and mask. Just taking a walk, I say. The officer said that somebody had called, reporting that someone was walking around in the area. She asked for my ID. She called it in on her radio, speaking to a voice whose face I could not see. I stood waiting. In the silence I could feel the voices in my blood telling me things I know, should know; should never forget. I think of those young men of color back home who were killed by police. Young men like Alex Nieto, who was shot by San Francisco police for looking suspicious when he was eating a burrito in the park that he frequented, a park that he was part of. He and others speak in the wind. I don’t engage in conversation. Just answer the questions she asks, I think to myself. But there is the unsaid. Why I was stopped in the first place? I know the answer. Even though this is my home–or, where I happen to live–that, in the unsaid scheme of things, I am just a visitor in a place that is courteous and where everyone seems friendly. I have told myself, do not be lulled to sleep by this—always be aware. She returns my ID.
“Have a nice remaining 4th of July” the officer tells me as I put my ID in my wallet. I continued walking towards home. I wondered who called the cops and told them I looked suspicious. I was taking a walk, as others do. But taking a walk or jog (Or looking at birds) is not just a walk or jog—it is a risk. To walk, to behold what’s in front of you is to be aware of what is looking back at you; what that perception is and how it can change your reality as it did in the case Ahmaud Arbery. Compared to encounters of others who have stopped by the police, mine was nothing; yet it is something.
And when I’m stopped, it no longer matters that I am the Carl Sandburg Writer in Residence, that I was featured in the local magazine or that I have volunteered with local organizations since I arrived. The only thing that matters is my skin in the night sky and to continue breathing the air in Hendersonville that I like to think belongs to me too. I continue walking, the lightning bugs illuminating my path, telling me where it is, exactly, that I live. It is confirmed, the following morning, when I walk the same stretch where I behold a pair of confederate flags fluttering in the back of a passing pick-up truck. I breathe deeply. Keep walking.
© 2020 Tony Robles
The cry for justice was heard in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The last words of George Floyd were heard, his last breath swept across the seemingly peaceful, tranquil town of Hendersonville, known as the city of four seasons. Cries for justice, demands for justice are heard from Minneapolis to Georgia, from Seattle to Korea to France to Palestine—all across the globe. And in Hendersonville the tongues of young black women and men will not be silent. On Saturday June 6th nearly 400 people gathered in front of the Hendersonville police department with a message. In this time of pandemic, those who are overlooked are now deemed essential. What is the essential message? Who are deemed essential, whose voices are heard, silenced? The young black women who called the community together have felt and lived with silence. “Just because this is a small community doesn’t mean we can’t have an impact” said organizer Kaelah M. Avery as the crowd began to swell, bearing signs with words “Black Lives Matter”, “Black Women Matter”, and “Say Their Names” among others—a gathering of people black, white and brown donning masks—in unity as people of Hendersonville, and of community.
There is a shift worldwide. A generation is rising and asking questions, tossing out assumptions and envisioning a new world. “This is not a matter of white vs. black, it’s us against racism” said a young black man to the crowd. One young white woman said she was compelled to join the protest to “call out my own white privilege”, questioning the very notion of whiteness and the very real, very brutal and tragic implications it holds for people of color. A group of young Latinx youth held signs that read: Black Lives matter and Tu Lucha es Mi Lucha (Your fight is my fight). One of the Latinx group said that there is a connection of police brutality among black and brown youth and that it was important to show solidarity with the black community against a common oppressor. A black woman in her mid 50’s stood among the crowd with a black t-shirt emblazoned with the hashtag: #SeeMe. “They see us in a different way” she explained as the sun glared in a sharp angle. The woman, a lifelong resident of Hendersonville, added, “The assumption is that we are criminals; that we are evil. They see us differently.”
The voice of Kaelah Avery came over the speakers, spreading beyond the immediate area and beyond the clusters of people, gaining the attention of passersby:
“For some reason, people assume women of color, especially black women,
Are being belligerent when they are simply passionate or speaking out of
frustration. Do not confuse my passion with rage. I am enraged by the actions
of the Minneapolis Police Department and to the circumstances that led to
the murders of countless numbers of our black community. But I’m even more
passionate about the need for fundamental change.”
And in the presence of the Hendersonville police, the people of Hendersonville, the history of Hendersonville, the silence of Hendersonville, she continues:
“In 2014, 287 people were killed by police for
Minor crimes such as sleeping in park, drug possession
Looking suspicious or having a mental health crisis.
Imagine a society that doesn’t respond to these situations
With the threat or reality of violence but instead targets the
Underlying issues behind these actions by defunding the police
and redistributing that money to address homelessness, drug addiction
and preventative healthcare.”
A middle aged Latino man spoke, saying that America is very sophisticated in its racism, that it is subtle to where it looks like something good. A young African American man approached the microphone and said, “It’s good you’re out here today but—some of you—your apathy is killing us.”
As a person of color who has lived in Hendersonville since July, I can say that I have been glared at in public, as if my presence were an affront. A woman in a passing car gave me the finger as I walked the Greenville Highway. I am keenly aware of my skin. One’s perception of me, fueled by white supremacy or by what Toni Morrison coined, “The white gaze” can have brutal and tragic implications. But there are also people who are quite friendly, civil—offering a hello, good morning, God Bless—those things that hold community together. But as a person of color, you can’t forget your own skin because to do that is to open yourself up to danger. This awareness was articulated by the late poet Wanda Coleman who said, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.”
I had the opportunity to talk to a young black brother, Preston Blakely. Preston is 25 years of age and was elected to the Fletcher City Council in November. He expressed frustration at the racism he endures. “I have to be aware of my race everywhere. Should I have my hands in my pocket? Should I have my hood on? It leaves me angry, frustrated and sad but these aren’t new emotions.” Blakely described being pulled over by an officer for no apparent reason. It turned out the cop pulled him over to “Check his lights”. “It feels like they are looking for ways to get into an altercation” Blakely added, noting that he has dealt with these experiences most of his life.
The rally culminated in a peaceful march to the Historic Courthouse on Main street where signs were held and names of those killed by police were called: Brionna Taylor, George Floyd, Armaud Arbery (Arbery was killed by a former officer) and others. As the?” march approached the historic courthouse, a man was seen in front of Mike’s on Main holding an assault rifle. The windows were covered with slabs of wood. “What is that?” I said to a man next to me marching. “It sure ain’t a grilled cheese sandwich” the man replied, walking forward.
The voices rising from Hendersonville join voices in Minneapolis where defunding the police is actively being pursued by their city council, as well as in San Francisco and in other cities. They join voices in New York, England, France, Korea—across the planet where people are coming together and fighting back. They are envisioning a new world, a new way of going about the business of life and what it means to be human. This vision is alive in Hendersonville, lead by young black women whose voices are clear as the skies opening up new possibilities on this stretch of western North Carolina. As one speaker said, “It’s good to protest but we have to get involved, we have to run for office and attend the city council meetings.” As the rally ended, people headed in different directions, each with a piece of the movement to take beyond themselves, to their neighborhoods, co-workers, friends. I headed to my car with the words of one man still vivid in my mind: Please listen to us. We can’t breathe…listen to us.
© 2020 Tony Robles
The soul of the nation is burning. The streets are on fire, minds are on fire, hearts are on fire. For every broken glass there are shattered lives, broken identities, severed connections to ourselves and to others. The nation is aflame. The camera is pointed at us. There is no hiding. Things are not going to be the same. John Wayne is not coming on his galloping horse to swoop us up before the credits roll. There will be no rerun. We cannot afford it. There will be no return to the old days, our earth mother will see to that. In the middle of a pandemic, people are putting themselves on the line. They know what is at stake. The collective waters are tainted with the violent virus of racism—from Minneapolis to Flint, to Atlanta to Detroit, to the Brazilian rainforest to the Navajo Nation to San Francisco. The fires have raged inside for too long. We cannot lie back and breathe easy when black people are stripped of their dignity, attacked, and mocked under the collective knee of indifference, institutional racism, mass incarceration and economic violence.
The soul of the nation is burning—it has always been on fire. What are the people saying? What is the world saying? During this pandemic, the world is healing itself. Skies once rife with haze and suffocating pollution are now clear. Our world is breathing in places where it once gasped, choked. The world–our earth mother–is saying, get your goddamned knee off my neck. The people are saying likewise. In this rising up, the people are breathing a collective breath of clarity, seeing and feeling, rejecting indifference and injustice. What are the people saying? The earth is listening. What was Floyd George trying to say? What do the eyes of Ahmaud Arbery say to you, eyes speak in the absence of breath?
This is a wake-up call, a turning point. But there will be no turning back. The soul of the nation is on fire. It is on fire for a new mind, a new way of dealing with one another. It is on fire to give and not take, for there are those who have taken too much at the expense of those who have given. It is on fire for a new world because what has been done with the one whose space we occupy cannot be sustained. The soul of the nation is on fire. The hatred against its people, its disregard for its people, its mocking of its people cannot be sustained. This is a turning point. There is no turning back. Our mother earth has hit the reset button. It is telling those in charge that, contrary to what they believe, she’s the one running the show.
© 2020 Tony Robles
Caminando—walking in Spanish. That’s what I did on this stretch of road in Western North Carolina. I carry a small bag; inside is a face mask and small bottle of hand sanitizer along with a portable speaker for my music. But one cannot hide one’s face–face mask or not. With the pandemic upon us—with many holed up indoors, absorbing the news on the uptick of positive Covid-19 cases, one must get outdoors, to engage with the environment—to breathe. I walk by a few consignment stores–a specialty store offering varieties of tea, a Laundromat frequented by many in the Latino community and clusters of mobile homes. I pass by streets with names such as Rutledge and Brooklyn. Brooklyn, a borough of a city and I too am a city dweller–born and bred–but now dwelling in the green landscape of a small down and the greenness is dwelling in me after residing in the area just under a year. Other things dwell in me—voices: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog; African-American voices—its tones, highs and lows—its poetry and songs move inside me. These things are part of my inheritance—like my skin.
I am a fan of oldies—the sounds, the words blend in the greenness all around me. The branches on trees seem to move with the sounds of those old songs—songs I grew up with in the city, songs that I cannot forget, songs that have followed me to a small town. Funny, in this part of the country, these songs are in a category known as “Beach Music”. Back in my old home of California, I knew this music as just “oldies” or “Lowrider Oldies”. I walk and the beaches are far away and there isn’t a lowrider for miles (Perhaps thousands of miles). This is the time to let the imagination do its work. I ride low, inconspicuous, moving my two God-given legs, letting the music become one with the fast and slow twitch muscles, becoming attuned, in tune with movement, both physical and spiritual. With my 2 God-given ears I listen to a song, “Natural High” as I pass through the landscape; stunning views of Japanese Maples and other foliage while the lyrics, just as stunning, rise–float:
Take me in your arms
Thrill me with all of your charms
And I’ll take to the sky on a natural high
Loving you more ‘til the day I die
Then it’s the music of War—All Day Music then Slippin’ into darkness. And I slip into greenness; ahead are streets, passing cars. Beyond me are the mountains that seem to cradle all in its presence. It is a peaceful walk. But I am keenly aware of my skin. I know that a walk can turn into tragedy. A walk, a run—such as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery—a young black man jogging in his neighborhood in Georgia—can end your life. People of color understand this; that we can be shot for the act of walking, jogging; that another’s perception of us can become our reality—is our reality. The perception formed by what Toni Morrision referred to as the white gaze—in the case of Arbery, a gaze accompanied by a rifle, a handgun and a camera that caught it all; that can turn a seemingly inconsequential moment into tragedy. We walk into the virus of racism, of white supremacy and with it we know that our reality can change—a walk, a jog–an innocuous request that a dog walker leash her dog—can turn into an unleashing that can result in the words, i can’t breathe–as we take our last breath.
I continue walking. It is quiet, peaceful. I pass houses, windows with curtains. Curtains have eyes. I have eyes too, always aware. I approach the end of the road towards the main highway. It is moist. I come upon a puddle at the edge of the road. From behind, I hear the sound of an engine, wheels approaching. I wait for the car to pass so I can circumvent the puddle. I look to my left. It is a truck. A voice calls out.
“Where you go?”
It is a brown man, brown like me. His face is moist with sweat.
“Walking” I answer, “Exercise”
He looks at me. There is a kinship in his eyes, his skin. I’ve never seen him before but he sees a familiarity in me and me in him.
“Como se dice…walk..in Espanol?” i ask
Caminando he says
Caminando, i repeat, trying to say it the way he did. I repeat it twice, remembering I had heard it in the past, maybe along a different road.
“Where you from?” he asks
“Filipino” I answer
Where am I from? I have been asked this many times. The question often insinuates that I somehow do not belong. I know where I am from; a city in California. I know what he means when he asks; what he really means.
‘Come te llamas?” I ask, in the little Spanish I know.
“Saul” he says
“Yo soy Tony” I say
He nods at me, begins to pull away on the road
“Gracias, hermano” I say. He pulls away, waves.
I walk towards the intersection. I think about the connection with Saul. Perhaps he saw something in me, on a road, alone, heading towards something. I walk and come upon a butterfly hovering near a bush. It is yellow, a bright burning yellow with black spots and streaks. It floats free. I walk and think of those who have died for the act of walking, jogging, breathing into someone’s distorted perception of what it means to be human. Gracias, Saul. I walk on in hope’s direction.
© 2020 Tony Robles
My father, over the years, has become a fount of advice and information in matters of health. He adheres to the adage the information’s out there, you need to look for it. He phones me and the subject of health invariably comes up—after the obligatory weather update where—in his part of the world, Hawaii—the climes vary in degrees of heat: somewhat warm, kinda warm, getting warmer, hot, hot as hell and burning my ass off hot. As far back as recollection will allow me, he has been health conscious. He worked in a janitorial capacity for the City and County of San Francisco. He started work early and would arrive home before the final bell at my elementary school. He would be in the throes of his daily workout as I headed home; a regimen that included weightlifting, pushups and sit-ups, shadowboxing and sparring. He not only boxed with his shadow. Being his shadow, metaphorically and physically, I was his default sparring partner. I was given a pair of ancient boxing gloves—bare of laces and steeped in the crystallized memory of sweat—a mold that I unwillingly conformed to, secreting my own sweat into the pugilistic perspiratory legacy.
I’d walk inside the house and he’d say, hey kid, get over here. He lie on his back for his sit up routine. I was enlisted to hold down his feet, at the ankles, while he hardened his abs: 10…20…30 he’d call out on the way to 100—sweat trickling down his forehead, his breath in my face which smelled like onions, garlic and fish. My face would contort with his every repetition, as if I were the one performing this self-inflicted abdominal torture; and I suppose my father perceived my facial twists and turns as some kind of moral support or solidarity. But in actuality, my face twisted in response to his foot odor. He never wore shoes during workouts. He wore dress socks, thin socks from Sears woven in polyester. The stench was rather unbearable but, to my father’s credit, he tried to rein it in with foot powder and other potions including cologne that never seemed to work.
How’s your health? He asks. Ok, I say, adding that I’m exercising more, trying to control my blood pressure, which is high. His voice has not changed much, he still sounds youthful even in his mid-70’s. He tells me of the books he’s reading about health. You know, he says–2 things will cause you complications—being overweight and smoking. He explains that the more weight you carry, the more stress it puts on the heart. I listen to his voice, some 3000 miles away, grabbing at the flabby folds of flesh at my sides. I hear you dad, I say. He has always been physically active. In the time I spent running back and forth from the refrigerator to the television, he became a martial arts instructor—a guro. He entered and finished in the Honolulu Marathon 3 times, lamenting that each subsequent time was worse than the previous year. In my estimation, being able to complete one marathon is monumental—much less three. What about your diet? He asks. Well, I’m eating one fruit a day, I reply. Hmmm, he says, one fruit a day? What about two fruits…three?
You don’t want to wait until you get sick to see a doctor he says. Before any of these matters became remotely relevant to me, it became relevant to my father with the death of his own father. Grandpa never went to the doctor. The pains in the old man’s stomach stabbed at him. When he finally went to the doctor, it was too late. I remember him as a frail old man in a bathrobe that smelled of Vicks Vapor Rub. I was just a child with no idea that this frail old man raised a family of ten; came to the US as a young man and laid down roots. I had no idea that my existence was tied to this old man, that, if not for him, I wouldn’t be here. All I remember was his thin frame and the smell of Vicks and the 3 Tootsie Rolls he placed in my hand.
Exercise is medicine, my father says—you need to take your medicine every day. He says you have to keep moving, keep the blood circulating. I am doing likewise, walking briskly an hour a day. He walks among the palm, mango and guava trees for the same duration, sometimes longer. It is my hope that I am keeping up with him, footstep for footstep, among the crepe myrtle, red bud, Japanese maples and other assorted trees that provide a backdrop and forefront of fragrance, color, shade and an atmosphere of peaceful welcome some 3000 miles away . He says that walking helps keep the senses sharp as well as providing peace of mind. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the parks are off limits. A kindly cop issued him a ticket for walking in the park. Peace of mind is always under duress, especially in a pandemic.
You don’t want to be on medication, if you can avoid it, my father says. When I was growing up, there was no doubt that my father didn’t take no mess—a phrase coined by the classic song by James Brown–Papa Don’t Take No Mess. However, he has reached another level: Papa don’t take no meds. You got to keep moving, he says. You got to move, exercise. It’s medicine.