By Tony Robles
I was working with 2 invisible men in the Mission at a supermarket geared towards the poor. One of the invisible men was black, the other Jew. The black one had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen and the Jew, for some reason, wore oversized caps. They hovered about, peeking between shelves at the shoppers—those dishonest shoppers who might steal a beer or a cupcake. I was the uniformed guard. Just started. I was fully visible.
“Hey” said the invisible Jew.
“Yeah” I said.
He waved his hand in a cutting motion across his throat. He wasn’t talking to me. He caught the eye of the black guy with the white teeth. They had a non-verbal undercover store detective mode of communication that I could not decipher. I looked at my security uniform with its artificial fur neck and flimsy lining. My white socks clashed with my black shoes. I thought about what I had been only 8 months prior. I was working in this same neighborhood knocking on doors inside single resident occupancy hotels (SRO’s). Many on the other side of the door said two words, “Go away”, or didn’t respond. Those who did open their doors would listen to me talk about tenant’s rights and how important it was to attend tenant meetings to improve conditions. One tenant spoke to me about his neighbor who’d play his music loud all night. As he spoke, he twitched and began scratching, raking his nails across his chest, arms—reaching under his shirt and pawing into his armpits. Soon I began to itch.
“I got bedbugs”, said the man.
I ran to the exit.
I thought about those meetings surrounded by tenants who would come for the free food. I remembered speaking on behalf of tenants to their building managers who sat like walruses on planks covered with post-it notes and coffee rings–managers who refused to do repairs, who wrote tenants up for minor infractions. I look at my security guard uniform surrounded by shelves of food but no meeting.
The invisible black man walks up to me. I adjust my posture. I try to avoid his teeth.
“See that guy over there”
“The one in the baggy hood jacket”
I pulled my glasses onto my face. I saw the back of him.
“What about him?”
“He’s concealing a chicken”
“In his crotch”
I watched the man walk about—stopping at the chewing gum rack for a minute then looking up. I focused on the man’s face. He had a familiar nose–the kind that’d fall off with a good pull. The mustache was a shoe brush. It was Joe Clipman from the Nayor Hotel on 20th and Valencia. He didn’t see me. He turned around and headed towards the restroom on the adjacent side of the store.
“Motherfucker’s gonna take the chicken into the restroom” said invisible. The invisible black man followed the scent. I followed him.
We got to the restroom where the invisible Jewish guy was waiting.
“He has the chicken”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Shhhhhhh” they replied in unison.
The Jewish guy decided to walk inside.
“I’ll pretend I’m taking a piss”
He walked through the door. A minute went by. He came back out.
“That was a pretty fast piss”, I said. The 2 invisibles glared at me.
“He’s eating the chicken”
Both invisibles shook their heads as if agreeing on some scientific theory. I kept my mouth closed. I thought about Joe inside the bathroom. I could see him cradling that herb chicken. I could see him smacking his lips, licking his fingers clean while stradling that porcelain pot. To the invisible men Joe was scum, a thief, someone that should be locked up for daring to take what was rightfully his. I thought about how useless it all was, working as a tenant’s rights organizer one moment and a security guard the next—on stakeout in the toilet in pursuit of a chicken thief. I hadn’t even seen Joe enter the store. A security guard with A.D.D. How did I ever get a guard card?
“We’ll get him when he walks out the exit door”, said the Jew.
“Probably on crack”, said the black.
I could see Joe on the pot stringing chicken bones into a necklace. I remembered the time he went to a meeting between tenant and hotel owners at the San Francisco rent stabilization board on Van Ness Ave. There was Joe, drunk and raising his hand to speak. He never spoke. There was the Hindu hotel owner wearing a suit topped with a baseball cap with a bent bill. He talked about tenants being destructive and how visitor policy rules needed to be enforced.
“Let’s keep it real”, he said, using cheap hip-hop hand gestures he’d learned somewhere for emphasis. When the meeting adjourned, there was Joe decked out in camaflogue pants and knit cap pulled down like a beret. On uneasy legs he walked up to the hotel owner and said, “I must say, I find your behavior to be less than professional”. The man looked at Joe like yesterday’s refuse.
We stood at the bathroom door like 3 impotent chimps. I got bored. I decided to make a move.
“I’m going in”, I said.
“Just go back to the entrance” black invisible said. “We got it covered”.
“Like shit”, I said. You guys are scratching your asses. I’ll bet that guy doesn’t even have the chicken”.
The black and Jew invisibles were shocked. I wasn’t supposed to talk, I was only supposed to stand. I even surprised myself. I shoved through the door. The air was warm; half-fragrant, half-pungent. I heard a slight noise, like the rustling of paper.
“Hey Joe” I said, “Is that you in there?”
The rustling stopped.
“Joe?” I said again.
“Yeah, I’m Joe. Who the hell are you?”
“So, what do I care?
“Anthony…the tenant organizer. Filipino guy…remember?”
There was more silence.
“Anthony. Oh yeah…I remember you. Howya doin’?”
“I’m good, just surviving”
“I ain’t seen you in a while. Whatcha been up to?”
“Well…I got a job. I—“
“That’s great, good to hear it”
“Well, what I’m trying to say is—“
“Hold that thought”
I obeyed. I could only hear the smacking of lips and chewing of bones. The aroma of cooked fowl became more pronounced. I was starting to get hungry.
“Yeah, I’m here”
“Look, what I’m trying to say is that I’m working as a security guard at this market”
“Is that right? I didn’t see you when I came in…”
The florescent lights on the ceiling hummed. A dead fly lay frozen in the milky luminance that flickered slightly. I felt my heart beat into the floor and my breath becoming shallow.
“That’s great Anthony, congratulations”
“Thanks Joe. But look man, they got these plainclothes guys in here, you know, the one’s that look for shoplifters and—“
Suddenly the toilet flushed as if in cosmic defiance.
“And” I continued, “They think you got something”
“A lemon herb chicken”
Joe again was silent. Then he began to cry.
“I hate myself”
“Don’t say that”
“Yeah…I got the chicken. I’m just hungry that’s all. I have no money. I’m not a bad person”.
“I know that Joe”
My eyes became moist. I would have looked at myself in the mirror but there was no mirror to reflect on. I looked down and saw something move from under the stall partition. It was a piece of chicken wrapped in cellophane.
“It’s good Anthony”, said Joe, “Tasty as hell. Have some”
I took a bite. He was right. It was juicy and flavorful.
“What do you got Joe?” I said through grease stained lips.
“A wing. It’s my favorite part of the chicken”.
And on that wing we talked, catching up on things—laughing above the drone of the artificial lights of that supermarket and the invisible men that inhabit it.
© 2009 Tony Robles