Happy Birthday Uncle Al!

February 16th is Uncle Al’s Birthday. Uncle Al was a person who made things happen. But he did it in such a way, in such subtle ways, that before you knew it, what needed to be done was done, what needed to be said was said and what was needed most was provided for.

Uncle Al wasn’t linear in his thinking or in his ways. He could take you around in circles, weaving tales around you until you became a poem, a ritual, a fish swimming, or the twisting, knotted roots coming up from the ground. He would leave you with nothing but a loincloth for the world to see on the corner of Jackson and Kearny Streets. I can still hear the car horns honking as they pass by, people behind the wheel wondering, “Who’s that crazy guy talking about rituals and all that crazy stuff?”

“I am your long lost son” Uncle Al would say when talking about his relationship to the manongs, the elderly Pilipino men, each of whom was a piece that made up the puzzle that was Uncle Al’s life.

I grew up watching him–long hair, dark rimmed glasses, sandals. I remember the first time i’d seen him read poetry. It was 1975 or so. I was unaware of poetry, the I-Hotel; unaware of everything except what my dad told me: “All you know how to do is eat, sleep and shit”. We had a pet bird in a cage that would repeat those words until i was convinced. So, with my eating, sleeping and shitting ways, i watched Uncle Al read poems at Civic Center during a citywide arts festival organized by my cousin’s grandfather Elio Benvenuto.

I remember Uncle Al reading a poem about white snow but what i remembered even more was his girlfriend at the time, who also read. She had this one line about someone wearing “Cakey Underwear”. I remember thinking, “Poetry is pretty Goddamn bizarre”. He described his girlfriend as an “ass kicking lady”. 20 years later she was the driving force behind the publication of his collection of poems, “Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark”.

In 1975 i was involved in a car accident while working as a paperboy for the San Francisco Examiner. I was struck by a Volkswagen bus while crossing California street while collecting from subscribers. The side mirror hit me on the head, leaving a golf ball sized lump. I was laid up for the summer with a fractured leg. I was hobbling on my crutches when i ran into Uncle Al on Clement Street. “Hey Tony, i got something for you”, he said.

He reached into a bag and pulled out a sarape. It looked like the one Clint Eastwood wore in “High Plains Drifter”. “Keep it away from the moths”, he said, “They dig it”. I slipped the sarape on and headed down the street in my crutches with Uncle Al.

We ate chow mein at a restaurant close by. As i was being weaned off crutches, i was sent to live with my mother in Orlando, Florida. It was a private school–red, white and blue uniforms; pledge of alliegance to the American and Christian flags. Someone had put a book in my suitcase when i had left. In it was the poem Uncle Al had written called, “Soon the White Snow will Melt”. I’d sit in my room and read it over and over. I didn’t understand it. All i understood was that i was in Florida where the temperatures got to 100 with an equal amount of humidity–and no snow. I was the only non-white kid in the school. What did the poem have to do with me? What was my crazy Uncle talking about when he wrote:

Soon the White
snow will melt

And the black, brown
yellow, red earth

Will come to
life

Time went by and i learned things along the way. I learned a lot by watching Uncle Al. He was very geniuine, very real and very kind. He gave of himself and never asked for anything in return.

On his birthday, i think about the everyday struggle of people’s to survive, locally and globally. He would want us to remember the manongs and the stories of the past. He would see the birth of the manongs in the brown faces of the children. He would want us to taste the poems of the manongs in our daily rituals of serving our communites, being born, being alive like a river moving through Manilatown.

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One Reply to “Happy Birthday Uncle Al!”

  1. Whenever I think of Al’s poetry, I always imagine a stream of clear water working with and against the stream. His voice was relentless but gentle, his desire to create change through poetry powerful but soothing. He is still the river running through Manilatown and into American Poetry. Thanks for these memories, Tony.

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