By Tony Robles
When I was a kid I was told that I could read the story of my people in the scales of a fish. I would go to the fish markets in Chinatown and in my neighborhood with Grandma. The trees lining the sidewalks swayed and seemed to bow—her colorful kerchief prompting a sort of recognition and respect. Grandma knew fish by its eyes. In its eyes you can see your Grandmother and Grandfather. Grandma wore big dark sunglasses as she navigated past dry cleaners, florists, pastry shops, restaurants and barber shops; the faces inside the windows offering a smile, wave or nod of acknowledgement. Sometimes they’d come outside. “Is that your grandson?” they’d ask, “He’s so big now”. I didn’t recognize some of the faces but they knew me. Then they’d speak Filipino and laugh in Filipino too.
To me, fish stunk—I’d try to wash the smell from my hands but it only got stronger. I’d look at the fish and meats behind the glass counter sitting on beds of crushed ice, basking in a florescent hue. The men behind the counter wore white shirts and bloody aprons. I peered into the glass looking at the pig’s feet, oxtails, beef tongues, gizzards, pig ears, pig noses, livers, kidneys. To my young mind, those parts were separate from the whole animal. I never thought of the slaughtering–I only saw their parts–real animals lived in the zoo. I was fascinated by hearts and brains. “Is that a fish?” I once asked, seeing something I didn’t recognize. “That’s tripe”, Grandma said. “Tripe?” I asked. “It’s the stomach” she laughed, poking me in my belly. The butcher behind the counter wore a white shirt with red stitching that read: Franco. He held a very large knife and he’d smile at me and I’d hide behind grandma. I’d look at the red stained apron and imagine him cutting off one of my arms or fingers. Grandma would say, I want a pound of this or I want that fish; and Franco would pick out the item but sometimes he’d get it wrong…and grandma would say, “Not dis one…dat one” and Franco would say, dis one? And Grandma would say no…dat one, and Franco would say, “What you want…dis or dat? They’d go on for several minutes like that. I’d carry bags for Grandma—fish eyes peeking through the plastic bags, packed in with bok choy, daikon, spinich, malunggay, cabbage, ginger and other things. We’d get home and Grandma would fill the pot with rice. She taught me to wash the rice until clear and to measure the water up to the second line of my index finger.
Grandma had a wooden cutting board in the shape of a pig. “Grandma, what was it like in the Philippines?” I’d ask. Grandma would laugh. “What do you want to know about that for?” I would tell her that her eldest son said that the history of our people is written in the scales of fish. “Forget that crazy talk”, Grandma would say. “Your Uncle is always writing poetry on the trees and on the walls. I am always scrubbing his nonsense off my walls. He needs to stop writing that goofy poetry and wearing those goofy sandals. All his talk about the rainforest, brown skin, carabaos, and mangoes in the moon. He needs to get a haircut and a job”. She would chase him around the house with a pair of scissors, looking to snip off his ponytail—whipping around the house until his poems slid off the walls and onto the floor. I picked up the words, trying to put them back on the walls but they stayed in my hands—I couldn’t wash it off—the words smelled like fish. Grandma cut the fish with a large knife that looked like an axe. It was the size of her (and my) arm. I looked at the fish; the fish looked at me. I looked at the scales, trying to see something. “Stop looking at the fish and set the table” Grandma said. The pig shaped cutting board was sturdy and stoic–not a squeal.
We ate. I was still looking at the scales. I thought that maybe if I swallowed the scales, something magical would happen. Maybe I’d turn into a fishboy, with scales head to foot. I could get snakeskin or alligator shoes like my dad to blend with my new skin; then I would be appropriately outfitted to learn the story of my people. I dreamed about it. There I was, dressed to a tee, new skin and all asking a university professor if he knew the story of my people. The prof took off his glasses, looked at me and my getup and said, “And what people are those?”
Once, I took the head of the fish, popped the eye out and ate it. I closed my eyes tight and chewed. It was hard–it tasted like a hardboiled egg. “Good, Good”, my uncle said. “You have an eye for poetry”. I tried real hard to see the story of my people in the scales. I’d sit at the table staring at the fish while my uncles talked about the neighborhood where they grew up–being one of a handful of Filipino families living in the Fillmore—known as the Harlem of the West Coast. They talked about Grandpa, who looked like a Filipino Cab Calloway. Grandma shook her head and said, “Your daddy never drove a cab”. Grandpa had been a boxer, cannery worker, cook, shipyard worker, dancer, merchant seaman, mechanic—and ten thousand other things. I never knew him—I met him once—he was old and sick and in a bathrobe twice as big as him. His room smelled of menthol and I was afraid to walk over to him. He reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a tootsie roll. He died shortly after. Grandma and Grandpa were among the first Filipinos to come to the US, settling in San Francisco. They spoke with accents. They sometimes spoke Filipino in front of the kids. “Talk English, Ma” they’d say, trying to imitate Kirk Douglas or some other star they’d seen at the movies. Grandma would talk about my Uncles hanging out with those black guys on the corner. My uncle would say, “What you talkin’ ‘bout black guys, ma—with your Filipino African nose. Grandma would snap, “Shut up” as the rice boiled.
My uncles would talk about the gangs they ran with in the 50’s and 60’s. It was a helluva time, the day of the gladiator—200 hundred guys walking down the street ready to fight or help a lady carry groceries home. The sound of jazz was everywhere—the music made of words buried deep and kept inside for too long—black and brown fingers walking the keys, black over white. They spoke of the BBQ pit, the Movie Theater, the black newspapers, the police raids. It was like Spanish Harlem, my uncle would say—but instead of Puerto Ricans, it was Filipinos running with the bloods.
Their words filled the kitchen. I was submerged in it, scales and all. I swam in the music of their voices—the conga, tapping rhythm of their skin. Slap me five, they’d say. I ate my fish and grandma said, “Fish is brain food kid. Study hard. They can never take that away from you”.
More than 30 years later I’m still here—still in the city. My grandma left on her spiritual journey but still speaks to me through the eyes of fish. My uncles are older, some have moved out of San Francisco–some have passed on. Many of their friends, beautiful black men who I remember as a kid—giving me a buck, letting me win a game of basketball or checkers, showing me how to box and talk to a girl (which I was never good at)—many are gone. San Francisco has been cruel to black folks. My uncles talked about redevelopment and how it forced many residents out of the neighborhood, leaving behind empty lots and memories. My family was the last one on the block to leave–surrounded by houses with condemned signs, old Victorian flats. My father watched as the rich antique dealers descended on these places, extracting fixtures and cleaning places out—hauling out banisters and intricately designed mantels to resell in their shops in Marin County. The bulldozers were waiting to erase my family’s name from the street. They took the house but our roots remained.
I plan on staying in my city—a 4th generation San Franciscan. Today I rode the bus through Chinatown and my Grandma’s voice came to me. I thought of the fish and how the river runs through its eyes. As the bus moved slowly through Stockton Street, I looked out the window. People with shopping bags, women with children slung on their backs—bags of food in hand—men moving boxes, thousands of fish in tanks swimming, vegetables of every shape and color sitting, waiting in the beauty of stillness—if only temporary. As we moved along I saw a small crowd of people gathered on the corner. I couldn’t see the object of their attention. The bus inched further and I saw him—a young African-American kid—about 12 or so. He stood beside a bucket. He reached inside and pulled out a fish. He pointed at it and held it up proudly. The fish sparkled in the light of the Chinatown sun. I knew that fish—it was the one I’d been looking for my whole life. I saw some of the folks laughing while others inspected the fish. As the bus pulled away, the passenger next to me asked, “Did they catch that kid stealing?” I looked at the man—a typical new arrival, the type that talks about all the cool places he goes to—or plans to go to—and how cool everything is. I said nothing. The bus continued through Chinatown. I pulled the cord to get off at the next stop. I had to run back to that kid and that fish. I got on my cell phone and called my uncle. I told him I’d just seen the first black owned fish market in Chinatown. “You jivin’” he said. “No” I responded. I saw the scales.
© 2010 Tony Robles