Ben Davis

Dad said: when I
Was growing up we wore
Bens…we’d put wax on
The creases then iron ‘em
To make ‘em sharp

King of creases
Creased smiles
Hands folded not
In knots of prayer but
Over kingdoms of tin
And aluminum, contemplating
The hissing contents thereof

The creases in pants
Creases in
Intricate patterns of stars
Collected In pockets
Creases in the road
Creases above the brow
Where dreams are drawn
In flat line scar tissue abstractions

In crease we trust
Increase the crease
The creases
The sharpness of a
Line of thought

The keen sharpness
In going from A to B
In a straight line
Going from one to
One hundred in a hot second

The crease of
The tongue

Pliable, able to
Make poetry
Music
Prophesy

And decrease
The bullshit
To a minimum

Within the
Sharpness
Of creases

© 2019 Tony Robles

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A Different Breed of Heart: Vote Yes on Prop C

Some give all of themselves, some give nothing.  Between these polar opposites is a wide gulf containing many things—indifference, apathy, hatred, disdain and—if we may be so bold as to say, empathy.  Our very notions of sharing have been distorted, misshapen to the point that sharing has become hoarding—rebranded, repackaged and served up on a platter of so-called community benefits—which begs the question, to whose benefit?  Some give all, when they have little or next to nothing to give.  Many have paid to allow others to flourish.  Many have asked for nothing in return. Their very presence is a blessing, a gift that cannot be quantified on an excel spreadsheet.  Many are working to undo the damage—some in the shadows, some in the open.

One such person is Jesus Perez, who I ran into after many months at the Coalition on Homelessness.  I remember Jesus when I worked as a tenant organizer in the Mission, working with tenants in SRO hotels.  Many tenants had problems of numerous kinds—physical, mental.  But at the same time I saw sharing, creativity, and wisdom gleaned from having struggled and prevailed or perhaps not prevailing but always trying to do so.  Many of the tenants had been homeless due to any number of circumstances.  I would see Jesus walk in and out of our office.  He always had a smile, was always eager to help.

He worked as an organizer with day laborers, worked with homeless families and children, delivering food and other needed items.  Jesus wasn’t looking for recognition, he was looking to help, looking to serve his community in a useful way.  A philosopher said, don’t just be good, be good for something.  Jesus was making good on that but he didn’t need the instruction of a philosopher, it was in his spirit, having struggled and seen what it means to be without and how one person could be a positive moving force.  Jesus didn’t make much money.  Oftentimes the work that is the most needed, the most important, is the work that is paid the least.

I continued my work as a housing advocate, losing touch with Jesus, seeing him occasionally.  Fast forward to 2018.  Proposition C is on the November ballot.  The Coalition on Homelessness helped write this measure that would tax the city’s richest corporations 0.5% on their gross receipts to fund housing for homeless folks, rental subsidies, mental health and addiction services and clean bathrooms and shelter. It is a miniscule tax considering the steroidian profits that some of the city’s corporations are taking in.  A half a percent tax on companies earning more than 50 million dollars a year—that is, a tax on profits exceeding 50 million.  Seems reasonable yet our mayor and the chamber of commerce (Still searching for that chamber pot of gold) are against it.  A half a percent (think of cutting a penny in half).  The mindset that would be against a half a percent tax on profits beyond 50 million is baffling to the extent that one searches into the ether for a reasonable explanation.  But, in actuality, we have no such luxury as ether gazing when the human suffering is abound in one of the richest—and when I refer to rich, I refer to money, because in many ways San Francisco is a very poor city with poverty on many levels–cities on the planet.

Several months ago I learned that Jesus had suffered a heart attack.  Afterwards he suffered a stroke.  The community came together to help raise money to help his family.  The image of Jesus breathing though an oxygen tube was heartbreaking.  Yet, Jesus’ heart did not stop; it was merely taking a break.  I was making a stop at the Coalition on Homeless to pick up materials for the PROP C campaign a few days ago.  I climbed the stairs and walked to the office.  How are you doing? A voice called out.  It was Jesus.  No tubes, no oxygen tank.  We spoke for a while.  He said he was feeling good, that he is taking care of himself.  Nothing could keep him away from the community, the work that gives his life meaning—not a heart attack, stroke, nothing.  It was good seeing him.  Seeing him lets me know the city’s heart is still beating in spite of the city’s efforts to beat down those who need uplifting the most, through bullying and disdain, bureaucratic and otherwise (and oftentimes for political gain), those who—despite being homeless—understand what community is.  “I’m back volunteering”, Jesus said.  We spoke for a while, catching up on things.  He’s taking care of himself by helping take care of others.  Jesus, good to see you, my brother.  In that spirit: Vote yes on PROP C.

Switchback

A voice can speak the silence of mountains.  A blending of voices can bring us closer to the unity of body and spirit, of spoken and unspoken, past and present.  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 the good things left to simmer before finding a home in our bellies.  I recently heard the call of such voices in Lake Lure–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 the pages 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 stepfather 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 they touch.  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 sits above us, perched in an impartial layer of ether.  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 of itself–separated from home.  We move onward to the down home home.

We turn off 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 omnipresent communion 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 song 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 to what Henry Miller wrote about 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 home and beyond.

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 is 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 tone 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.  I feel as if I am in communion in a first supper, last supper, and suppers to come.  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.  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 200 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 like the sound of a choir.

 

 

(c) 2016 Tony Robles

 

 

 

Hurt People

Hurt people
Bite the heads off
Nickels and swallow
Dimes with no chaser

They speak, sing
Cry out with
frozen Molasses
Throats that will
Not thaw

They lean against
Time on lampposts
Time leans on them

Waiting for God

Hurt people
Complex in their
Abundance of
Complexities that
Begat more
Complexity

Hurt people
Bleed out in
Blood Orange
and in black

Spilling out
Onto streets
Of blue

Washed over
Again and
Again

And bleed out
Again and
Again

a mural with
birth’s insistence

Covering and
Uncovering

Hurt people

© 2018 Tony Robles

Nothing to Write Home about

When I was a kid there was
A weatherman on TV who was
Blonde and wore glasses and
Looked rather studious

He predicted rain
He predicted sun
He predicted moisture

All of which was predicated
Upon more than intuition
As the cold fronts moved closer
And we adjusted to them
By adjusting our collars
Both religious and secular

And the weatherman invited kids
To send him something he called
“The Letter from Home”

He would feature drawings and
Scribblings from kids of
Local schools

Most of the drawings featured
Crayon carvings of trees, animals
Clouds, houses, sunlight and
Rain (Plenty of rain)

And I sent in a letter from home,
A picture of a house, a tree trunk
A cloud and a big dripping sun
That looked like an orange that
Had been used for batting practice

And I watched the weather report
In anticipation of seeing my
“Letter from Home”

And one day it happened, he showed
My drawing, announcing my name
And the school I attended

I felt like a celebrity for several
Days with teachers saying
They were proud of me for
My letter from home

I think of that letter
From home as I wait for
A letter from home, a letter
From my city

An envelope holding
A key to a city
That still knows me
(But pretends not to)

An envelope holding
A warm front
when all has become
so cold

And nothing
To write home
About

© 2018 Tony Robles

Laffing Sal

Sal, I ain’t
Seen you in
A long while

I remember the
Laughter trapped
In your belly that
Somehow found escape
At the fun house at
The beach

And the waves
Crashed against
The rocks in the
Distance while the
Undertow sucked
Sunlight through an
Invisible straw along
With soda pop of
Every flavor

You laughed at us
As we bumped into
Our reflection in mirrors
That bent our shapes
In every direction with
Our minds to follow

And slides and bumper
Cars that were solid
Like Studebakers, a
Bump, more like a crash
That could jar the bones

Sal, laughing lady
I miss your laughter
Your peanut and popcorn
Laughter
Uncanned laughter
That you could hear in
A seashell across the
Street if you didn’t have
The price for admission

Sal, I envied the way
You laughed through
Everything

The fights between
The black kids from
Fillmore and the white
Boys out in the Avenues

Jabbing and hooking
And stomping in a dance
Over whose street was
Who’s

Not to mention
Wars all over
The globe

And the bulldozers
And plots
And empty
Pots

lots of invisible lines
were crossed to get
to the fun house, to
get within earshot of
your laughter

invisible barriers
lines of demarcation
invisible bruises that
ripened below the surface

You laughed when
They took you out
Of the fun house

laughter that rendered
the ocean across the
street into a silence whose
fragrance remains moist
on the skin

And the
Undertow
Sucked at the
Sun

And the condos
Rose where
You had once
Been

Sal, are
You still
Laughing?

© 2017 Tony Robles

Infliction

At City College I majored
In broadcasting with dreams
Of being a radio DJ in my
Hometown of San Francisco

One of the required classes
Was broadcast announcing
And the instructor was a well
Known radio talk show host
Who had access to news and
Commercial scripts

He was a black brother,
Sharp, suit and tie, had
Apparently gone to Harvard

He had an affinity for
The Kennedys and was
Obviously extremely educated

My fellow classmates and I
Would read those scripts,
Slipping, stumbling and stuttering
Through sentences typed by
Someone we didn’t know

“Come to KC Dodge for
The best deals on cars and
Trucks in the Bay area!”

But when the instructor
Read them it sounded like
His voice had been carved
From a perfect wall of sound,
Each sound wave free of blips
Burps, hiccups

My grandmother listened to
His talk show and remarked,
He was a black guy who should
Have been a white guy

It was rather funny but if he
Was standing in front of talking
And you closed your eyes you’d
Swear he was white

But our eyes were
Open and he was black,
A Richmond District black
Brother with black roots
On a street paved gray

And one day he invited
The general manager of the
Top radio station in town for
A visit

And the kindly white haired
General manager spoke to us
About the inner workings of
A radio station

And one of my classmates,
A young black brother
With a voice that didn’t sound
Like the instructor’s blurted
Out a question, cutting off
The general manager in the
Middle of his presentation

“What about infliction?
I want to know about
Infliction”

I thought to myself,
He means inflection

And the instructor, a
Bit embarrassed, walked
Over to my classmate
And whispered something

Infliction was not
Heard again for
The remainder of
The presentation

Much has happened in
The 3 decades that
Have passed

The kindly radio station
General manager died, the
Announcing teacher continued
His successful radio talk
Show before landing a job
In local politics

The city lost 21% of
Its black population
And 10,000 Latino
Families

The police are shooting
At folks that look
Like my classmates from
City College

And the homeless
Bear witness to
It all

I never became
A radio DJ in San
Francisco but a
Poet instead

And that classmate
Those many years ago
Had it right all along:

Infliction

© 2018 Tony Robles