Santiago Goes to The Dentist

Santiago
Dreams Cuban
Beaches and beaten
Machetes

I went to the
Dentist,
He says

They replaced
My front tooth
And put caps
On 4 others

He opens
Wide

A bird sings
At the
Fang of rock

The ocean dances
Rhythmic foam
Of crane’s feet

Santiago
From Cuba

Chocolate skin,
Hair going
Thin

In San Francisco
Now

The dentist works
His art while Santiago
Smiles through hum
And wire

Closes his eyes,
Dreams the
Beach

Walks a street
That bears
His name

While Cranes beat
Wings in the
Hollow cave

Of his
Mouth
© 2006 Tony Robles

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You Sexy Thing

(Article originally published in POOR Magazine’s “Revolutionary Worker Scholar” column)

I believe in Miracles

Since you came along

You sexy thing

–You Sexy Thing, Hot Chocolate

It is 7:15 AM and I’m standing guard at a supermarket. The shelves are stocked with soups, toilet paper, cereals—everything. It is cold and I begin pacing back and forth. I think of tigers in cages. I feel a brotherhood with them although I am not locked in a cage. Music is piped into the store’s overhead speakers. Suddenly I hear the famous guitar riff of the 70’s hit “You sexy thing” by Hot Chocolate. The song was featured in the movie, “The Full Monty” where a group of unemployed steel workers in England—some of whom work as security guards for lack of anything else—devise a scheme to make big money as strippers. The final unforgettable scene shows the group dressed in security guard uniforms stripping at a club before an audience of screaming women.

I look at my uniform and want to dance—to tear my uniform off and dance while cans of soup and other items jump off the shelves and into the pockets and outstretched arms of people who walk right out the door and into the sunshine—no questions asked. I am jolted out of my daydream when the manager calls for a price check over the loudspeakers. People begin filtering in—I acknowledge each with a nod. They are elders, youth and migrants. I’m the first person they see.

My job is to be a deterrent to shoplifting. Would-be shoplifters are supposed to look at my uniform and see me as a symbol of authority–making a 360-degree turn and heading out the door. When I take my 10-minute break I go to the bathroom. I look in the mirror. I don’t see a symbol of authority but a symbol of a bad economy.

It’s been almost 20 years since I last worked as a security guard. To work as a guard you have to be licensed by the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. I got my “guard card” by taking a class provided by a security officer training school in Oakland. I remember the bold words captured in a frame in one of the school’s offices:

Those who adapt

Survive

Those who don’t

Die

Those words made me think of dinosaurs. I sat through the “powers of arrest” and “duties of a security officer” sections before watching a video on the security implications of the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The class was a cross section of elders, migrants, people of color and ex-military folks. One young man was given an ultimatum by his father, get a job as a security guard or join the marines. Another young man had ambitions of joining the California Highway Patrol. I sat in back of the class next to an elder from Fiji. We looked at each other, he nodded—he knew.

It’s 8:10 AM. More and more people filter in. Many are migrant Raza with families, many are African descended, Chinese and Russian elders. I am part of what is known as Loss Prevention—LP for short—making sure the store doesn’t lose potato ships, toilet paper, and freeze-dried noodle soup. But what of the losses that come through the door, each with a face that tells a story? The list of losses include:

Languages

Lands

Cultures

Identities

His(her)stories

Wives

Husbands

Children

Homes

Jobs

Sanity

Do those losses count–do they ever count? I stand at the front entrance and nod in acknowledgement.

Private security is one of the fastest growing industries in the US. 34 billion dollars a year is spent on private security services to protect private property. This reflects upon the rampant privatization of public safety services, shifting from protecting people to protecting property. In a report by http://www.themorningcall.com, between 11,000 and 15,000 companies employ over a million security officers—double that of police officers. According to Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the occupation of security officer has a turnover rate comparable to that of a fast food employee. In an economy that is spiraling downward, it is ironic that the only job many people can get relates to the enforcement of laws governing property rights. Prior to my security job, I worked as an employment counselor for a local non-profit. I helped low-income people find work and take part in community organizing campaigns. Now I work as a guard—it’s the only job I can get right now.

There were several candidates applying at the security-company that eventually hired me. All were African descended, a couple elders. One fellow had worked in the Tennessee prison system and had failed the test to become a San Francisco Police officer. His eyes lit like pools of flame when he talked about the starting salary of a SF cop. Another applicant was a woman who wore brown polyester suit with fingernails a deep shade of red. She looked like a muni bus driver but could have easily been my auntie. She expressed frustration of ageism in her job search. She then talked about her daughter who was attending classes at UC Berkeley. “My daughter is so smart,” she said, her face beaming.

It’s 9:50 AM and the traffic in the store is picking up. A houseless man walks in. According to my post orders, I am to ask all undesirables to leave the premises. Our eyes lock. I nod and wait for “You sexy thing” to come over the loudspeaker.

An Honest Review

I was talking to this
Black brother
Not long ago

He was the maintenance
Man in an apartment
Complex

He was working in the
Trash compactor room
And he had a radio playing
In the corner

There was much good
Shit coming out
Of that radio

It was like a soundtrack
Of my life, a score
Of ups and downs and missteps
And misfires and things that
Didn’t quite make the highlight
Reel

And the maintenance guy
Spoke about the old days
Which had been his young days
And somehow that garbage room
Became the church I’d been
Searching for

And all was cool

So I wrote an article
About my experience
Talking to the man
And sharing his music

And one day the
Man read it

I ran into him
The other day
And he said:

“Hey, you know
That shit you
Wrote was some
Ok shit

But you got
Some stuff
Wrong

I don’t got
No chipped tooth
And I ain’t from
Louisiana, I’m
From Oakland

And what’s that
Shit about the story
Of my life written on
My black skin?

The only thing
On my skin is
Ash and I use lotion
To take care of it”

The man spoke
a little while
Longer before leaving me
With the words:

“That shit you wrote
was ok but i cudda
wrote some better
shit than that”

He took out
His small bottle
Of lotion

put some
On

massaged it
In

© 2014 Tony Robles

Raza Children At Recess

By Tony Robles

I was moved deeply by something I recently witnessed on youtube. A group of minutemen and their supporters gathered with signs and requisite patriotic symbols in front of the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana in support of Arizona’s immigration law. It was a typical minuteman crowd, dripping of entitlement and no sense of responsibility for the history of the landscape that they so vociferously assert to love and defend—a history of murder, removal, and extermination of native peoples. “America for the Americans” and “Go back to Mexico” they say (as well as “God Bless America”). Again, the entitlement is astounding. Across the street from the minutemen was a school whose yard was filled with Raza children at recess. In beautiful resistance they began chanting: Me-xi-co…Me-xi-co…Me-xi-co! A feeling washed over my body as if I was deprived of oxygen and, in an instant, the breath of life entered me and nourished everything that had been lacking in my soul. A deep breath took me.

For the last 20 or so years I have worked as a security officer—off and on—making the rounds of the financial district, guarding the loading docks and lobbies of what Henry Miller described as the “Big tombs in the sky”. When I first started out, I was a young kid in community college studying broadcasting. The guard job gave me flexible hours and an uncomfortable polyester uniform—itchy, especially in the crotch area (that I dare not scratch), with a nice little policeman’s cap to top it off. I was dispatched to a variety of places. I was nervous, unsure of myself. I would end up with older guards, most of who seemed to have a desire to lecture me.

One such guy was the “field lieutenant”. He was a guy with a brilliant head of white hair. He stood erect and walked with an authoritative gait. He could have been speaker of the house. He explained my post duties to me as if my country depended on it. He then said, “Loose lips sink ships”. I thought, my goodness, what a dinosaur this guy is, laying the World War II stuff on me. He asked me if I’d ever heard of that expression and I, wanting to be respectful like my Filipino father taught me, answered no. The supervisor explained that talking loosely of security related business—namely ours—could make us vulnerable or, more to the point, sink our ship. I shook my head like a good boy, acting like I’d never heard such precious information, but in reality, I’d heard John Wayne say the same thing on a black and white rerun during “Dialing for Dollars”.

One particular post I was assigned to was an office building a block away from the Transamerica pyramid. The guy assigned to train me was an older man, white (White was his last name), who had seen a thousand guys like me pass through—young, brown and going to school (AKA: YBGTS). I was not in the security business as my life’s work (ala White) but as a means to an end. And–as I had done at the other security guard assignment–stayed quiet—and so did White.

But one day Mr. White spoke, going on for some time about immigrants and the way they freeload off society. And I stood there like a good boy, shaking my head while this man told me that the most important contributions to America were made by the founding fathers. I thought of the image of presidents carved onto Mount Rushmore and how a photo I’d once seen of Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and a young Muhammad Ali held more meaning for me. He stressed the words: most important. I was transfixed by his conviction, imparted unto me like the gospel from Charleton Heston himself. And who could dispute such a man as Charleton Heston, having co-starred with God in all those high budget movies (as well as being spokesman for the National Rifle Association–not to mention the hero in the Planet of the apes)? The man looked and spoke to me like I didn’t know anything. But in the back of my mind I knew that while he was erasing my people from history, their footprints were deep in the American landscape as Filipino agricultural workers, union organizers and leaders, poets and artists. Many ended up at the International Hotel 2 blocks away from our security post, fighting eviction from their homes and community. My people’s history was so close and yet there I was, getting a history lesson from a fellow security guard who thought he was better but was, in reality, making 6 dollars an hour just as I was. But I just stayed quiet as he spoke. It has bothered me for more than 20 years. I have never forgotten my silence.

Those children chanting Me-xi-co…Me-xi-co…in the face of the minutemen is everything I couldn’t say on that day. Their voices are the words I didn’t express when I was working with Mr. White. I thank those kids and want to tell them that their voices are heard, loud and clear, and that they have plenty to teach us. Now, when I feel I’m being silenced, I hear the words Me-xi-co…Me-xi-co…Me-xi-co. I hear those kids.

© 2010 Tony Robles

 

In My Country By Tony Robles

“How are you my friend?”

 

Marco picked up a broom from the supply cabinet.  His eyes drank the light of a partially open door down the hall.  He’d been in the basement since eight a.m. clearing out trash, mountains of it.  Much of it was paper that had been piling up for the last several months.  This is a goddamn fire hazard, the maintenance supervisor said.  Marco was the new guy, just hired three weeks ago.  He was given the coveted job of cleaning out the basement.  His hair was covered in gray dust, making him appear old.  The bristly mustache hanging above his lip, turning downwards at the corners, remained its brilliant black.

 

Marco hurried towards the door.  He wanted to breathe the sun. 

“Hey Marco!”

Marco stopped, turning away from the light.

“Yes my friend”

People knew his name.  They sung it.  It traveled like an arrow. 

“Marco, I need you to clear out room 403”

Mr. Franklin was the maintenance supervisor.  He had a policeman’s head and the body of a journeyman plumber.  He carried a leather bound notebook containing work orders.  Marco turned completely around. He followed Mr. Franklin.

 

“The guy in 403 died a couple days ago.  I need you to go and clear out the room.  Bag and tag the stuff in the unit”

“Who died”

“Willie…you know…older black guy”

Mr. Franklin handed Marco a key.  Marco tried to remember the man.  There were many older black men in the residential hotel. 

“What happened?”

“He was laying on the couch and died. It was three days before anybody noticed.  The guy in unit next to him got this bad nasal problem…couldn’t smell a damn thing.  A health worker found him when she came to visit”.

Marco shook his head and whispered something to himself.  His thoughts were back home.  He thought of his grandmother and how she walked, her steps heavy on the ground, leaving stories that the rains couldn’t wash away.

“I go upstairs”

 

Marco came to the bottom of the staircase.  He distrusted elevators.  He climbed the stairs, walking over each step like a stone in a river.  He listened to the sounds.  Each step had a different sound—squeaks, moans—muffled notes in a building made of parts long obsolete.  He heard someone call his name as he ascended the stairs.  He stopped.  He looked down and saw a small circle of people gathered around a bald woman in a black robe.  She gently tapped a metal gong.  The sound made Marco stand still for a moment, as if he were being transported: His heart taking the form of those things that had been hollowed out, cavernous and holding every sound, even the sounds that one could not hear but feel.  Marco had felt empty and collected all the unsaid words and suspicious glances of others —suspicion of his mother tongue and his immigration status– but also ambivalence of those who only saw him and people like him as subservient, entitled to treat an immigrant like him any way they pleased.  All those sounds he kept inside waiting for the chance to free them. He finally reached the top of the staircase.  403 was at the far end of the hall.  Marco walked, his keys jingling at his side. 

 

In my country I walk in the mountains.  I listen to the birds.  They tell me if rain is coming.  When the soldiers come, I hide.  Sometimes I sneak away to the mountains and look at the sky.  It is big.  I feel like I could swim in it like water.  I see every color in the sky and I close my eyes and sleep.  The gunfire is loud; I wake and see only red like the flowers in my grandmother’s hands.  I run so fast that I feel like my legs are running away from my body.  Sometimes I feel like I have no legs, only eyes that see the beauty and the sadness of my country.  Sometimes my eyes only see red mountains.

 

He put the key in the lock.  It was stubborn.  It clicked.  He opened the door.

“Hello?”

Marco stepped inside.  The air was warm with maple and cigarettes.  A kitchen table sat with jars and cups with burned on stains. 

“Who is it?”

Marco saw the figure of a man sitting on a couch partially covered in shadows.  It was a black man with grayish hair and a bright beard. 

“I’m maintenance.  They send me to clean.  They tell me the man who live here die”.

“Man, do I look dead to you?

“No”

“You damn right I ain’t dead. I been living here for 20 years.  Now get out of my room!”

“I’m sorry”

 

Marco went downstairs to the maintenance office.  The door was shut.  Mr. Franklin was on the phone, gesturing with his hands.  Marco waved but Mr. Franklin didn’t look at him.  Mr. Franklin hung up the phone and motioned Marco to enter. 

“I’m real busy right now”

Marco looked at the stack of papers on the desk.  He felt small.

“There’s a man in the room”

“What room?”

“403”

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know.  He’s sitting on the couch”

“Tell him to get out. We need to get that room clean for the new tenant”

Marco went back upstairs, this time trotting.  He opened the door.

“You back for another visit?”

The man was standing now.  He peered out the window at the expanse of a large brick building with faded advertisements. 

“You have to leave, my friend”

The man looked at Marco for a moment then sank into the couch.

“They been telling me to leave all my life.  Ain’t got no place to go…”

Marco watched the man lay back on the couch, struggling to lift his legs.  A table with flimsy legs stood next to the couch.  On it was a procession of pill bottles with faded expiration dates.  Marco walked over to the man, leaned over.

“I help you”   

Marco lifted the man’s legs and gently lay them atop a pillow at the ankles.  The man craned his neck, searching for a comfortable spot.  Marco looked at the pictures on another table, wrinkled black and white photos of young faces.  Another picture showed a man in a suit on a stage, a dancer perhaps.  The man looked at Marco through squinting eyes.  He took a hold of Marco’s wrist. 

“What’s your name, son?”

“I’m maintenance…I”

“No, no…your name?”

“My name is Marco”

“Where are you from?”

“My country?”

“Yeah”

“El Salvador”

“Do you miss your home?”

Marco did not answer.  He took the man’s hand in his own and lay it gently at his side.

“Can you get me a cup of water?”

 

In my country I live close to the river.  I used to walk with my brother to the sound of the river. We would run with the river and the sound would cool our faces and we would swim with the fish.  My brother, he was older.  He loved to sing…his voice was like the river.  I would listen and his songs flew like birds over the hills and trees.  We would laugh, and he would chase me like the wind.  Then the sounds of the guns came and the water no longer sang but stayed still in the color of the dead. 

 

Marco found a glass in the sink. He rinsed and filled it.  He saw a roach on the wall, climbing like a man scaling a mountain.  Marco saw a plant, green with reddish leaves.  He pressed his fingers into the dirt.  It was dry and went under his fingernails. He poured water on the dirt and placed it on a windowsill.  He brought the glass to the man.

“Thank you son”

Marco’s eyes fell on the picture of the man in a suit on a stage.  He saw the man’s legs move and suddenly there was applause.  He looked to the window and saw a bird’s flapping wings.

“I used to dance when I was young.  I danced all over.  I tapped, you know about tapping, right?  I danced all over the country…down south and out west.  I had women, lord how I had ‘em.  My daughter, she grown.  She’s a teacher somewhere down south. Let me get another sip of water”.

Marco raised the glass to the man’s lips.  The man took the glass and drained it.

“My mother saw me running by the river one day.  We were poor, real poor.  She said my legs would take me places one day.  Now my legs give me nothing but problems”.

The man sighed and looked up at the ceiling.  Marco reached over and massaged the man’s legs. 

 

In my country…

 

The man felt renewed.  He smiled then stood. He danced.  Marco sat and watched the man tap and bend and jump high until he reached the sky.  Soon the man was the man in the picture, young again.  Marco clapped as the man danced across the room.  The man danced until it became dark. He sank back into the couch, gray hair and old bones.  He closed his eyes and fell asleep.

 

Marco covered the man with a blanket.  He opened the window and placed a glass of water on the sill.  He lit a candle and placed it next to the glass.  He looked out at a bird perched on a nearby sill.  He filled the plastic bags with old clothes, pill bottles, papers, and garbage.  He cleaned the bathroom and kitchen.  He took the plastic bags to the basement storage room.  He brought the apartment key back to the maintenance office. 

“You finished with that room?” Mr. Franklin asked.

“Yes, I finish” Marco answered, handing back the key.

Marco put on his jacket and walked to the door.  He opened it.  The light washed over him.  He thought about the man in the picture and about his grandmother back home.  He looked out into the empty street.  It was like a river.  He walked and listened to the night, his legs taking him somewhere.

 

 

 

© 2009 Tony Robles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The City of Searching

I find myself in a city of searching. I didn’t just get here, didn’t arrive by car, plane, or boat; or by the lure of a tech job. Nor did I get here by accident. My family has a long history in the city. My great grandfather was a San Francisco fireman, my grandfather, a Muni driver. My father’s people ran the streets of Fillmore for decades, starting in the 1930’s. I have family that was part of the African American journey that weaved its way through the Sierra Mountains. But I find myself in my city, searching. The faces of the past are gone, by way of eviction and with them their stories. I search the streets for a face, a face that knows me, a face that sees me, not only in the present but a face with eyes that look into my face and say, with unsaid words: I remember you. Didn’t you go to George Washington High School? Didn’t you hang out in such and such a place? Eyes that connect dots written in a face, each dot a memory, a song triggering other memories that are like being submerged in cool water. It is beautiful to experience the spontaneous beauty of memories that come out of hibernation and see light and breathe; and when you come across someone whose face you know in a city that no longer knows you or acknowledges you, it’s one of those rare moments when life is once again lived.

I search for an unevicted face, an unbeaten face, a face unriddled by unsolvable riddles—a face that just is. I walk down the block from my job. In the skyline invading my eyes is the twitter headquarters where any number of bluebirds are perched. I hear no music. I keep walking and suddenly I hear music. I follow the sound. It’s James Brown, then it’s George Benson, then it’s the Dramatics, and Marvin Gaye. I must be close to heaven, I think to myself. I walk and walk and I get to the music. It is coming from the garbage room of an apartment complex where the smell of rotten vegetables mingles with scraps of this and that in heaps of discarded and forgotten matter that no longer matters, heading for a place that is out of sight, out of mind.

A man emerges from the corner of the garbage room. It’s a black brother who looks like he has worked the land. It’s a shame he’s in the garbage room of an apartment complex and not in nature. He smiles at me. Part of his front tooth is missing resembling an axe blade. His eyes see me, sharing its light. “Say man” I say. “My pop used to listen to that song. It’s from the Breezin’ Album, right?” The man looked at me. He was somewhat muscular in his work outfit, probably mid 50’s. “Yeah, that’s the album that got Benson a grammy” he replied. And we spoke about how George Benson had been nominated year after year for a grammy and had lost to Stevie Wonder and Lou Rawls. And he smiles and his smile became my smile.

The brother was from the city. He had worked in record shops in the past, in the Bayview off of 3rd Street and on Fillmore Street. I remember my uncle telling me about the record shops he went to years ago where you could listen to albums in a booth before buying them. And more songs came out of that speaker that was somehow mounted in the corner near the trash compactor. And the brother and I talked music, talked jazz, talked soul, talked the music of our lives written in smiles and faces above the drone of cranes invading the sky and looming shadows of skyscrapers where no light comes through.

And slowly that garbage room turned into a record shop. And the music became louder and the walls began to quiver with movement in our skin and blood. In the corner stood my uncle, sampling a record. He is young and music is written upon his face in a score that cannot be erased or deleted. And the brother walked over to me. No longer in a janitorial uniform, but dressed sharp. In his hand is a record. “Check this out” he says. I take the record. It slips from the jacket like a newborn. I put it on the turntable and put the needle in the grooves. The sound seeps into my skin. It is the sound of the brother’s life. I listen and let it take me away from this place.

Then, somebody turned on the trash compactor.

(Photo from http://www.foundsf.org)

Fading Frisco Tattoo

I remember them guys
I grew up
With

They ran fast
But they didn’t
Run from nobody

I was afraid of
Some of them
Guys

I ran from
Them but they
Could always catch
Me

I didn’t get
My ass kicked
Too much

Luckily my father
Taught me how
To box and I became
A master at ducking

And those guys
Were confident
(or seemed to be)
And the only time I
Felt like them was
In my dreams

And those guys
Had names like
Xavier
Darrell
Andre
Bobby
George
Jorge
Jimmy
Eddy
Ray
David
Herman

And those names
Are tattooed
In my mind

And those guys
Walk around now
With the word Frisco
Tattooed on their arms,
Necks, abdomens

And some of those
Guys are bus drivers
With name tags and
Some are employed or
Unemployed anonymously

And most are
No longer in the
City because of evictions
Or are living in cheap hotels
Or on the street

Many ain’t doin’
Too well,
Just hanging in there

The smell of the
City is in their skin
And it ain’t never gonna
Come off, so they stay

And I still see
Them guys in my
Dreams with their
Fading tattoos

And I run after
Them guys I grew
Up with, dark night
After dark night

And I can’t
Catch
Them

© 2014 Tony Robles