Scales

Scales
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

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Top Cop (or the bee keeper)

Top Cop (Or the Bee Keeper)
By Tony Robles

He walked in with a belt
Equipped with mace, a taser,
Handcuffs and, upon closer
Inspection, a can of what
Appeared to be Van Camps
Pork and beans

I was the new guy on his
First day of work as a security
Officer at a supermarket
In the barrio

I was to receive my training
On my responsibilities as
A security guard from
This man

I looked at the tazer,
(Also known as a non-lethal
electronic stun gun)
It looked like a .45

He said he had
Caught a woman stealing
Roasted herb chicken
The day before

Told me he had special
Friends on the police force
And that he played golf and
Went to their houses for dinner

He said he was involved in
Clandestine governmental
Operations that he couldn’t
Discuss (Of course)

We stood and watched people
Select food laden with
Sodium and fat

He told me that my job was
To be a visual deterrent
To shoplifting

Occasionally a female
Would walk by and he would
Remark under his breath

Nice ass

He said he was a
Bee keeper in his
Spare time, knew everything
There was to know about bees

Said that bees don’t like
The color black
For some reason

A few minutes later this
African Descended guy I knew
Walked in wearing a yellow
Rain suit

It was raining and Ernie
Was black, dark honey
Choocolate black and looking
Like a 5 foot 10 inch bee

We stood and the guy with
The taser then told me
Of a kidney problem he
Had been plagued with

He had spent time
In the hospital
With excruciating pain

Said he drinks lots
Of water to insure
His piss is always clear

Since our meeting the
Guy with the taser has
Been transferred to
Another post

And I’m drinking
More water

© 2009 Tony Robles

In a State of Sunshine

In a State of Sunshine
By Tony Robles

For reasons once illusive to me, I attracted the attention of a redneck in Orlando, Florida in the summer of 1977. I recall it vividly because that was the year our beloved king, Elvis Presley, died. I was about 13, undergoing the eruption of pimples and masturbation. Rubbing against a pillow—rubbing against anything—became my top priority in life. I’d sit in my bedroom, looking thru a bug screen waiting to catch a glimpse of the pretty blond girls walking or riding their bikes. The neighborhood was dominated by the color white. People wore white shirts, drove white cars, wiped their mouths with white napkins, ate white bread sandwiches and, of course, wiped their asses with white toilet paper. I remember putting on my white shirt those many mornings on my way to private school. I was the only Pilipino kid in a private Christian school—brown boy in a sea of white shirts. The official school uniform was red, white, and blue—the color of an Elvis jumpsuit. The slacks were polyester bellbottoms and I remember my sweaty crotch in the Florida heat. Everybody wore the polyester uniform—even the principal. He was a rigid looking guy who appeared oblivious to any discomfort. However, he did sometimes express joy when it came time to paddle a student for whatever infraction. I recall being paddled for throwing a small wad of paper, moistened with spit, at the head of a schoolmate. Unfortunately, the wad landed on the principal’s head whom unbeknownst to me, was standing nearby. He brought me into his office and told me his intention of lowering the paddle upon my brown ass. I followed him across the classroom—the eyes of the brown and blonde haired students glancing at me, some smiling, as they knew what lay ahead. We walked into the office—a somewhat sterile place. On his desk was a miniature American and Christian flag; next to it a picture of his wife—a middle aged, dark haired woman with antiseptic eyes—plain looking with zero chance of occupying any sexual fantasy I’d ever have. I grabbed the side of his desk almost out of instinct.
“I have to do this”, he said, licking his lips, lifting the paddle from his desk. “The reason”, he continued, “Is because I love you with the love of the lord”.
I wished he’d just shut up and spare me the sermon but he was the principal and felt the need for a speech before the deed—just to let me know he had compassion. I recall the blood rushing to my face as I waited for the principal’s first blow. My knees became steadily weaker and finally a gush of air and a hard WHACK! I recollect the initial blow making contact with my left ass cheek. My initial reaction was shock, fear and disbelief. One more time now…WHACK! This time the paddle struck both of my ass cheeks simultaneously. Shame made its way through my body in waves traveling down to my toes and then upward through my back. I tried to tighten my ass cheeks but that strategy proved futile. WHACK! The third stroke was the hardest, the force of which was similar to a perfectly executed forehand in tennis. I didn’t look back at the principal’s face, but I felt his joy (…and sorrow). He only managed the faintest of grunts in this most arduous of tasks. That third blow carried such force that the momentum knocked me forward and drove me head first into a pane glass window, shielded by a bug screen. My forehead hit the glass (or rather, the bug screen) solidly, while some beautiful trees and bushes waved at me freely outside. I cannot recall what happened afterwards with much clarity. All I remember was the principal telling me how he loved me, patting me on the head (and ass) and sending me back to my desk.

What I remember most was the intense heat—walking down those suburban streets feeling both oppressed and massaged by it. I wore black leather shoes—platforms with 3” heels—that felt as though I were walking on the sun. It was during one of my many walks home that I first encountered the neighborhood redneck up close. He lived in a blue and white house that hadn’t seen paint in years. The white portion of the house was covered in gray soot and the grass and weeds in the front yard were nearly 3 feet high. As I walked towards his house, taking the usual route, I noticed him—up close and in the flesh. He was about 5’ 9” with a belly that hung over his belt. He wore black pants with black cowboy boots—topped with a black cowboy hat. He looked as though a mid-sized pillow was stuffed inside his shirt—like Elvis. I walked closer towards him, trying to avoid eye contact. What I saw upon glancing at him made me fall down laughing inside. There he was, 250 plus pounds of belly, standing there twirling a pair of silver nunchuks. He twirled and, alternating between his left and right hand, whacked the black cowboy hat right off his head with a semi-mighty swing. The cowboy hat flew off as though yanked by the wind. The hat hit the ground and rolled towards me, stopping at my platform shoes with the 3” heels.
“That’s my hat”, he said, the nunchuks dangling at his side.
I looked down at the hat and looked up at him. We both waited for each other to make a move. With heavy steps he walked over, bent down with ease and picked up his hat.
“You live around here?” he asked.
His face was puffy with small pimples on his chin. His teeth were a light shade of brown.
“I live down the street” I replied.
“Yeah…I know”
He put the hat back on and twirled the nunchuks in a figure 8-motion, which looked more like a figure 3 motion. He squinted as he whipped the nunchuks around and around, trying not to knock his hat off.
“This is hard to learn”, he said, twirling. “I saw Bruce Lee do it in a movie so I bought these nunchuks at the flea market”.
The nunchuks were silver and heavy. Bruce Lee was dead but there were other Bruce’s to take his place, and they all seemed to be making movies. There was Bruce Ly, Bruce Lye, Bruce Li, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lei and Bruce Lyi and Bruce Eel. There were lots of Lies calling themselves Lee and lot’s of Lee’s calling themselves Lie. But this fellow and his nunchuks were touched by a Lee or a Lie and went about his twirling with genuine gusto. He stopped twirling having become somewhat winded.
“My name’s Mark…”
“I’m Anthony”
“I’ve seen you around”
This was true. We had seen each other in passing. My mother drove a Mercedes Benz and, not knowing the politics of it, caught the attention of people on the street. It wasn’t attention in the sense that people observe cars to make sure a collision is avoided, but rather, it was attention accompanied by the unsaid question, “How did those dark people get a Mercedes?”
One day my mother drove her Mercedes. I was in the back seat. We drove past houses lined with beautiful orange trees for blocks. We came upon a dirty house in the middle of the block. A fat guy in a cowboy hat stood in the driveway. I put my face close to the window and we caught each other’s eyes. He spit something dark on the pavement. It wasn’t a sloppy type of spit, but a well-timed, well-aimed spit that hit the cement with precision. I was in the well-insulated confines of my mother’s car so I gave the guy the finger as we drove by, his big gut and cowboy hat getting smaller in the distance.
“Where ya go to school?” he asked, spitting on the ground, sizzling and evaporating within seconds.
“Agape’ School” I replied, beads of sweat forming on my back, slowly trickling down.
“Agape’? What’s that?”
“It means God’s love, or something like that…”
“Hmmmm”
I thought that Agape’ could quite possibly mean “Principal paddling my ass”.
The sun continued to burn, it seemed that it would burn anything in its way, any kind of matter—concrete, metal, human flesh. I looked at Mark with his cowboy hat, boots and jacket. How did a guy who wore so many clothes in burning hot weather not fall down and die? He dug into his pants pocket, which required some effort and pulled out a plastic sandwich bag.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Steak fat…you want some?”
“Nope”
Mark pulled out a piece of steak fat between his thumb and index finger. He popped it into his mouth and chewed as though it was tobacco—only this time, he didn’t spit.
“You like animals?” he asked through lips shiny with grease.
“Yeah, I guess” I replied
“What about snakes?”
“No”
Mark took off his cowboy hat. His black hair was oily and shined in the sun. He wiped his forehead and stuck the hat back on his head.
“You wanna see my snake…?”
“Ok”
Mark put the metallic nunchuks around his neck. I followed him to the front door of his house. I looked at the lawn. It was a combination of crab grass, dead grass, weeds, a deflated miniature swimming pool and a few empty candy wrappers.
“This is my house”, Mark said as he opened the door.
We walked in. The air was heavy—a smothering blanket of heat that rested on your shoulders until you couldn’t move. The house smelled of maple syrup. The walls seemed to sweat. On the floor a fan spun, creating more hot air.
“You want something to eat?”, Mark asked.
“Yeah”
Mark went into the kitchen, which was near the bedroom. In the kitchen doorway hung colorful beads, the kind you find at the flea market. In the living room sat an old couch made of green leather—which was, in comparison with the rest of the furnishings in the house—in perfect condition. On the wall just above the couch was a large Ameican flag, held down by thumbtacks. Just below the flag, on the wall were dozens of pictures of Elvis Presley. I looked closely at the pictures. There he was–Elvis, the king—middle aged and fat, a ring on every finger, striking karate poses and ripping the back of his pants. It looked like a religious shrine.
“You like Moon pies?” a voice asked.
I turned around and saw Mark chewing something again. Melted chocolate stained the corners of his mouth. I took the moon pie and ripped through the plastic. It melted before I got it into my mouth. We stood there for some time. The air got heavier and I felt like sitting down but I didn’t because he didn’t.
I glanced at the Elvis pictures again.
“You like Elvis?” Mark asked, crumbling the plastic moon pie wrapper, placing it in his pocket.
“He’s ok I guess”
“My dad likes him. He went to the funeral…”
Mark walked over to a record player, underneath a collection of records. He pulled out a record and handed it to me.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“It’s Jim Croce”.
“Who’s that?”
“You know…Bad Bad Leroy Brown”. He died too. But not like Elvis.
He flipped the album over and looked at Jim Croce’s picture, getting melted moon pie on it in the process.
“I have something in the back I want to show you…”
Mark hobbled across the living room over to a door in the back of the house. I followed with half a moon pie in my hand and a smile on my face.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see…”
I followed Mark’s wobbly steps. The heels of his cowboy boots were worn. We reached a back porch, and walked through another door. The sun hit us full frontal as we made our way outside.
“Watch your step” Mark said as we walked over a pile of empty beer cans and TV Dinner boxes. We came upon a swimming pool that was the deep color of jade. I walked along the edge. Green hairs seemed to sprout from the sides.
“Watch out!” Mark blurted as he pushed me slightly.
I laughed nervously.
“I got an alligator in that pool”, said Mark, a curled lip smile forming on his face.
“For real?”
“Yeah, but he’ll only come up when I tell him to…”
“Oh”
I looked around and the backyard looked worse than the front. Weeds shot from the ground, which seemed to grow by the minute. A few feet away were a stack of empty milk cartons.
“Come here”, said Mark, squatting—the crack of his ass showing clear as day.
I walked over and saw a small aquarium where a snake sat, coiled.
“Is it poisonous?” I asked.
“Nah, it’s harmless”.
Mark reached into the aquarium. The snake recoiled but Mark grabbed it by the head and held it at eye level.
“It’s a baby black racer…”
The snake slithered between Mark’s fingers.
“Here, you hold it…”
Mark gave me the snake and it slithered and wrapped itself around my fingers. It felt like cold leather but it felt good. Mark took off his hat and looked up into the sky. His eyes fell on me for a while.
“What?” I asked.
“Did you give me the finger?” he asked.
“What?” I asked again.
Did you give me the finger?”
Mark stuck his middle finger underneath my nose to illustrate what he meant.
“No I didn’t” I replied as the snake sat still in my hand.
Mark spit on the grass.
“I saw you that day in the car with your mom”
I scratched my back, reaching uncomfortably for the spot, while taking my eyes off Mark.
“I didn’t do it. You must’ve seen someone else…”
“What kind of car does your mother drive?”
“A Datsun”
“Don’t lie to me you little fucker!”
“I swear to God, it wasn’t me!”
Mark didn’t reply. He walked over to a wooden box. On the end was mesh wiring.
“Come and take a look at this”, Mark said, standing above the box.
I walked past the algae infested swimming pool and came to the box.
“Take a look” Mark said, pointing downward.
I bent down and saw the face of a monkey. It could have been a baboon. Its face was pink and he looked at me with the saddest eyes in the world. It looked defeated, as though it had never known freedom. We were face to face. I looked and knew what it was feeling. He seemed to look into me, knowing my thoughts, knowing that I would come. The question was would I set him free?
Mark grabbed the handle of the wooden box and set it alongside the house. I thought about the monkey’s eyes but didn’t want to see them ever again. I wanted to get out of there at that moment but politeness kept me there. We went back into the house and Mark offered me another moon pie, which I refused. I walked past the Elvis shrine and looked into the King’s sad eyes. As I walked out the door, I felt a little cooler. The sun was melting into another part of the world. The fragrance of orange trees filled my nostrils as Mark’s eyes followed me walking towards my house.
“Hey!” a voice called.
I looked back. It was Mark giving me the finger, a big smile on his face. He spit and walked back to his house. I kept walking toward home feeling the last bit of sunlight falling on my back.

© 2005 Tony Robles

text one you love

Text one your love
By Tony Robles

I see my father,
A few years
Past 60 relaxing
On the island of
Oahu

Ponytail snapping
In the wind

I ask him what
Happened to his
Pompadour and he
Says that everything
Changes

You got to
Change with
The times, son

He listens to a little
Rap and drinks
Coffee with a
Shot of espresso

This is a man
Who used to strictly
Drink coffee in
Chinatown

Warm, brown
And 25 cents a
Cup

(In Styrofoam)

He got a cell phone
Not long ago and
Would call once in
A while

Now he’s starting
To send
Text messages

I couldn’t
Believe it

He used to have
Trouble with
Call waiting

He sent me
One that
Said

You’re a good
Son

I’d never
Heard that
From him before

But like
He says,
Everything changes

Even
Him

© 2009 Tony Robles