Oscar, Me and Aiiieeeee!

Recently I was asked to read poetry at a Filipino American History commemoration at the public library in the Bay Area town of Hercules.  Also invited to speak was poet, historian, educator and friend, Oscar Penaranda. I have known Oscar for many years and have much respect for him as a writer of great depth and humor.  He has been a positive influence on my life.  He was a close friend of my uncle, the late poet Al Robles of Manilatown and the I-Hotel and, after my uncle’s passing, honored him by starting an exchange trip called “The Al Robles Express”. The mission of the Al Robles Express was to bring Filipino Americans who had never been to the Philippines to the motherland, to connect with their cultural roots.  Al Robles had never travelled to the Philippines but his work was centered on the cultural identity of Filipinos and, prior to his unexpected death in 2009, a trip was planned for him to visit the motherland for the first time. It was through the Al Robles Express that I was to make my first journey to the Philippines in 2015, a trip that was life changing and continues to influence and shape my life as a poet.  Oscar, it can be said, is a man of specificity and details.  But in details, I do not refer to superfluous accounting of the minutia that spreads as freely as volcanic ash but in the details that provide a glimpse in to the connections of why one—or a community, specifically ours—behaves as it does.

 

Never one to be sucked in by the superficial, Oscar always delves below the surface.  In this sense, he is an explorer, donning his goggles of historian, teacher and poet to mine into the past and to present the evidence, the story, the patterns and, eventually, the glimpse into the future and its possibilities.  He presents us in our dignity, insisting that we do not speak or communicate in dialects but languages.  He has delved into our deep structure as Filipinos, exposing—for example–how our concept of Utang Na Loob—debt of gratitude–has been bastardized or corrupted to fit the colonizer’s concepts and capitalist notions whereby our relations to each other become predatory, or, at the very least, self-serving—using guilt to minimize or betray our true cultural selves in an indigenous sense. 

 

I had not known, early on, that Oscar was contributing author to Aiieeeee! Nor I had known the extent of his history at SF State College in the fight for ethnic studies.  I had read Oscar’s books, “Full Deck: Jokers Playing” and “Seasons by the Bay”, poetry and short story collections. I’d come across Aiieeeee! In a Goodwill store back in the late 90’s.  It was in immaculate condition.  I think I bought it for a dollar.  Upon glancing over the pages, I came across Oscar’s name and his story, “Dark Fiesta”.  I also came across other names: Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, Toshio Mori, Wakako Yamauchi and others.  I wasn’t familiar with any of them.  I put the book on a shelf and there it sat.  It moved from shelf to box, surviving multiple moves, relationships and changes of jobs.  I took another glimpse of it at one point and noticed that a thick layer of dust had formed on the cover.  I wiped it and dropped it back into the box, where it would remain.

 

Aiieeeee! When I first saw the title, I thought, what the fuck is an Aiieeeee?  I formed the word in my throat.  I thought it was perhaps a sound associated with constipation.  How many times had I entered a public restroom and heard some poor soul straining on the pot, crying out for relief from his maker to put him out of his state of misery—temporary but seeming like a lifetime?    I was later to learn that it was the sound was a cry, a grito, that was heard in martial arts movies.  The implication was that this, somehow, was the only voice that Asians had and that there were more sounds, more voices that begged—no, demanded—to be heard.  The faces of the authors in Aiieeeee! looked like the guys in my neighborhood, that is, a group of ghetto ass Chinese and Japanese guys who referred to each other as “blood” and could throw down and fight in the street.  I saw these guys in the playground, playing ball, smoking and doing whatever.  I had no idea what their history was, had no idea what they learned in Chinese School (If they went to Chinese school at all).  All I knew was that they sold my father bricks of fire crackers and that several went off in my hand.  The result was the feeling that someone had taken a gun and shot off 3 of my fingers—one by one.

 

But I saw guys like that when I looked at the faces of Inada, Chin, Wong and Chan.  One day I went to the playground to play basketball.  One of the Aiieeeee look-alikes happened to be the recreation monitor, responsible for dispersing basketballs, kickballs, tetherballs etc.  He was also a default babysitter, dealing with the requisite idiocy that comes with dealing with pre-teenaged boys.  Somehow, during my basketball game, the monitor and I exchanged words.  And somehow, one of the words that made its way out of my mouth was: chink.  What made me say it, I don’t remember, but it was directed towards the monitor, who was probably in his mid-twenties.  In response, he grabbed ahold of my trapezius (Not very well developed) muscle and squeezed, reminiscent of Mr. Spock on Star Trek.  However, unlike Spock’s vice grip, the monitor’s grip did not send me off into the world of the unconscious but did, however, cause much pain. 

 

I left, red-faced and teary eyed.  I went home and told my dad.  My 2 uncles were there.  I told them my account of events.  They left.  My heart grew a sort of shield of courage.  I had dispatched the commandos to whip that Chinese dude’s ass.  My dad and uncles would surely shove that basketball, tetherball—the whole sporting good shop—up his ass.  30 minutes or so went by.  My father and uncles returned.  My father approached me.  “Did you call that guy a chink?” he asked.  My tongue refused to move.  I looked at the floor.  “What you lookin’ at the floor for?” he asked.  “Answer me!”

“Yes” I said, softly.

“That Chinese dude was right to whip your ass”, my uncle said.

My dad pulled me by the earlobe and took me into the other room.  As I recall, he took off his belt and caused me to make much noise.  If memory serves me correctly (as well as my neighbors’ accounts of the audible histrionics), the sounds I made sounded like this:  Aiieeeee!   Aiieeeee!  Aiieeeee!  Each lash of my father’s thick belt sounded like blows I’d heard in Kung Fu movies—specifically Enter the Dragon and Kung Fu Mama.  The only thing missing was a pair of Kung Fu slippers.  Afterwards I cried myself to sleep, my Goodwill copy of Aiieeeee! and its thick dusty cover decades away.

 

Oscar Penaranda had recently contacted me, via the miracle of social media, and asked me if I had a copy of Aiieeeee!  He said that he’d been looking for a copy everywhere but couldn’t find one.  I told him I’d had a copy but it was covered in dust and that, if it was anywhere, it was in my storage unit in Alameda.  Another poet, with whom I recently travelled to the Philippines as part of the “Al Robles Express” journey had said that the criticism that white critics levied upon Filipino American literature was that it was, it seemed, inchoate.  The poet mispronounced “inchoate”, using a hard “ch”, as when you pronounce the word lechon.  Oscar corrected the poet with the correct pronunciation with an affected tone of, what we all recognized as intellectual bullshit.  But the point was that, somehow, the literature that our community or communities produced was not fully developed or in its infancy.  But our pain, our trials, our heartbreak, sorrows and joys were fully developed.  So, the consensus in that moment was that those who described our literature as “inchoate” were full of shit.  This was surely the sentiments of those who conceived Aiieeeee in the first play. 

 

At the library in Hercules, Oscar and I were in fine form.  Oscar read poems and clarified that our people speak languages, not dialects.  He spoke on the Philippine-American war, a history that many Americans (and Filipinos) know nothing or very little about.

 

At the program’s conclusion, I browsed the library and came upon a small shop that sold books.  As my eyes scanned the mystery and romance sections, they fell upon a book with a black, white and yellow cover.  I pulled it from the shelf.  It was a copy of Aiieeeee! in near mint condition.  I flipped the pages and came upon “Dark Fiesta”, Oscar’s story.  I bought the book and gave it to him.  I am going to ask him to loan me the book so I can finally read his and other stories that I have neglected to read.  I can say that I have, in other collections, read “The Woman who makes Swell Doughnuts” by Toshio Mori, perhaps the most beautiful short story I have ever read.  And Sam Tagatac’s “The New Anak”, a merging of poetry and filmmaking, made me wonder if I was reading a poem, a movie or both.  And Lawson Fusao Inada’s essay “The Real Inada”, written about his uncle, from his collection “Drawing the Line” inspired me to write “The Real Anthony” an essay about my own uncle and namesake.  And of course, Wakako Yamauchi’s gentle yet powerful probe into the soul of the dreams of the lonely and lost.

 

If and when Oscar decides to let me borrow his copy of Aiieeeee! I will make sure that no dust collects on the cover or pages.  The stories within it might be old but they are reborn when encountered by new eyes.

 

© 2019 Tony Robles

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Snake Whisperer By Florence Mayberry (My mom :))

It was 10:30 p.m. the night before Mother’s Day. I was getting ready to prepare for bed and as I crossed the pathway that led to my bedroom I noted a long brown cord- like something lying across the threshold and part way up the door jamb. Knowing that there shouldn’t be a cord there, I proceeded with caution when I saw the head move. I backed away slightly and yelled to my husband,

“Pete, “there’s a snake on the floor in front of the bedroom.”

“What?” says Pete, half awake and barely hearing my shout through the headphones connected to the T.V. that were wrapped around his head from ear to ear.

“What are you saying?” He says, slowly elevating himself from the lounge chair in which he had been sitting.

 “There’s a snake in the bedroom” I said, as I pointed to the presence of the serpentine creature.

“On the carpet,” I repeated and kept pointing to the floor in front of me “

“Get me a bucket and a stiff piece of cardboard,” he commanded, finally aware of the immediacy of the situation.

I gave him the mop bucket from the laundry room and headed upstairs to my office for some cardboard, but could only find the limp remains of last year’s desk calendar—which I proceeded to grab and ferry down the stairs while Pete yelled

“Hurry up.”

Pete meanwhile was attempting to contain our unwelcome visitor within the bucket while shoving the flimsy but large desk calendar underneath the container. It didn’t work because in our haste we failed to realize that the bucket had a recessed spout so out comes the snake and rears its head at Pete. In Pete’s haste to re-contain it, he slips on the carpet. Pete goes one way and the snake goes the other way—right to the worst possible place—in the corner, in back of our chest freezer. At that point, as Pete regained his stance, we realized we were screwed. We needed assistance. But who could we call at 10:30 p.m.? No agencies would send anyone out at that time of night, and our next door neighbor was vacationing in Florida and I certainly didn’t want to sleep with a snake of unknown variety loose in the house. That left only one option—the Bat Cave Volunteer Fire Dept. They had rescued us in the past when our car got stuck coming home on an icy mountain road last winter. With the fire chief being a Christian man and a friend, surely he wouldn’t want us to be held hostage in our own home and would take pity on us and dispatch someone with more “snake catching” ability than we possessed to help us to extract the compact yet wily viper that Pete had pre-determined–non-evidence-based– could possibly be a baby rattlesnake although he didn’t see any rattles. It was then that we thought of our neighbor and firefighter, Rob who lives across the ‘holler’.

About fifteen minutes later, Rob arrived with his tools and a makeshift wire hanger as a “snake-catching” instrument, accompanied unexpectedly by his wife Jennifer, also a firefighter. Jennifer smiled as she entered our living room and that one gesture brought me a level of peace.   

“It’s over there in back of the freezer” both Pete and I said in unison.

After a cursory flash of both the sides and back of the freezer with his powerful flashlight, and me doing the same with my less than adequate flashlight just to appear to be helpful, Rob announced the snake had probably gone into the bottom of the freezer through an opening in the back; Jennifer agreed.  So, without hesitation, Rob took out a screwdriver and removed the faceplate to gain access to the freezer’s mechanism while Pete fumbled to unplug the unit. The decision paid off. Within minutes Rob had located the snake and was able to determine it was a Rat Snake that would bite, although was not venomous. Meanwhile, we took a few minutes to discuss the game-plan for the next step which was to coax out the snake.

Jennifer took the lead.  “I’ll do it “she said, to Rob, and began donning a long heavy glove. As I already stated, it was only hours until Mother’s Day and Jennifer was on all fours, peering through the small opening for eyeshot of the snake. After locating it and offering a few gentle words of encouragement directed toward the reptile, Jennifer signaled she had a hold of it and proceeded to pull it out as Rob looked on—no need for the makeshift wire hanger. Once the snake had been secured, Jennifer held it up for us to see before taking it out and releasing it back into nature.

“Jennifer, you’re my hero” was all I could say.

A mere hour before the Mother’s Day holiday began, I watched Jennifer, wife, mother of three, midwife, and firefighter demonstrate what it means to be a mother. Not only can she deliver a baby, and fight a fire, but apparently she is also a snake whisperer as well.

Thank you Jennifer and Rob for responding to our frantic late-night plea for help in what was a most inconvenient hour.  

For that we honor you both.

(c) 2019 Florence Mayberry

The Fragrance of Missmelled Words

I was always fascinated with words.  I was fascinated with the way words sang, the way they could shape ideas and inform us—for better or worse. But there is also a tendency for words—or more aptly—for those of us who use words in abundance to say very little.  For instance, some phrases have been so overused as to render their meanings meaningless. 

“How was your weekend?” is one such phrase.  I have worked in my share of offices where this question popped up with frequency.  We all—with the exception of the sadists (Of whom there were plenty)—dreaded returning to work, to the dreaded phones.  My poor hands, callused by the phone’s rough surface, my ears, just as calloused after being chewed out by many, including one Mr. Sandinsky out in some Midwest town.  This place of employment was an insurance company and the good Mr. Sandinsky was rather perturbed at my inability to secure his colonoscopy report.  I pleaded his patience, declaring—via another overused and rather meaningless phrase—“We’re bending over backwards trying to get it.”

“How was your weekend?”  This question always seemed a feeble attempt at establishing a buffer between the reality of being at a job we hated and the weekend we barely enjoyed.  Add to that, the person asking “How was your weekend?” neither cared about your or your weekend.  This person is acutely aware of your disdain for the job and the asking, “How was your weekend?” is a way of rubbing your face in the fact that the weekend is no longer here.  If the person asking is acutely unaware of your disdain for your job, this person is likely a manager and is fulfilling, as is incumbent in a manager, his or her mandate in being as oblivious to the employees around him or her as possible.  However, there is consolation in the fact that there are florescent lights to bask underneath should you desire to catch a few rays in lieu of an actual beach or park.

There are as many misused words as there are misused people.  Another such word is revitalization or renewal.  This word is used to justify razing communities and with it the memory of communities and lives that have been part of a particular area (which, in this day and age, means almost everywhere).  Revitalization suggests that the thing being revitalized or proposed to be revitalized, lacks energy, and also suggests that it was never vital to begin with.  But revitalization is just another word, a marketing term filled with promise, conjuring images of newness and forward thinking but, in reality, the vision lacks longevity because it lacks vision; its vision, if any, is hatched in marketing classes and think tanks, cloaked in words that hold the odor of air freshener concocted in laboratories and the like.  However, it seems that regardless of how much renewal and revitalization is proposed and implemented, someone ultimately comes out on the short end with the lingering smell of empty words.

Another empty phrase that has permeated our daily communication is “No worries”.  This phrase is often accompanied by a gratuitous chipperness that suggests all is well on all fronts.  When it is uttered it is said with a contrived sincerity and with its overuse, suggests that it is not given much thought when used. Such thoughtlessness gives us plenty to worry about.  The phrase itself is a crutch phrase, one that sounds snappy and perky but it reality is—to use the words of my beloved Grandmother—flatter than piss on a plate. 

Yet another phrase I have heard with increasing frequency at office meetings, political gatherings and other locales one that is directed as a response to a question.  It goes like this, a question is asked and the response is as follows: that’s a great question, thanks for asking”.  The sincerity of this phrase is often cloaked with insincerity.  It seems, to my ears at least, that what is really mean is, “Why the hell did you have to ask that (fill in the blank) question?

I suppose what I am opposed to is contrived language or contrived words.  Contrived words spring from the well of contrived emotions.  This is the language of bureaucrats whose real mission is to deceive and disempower (So they can maintain their jobs).  Contrived words turn into contrived emotions and this creates contrived people. 

Not to sound completely bitchy, but—I am on a roll here—there is yet another word that needs to be exposed for its overuse and diminished meaning: Fierce.  People describe themselves and others as fierce but when I see/hear said people, they have the ferocity of a goldfish; an overestimation of the self by those who are oversaturated by their opinions of themselves and grandiose notions of others who are not deserving of having such an adjective attached to them.  To quote my grandmother once again, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back”. 

There are misspelled words and missmelled words.  It is a good idea to catch them when they present themselves.  I can smell them now: How was your weekend?

© 2019 Tony Robles

Father as Editor

In many ways fathers are like editors.  We grow up and they dictate our actions, our thoughts.  If we are fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to have our fathers present, we know, particularly as young men, the role of editor that the father plays or fulfills.  Editors in both film and the written word are entrusted with cutting things out.  I can hear the voices of fathers who have taken the helm and done due diligence in this area:

Hey, cut it out!

Cut the bullshit!

Cut the crap!

Cut the nonsense!

The whole purpose is to engender within the child an ability to self-edit.  That is, shut up without being told.  Crying and whining is a child’s roar.  It is the way they articulate, with requisite animated gestures and copious amounts of blubbering, their frustration or the fact that they are simply pain in the ass spoiled brats.  “Stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” was my father’s standard response to my crying.  Before I became an adult, I thought his response was unique, original.  I learned otherwise, that almost all fathers used it because it was quick and handy, like a belt, a leather shoe or slipper; or perhaps its wide use reflected the lack of imagination of said fathers as they, likely, were unable to come up with anything better. 

I was a talkative child.  My father told me that I sounded like a duck—quack, quack, quack.  He attempted to combat my unbridled babbling by dispatching me to perform some chore or other, such as cleaning the toilet.  Perhaps, in hindsight, he was trying to teach me a lesson, as the toilet had an even bigger mouth than I, the only difference being that there was a lid on the toilet.  My father, in a further attempt to shut me up, tried—on occasion—bribery.  “Look, kid” he’d say, “I’ll give you a quarter if you can be quiet for an hour.”  I don’t believe I earned much, being unable to zip it.  “Don’t give me any of your lip” was another one of his favorites, not original, but it gave a clear representation of what he was trying to communicate. 

There were times that I truly needed to be edited, such as when mouthing off to grandma.  A good editing was a good smack across the top (or side) of my big head, and perhaps accompanied by a good kick in the ass.  There was no talking, no negotiating, no time out—only lights out.  The knowledge that your father could kick off in your ass was ever present—a clear and present danger—that I understood, that fell in line with the fact that I couldn’t be allowed to get away with too much.  I needed a good editing.  My father provided that.  Sometimes in school I would compare editing stories with my schoolmates:

“Hey, did your dad edit you?

“Yeah, with a belt, what about you?”

“With an extension cord”

“Damn”

“Yeah, and he was in a good mood”

“Wow”

“He’s a great editor”

“Yeah, ok”

This was back before the term toxic masculinity came into vogue, and certainly before botoxic femininity—not to mention “smash the patriarchy”. I was more familiar with plateriarchy with my father communicating to me that I better finish all the food on my plate or I’d get knocked upside my head. I didn’t understand it at the time, however, seeing as he had 3 children to support, a job that he didn’t quite enjoy–not to mention bleeding gums and a persistent case of athlete’s foot–he had plenty on his plate and didn’t have time for miscellaneous bullshit. Our fathers, at least the ones I was exposed to, were not chatty.  They didn’t take 10 minutes to order a cup of coffee nor did their voices omit an overwhelmingly nasal quality so prevalent today.  They did not talk out of their noses nor did they talk out of their ass.  I suppose what this boils down to is the lesson: when to talk and when to shut up.

This is a valuable lesson as the tongue is, reportedly, the strongest muscle in the human body.  Our fathers were men of few words.  You never really knew what they were thinking.  There was Mr. Kwok, my elementary schoolmate Jason’s dad who seemed to communicate entirely by grunting.  He often wore a robe while sequestered in his bedroom.  He opened the door during one of my visits and I was overcome with the odor of Vicks Vapor Rub. This dark rimmed glasses were rather crooked and somewhat fogged.  On one occasion he did emerge from his room to prepare a fried egg sandwich for us.  His hands were quite nimble as he beat the eggs for several minutes.  Somehow the sounds of the egg beating seemed to articulate all he couldn’t say.  He plopped the eggs on the bread and sat and watched us eat.

He just looked at us.  I felt rather uncomfortable eating his food while he sat in that rather musty bathrobe, his breathing audible, not grunting but sounding like a combination purr and squeaky door.  I looked at Mr. Kwok’s face, it was a tired clock set with cobwebs and a pair of eyes that looked like 2 drops of ink covered in a thin film.  He looked at me.  Looking back on it, he was editing as he pondered my face.  He saw the goofy kid that was me and what I was likely to become in 20 years—one of those guys working a nowhere job, drinking, perhaps in jail or worse.  In looking back at his face I saw a face that could easily be adapted to a horror movie, without the aid of make-up.  In short, Jerome’s father got up and returned to his Vicks Vapor Rub suite but not before giving me a look that said, Jerome better stop hanging out with this loser

There were other fathers I remember while growing up.  Some grunted, others mumbled, some stumbled while others had a perpetual look, a frown or an expression that suggested a state of chronic constipation.  The great comic George Carlin once said that if hell exists, it’s loaded with fathers.  Nonetheless I see, with hindsight, that those fathers were editors who got us to shut up when appropriate.  They imposed silence at the appropriate times. 

In finding ones voice, it is necessary to find the fill-in-the-blank silences that bring so much to writing, so much to creativity.  The writer Charles Bukowski, whose father was a notorious editor—his editing tool of choice a razor strop—called these silences the “area of pause”.  To find this area, for many, is a lifelong quest.  For the writer it is an absolute necessity.  Call it toxic masculinity but it was what  I, and many others needed at the time, along with an egg sandwich and the smell of Vicks Vapor Rub.

© 2019 Tony Robles

Who Could Ask for Anything More?—An Open Letter to Tony Bennett Part II and Review of his San Jose Concert

Dear Mr. Bennett:

I rarely dress up.  Outside of a funeral, you’d never see me in a tie.  So when I learned you were coming to The City National Civic Theater in San Jose as part of the “I Left My Heart” tour, I got a ticket for my best friend and I.  I grew up listening to your album, “Tony Bennett’s greatest Hits”, among my father’s favorites–a beacon in a collection that added up to the hundreds.  I can still see the cover, a gray background and you donning a white shirt with high collar, your hands gesticulating anguish yet pleading the power of the voice to inevitably triumph over the odds—come what may.  A mutual friend saw me in my light blue shirt, blue tie and blue sport coat.  He was taken by it.  After all, I am an activist whose standard attire is a T-Shirt and a hooded sweatshirt. 

“You look quite dapper”, said my friend.

“I’m going to see Tony Bennett”

“The singer?”

“Is there any other Tony Bennett?”

“You look…different…all dolled up.”

“This ain’t Justin Beavers I’m going to see”, I replied, “I’m going to see Tony Bennett.  You dress accordingly—with class, respect.”

“Justin Beavers?”

“Yeah and Toss Justin Timberlake and Justin Herman in there too.”

“Justin Herman didn’t make music.”

“Yeah, I know” I replied, adjusting my tie

I had waited a long time to see you in person.  Now my wait was about to end.

My friend and I entered the theater. We were in the 4th row.  In front of me a woman with towering blonde hair.  I would be craning my neck for sure, I thought.  The lights went down.  Enter Antonia Bennett and the Tony Bennett quartet. Antonia has inherited your charisma, with a unique voice.  She has clearly taken in the pages of the song book written by the great composers with sassy versions of Old Black Magic and Someone to Watch over me.  Her version of From this Moment On cast a shadow of reflection over the packed audience with the timeless lyric: 

For you’ve got the love I need so much
Got the skin I love to touch
Got the arms to hold me tight
Got the sweet lips to kiss me goodnight

She intimated to the audience that you taught her much about being a singer, about being a human being and dedicated Billie Holiday’s “You’re a Lucky Guy” to you.  And finally belting out a passionate song of the lust for life:

From this happy day, no more blue songs
Only whoop-dee-doo songs, from this moment on

To me, her voice was like the fragrance of a flower you’d never before smelled.  Her resemblance to you is strong and she very capably set the tone, along with the quartet for your entrance.

I looked around the theater.  It was packed with mostly older folk—some with metal walkers but spry nonetheless–with a generous helping of middle aged folk sprinkled with young folks who appeared to be in their early 30’s.  It was all I expected—made up hair, sequins, leopard prints, shawls, floral prints, a cowboy hat, and an Aloha shirt tossed in for good measure. 

Then, enter Frank:  The voice of Frank Sinatra over the PA saying something to the effect of, “This cat, Tony Bennett, is the best singer in the world today.”  And then: enter you.

Applause, standing ovation–you in a gray silk suit, arms wide in a gesture of embrace.  Enter your voice, familiar and still powerful at the age of 92.  Songs sung, heard, felt; songs that move us through the cycles, the conundrums of this life.  You: enter us.

In Love: It amazes me what she sees in me…Steppin’ out with my baby

In Loneliness: In my solitude you taunt me with memories that never die

I sat in the audience and, in the songs you interpret, bring to life, refuse to let die—I think of my city and of the lives and isolation of its people. Your songs echo their feelings, articulate the despair as in the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

The joy that you find here you borrow
You cannot keep it long it seems
But gigolo and gigolette
Still sing a song and dance along
The boulevard of broken dreams

The author James Baldwin said that it is the artists, the poets, ultimately, that show us what it means—not only to live in this world–but to survive it.  The singer’s is the voice to the human interaction, the condition—in a melodious movement of molecules in the form of sound that becomes one with the living parts of our being and to the world.  The writer Ralph Ellison, in the book Shadow and Act, tells us that “One of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time.”  Timeless songs are the ones that are the most powerful.

A medley of your hits included your rendition of Hank Williams’s Cold, Cold Heart.  The ensuing years since you recorded it (1951) have brought an even deeper meaning in the current state of the world, our country and in my city, San Francisco, where the heart has grown not only cold, but dropping to levels of freezing.  And in the audience I can see them, the seniors who have been evicted and displaced, they are here, their spirits somehow one with the music—Carl Jensen, Iris Canada, Ron Lickers—and countless others who our city forgot but who many of us, holding on to the hope of our city refuse to forget, holding on to shadows:

The shadow of your smile
When you are gone
Will color all my dreams
And light the dawn

And, of course, there was, in homage to Sinatra, “Fly me to the Moon”, “The Way You look tonight” and “One for my baby (and another for the road), complete with shot glass.  I took those songs as being in homage to your audience, here in San Jose, and worldwide, who are surely the source of your longevity no doubt. And again, your timeless voice:

Love is funny or is sad

A good thing or its bad

The Tony Bennett Quartet kept up with you at every step with ripe guitar riffs, piano solos that were reminiscent of the great Bill Evans, up-tempo, mid-tempo—every tempo that reached into our hearts with understatement both seductive and jubilant—like a tide under a quiet moon that illuminates the world on its darkest nights.

My friend, who accompanied me to your show, was very moved by your rendition of “In my solitude”, bringing to memory his own father after the passing of his wife of more than 50 years.  The couple, William and Blanca, both joined somewhere else while my friend feels their presence in this theater, and in all places and spaces—their spirits and memory sure to enter.

In my solitude
I’m afraid
Dear Lord above
Send back my love

Mr. Bennett, I think of the seniors in SF who are isolated, who are threatened with homelessness.  I think of the fight for deeply affordable housing going on right now in our city.  Are your songs political?  It is for the listener to behold and take in the meaning. A line in one of your songs pierced my mind and still resonates:  Our love is here to stay

Thank you for a wonderful show.  And as we continue to fight for the heart of the city of San Francisco, we can’t forget the words you sang on Friday, How do you keep the music playing?

In spite of everything, we must continue to try.  Who could ask for anything more?

© 2019 Tony Robles

(Photo by Soundkick.com)

SF Speaks

I ate the poets
I ate the seniors
I ate the blacks
I ate the browns
(The ash and hash browns too)
I ate the disabled

I ate the homework that
The dog supposedly ate
And I ate the dog
Because it belonged
To a homeless person

I ate the homeless
I ate independent recyclers
I ate the people that call it Frisco
I ate rent control
I ate mom and pop
i ate the murals
I ate the homeless vets
I ate the street musicians
I ate the street painters
I ate an iris and spit it out
I ate the mission
I ate hunters point
I ate Fillmore
I ate the street sheet

My atred
Is a clean wide White
Sheet covering a
7×7 space

Moving in figure
Ates

Did I mention that
I ate the blacks,
They are 3% of my
Population

I will continue
To ate them, will
Wash their 3% down
With 2% milk

I ate the low-income people
I ate the low-wage workers

I ate them,
I ate them all

I ate the memory of
The transbay terminal

i love you
i ate you
i love you
i ate you

I ate you
more

i ate
you

(C) 2019 Tony Robles.

Frisco Fiasco

SF, you bring out the
Fare evader in me
The wanna knock out
The fare inspector in me
The cut in line at
The DMV in me
The public transit
Seat hog in me
The unpaid parking
Fines in me
The fuck you for
Giving me the ticket
In the first place in me
The cough and sneeze
Without covering up in me
The bump into you
And not say excuse
Me in me
The fuck the
N Judah in me
The God bless the
22 Fillmore in me
The When’s the
Earthquake coming
In me
You bring out the
Fuck burning Man
And Bay to breakers
In me
You bring out the
F*** the police in me
You bring out the
Orange jumpsuit in me
And the 415 in me
And the not give up my seat
To an elder in me
You bring up the sourdough
Chickenshit bread bowl
Hardening in my stomach
In me
You bring out the
Fuck the Midwest
Messiah in me
SF, you bring out the
Broken mirror in me
You bring out the fuck
You in me and the kiss
My ass in me and the
God, please forgive me
In me and the
Forgotten songs in me
SF, you bring out the
Debts in me and the
Ambivalence in me
And the turn my back
On my brother in me
And the bureaucratic
Asshole in me
You bring out the fuck you
For nickel and diming me
You bring out the fuck
Your crookedest street
And the toll to drive on it
In me and
The forgot where I
Came from in me
And the hidden
Frisco tattoo in me
You bring out the
Chickenshit smile
In me and you bring out
The generosity in me
And the tears in me
That think they are
Tourists and here for the
Short-term and the smile
In me and the Frisco
In me and the fiasco
In me and the Frisco
Fiasco Frisco fiasco
Frisco fiasco Frisco
Fiasco In me

You motherfucker
You

(C) 2019 Tony Robles.