By Tony Robles

Nelson was this big
Irish kid that lived
Up the street from
My grandma

He used to hang out
With this black kid
Named “D” who lived
Near him

Nelson’s hair was brown
And unkempt which
Made it all the more

He wore Ben Davis pants
And sometimes he’d walk
Down the street shirtless in
The sun, skin peeling from
His back

He walked with this
Swagger that said
The street was his
(And D’s until D moved)

Nelson hit high school
And got big and strong
And if you gave him a
Spotted robe you’d mistake
Him for Tarzan

Once I ran into him
On the bus and he told
Me of a drink he had
At a bar

It was a Zombie he
Said, made with
10 different liquors

He smiled and the skin
Peeled from his freckled
Nose and from his teeth

He pulled the
Cord and got
Off the bus

I watched him

He was something to see

We got out of
High school and most
Of us went to college
(Community College)

I got out of college,
Went here and there
And never saw Nelson

But the other day
This guy got on
The bus

He moved slowly
To the rear
And sat

He started talking
In a raspy voice
To no one in particular

I’m Irish, Swedish
On my Mother’s
Side he said

I looked at his eyes
And his puffy face and
The gray that played
On his temples

It was Nelson, a
45 year old man
looking about 60

He nodded to a few
Passengers getting
On, saying God bless or
Just hello

He pulled the
Cord, walked past
Me and got off
The bus

I watched him
Walk down the street
Like he owned it

It was something to see

© 2010 Tony Robles



By Tony Robles

“Our worst men lock up our best men”
–Charles Bukowski

It was my Goddamn Frisco sweatshirt. I didn’t even buy it. I found it on a banister, tried it on. It fit like my own skin. Maybe it was my own skin. I was riding my bike down Market Street on the way to meet a friend for coffee—a half block from my destination—the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC), where my friend works. I think of Market Street and how many times I’ve walked its face, balanced myself on its spine. I see faces of all kinds—faces that have stories that come from places so deep that I am often saddened that most of those stories go untold.

I was on my bike in my city on my way to meet a friend. Between the both of us, we have a combined 87 years of residence in the city. I glided past houseless folks, landless folks, elders, Filipinos, yuppies, bikers, artists, office workers, recyclers etc. As I got closer to the PUC, I saw a group of 6 or 7 goofy looking folks in blue uniforms. They were gathered near the entrance of Trinity Plaza. I am a Children’s book author. In my book, “Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel”, Trinity Plaza was the inspiration for the “Makibaka Hotel”—the site where elders and youth come together to fight their eviction by a greedy landlord.

The 6 or 7 goofy looking folks were members of the San Francisco Police Department—all men and one female officer. There’s something about uniforms I’ve never liked. Perhaps it’s the starched quality or perhaps the dullness of it. I wore a blue uniform once while working at a fast food establishment, and I currently wear one in my present job as a security officer—guarding the property of a landowner—while, I myself, own no land (The uniform isn’t mine either). The uniforms aren’t fit for Bozo the Clown (which was one of the reasons why I was wearing the Frisco sweatshirt…I wanted something more flattering). The polyester pants are uncomfortable and my underwear always ends up in my ass. The cops look as if they have the same problem, although they obviously do their best to conceal it (I think). A uniform is a convenient thing to hide behind, much like a flag. The shirt I wear as a security officer is sky blue as opposed to the SFPD’s dark blue (blue, blue…my love is blue), making me look more like a meter maid or MUNI fare collector.

On this day I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the word “Frisco” emblazoned on it in red letters (Why not Frisco…I was born here). The cops looked at me cruising on my bike and ordered me to stop, saying: “You know you’re not supposed to be riding on the sidewalk”. I told the cop that I was less than half a block away from the PUC to meet a friend. The female officer asked to see my ID. I produced it. “Have you ever been arrested?” she asked. “No” “Are you on parole?” “No” Oh really, she said, as if surprised. She checked my ID with some faceless person over her radio. The male officer stood close by, to make sure I knew he was there. The ID check was swift, performed before I had the chance to bow, do the sign of the cross or slip into a compliant yoga position with my neck fully exposed (lucky me). Her official sounding radio communication was reminiscent of a Harrison Ford Movie (Without Harrison Ford).

It’s true–I’d never been arrested. I’d never gotten anything heavier than a parking ticket. I am a children’s book author and co-editor of POOR Magazine—a fact that doesn’t make me better than anyone else, but certainly doesn’t make me any worse either. But I know folks who have been arrested and incarcerated—some of the best folks I know. For some reason I get along with them—often times better than I get along with people who have not served time. We sit, talk, laugh and eat donuts while watching the world go by. I stood waiting for the cop to return my ID. A few yards away were 6 or 7 youth of color, mostly African descended, sweeping the streets and leveling dirt at the base of trees lining the sidewalk. The female officer returned my ID as if she was disappointed I hadn’t lied about not being on probation. I looked at her and her nightstick which was almost as big as she was. She looked like a typical American born Chinese girl from the Richmond District (I shouldn’t say that, I know…it’s profiling), that hotbed of resistance (Thank God for Eric Mar). I had a sense that it was her first taste of power—but I could be wrong. The male officer tried to be friendly, thanking me for my time in the same way a prospective employer does when he knows you don’t have shot in hell of getting the job. I took my ID and as I pushed my bike to the PUC one of the young street sweepers said, “Man, they ain’t got nothing better to do”. I nodded thinking that it was an injustice that these young people have to sweep streets for officers to walk on.

I watched the news report that said Johannes Mehserle wept on the stand during the trial for the murder of Oscar Grant. He thought he was reaching for his taser. I thought of way Oscar Grant was brutalized before the shot was fired–forced down face first, knees on his neck. He was just a young black man whose life wasn’t worth anything—that’s the message—broadcast on TV and all over the internet for the world to see. For young men of color, people of color—particularly black people—the blue uniform doesn’t mean truth and justice—it means death—namely theirs, especially if they speak out or resist being violated. I think of my grandfather who came here as an immigrant from the Philippines in the 20’s. The Filipinos were brutalized by the police in the cities. My grandfather was among them, handcuffed to a lamppost on Kearny Street near the Hall of Justice and, ironically, not far from the International Hotel–where our elders resisted eviction while mounted police forced their way through a human barricade 8 deep.

I was upset at being stopped by the cops like that. Their attitude is that they own you. My grandfather’s story, my story, my children’s story or anything I’ve written, in that moment, didn’t seem to matter—as well as the stories or lives of the street sweepers that are written in the streets. The arbitrary manner in which I was stopped, because of my sweatshirt and race, is indicative of the race and class profiling that is perpetrated upon communities of color in our lovely and wonderful city.

My experience is nothing compared to what happened to POOR Legal Scholar Marlon Crump—in his SRO hotel room when officers stormed in with guns drawn on the wrong person. To Edress Stelly, Oscar Grant and many others who have died or sustained serious injury at the hands of the police. I walk my city and look at the big buildings—designed to make you feel small and powerless—in much the same way law enforcement is designed. Who put those big buildings there to make us feel small? Who are these people that are here to “serve and protect”? What are they here to protect and who put them here? Who is profiling them? Who? And why do I have to respect them when they do not have an ounce of respect for me or my skin?

© 2010 Tony Robles

A Moment

A Moment

I feel my heart
slipping away like
a fish through a
pair of oily hands

i see the dolphin
leaping over
the moon

My father’s voice
is static from
a seashell

i see dragons
swallowed by
the manhole

(c) 2010 Tony Robles

Found this poem in the dumpster at work

I am a poet who yearns to dance on rooftops, to whisper delicate lines about joy and the
Blessings of human understanding

I try. I go to my land, my tower of words and bolt the door, but the typewriters doesn’t
Fade out the sound of blasting and muffled outrage
My own days bring me slaps on the face. Everyday I am deluged with reminders.
That this is not my land and this is my land

I do not believe in the war between races
But in this country
There is war

Croissant Poem

By Tony Robles

This somewhat
Well-dressed guy
Came into the donut
Shop this morning

He asked for a croissant
And the Chinese guy
Behind the counter picked
Up a croissant with his tongs

The man then said, I don’t
Want a plain croissant,
I want a chocolate

The way the man pronounced
The word croissant was
Annoying, as if he were in
His first semester of French
In community college

No chocolate croissant,
Said the Chinese

What about an almond
Croissant, don’t you
Have almond croissants
The man asked

I sat with
My coffee

What about a
Foot in your
Ass croissant?

But I just
Kept it
To myself

© 2009 Tony Robles


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

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