I can’t understand the fascination with mayonnaise. I go into a sandwich shop and i tell the guy, no mayo. And what does he do…? He lays the mayo. It’s so predictable…like the sandwich maker himself with his bad beard, converse tennis shoes and shirt that looked as if it hadn’t seen a washing machine in months. The annoying thing is the assumption that everyone likes this stuff. I’ve always been partial to mustard…regular mustard, like French’s…and not the Dijon stuff. To me, mayonnaise serves no purpose but to create more mayonnaise, if that makes any sense.
By Tony Robles
One of the powerful things within poetry is its connectedness to ourselves and our world. Poems are meant to bring us together with nature, with ourselves and with others. My uncle, the poet Al Robles, said that our “poetry is the best part of our struggle and the best part of our struggle is our poetry”. The connectedness we feel or want to feel becomes severed, disjointed, when we reach our places of employment. We are pulled apart, inch by inch, our eyes and noses are separated from our faces—we become disfigured and, in the reflection of the bathroom mirror, we barely notice. Those whose hearts and guts and minds are furnaces raging against injustice oftentimes find a dead-end sign located at their desk or workstation or in whatever position they happen to occupy at their places of employment. Oftentimes the higher you go on the work ladder, the more disconnected one gets from the ability to see, hear, feel—that is, the places where poetry breathes. Poetry prompts us to question our surroundings, especially authority. In this sense, poetry and work are a clash of fundamental opposites.
Henry Miller described, in his essay “The Staff of Life”, the following sequence of events: “Poor bread, bad teeth, indigestion, constipation, halitosis, sexual starvation, disease and accidents, the operating table, artificial limbs, spectacles, baldness, kidney and bladder trouble, neurosis, psychosis, schizophrenia, war and famine. Start with the American loaf of bread so beautifully wrapped in cellophane and you end up on the scrap heap at 45”. What Miller referred to as the “Staff of Life” was bread. He asserted that one could travel fifty thousand miles in America without tasting a good piece of bread. In the slice of American bread he tasted nothing; it was just filler that reflected a lack of sustenance, a perfect illustration of the “core of life being contaminated”. If our bread lacks life giving sustenance, one can say that it lacks poetry and poetry is the bread of life.
So, being 45 years of age, I am trying to avoid the scrap heap, trying to spend my time with worthwhile endeavors—that is, things that are worth my time. When I worked as an employment counselor at a local non-profit inferior complex agency (NPIC), I worked with mostly African-American and Latino men (and some white men who had been stripped of their entitlement for various reasons). My job was to train them in obtaining jobs as maintenance men or janitors or recyclers (For the beloved Folsom Street Fair). I’d sit with these men and talk. And for all the hardships that were written on their faces, all the prison sentences survived, their lives still held beauty. There was something about them that was different than what I’d encountered when working downtown at a life insurance company. While at that company, my concern was not in life but in death—for what is an insurance company but the very antithesis of life. I began asking these men what their dream jobs were.
Some of them laughed at the thought of entertaining the idea of a dream job. But a few looked inside themselves. One man told me he wanted to be the curator of an art gallery. “J” was a highly talented artist whose drawing of Che Guevara captured both fire and tenderness. Another man told me he waned to be an athletic director or coach working with kids. But in the backdrop was paperwork and protocols and, of course, the requisite meetings—all of which told me these men were somehow destined or not deserving of that dream job, or even a dream itself. That is the tragedy—the bread of no sustenance. But the poetry those men held and still hold was enough to sustain us within a system that was not meant to sustain any of us. We’d sit and laugh and sustain each other, bringing the poetry through, no matter what.
Which brings me to my dream job. I’ve given it some thought, and after a hundred (mostly bad) jobs, I have come to the conclusion that my life would be best served carrying bags. I want a job carrying bags of groceries for my elders. I want to carry bags of food or whatever else up staircases reaching far into the sky as the elders take a hold of my arm and guide me in the direction that is right—that is, the direction closest to my heart. It is the best feeling I can describe and the best use of my time. My uncle, the poet, was a coordinator for a senior meal program and I’d help him bring the rice upstairs and I had a boss who was cool enough to let me do it, knowing I’d get to work a little late. But she had the sense to know the connection between carrying rice up flights of stairs and the interconnectedness of things. I was late to work a few times but never late to my destination.
Let it be so. Let me have that dream job. And let me be compensated by just carrying those bags—for our elders have carried and endured much for us—poverty, disrespect, racism; but also laughter, hope and dreams. I climb the stairs carrying those bags that contain the sustenance of life, the poetry that is the best part of our struggle.
© 2010 Tony Robles
Birth of the Carabao Cleaning Service (Later known as “The Filipino Building Maintenance Co.)
By Tony Robles
It started the moment my uncle, the poet, wrote the lines—
A handful of carabao
Dung has more spirit
Than 10,000 white men
I thought my uncle was crazy. He wore a ponytail that flapped and swung in the wind when he meditated or did Tai Chi. He hung out with old Filipino men for hours in Chinese restaurants. One old man had a mouth like a billiard pocket, except for one tooth the shape of an axe blade. Another old man had one finger on each hand—the middle finger. Claimed to be a writer. My uncle would sit and listen and tell stories afterwards. My father got a kick out of my uncle’s lines about the carabao dung. He copied it on a small strip of paper and stuck it in his wallet. He’d stand in the mirror and recite it mimicking John Wayne, Jimmy Cagney, Sidney Poitier. He’d laugh. He rarely laughed. He was a janitor who woke up at 5am and left us with the sound of jingling keys as he slammed the door. He went to a garage sale and picked up a stack of National Geographic Magazines. Sure enough there was an issue that featured carabaos. He looked at the pictures transfixed, each photo teleporting his soul—his spirit—to an ancestral homeland or at least an ancestral state of mind. I picked up the magazine and went to the toilet. I sat looking at the photographs. Outside the window a cat meowed and meowed.
“Will you shut up!” I said.
I flipped the pages, focusing on the mountains in the pictures; mountains laced with green and rain and lushness with all kinds of stuff underneath that the camera didn’t catch. The words “mountain tribes”, “rice terraces”, and “various dialects” slid past my eyes like rocks slipping off a mountain. I turned the page and saw it—2 big horns, 2 eyes that carved itself into anything it looked at and 2 nostrils leaking rainforest snot. It was a carabao. In one picture it was in a rice field, mud all over its body. In another picture it was on a street pulling a cart with a boy atop its back. In yet another picture it was in front of a church, bowing on all fours, asking God for the things that carabaos ask for. I looked at its face, its ugly face. It resembled a guy I went to school with named Andre Watts. Andre had a face that looked like a shoe print. He used to beat me up; he beat everybody up. I kept looking and I began to see other resemblances. Soon the carabao looked just like my father with his large nose and distrustful eyes. I nearly dropped the magazine when I heard a loud knock on the door.
“What are you doing, sleeping in there?”
“Get outta there. I gotta take a shit!”
“Don’t ok me…get outta there and don’t use all the toilet paper”
I wiped, flushed and put the National Geographic nicely in the rattan book holder next to the toilet for my father to read.
The next day I went to school. I couldn’t concentrate on the math scribbled on the board. I kept thinking about the carabao’s face. I started thinking about carabao shit—first a handful then a roomful. Soon the classroom was filled with carabao shit, knee deep. I imagined the teacher screaming, saying, “what is it?” I saw myself, chest puffed out like a frog answering “it’s spirit Ms. Fargo, we’re knee deep in school spirit”. I got home to find my father in the living room. He was sitting on the floor Indian style with a pair of 1940’s Everlast boxing gloves wrapped around his neck with rips and tears. He kept repeating “a handful of carabao shit has more”…
“Dad” I said, “I thought it was a handful of carabao dung has…”
“Don’t give me your lip”, dad shot back, closing his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?”
“I ain’t sitting. I’m meditating”.
“Can I try?” I asked, squatting on the floor.
“Why don’t you meditate on going to the store and getting me an eskimo pie…oh yeah…and bring me a paper”
Dad gave me a dollar and change. I faithfully delivered his order like the good slave that I was. When I got back, dad was sitting at the dinner table. On it were sheets of paper with designs painted on them.
“Sit down” dad ordered.
He tore open the eskimo pie and bit into it.
“What do you think of this?”
“Think of what?”
“The papers goddamn it! The drawings!”
I looked at the papers. It was hard to make out what they were. They looked like designs that psychologists gave patients to fuck their minds. They looked like watercolor blotches randomly set to parchment—basically abstract explosions of insanity confined to an 8.5×11 space.
“They’re ok, I guess”
Dad flipped through the papers.
“I’m trying to make a logo”
“A logo…for what?”
“For my…I mean…for our new business”.
“What new business?”
Dad gesticulated as if he were a famous artist or photographer who’d gained fame by producing chickenshit art that no one could afford.
“It’s gonna be called the carabao cleaning service…where cleanliness is happiness. You gotta go for what you know sometimes…go for broke. I need to make some real money. Need to take a chance. Now, which one of these drawings do you think should go on our business card?”
I looked at the pictures next to dad’s watercolor paint set. I looked and looked. I thought to myself, I could do better.
“I’m making you vice-president of the company” dad said. “My second in command”.
I laughed silently. I had just been fired from my first job 4 months ago. I was a delivery boy for the San Francisco Examiner. I was fired when I failed to deliver the paper during a holiday. I thought it was a holiday for me too. Vice president of a janitorial company? My immediate answer was no, I wanted no part in manning the phone, swinging the mop or swishing the toilet with the mighty toilet brush. I wanted to play ball. I had no choice. Dad held one of the papers to my face. I looked at the watercolor frenzy on the page.
“What does it look like” dad asked.
I took the paper in my hands. I ran my finger over the watercolor blotch. I spoke.
“It looks like a mound of carabao shit”
The curtain at the window rose in panic like a skirt in a storm. My father’s jaw clenched. He yanked the paper from my hand.
“It’s a carabao!” he said, holding it up like a special edition newspaper. “See the horns?”
He slammed it on the table and began pointing out all the details of his watercolor blotch until I fully comprehended.
“It’s gonna be our logo for our business card!”
I looked at the papers scattered about. I thought about my uncle with the ponytail and Tai Chi moves. I sat down and watched my father meditate on what lie ahead.
© 2009 Tony Robles
Still hanging on to the Carabao’s tail
By Tony Robes
May 2nd is the one-year anniversary of the passing of my uncle, the poet Al Robles. Uncle Al was someone who believed in the coming together and celebration of community. Every encounter in his life was a homecoming. If you encountered him on the street or at a function, he had a way of honoring your presence–one didn’t have to put on a front for him–you could just be free to be who you were when you were around him. He is spoken of as a community poet, a shaman, a seer, a trickster, sage, etc. (To the “Shaman” moniker he once remarked, “I ain’t no goddamned medicine man!). He is all of those things and none of them. He is beyond definition because he lived his life defying those that would seek to define him and his community within narrow limits. The poet Giulio Sorro so beautifully articulated this when he said, “How can you define Al? How does one define a flower or a stream?”
Uncle Al spoke about going beyond one’s self, beyond one’s own community. In a country that encourages separation and borders, this is a very revolutionary concept. Uncle Al documented the every day plight and struggle of the elderly, poor, and of the youth in search of themselves in a society that suffers from historical amnesia—cleverly erasing and silencing the stories and experiences of people in struggle. In Howard Zinn’s excellent book, “Original Zinn”, he quotes author Peter Balakian as saying, “Memory is a moral act”. “To remember, to recall history is an act of affirmation”.
Uncle Al was a Pilipino poet, but he was moved by many forces and was steeped in different disciplines—jazz pianist, historian, poet, community organizer. He had a deep connection to the poets whose lives were close to nature; he felt a closeness to Thoreau and Kenji Miyazawa, whose lives and poems were one—clear like a stream, moving and traveling—knowing that one could hear life’s meaning in silence and capture its essence in the spontaneous sound and echoes emanating from the heart.
Uncle Al’s name has come to be synonymous with the manongs; the early immigrants to come to America from the Philippines. He traveled 10 thousand miles with the manongs on their journey as workers and fighters—marginalized in a society that saw no value in them outside of a cheap source of labor—to be exploited, without a voice, without their story being told. But Uncle Al was their son, their nephew, the one that listened while hanging on to the carabao’s tail. Uncle Al came to know the manongs and what was in their hearts by listening; but not listening to just words but just as intently to what was not said. He could hear volumes in a moment’s silence. He was not like an anthropologist or PHD—he didn’t need to explain or have neat explanations within specified margins. He went with it—surrendering himself in a net that stretched far across the ocean and in the thick mountains of the motherland—yet, he had never traveled to that land himself.
In the I-Hotel he traveled up the stairs and the doors opened to those small rooms; the smell of rice and adobo and fish was there; the face of the manong was there—he knew the face—it was the face of his father and mother and ninong and ninang. He sat across from the manongs and in their faces he saw the motherland, in their hearts and minds he journeyed and tasted what he described the “thick adobo tales of their lives”. Those elderly men were alive and in Uncle Al’s poetry they became young again. Uncle Al in an Alaskan cannery, in a restaurant bussing tables, in the pool hall wearing a MacIntosh suit. Uncle Al in Stockton, Watsonville, Isleton, Delano, Seattle, Waipahu—writing poems in his journal wearing his Hawaiian shirt—sometimes he’s at 2 places at the same time—hard to pin down but always there.
I am co-editor of Poor Magazine (www.poormagazine.org). POOR is a Poor people led, indigenous organizing project that practices eldership. Uncle Al’s life was dedicated to honoring elders, and this is something that he demonstrated throughout his life. As an elder, he never stopped honoring the elders of the community, listening to and sharing their sacred stories—honoring their struggles, singing their songs, drinking the sound of their laughter until we can all come together and laugh and dance and cry and fight the fight for social justice. The I-Hotel represents the manongs but it also represents the ongoing struggle for the rights of our people. The I-Hotel was rebuilt after 30 years—as Uncle Al says, “It was one day that took 30 years”. Many of the manongs have passed on. Where are they? They are in the voices of the poets, the rappers, the writers, activists and in the small rooms where the spirit of the I-Hotel lives—crying out for justice, their songs of fire living on, never to be forgotten. Uncle Al’s work and life are seen in the I-Hotel and in the poets he influenced. He is seen in the community that is changing but is the same, and is changing like the birth and life of a poem.
Uncle Al’s life was his example. His caring nature, his tenderness, his kindness and his compassion for others inspires me to go on, to fight against the border fascism of Arizona and other forms of ignorance that divide communities and peoples from recognizing who our true enemy is. Uncle Al’s work and life is very much alive. We continue to follow in his footsteps and in the footsteps of the manongs. We still hang on to the carabao’s tail.
The world is flat
By Tony Robles
The more I live
The more I feel
Like the world is
As well are the
All…as my grandmother
Used to say
Flatter than piss on a plate
But the other day
I was on my bike
And a voice called out
“Your pront tire is plat”
It was a
I got off
The bike and
It was flat
Air, the manong
The manong smiled
And told me
To be careful
I thanked him
And headed to
A gas station
The world is
By Tony Robles
He wears thick sweaters
With subdued colors
And his eyelids are
Pink and moist like a
He has all his teeth
and hair and eats
Tuna sandwiches for
Lunch at a café owned
By a Japanese woman
He still has his albums
From the old days and
Has just bought a new
He likes standards
And can play the
Harmonica on request
When he gets on the
Bus, he nods in the
Presence of women
If they ignore him
He smiles and says
Going Hollywood on me, huh?
His father used to
Have a horse in the
Old days when the area
Was natural and rustic
Now he takes the
Bus and rides a bike
But he fell off the bike
Injuring his elbow
He says he’s an
Octogenarian and I
Ask him what that means
And he tells me that it means
He’s 80 years old
We sit on the bus
Together and he shows
Me his scabbed elbow
He says he put rubbing
Alcohol on it when
The wound was fresh
Then I told him that it
Reminded me of the old cowboy
Movies when men would pour
Whiskey over their gunshot
Wounds before dying
A waste of
© 2010 Tony Robles