Last night i was at work, got off at the usual time, 1AM. There’s no bus service at that hour so i ride my bike. I got about 1/4 into the ride and the rain comes, first drizzle, then HARD. Got real soaked and stood in an apartment doorway waiting for a cab. Finally the rain died a bit and i got back on the bike. Hit some puddles. No fun riding in the rain. The rear tire kicks up water. When i got off, my ass had a combination of dirt, leaves and water–my pants drenched. It was a wildlife show gone bad.
Working in security at an apartment complex as i do, i have become a scavenger. In the garages are garbage bins that contain treasure. I was taken by how much good stuff gets thrown out. I have found suede and leather coats, books, fax machines, printers, female self-pleasuring devices (batteries included) and blank journals, among other things. I wonder what the story is behind these items. Many tenants at the complex are college students–many of whom move out and unload their belongings in haste. On one of my latest garbage dumpster excursions i found loads of college text books from SF State. I took them and tried to sell them to the campus bookstore.
I dropped those biology, math and business books at the counter as if they were gold bars. The girl at the counter (who was dressed like a character in a Dr. Seuss book) took one look at my booty (in book form) and said, “We can’t use ’em”. “They’re practically brand new” i pleaded, sensing my opportunity to pocket 10 or 15 dollars slipping away. Sorry, she said. My trip to hot dog on a stick went down the drain. I didn’t want to carry all those (worthless?) books around so i asked her if she’d take them off my hands. “Well, certainly” she said. “No problem…we’d be glad to…(blah to the 3rd power). I got no money but i left the counter 15-20 pounds lighter than when i came.
I took a walk in the bookstore. I saw a copy of my book, “Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel” (http://www.childrensbookpress.org/our-books/asianpacific-islander/lakas-and-makibaka-hotel) for half price. The stack of my books was about as high as the one i was trying to peddle off to the cashier. I was tempted to start signing my books using the monkier, “The scavenger”. I scrapped the idea and got the hell out of there.
In one of the garages at work there are seven TV’s that have been evicted from their homes. Each time i walk by, one of the screens comes on and shows me a preview of what i could be watching if i bring one of the sets home. I see the face of Maury Povich uttering the immortal words: “Lancelot, when i comes to 3 month old Lancelot II, III, IV & V…you are the father!”
I walk away and leave the TV’s in their rightful place.
When the devastation in the Philippines and Samoa took place, i found bags of clothes in the garbage bins. Some of these items still had tags. Had the people who discarded these items not heard about these events? Did it not cross their minds to donate these items to the relief efforts rather than throw them away? One of my coworkers is Samoan. His family was one of many who faced tragedy in the disaster. We took the clothes and his church sent them and many other items to help back home. Now with the Haitian disaster, I’m still finding many good items in the garbage bins. It’s disturbing to see such waste.
A couple nights ago while wading in the garbage bins i came across some children’s books. I immediately recognized two of them, “Danny and the Dinosaur” by Syd Hoff and “Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik. Those were my 2 favorite books when i was a child. As i flipped through the pages, it took me back. In Danny and the Dinosaur, Danny goes to the museum and sees bears, lions, elephants, Indians, Eskimos (yikes, i didn’t remember the Indians and Eskimos part…as i was too young for ethnic studies at the time) and finally dinosaurs. He meets a talking dinosaur and they hang out for the afternoon.
It made me think of what i told my editor, Ina Cumpiano, at Children’s Book Press when we were working on my book, “Lakas and the Manilatown Fish”. I told her i hoped that my book would be as good as Danny and the Dinosaur. She told me that my book would be much better.
I took the 2 books from the dumpster. They were thin books. But to me they felt like gold.
(c) 2010 Tony Robles
Why is it that every guy i’ve ever met with the name Matt, thinks he’s hot shit? The same goes for Ray? Is it a name thing? 1/2 the people i’ve met who have the name Mark think they’re hot shit, the other 1/2 don’t. All the guys i’ve met with the name James are cool. All the Charlie’s i’ve met seem to be cool as well. I’ve never met anyone i didn’t like from El Salvador or Detroit. All this may seem silly but it’s true.
I was in a coffee shop and the counter person called out, “Chai for Chelsea!”. I thought, what a title for a story.
Sometimes i wish i could have been an athelete instead of a writer. I respect the discipline it takes to reach a high level in sports. I remember taking a boxing class at City College when i was a student. The class culminated in a boxing tournament at the end of the semester. I fought a guy who was a bit heavier than me. We had these big gloves on and i had a mouthpiece that felt like a very old, very hard orange wedge shoved in my mouth. We went 2 rounds. I remember how tired i was. My objective was to jab the guy’s face off. Round one: Robles comes out, throws several jabs that land flush on his opponent’s face.
It felt good but then…he landed some shots.
Robles is driven to the ropes with a right hand, followed by a left. Robles grabs and holds on…and is saved by the bell!
Anyway, when i got to my corner, my nose felt like it was where my eyes should have been and my nose felt like it was up around my ears.But anyway, suffice it to say, i won my first and only fight by unanimous decision. I retired after that.
Til next time…
Could never understand it. It seemed a society of in-secrets. I’ve never been good when it comes to in-secrets. I’m always the last one to know things much of the time. I would listen to people talk politics at the workplace. They were always so sure of their arguments and analysis. In penny loafers they kicked around words and opinions in a verbal game of hacky sack (showing socks of argyle).
They leaned on the water cooler, analyzing and deducing (they wuz’ always deedoocin’) and the water cooler, miraculously, would not tip over. I tried it and it didn’t work. The water cooler tipped over and was it cold! I was drenched and sent home for a change of clothes. I tried to talk like the pundits talked, but my punditry was nothing but a pun, unintended; or perhaps it was intended but I didn’t realize it at the time. There I was, caught between punditry and puppetry, but meanwhile, the bathroom stall had run out of toilet paper. A debate about toiletry never ensued.
I have firsthand political experience. I was nominated and ran for office at an earlier stage of my life. It was in 5th or 6th grade. I was in a class that was 1/2 tough, 1/2 not. I wasn’t tough, but I wasn’t a weakling either. I was a neither. Our teacher had this brilliant idea that the class should have a president and a secretary officer position. The secretary position I figured out—it was one suited for whoever the biggest asskisser in the class was. The president would likely go to the toughest kid in class (Of course, toughness being no reflection of intelligence…).
The teacher asked the class to nominate candidates. The toughest kid in the school was nominated and his name was the first one on the board. He was known as the king of the school—able to beat all of us up as well as conceiving ingenious pranks such as spitting on banisters (to this day I don’t use banisters). I figured it would be a landslide, the king would win and we’d be bowing (or bending over…backwards, that is) thereafter.
I sat taking in the process when I heard my name called. “I want to nominate Anthony for president” a voice said from the back of the class. My face was riddled with candy colored questions, namely why and how. I wanted to run out the door but it was closed. The guy who nominated me was Tommy Mok—a kid who ate lots of candy that always stuck to his face. I looked at his little face, he snickered at me—it was a sham and he knew it. The teacher wrote my name on the board.
I glanced at the kids in the class. They seemed to know their places; they sat in their allotted spots. The teacher then asked the candidates to tell the class whey they’d be the best president. The king of the school said something about making recess longer and maybe getting the cafeteria to serve corn dogs more often. The speech as I remember, consisted of a lot of uh’s and pauses but the guy was so big that you could help but give your undivided attention. There were 2 more speeches of similar content and delivery.
Finally I was called to the front of the class. “So why would you make a good president, Anthony?” asked the teacher. I was at a loss for being tough. I saw all those faces looking up. I wanted to run to the bathroom but I had to say something—I could look like an idiot up there. SO, I took a deep breath and uttered the immortal (and immoral) words: “If I’m elected class president…I will be very kind”. I heard the snickering from the back of the class. The kid that nominated me laughed. I began to want to be elected so that my first act as president would be to kick him dead in the ass (Perhaps my campaign slogan should have been: A foot in every ass.) But it wasn’t to be. The votes were tabulated. The tough guy won, he was supposed to. His acceptance speech was filled with uh’s and he lobbied to get more corn dogs on the menu. I wondered if his presidential position would stop him from spitting on the banisters. That wasn’t one of his campaign promises. I’d have to wait and see.
I went home and my dad was watching the Watergate hearings on TV. He was transfixed. I went into the kitchen and watched the mice dart in and out of the corners–to me that was more interesting. I had no need for politics then, and I have no need for it now. But I may need a banister at some future date.
© 2010 Tony Robles
Today is my day off. I took a walk to the store earlier. In the parking lot is a man i see often, wearing a very wide brimmed hat, putting shopping carts in nice rows along the side of the market. I waved to him and he waved back. He could have easily been a farmer, someone close to the earth, someone who has spoken to the earth with his hands and whose heart is stained with it. My father told me that everyone has a story, that you never know who it is you are speaking to. I met another man at the same market a few weeks back, a security guard like me. There’s something about seeing another person in a security guard uniform, some kind of brotherhood that emerges in the knowledge and recognition that we are both covered in stupid uniforms made of the flimsiest and most uncomfortable (and possibly flammable) material available. He was an older Filipino man. He inspired this poem:
The Builder of Roads & Bridges from Manila
By Tony Robles
I knew I’d like
Him when I first
Saw him standing
Guard at a supermarket
His uniform included a
Jacket with a shoulder
Patch showing an
Eagle with spread wings
Maybe it was the
Way he nodded or
Maybe it was the way
I called him manong
And he smiled and asked
Me if I was Filipino and
I said yes, that I was
Born in San Francisco
And he told me
He was from Manila and
That he had been in the
US for 5 years
And I told him
That my grandfather
Came to the US in the
1920’s and was
born in 1906
he laughed and said
that was a long time
ago and he told me
that back home in Manila
he was a district engineer
he worked on bridges
and roads and inspected
buildings for safety
he’s working as a security
guard right now to save
money to go back home
and I mentioned the typhoon
that just hit Manila and
he got very quiet
we stood there
in front of the supermarket
underneath the white lights
I finally had
To go and I told
Him I’d see him again
Maybe he’ll run
Into another Filipino
And tell how he constructed
Bridges back home
Mention the one
© 2009 Tony Robles
By Tony Robles
I was working with 2 invisible men in the Mission at a supermarket geared towards the poor. One of the invisible men was black, the other Jew. The black one had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen and the Jew, for some reason, wore oversized caps. They hovered about, peeking between shelves at the shoppers—those dishonest shoppers who might steal a beer or a cupcake. I was the uniformed guard. Just started. I was fully visible.
“Hey” said the invisible Jew.
“Yeah” I said.
He waved his hand in a cutting motion across his throat. He wasn’t talking to me. He caught the eye of the black guy with the white teeth. They had a non-verbal undercover store detective mode of communication that I could not decipher. I looked at my security uniform with its artificial fur neck and flimsy lining. My white socks clashed with my black shoes. I thought about what I had been only 8 months prior. I was working in this same neighborhood knocking on doors inside single resident occupancy hotels (SRO’s). Many on the other side of the door said two words, “Go away”, or didn’t respond. Those who did open their doors would listen to me talk about tenant’s rights and how important it was to attend tenant meetings to improve conditions. One tenant spoke to me about his neighbor who’d play his music loud all night. As he spoke, he twitched and began scratching, raking his nails across his chest, arms—reaching under his shirt and pawing into his armpits. Soon I began to itch.
“I got bedbugs”, said the man.
I ran to the exit.
I thought about those meetings surrounded by tenants who would come for the free food. I remembered speaking on behalf of tenants to their building managers who sat like walruses on planks covered with post-it notes and coffee rings–managers who refused to do repairs, who wrote tenants up for minor infractions. I look at my security guard uniform surrounded by shelves of food but no meeting.
The invisible black man walks up to me. I adjust my posture. I try to avoid his teeth.
“See that guy over there”
“The one in the baggy hood jacket”
I pulled my glasses onto my face. I saw the back of him.
“What about him?”
“He’s concealing a chicken”
“In his crotch”
I watched the man walk about—stopping at the chewing gum rack for a minute then looking up. I focused on the man’s face. He had a familiar nose–the kind that’d fall off with a good pull. The mustache was a shoe brush. It was Joe Clipman from the Nayor Hotel on 20th and Valencia. He didn’t see me. He turned around and headed towards the restroom on the adjacent side of the store.
“Motherfucker’s gonna take the chicken into the restroom” said invisible. The invisible black man followed the scent. I followed him.
We got to the restroom where the invisible Jewish guy was waiting.
“He has the chicken”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Shhhhhhh” they replied in unison.
The Jewish guy decided to walk inside.
“I’ll pretend I’m taking a piss”
He walked through the door. A minute went by. He came back out.
“That was a pretty fast piss”, I said. The 2 invisibles glared at me.
“He’s eating the chicken”
Both invisibles shook their heads as if agreeing on some scientific theory. I kept my mouth closed. I thought about Joe inside the bathroom. I could see him cradling that herb chicken. I could see him smacking his lips, licking his fingers clean while stradling that porcelain pot. To the invisible men Joe was scum, a thief, someone that should be locked up for daring to take what was rightfully his. I thought about how useless it all was, working as a tenant’s rights organizer one moment and a security guard the next—on stakeout in the toilet in pursuit of a chicken thief. I hadn’t even seen Joe enter the store. A security guard with A.D.D. How did I ever get a guard card?
“We’ll get him when he walks out the exit door”, said the Jew.
“Probably on crack”, said the black.
I could see Joe on the pot stringing chicken bones into a necklace. I remembered the time he went to a meeting between tenant and hotel owners at the San Francisco rent stabilization board on Van Ness Ave. There was Joe, drunk and raising his hand to speak. He never spoke. There was the Hindu hotel owner wearing a suit topped with a baseball cap with a bent bill. He talked about tenants being destructive and how visitor policy rules needed to be enforced.
“Let’s keep it real”, he said, using cheap hip-hop hand gestures he’d learned somewhere for emphasis. When the meeting adjourned, there was Joe decked out in camaflogue pants and knit cap pulled down like a beret. On uneasy legs he walked up to the hotel owner and said, “I must say, I find your behavior to be less than professional”. The man looked at Joe like yesterday’s refuse.
We stood at the bathroom door like 3 impotent chimps. I got bored. I decided to make a move.
“I’m going in”, I said.
“Just go back to the entrance” black invisible said. “We got it covered”.
“Like shit”, I said. You guys are scratching your asses. I’ll bet that guy doesn’t even have the chicken”.
The black and Jew invisibles were shocked. I wasn’t supposed to talk, I was only supposed to stand. I even surprised myself. I shoved through the door. The air was warm; half-fragrant, half-pungent. I heard a slight noise, like the rustling of paper.
“Hey Joe” I said, “Is that you in there?”
The rustling stopped.
“Joe?” I said again.
“Yeah, I’m Joe. Who the hell are you?”
“So, what do I care?
“Anthony…the tenant organizer. Filipino guy…remember?”
There was more silence.
“Anthony. Oh yeah…I remember you. Howya doin’?”
“I’m good, just surviving”
“I ain’t seen you in a while. Whatcha been up to?”
“Well…I got a job. I—“
“That’s great, good to hear it”
“Well, what I’m trying to say is—“
“Hold that thought”
I obeyed. I could only hear the smacking of lips and chewing of bones. The aroma of cooked fowl became more pronounced. I was starting to get hungry.
“Yeah, I’m here”
“Look, what I’m trying to say is that I’m working as a security guard at this market”
“Is that right? I didn’t see you when I came in…”
The florescent lights on the ceiling hummed. A dead fly lay frozen in the milky luminance that flickered slightly. I felt my heart beat into the floor and my breath becoming shallow.
“That’s great Anthony, congratulations”
“Thanks Joe. But look man, they got these plainclothes guys in here, you know, the one’s that look for shoplifters and—“
Suddenly the toilet flushed as if in cosmic defiance.
“And” I continued, “They think you got something”
“A lemon herb chicken”
Joe again was silent. Then he began to cry.
“I hate myself”
“Don’t say that”
“Yeah…I got the chicken. I’m just hungry that’s all. I have no money. I’m not a bad person”.
“I know that Joe”
My eyes became moist. I would have looked at myself in the mirror but there was no mirror to reflect on. I looked down and saw something move from under the stall partition. It was a piece of chicken wrapped in cellophane.
“It’s good Anthony”, said Joe, “Tasty as hell. Have some”
I took a bite. He was right. It was juicy and flavorful.
“What do you got Joe?” I said through grease stained lips.
“A wing. It’s my favorite part of the chicken”.
And on that wing we talked, catching up on things—laughing above the drone of the artificial lights of that supermarket and the invisible men that inhabit it.
© 2009 Tony Robles
By Revolutionary Worker Scholar
Still working in the world of private security. I am paid to provide “excellent and unequaled” security service to an apartment complex that I’ll call “Land O’ Lakes”. When I get to work, I am issued a walkie-talkie, cell-phone and a set of keys. It’s funny but I do my best work when I am at a dull, mundane and mind numbing (or dumbing) job. I sit at my little desk and start scribbling and sometimes I really start cranking the shit out (or cranking out the shit, depending on one’s opinion). I start to get into some kind of zone and I start forgetting that I work as a security officer, that the badge on my shirt is just metal that was stolen from the ground, that I am a writer—incident and daily activity reports be damned. And at that moment when I’ve written away every piece of security guard clothing and equipment from my body and mind, it happens: I get a call on the walkie-talkie or from the 24 hour answering service (nice ladies from Iowa with voices that convey a nasaly southern California sensibility).
“Hello…this is Eliza from the survisssss”
Sometimes she snacks on chips as she speaks. I ask her what kind of chips she’s eating. She is very diverse and non-discriminating in her selection of chips. “I’m having (crunch) ranch (crunch) chips. They’re my (crunch) favorite (crunch) chips…(crunch crunchity crunch). She tells that two San Francisco police officers are requesting that I meet them. They are 3 buildings away. I hook my walkie-talkie to my belt and walk outside. The complex is surrounded by trees bending at an angle. The moon slips through and on some nights I look up and feel my mind bending into the past, just the way my uncle, the poet Al Robles describes; I become one with the trees and with the lake that rests across the street. I no longer need or want. It reminds me that my ancestors are watching.
I get to the lobby of the building where the cops are waiting. There’s only one officer, an Asian guy who had the look of someone who went to my high school but someone I didn’t hang around with (I didn’t hang around anybody). “We had a complaint of a disturbance”, he said. I stood in the lobby with the cop for a while. I don’t like to be in the same room or on the same continent as the cops; they have a way of looking at you and seeing nothing. I turned and looked out the window at the trees and lake. I saw myself in the reflection of it all. The wind turned the water over, making poems over and over again. I waited for the cop’s kindly (I hope) brethren in blue so I could get whatever pertinent information I needed for my daily activity report—as per company policy.
The cop stood a few feet away from me. He stared out the window. Maybe he too was seeing something out there. Maybe the lake and the trees were speaking to him. As a security officer, I am hired to observe and report. This is what I observed.
830PM: The officer stood next to the window. He looked out at the parking lot. I observed him pull out his nightstick. He lifted it level with his face. He looked intently at a small object on the window. It appeared to be a moth or something similar. With one well-placed tap, he gently took the winged creature’s life. He slipped the nightstick back into its holder, smiling.
I looked out at the lake.
It was still.
© 2010 Tony Robles