Sulyap (For Carlos Hernandez)
By Tony Robles

A fishhook caught
In rust of throat
A curled note’s
fetal rest

A snarl in water
Skipping beats of heart
Over salt skin sea

A word tucked
Away until
He walked in

An older Filipino man
About 60-something
Looking more like

He was looking for a job
And he sat across from me
At my desk covered with
Forgotten notes, candy wrappers
And used tissue paper

He said it had been
Hard trying to find a job
Because you have to apply
Online and he doesn’t know

He said that his daughter
Had a laptop but that was
Is very hard prying it from
Her lap

He was very polite
And humble and I
Found out he was from
The same province as my
Grandfather in the Philippines


And I mispronounced it and
He made me repeat it
Until I got it right


It was a security guard job he
Was looking for and I could
Tell from his eyes that he was
Much too good for a job like that

I was an employment counselor
At a desk sitting in a chair with
The knowledge that I’d been fired
From almost every job I’d ever had
(Including security guard)

I asked him what
He liked to do
And he said, dance

He said he could
Do it all

Cha cha
Texas Swing
Electric Slide
And any kind of hustle
You can think of

He got up and cha cha’d
Around my desk and showed
Me each step that he had saved
For a lifetime

And at the end of the dance
He glanced over his shoulder at
Me and smiled

That’s sulyap
He said

A glance and
Smile at the


And I got up from my desk
And danced for the first
Time in my life

He smiled

And my heart spoke
Free the glances


© Tony Robles 2012


Carving a Life

(Author’s note: My father, James Robles on the left, my brother Asian Robles on the right–with my sister Jade and step mother Tai)

I recently spent an afternoon with my father and brother. My father had just arrived from Hawaii. He called me and told me he’d be picking me up in a small red rental car with shiny rims. I walked out of the steel gate of my house (or more appropriately, my landlord’s house) and looked around. No red car. I looked some more and saw him. He had missed my house, overshot it by half a block. Hey dad, I called out. He waved. I started towards the car but he motioned for me to wait. He got into the car and drove in reverse for a half block, stopping a few feet from me. He leaned over, sprung the lock.
“What’s happening man?”
“Hey dad, what’s going on?”
He looked good. He wore black pants, a black coat and a pair of bright jogging shoes. We drove for a while. I looked out the window. The fog and salty air from Ocean Beach lit the sky.
“I got you something”
My father pointed to the rear with his thumb.
“What? I asked.
I reached over and took it. I opened it. It was a fruit tart, with custard.

Dad put it in drive. I looked at him from the corner of my eye. He looked good, a little older but he WAS older. I had read somewhere that a thousand people a day this year were going to turn 60 years of age. I thought about the fact that he was 62 years old. Had it been that long or had I failed to pay attention? I took the wrapper from the fruit tart and lifted it to my mouth. My concentration shifted to the strawberries and kiwi fruit. Suddenly my father slammed the brakes. I became kiwi and strawberry. My father laughed.
“Hey, sorry man…let me help you”
He took a napkin and began wiping. Each wipe tended to smear more custard. The horn from the car behind us began to sound. I took the napkin and wiped myself.
“I left my glasses at your auntie’s house” said dad
“You wear glasses?”
“Yeah…mostly for reading”

I never associated my father with glasses. He only wore shades when I was growing up. I remember him as a young man. He’d switched jobs and women and one day he came home with something new. It was a board with black and white plastic pieces. We’re gonna play chess, he said. He showed me how to move the pawns, rooks, bishops, etc. He explained the objective as capturing the king. We played for hours. I lost every game but I started to get the hang of it. After each game, he’d explain what I’d done wrong. I was impatient and somewhat of a little prick. I wouldn’t listen. I almost beat him but he saw every move, always looking 2 or 3 moves ahead. I was in tears after, having victory in the bag, he, with sleight of hand, pulled that very victory out of my ass.

We continued driving. We stopped in front of a Victorian flat. At the bottom was a fish and chip restaurant. Dad got on the cell phone.
“We’re outside”
He put the phone back in his pocket.
“Your brother is still sleeping”
We sat. A woman walked by with a group of children. Each child was attached to the other by a plastic cord.
“I used to run up and down this street when I was a kid” dad said. “We used to get into trouble. We’d…”
The door opened. A young man came out wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the hood covering most of his face. He opened the rear car door.
“Hey what’s up?”
Dad looked at my brother through the rear view.
“I’m ok”
My brother touched my shoulder. We drove. I looked back at his face. It had my father’s shape, much more than mine. He was taller. We drove for a while, taking in the city, the city that all 3 of us were born in. Dad rolled the window down. The wind ran freely, kicking up a few wisps of his hair. I hadn’t noticed a small pony tail at his neck. Not enough for a fully pony tail but a good beginning. Dad began razzing my brother.
“So tell me…”
“Who is she?”
“Who’s who?”
“Come on man…there’s got to be a girl involved somewhere. Look at you, your clothes are wrinkled…you look like you just came out of a clothes dryer”
I laughed under my breath. My brother looked out the window as if nothing was said. We drove for a time. We didn’t say much. I look out at the old buildings and the trees bobbing in the wind. I began to wonder what color the wind was.
“Hey dad, can you pull over?” my brother asked. “I want to stop at the liquor store”
Dad pulled over, my brother opened the door.
“You want anything?”
“Yeah, get me some licorice” dad said.
“Nothing for me” I said
I remembered the first time I met my brother. I didn’t know he existed. He had a mother, I didn’t know her. He was in a restaurant in his mother’s arms. My dad said, “This is your brother”
So it was…

He came back with a small paper bag. He took out a canned beverage and handed the bag to dad. Dad pulled out a black licorice vine, handed one to me. He bit into it and broke a piece off with a tug of the mouth. He chewed with much vigor.
“I’m gonna take you guys somewhere” he said. He turned the radio on and searched for a station. He landed on the Beach Boy’s—not his music, but his era. We drove up a few hills and around several blocks with apartments and liquor stores with flickering neon beer signs. Dad began pointing in different directions. We were in the Western Addition of San Francisco.
“See this liquor store…that wasn’t here when I was a kid. This whole block had nothing but jazz clubs. I used to sneak in when I was a kid”
“How did you get in?” my brother asked.
“I’d climb in through the window in the back. All the heavies played in this area, Miles, Coltrane…
I looked at the rows of old apartments and flats. I tried to hear the music, the jazz that my father spoke of. We drove past a parked bulldozer near a police blockade. It appeared to be on its haunches, ready to leap and pounce.
“Here it is”
It was a park, mostly grass with a few benches and very tall, very old trees.
“This used to be a hill. It was covered with dirt. We used to run down this h ill. We’d make carts and race them. Used to be a cemetery before I was born.
“Where’d they take all the bodies?” my brother asked.
“Hell if I know”
We sat down on a bench. A dog was running off its leash. An Akita. It ran over to us.
“Hey partner” dad said
The dog licked my dad’s hand, placing its front paws on his lap. The owner called out its name and it ran off.
“Later fella”

We sat for a while and dad began to speak.
“You know, you guys turned out good. You were smart kids when you were growing up. You know, I would have done things different had I…”
Dad stopped talking. My brother looked at the trees. My brother and I knew what he was trying to say.
“How’s things in Hawaii?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Dad straightened up. His eyes widened.
“Everything’s cool. You know, I gave up the janitorial business. Too much stress. I’m working at a condo now doing routine repairs…changing light bulbs…then knocking out a few sit ups and push-ups”.
“You like it?” my brother asked.
“It’s alright. I meet a lot of people. I met that guy who used to be on that TV show, the guy with the baseball cap”
“Oh yeah” I said. “I know who you mean”
“But my main thing now is carving. I go out to the tropical rainforest and get wood, different types of wood. I carve masks, walking sticks, all kinds of stuff”.

I thought about the van he had when he first started the janitorial service 20 or so years ago. It was before he’d moved us to Hawaii. He took some wooden panels and covered them with shellac. He screwed them into the interior of the can, giving it a very comfortable look. I’d almost forgotten about it. It was the first and only time I’d seen him work with wood. But I thought more about it and remembered his collection of African and Malaysian masks, and some from the Philippines too. It all came back to me. I wanted to share it with my brother; he was too young to remember some of it. I stayed quiet.
“You know a lot of guys I grew up with have died” dad began.
He looked at my brother and I then stopped.
“Let me show you something”
Dad walked, my brother and I followed. We came to a big tree in the middle of the park. It had a huge trunk and limbs that appeared to wave.
“I think this is the one” dad said. “Help me up”
I was about to cup my hands together so my dad could place his foot into it but my brother stepped forward.
“Let me do it”
Dad stepped into my brother’s hands.
“What are you looking for?” I asked
“My name” dad replied. “I carved it in this tree when I was a kid”
And we watched as our dad hoisted himself onto a thick limb. He looked at the sky and then down at his sons.
“Come on up” he said, offering his hand.
My brother and I looked up at our father. He climbs higher and higher. The tree is him.

Soul Face

I miss the soul of my city. I miss the soul people of my city. I miss the heart of my city. I miss the soul faces, the soul places, the soul music, soul poetry, soul memory, soul skin of my city. I miss the soul shadows that shaded us with the scent of sisters who stood tall and watched over our community. I miss you. I miss your soul eyes, your soul voice, your soul lips that whispered prayers that asked the creator to bless us, to keep us together. I miss the soul cupboards, the soul pots and pans slick with soul grease. I miss the soul music of your mind. I miss soul laughter, the most beautiful sound in the world. I miss your soul sweat and soul passion that can make something out of nothing. I miss your soul tears that created a soul soup of life. I miss the black heart black tongue black mind black pulse in the alleyways, corners, small rooms, parks, buses—talk that made the grass grow under our feet for a thousand lifetimes. My city is empty without your soul heart, your soul face. Give us back our soul mama’s, our soul daughters, soul sons, soul elders, soul children—our soul life. Your soul face has been used for far too long. Your soul face in black and white pictures glued to the walls in coffee shops in neighborhoods that betrayed you, desecrated you, showing the faces of dead blues singers and jazz musicians as if that makes everything ok. I miss your soul life, true laughter, true life. Without you the city isn’t the city, it is snow thawing into nothing. The soul has thawed and what remains is an army of nasal voiced mickey mouse clones whose pedicures can’t hide the dirt of their minds, the callowness of their presence, the emptiness of their canned laughter, the obliviousness of their arrogance. The killing of the soul of the city was conceived long ago through charts, graphs, paper trails and lies that trace their line of blood with the first swindle of native peoples on Turtle Island. I miss my city. I miss the soul of the city. I miss your soul face, soul life, soul everything.


I miss soul music
soul soul music
sticky radio ash tray music
i miss twisted voices
turning hips
spinning dials
Miss the air conditioner
exhaling hot hair
i miss husky soul voices
in the thick soul air
i miss my music
i miss my grandfather’s shiny
leather shoe music
i miss his memories served
on a vinyl platter
flowing like a river
in his skin
i miss grandpa
i miss the soul of
his voice
i miss soul music
i miss thick legs
and thighs
i miss the organ
filled with neckbones
i miss the burning
throat of notes cast
in and out of the fire
i miss the sounds tearing
up the seat cushions
i miss soul
i miss soul music
i miss soul radio music
got no time for
neo soul
just give me soul

(c) 2011 Tony Robles

Stars and Gripes–Thoughts on Pacquiao vs. Mosley

Stars and Gripes: Thoughts on Pacquiao vs. Mosley

Seeing this past weekend’s fight between WBO welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley brought to mind a quote I’d read somewhere: “The bell that tolls for all in boxing belongs to a cash register”. After reading about and watching commercials for the fight, I gave my tithe to the church of pugilism (AKA the local cable company)—54 dollars and change—hard earned money from my Uncle Tom job as a doorman at an upscale (when I speak of upscale, I speak of the residents) apartment complex.

I wanted to watch Pacquiao because I have neglected him. He is Pilipino, I am Pilipino-American and have not followed his career—a career that can only be described as brilliant. My gripe is that the quality of the sport has receded due to a dearth of great fighters. Fighters I watched growing up—Ali, Frazier, Arguello, Duran, Monzon, Hagler, Leonard, Sanchez, Hearns and Duran—were all active in the same generation—all future hall of famers. My father collected boxing magazines while I collected Marvel and DC comics. I graduated to collecting Ring and Boxing Illustrated Magazines, amassing an impressive stack under the bed.

I had first seen Pacquiao in 2002 on the undercard of the Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis heavyweight title fight. Pacquiao was vying for the IBF featherweight title but my main focus was Tyson. I wanted him to beat Lewis. I didn’t give Pacquiao much thought although he was obviously a terrific puncher with good defensive skills and intensity cut from the same cloth as one of my heroes, Roberto Duran. But my narrow-mindedness did not allow me to foresee the potential greatness of Manny Pacquaio. I focused on Tyson because I didn’t like Lewis. Lennox didn’t sound like a heavyweight champion; heavyweight champions had names like Muhammad, Joe, Rocky–or Mike. That night Tyson got knocked out. The champion’s name was Lennox (not Linux). Pacquiao won that night too.

Fight night—clips of Pacquiao and Mosley’s fights are shown, footage of the two fighters training, posing for cameras and clips of Pacquiao at work as a congressman in the Philippines. The announcer talks about Pacquiao’s humble beginnings prior to his boxing career, about his drive and perseverance which resulted in an unprecedented feat–the first fighter to win world titles in 8 different weight classes. When asked about his political career, Pacquaio says that prior to being elected as Congressman, he saw the problems in the Philippines as being this big, illustrating the size with the space between his thumb and forefinger. He then added that the problems are this big, spreading his arms wide. Members of the press corps often referred to Pacquiao is being the smaller fighter, a distinction Mosley respectfully corrected–“He is the shorter man” Mosley said.

The weigh-in was shown and I became somewhat depressed. As I approach the mid stage of life–along with millions of other sedentary members of my gender– I watch these athletes and realize I will never achieve six pack abs. I look at the body of 39 year old Mosley and remember his fight against Oscar De La Hoya in 2000. He won that fight with speed. I wondered how much he had left at age 39. The prelim bouts begin and I drop to the floor, attempt a set of crunches when a text message from my friend Ezekiel–“Zeak” for short–the boxing fan, comes through.

Zeak: You watching the fight?

Me: Yeah

Zeak: I think Pac’s gonna knock him out in 9

Me: How many crunches can you do?

Zeak: ?

I give up my crunches, jog to the kitchen and back, hitting the couch in time for the main event. I sit. Mosley enters first with his team led by LL Cool J on the mic doing “Mama said knock you out”. It was decent but I preferred the music video. Leading the Pacquaio contingent is Jimi Jamison—of the group “Survivor”—singing “Eye of the Tiger” from the movie “Rocky III”. I get another text:

Zeak: Pac should have sung that song himself. He has the voice.

Me: LL Cool J looks like he could give Pac a good fight

Zeak: Jamison looks like he should be carrying the bucket

Both national anthems are sung; the Philippine first, beautifully sung by Charice followed by the US anthem sung by Tyrese. Somehow I don’t hear the words that Tyrese sings. I keep thinking of his role in “Baby Boy”, in the python-like choke hold of Ving Rhames who whispers in his ear: Jody…little Jody before slapping his shiny head. I wonder how Ving Rhames would sound singing the national anthem.

I looked at the Philippine flag hanging stoically amidst the thousands of fans, moving slightly under the hum of lights and above the ocean of anticipation. I thought about myself as a Filipino-American. It felt good hearing the Philippine anthem. I wanted to join in but didn’t know the words. After Tyrese’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, Jamie Fox was introduced and segued into “America the Beautiful”. Another text:

Zeak: Fox is taking this Ray Charles thing serious, huh?

Me: I like Ray

I wondered why the extra portion of patriotism was being doled out and it came to me via yet another text:

Zeak: It’s a dig on the Bin Laden Folk. It’s code for: WE GOT ‘EM

Me: Also a dig at Pacquiao. It’s the US saying, you might be the best fighter in the world, but ours is the best COUNTRY in the world. It makes ’em feel better.

Round one. Both fighters are jabbing and moving, respectful of each other’s power. No damage done. I score the round even. That was as close as it got. I had Pacquiao winning every round thereafter. He used his jab and applied constant pressure, landing hard shots that took the steam from Mosley within a few rounds. Mosley’s signature speed and pinpoint counter punching that had been brilliant in fights against De La Hoya, Forrest and Mayorga was not present.

Mosley seemed to age as the rounds progressed. It was as if his mind knew what to do but was betrayed by an uncooperative body. I was reminded of Sugar Ray Leonard, in one of his last fights, against Jr. Welterweight Champion Terry Norris. Leonard absorbed a beating, taking punches he would have avoided in his prime. Mosley, like Leonard, was past his prime. Both fighters had much respect for each other—at times seeming too respectful—touching gloves before every round and in various times in between. Prior to the fight, Mosley expressed resentment at being the underdog. Having been thrown off his rhythm by Pacquiao’s power and speed, Mosley seemed to have left any resentment he had in his dressing room.

During the fight cameras cut to each fighter’s respective Wife/partner; their faces etched with anxiety, concern, worry. I get another text message:

Zeak: Who you thinks hotter, Pac’s wife or Mosley’s girl?

Me: They’re both beautiful…like models

Zeak: Come on, you got to have a preference

Me: It has nothing to do with the fight

Zeak: Hell, the way the fight’s going, I’d rather see the ladies go at it

Me: You got a point

At the final bell I had Pacquiao winning every round except the first, which I scored even. Pacquiao was simply too fast and possessed too much power for Mosley to overcome with his famed counterpunching that made him one of the best pound for pound fighters in boxing for much of the past decade. The unanimous decision verdict was anti-climatic. Both fighters showed respect for each other during the post fight interview. “You’re the pound for pound king” said Mosley to Pacquiao through swollen but still handsome features. Pacquiao nodded silently.

The post-fight text message:

Zeak: Who’s hotter, Mrs. Pacquiao or Mosley’s girlfriend?

(The 54 dollar question)

Notes of an Uncle Tom

Notes of an Uncle Tom

“Tom, Tom…Come in Tom. Do you read me tom?”

I still laugh at my father’s reaction the moment I informed him—with unprecedented pride—that I’d been hired as a door attendant at a high-end apartment complex in the city. I had started off as a security guard at the same complex greeting the high end residents with a high end greeting (such as “Wonderful morning, isn’t it?”…followed by an under the breath “you son of a bitch”), high end nod, and of course, a high end—albeit chickenshit—smile.

I always pictured a door attendant as wearing one of those outfits with a wide shouldered jacket and captain’s hat—like the door man on that classic TV show, “The Jeffersons”. I was given a pair of tan pants—Dockers—a light shirt and well made, high end leather shoes. I slipped into the outfit and began to feel high end. My end had never felt so high. Anyway, it’s getting higher with every passing minute.

“Hey dad” I said. “I got a new job…a house negro job, a doorman. Aren’t you proud of me? You think grandma and grandpa are proud, having braved the stormy seas to come to America like George Washington and John Wayne (not really, but it sounds like a good thing to say), in hopes of providing a new life, new opportunities to their offspring and their offspring’s offspring. Dad paused. He’s a native San Franciscan living in Hawaii. I heard the waves pounding the shore through the static of his Metro PCS cell phone. He finally spoke: You ain’t got no house negro job…you got an uncle Tom job. I listened to the waves and the sound of the ocean over the phone. My dad, working years and years as a janitor in San Francisco; he’s got the Hawaiian beaches now. Let him have that beach, he deserves it.

I stand by the door waiting. I look around. The building is big and spotless and I hear the calls of ravens outside. They sometimes call out to me. “Hey Uncle Tom, you think you can throw us a few breadcrumbs…at your convenience, of course”. I got to the lobby kitchen area and look for breadcrumbs but all I find is expensive gourmet coffee. I see a resident walking to the door. I step on it, moving with the swiftness of a gazelle, reaching the door and opening it with much class. Sometime the residents say thank you, sometimes not.

I am 90 days into my Tom-Hood. I am doing a decent job but I have some concerns. One of these concerns involves an old white man in a terry cloth robe–let’s call him T.C. (short for Terry Cloth). “T.C” comes down every morning to the lobby for his morning paper and coffee. He is pleasant, and his robe his befitting of the terry cloth prince that he surely is. He requested a cart from me to move a few items into his apartment. Like the good Tom that I am, I complied. He came back with the cart 30 minutes later. Put it there, he said, producing a fist. He inched his fist close to me. “Give it up” he said. I looked at my hand. “T.C” took a hold of my hand and formed a fist. He then, in a beautifully choreographed moment, bumped his fist into mine–a “Brotherhood of the fist” of sorts–not predicated upon race, economic status, education or various other chickenshit requirements and/or sensibilities. It’s tough being a Tom, for you forget how to make a fist and must rely on older white men to give you an occasional refresher course.

Sometimes I find myself dozing at the desk and at the door. I think of the neighborhood outside. Not long ago, my grandparents were prevented from moving here. It was in the 1950’s. Grandpa was a black man from Louisiana, grandma was San Francisco Irish. Nobody in this place knows this. I open the door and the ravens cry out. I step back inside and see another resident approach. They all look so important, all making so much money. What do they do to make so much money? I open the door and smile. “Have a nice day, sir”. I don’t earn enough to live in this place, yet I grew up in this neighborhood. Nobody in this place knows this.

A coworker stops by. His name is “J”. We talk about the job. He mops the floor and changes the toilet paper consistently and with much expertise. He speaks of the former doorman, a fellow named Kissassman. Kissassman lasted a couple of months. “J” explained that Kissassman was running around every second, attending to every need. “Kissassman get me an umbrella, Kissassman make more coffee, Kissassman call me a cab, Kissassman arrange to have my dry cleaning picked up, Kissassman, kissassman Kissassman…etc, etc. One day kissassan left—kissed it all goodbye like a snake shedding some unfamiliar skin. His last words, “I’m tired of being Kissassman. I’m going to have my name changed…legally.

In the meantime, I stand by the door. I catch myself dozing off. My cell phone rings, a text message from good old dad. I read it:

“Tom, Tom…come in Tom…do you read me Tom?”