Making of a Writer

I don’t know why exactly, but I elected to take a typing class in my sophomore year in high school. I hadn’t given much thought to my future plans outside of school, but I thought I’d perhaps like to work in an office. What my capacity would be in an office, I had no idea. An office job or perhaps working at a newspaper. This didn’t make much sense, actually, because I neither read the paper nor knew how to type. My Grandfather kept telling me, “Get a trade, be a carpenter or a plumber.” My father saw I was useless with my hands from an early age and discouraged me from entertaining the idea of plumbing, saying that I’d smell “like shit” or a “gutter rat” and “What woman’s gonna want to have anything to do with you then?” I saw my choices as limited. I wasn’t good with my hands and I still did mathematical computations using my fingers. I figured the least I could do was learn to type. The first day of typing class we were greeted by our teacher, Mrs. Lefferdink, an older lady who resembled the women you see on old TV reruns in black and white. If you could genetically splice DNA from Lucille Ball, Our Miss Brooks, and Jackie Gleason’s TV wife, you’d end up with Mrs. Lefferdink. She wore dark-rimmed glasses attached to a gold chain, which swung like a jump rope. She ended up teaching typing and shorthand to the future office-workers of America before being put out to pasture.

Practically all the students in the class were girls. If there was another guy in there, he was well hidden. Most of the boys took wood or metal shop. I did miserably in those classes (which, when applied to me, could just as easily be called Wood Chop rather than wood shop), nearly cutting off my thumb and a classmate’s arm at the elbow. I still don’t know how I managed that. I was petrified of the pretty girls in the class. They came into class with their books and shapely bodies. They made no eye contact; they were all business, each with the air of an executive secretary in the making. They sat with perfect posture. We sat down at separate desks each mounted with typewriters. On my first day of class, I sat at my typewriter and thought there had been some kind of mistake. I looked at the cold metallic machinery weighing down on the desk and discovered there were no letters on any of the keys.

Suddenly, Mrs. Lefferdink instructed us to begin our typing exercises. The keys popped and clicked; each strike reverberating across the room off the windows, sprinkled with the tinkling of bells. All those lovely girls with long lovely red fingertips ready to be worn down. Their toes were oftentimes the same color. It was difficult to concentrate on blank keys when there was so much to look at. I could barely move those typewriter keys. My mind flexed every which way, conforming to the curvature of each girl, their lovely legs and shoulders, my fingertips caressing their backs, their necks, running through their sweet smelling hair. I could paint a thousand masterpieces with my fingertips, but I couldn’t type a lousy 10 words per minute. Finally, Mrs. Lefferdink’s nasally voice ruined a good imaginary streak I had going when she said, “Ok class, stahhhp!” Many of the girls typed in the 50-WPM range, some even got as high as 75 WPM. When Mrs. Lefferdink checked my paper, I had typed all of 8.5 words a minute. I could feel the eyes of every girl in the class scrutinizing my paper. All of my spellings were incorrect except for the word “The.”

The girls seemed to remember all the keys and type consistently fast while I was always slow, not able to remember what letter corresponded with what key. I consistently got “D’s” or worse on typing tests. Perhaps there wasn’t much of a challenge for me. I couldn’t get too excited about typing such things as:

John Dough

Acme Bakeries

Dear Mr. Dough:

We have obtained accounts receivable information, and have discovered a discrepancy in regards to your bread (and so on).

The scripts we had to work from were so unimaginative that only a sadist could have thought them up. At any rate, the girls in the class were comfortable with the exercises, the scripts. They were fast and accurate and on the right track to that office job with the Acme’s of the world.

I thought I was doomed with my slow typing, destined to become a janitor or a security guard or cafeteria worker wearing a transparent shower cap—something along those lines. As I continued hitting the keys like slow feet upon mud, I heard a sound. It was clear and beautiful; although I didn’t realize it at the time.

Tink…tink…tink. Tink…tink…tink. 3 tinks and a pause, in a steady, rhythmic cadence; distinct—not drowned out by the rain of the other keys chiming and clambering upon the windows and floors like a rainstorm. No, this tinkling was like delicate raindrops, falling in a pond, dissolving into shimmering light. The sounds came from a girl sitting 5 or so seats away. I hadn’t noticed her until I paused during a memory lapse. Her name was Karen. She was the girl in school everyone was ambivalent about, including her teachers. She was below average looking, and seemed to waddle rather than walk down the halls. She held her books tightly to her chest. She very rarely spoke to anyone. She was the girl in the yearbook whose head was too big, more than the ordinary or professional camera could handle. This was the girl who smiled, but blinked as the photographer snapped the shot. In the overall ambivalence toward her, the photographer decided not to retake the picture because no one would care anyway.

Tink…tink…tink! Those were magic sounds. It reminded me that there was another like me, a bad typist. But it made me feel satisfied in a sinister way, in that while I was a bad typist, at least I wasn’t an outcast like this girl with the large head. My ears focused on the tinkling of her typewriter and I raced her toward something. For every one of her tinks, I pounded 3 tinks, sometimes 4. The satisfaction came when Mrs. Lefferdink strolled by and declared “Anthony, you’re much improved. 15 words a minute!” Karen typed all of 8 or 9 words. I felt good but it was soon forgotten. It was on to more exercises and tests. Karen sometimes tossed a squint over at me; we’d catch each other’s eyes, knowing we were both in the same boat, but I’d avert my eyes, denying any connection. Once, after class, Karen spoke to me.

“Hi, I’m Karen.”

“I’m Anthony,” I replied.

Karen looked at me with clear, full eyes. She smiled then dropped her eyes to the floor, then glanced up again. She had beautiful teeth. White like piano keys.

“Typing is pretty hard, huh?”

I shook my head and looked beyond her to the bodies walking to and fro in the hall. Karen walked alongside me, saying nothing. I had nothing to say.

“Well, I gotta go. See ya.”

I walked off to the next class leaving Karen someplace.

I wanted glances from the other girls, the pretty girls, which never came. The class eventually ended and it was on to my junior year. I still saw Karen from time to time, often sitting alone nursing a carton of milk. I once saw her reading a book of love poetry. She always seemed to be alone, jotting things down in a book. During our graduation ceremony, she was there, sitting a few seats away. I caught her squinting eyes again. The other girls in that typing class were surely going places. Their tassels dripped ambition—college, office work, families and success. I never ended up with a job at Acme. I’ve worked mostly average jobs—security guard, janitor—things like that. Right now, I work at an insurance company downtown. But I always remember the little bit I learned in Mrs. Lefferdink’s class. And Karen is probably still hitting the keys, no doubt a poet, making sounds like leaves hitting water, which I can hear right now. Her light sparkles in my memory like a big moon floating. And I’m proud to tell you that I’ve typed this story for her with my eyes closed. Tink … tink … tink.

© Copyright 2005, Tony Robles

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Death of the Cool

Cool don’t live here
No more

Cool left like
Yesterday’s headline

Cool left like yesterday’s model,
Like the B-side of a record that
Never got played

Cool came and went
And in the breeze of
Coolness the cool
Disappeared

Cool used to show up
In the morning and
Stay a while

Now the morning don’t
Even show its face
And cool doesn’t either

Cool was in the empty
Breezes between words
when nods and the span
of an arched eyebrow filled
in what connected us

cool would show up
with a spare key
when you were locked out

cool don’t live
here no more

cool said good morning

cool shook your
hand, a coming together
of finger/palm prints
that told our story in
the unsaid cool that
you only had to feel

cool don’t live
here no more

cool done packed
up, took a hike,
packed up and said it
was time to leave it
alone

Cool took the
A through Z train
Out of here, one
Straight shot

Rest in
Peace

© 2014 Tony Robles

The Brother Who Won’t Go Away

I was in line at the Civic Center post office in downtown San Francisco when the far off smell of salty air hit me.  I looked around for something that resembled the ocean and saw a passel of light blue shirt clad postal clerks weighing and affixing postage to letters and parcels, each doing the job with a personalized diligence gleaned from years of repetition.  How can one inhale the vast blueness of oceans and seas in a post office?  I was in line, in whose juxtaposition I occupied a place behind 15 others whose postures ranged from assertive, hurried, bored, fatigued, ambivalent or misguided aplomb—each holding sway to the pendulum of impatience moving within.  The post office is always crowded but I don’t mind standing in line.  Standing in line at the post office to send a handwritten letter is a resistance to our techwashed reality where everything is done via a click or press of a button.  As the second hand on the clock ticks its tiny steps of supplication towards eternity, the salty air smell becomes stronger and soon my face is awash in a breeze coming from somewhere. 

 

“Excuse me” a voice cut though from behind.  I turned and saw him—an African-American man who I’d seen around the city since I was a kid.  The man was about 5 foot 5 or 6.  He was dressed the way I remembered from back then—rugged pants, boots, denim jacket, turtleneck sweater—topped with a wide-brim leather hat.  “Do you know how much it costs to send a certified letter” he asked.  I’d sent only 2 certified letters in my life and didn’t remember what I’d paid.  “No, I sure don’t” I replied.  His thick fingers held a fanned out set of certified mail forms as if they were US currency.  He looked about for a list of postal rates.  If they are posted they are well hidden, along with the machine for those whose only wish is to purchase a single stamp.

 

On the man’s jacket was a patch that read: Karate.  I tried to imagine what he’d look like in a Karate gi.  He is short but solid.   I remember driving somewhere with my uncle years ago when he spotted the man walking down the street carrying a shoulder bag.  “That guy is a karate man” my uncle said.  My uncle practiced Okinawan Karate and came across the man in that world.  I looked at the man was we passed him.  He looked as if he’d just returned from a long journey by ship.  A merchant seaman, maybe?  I’d see him from time to time, always with that shoulder bag and sometimes a guitar case.  He’d pop up in different places in the city, always unexpectedly.  Somehow I felt I knew him.  Hey there’s that guy…I’d think upon seeing him.  I was just a little kid living in the Projects of North Beach, running in every direction except the right one.  Once while running, I came upon the man again.  This time he was among a crowd of tourists.  “Do you speak German?” he asked someone in the crowd.  “I do too”.  He smiled and strummed his guitar and said something that sounded like:

 

                                    Spreck-a-dee doych

                                    Spreck-a-dee doych

                                    Stop ‘n drop…thank you!

 

And the tourists showed teeth that spread as far and wide as the bridges that connect one place or person to another, smiling and dropping coins and dollars in that guitar case.  I was just a kid watching.  Hey, it’s that guy…I thought again, offering only a smile exposing the bashfulness of a boy in the presence of a guitar case that was a wide mouth that knew about laughter and hunger in any language. 

 

The man stood jotting information on the certified mail receipts.  I’d never spoken to him yet I felt I knew him.  He was someone from the landscape of my childhood, the feel of which is on the bottoms of my feet–in the sand and pebbles and shards of glass that have collected in my shoes.  I looked at the man’s face.  It seemed he hadn’t aged at all.  He didn’t have his shoulder bag or guitar case.  He glanced at his cell phone that was tucked into his denim jacket pocket.  Standing in that line, I wanted to ask him his name, where he was from, what he did for a living.  The only thing I could say was, “I remember you when I was a kid”. 

 

Displayed on the circumference of his leather hat rests a multinational array of pins proudly bearing the flags of many nations as well as the emblem of the state of California.  Had he been to all those places?  I remembered him talking to those German tourists long ago.  I mentioned this to him.  He explained that he spoke 15 different languages, including Asian, African and Polynesian tongues.  I wanted to know more.  Where did he live?  Was he married?  Where was his guitar?  The line was moving and now I was at the head.  The postal worker at the counter called out, “Next in line!”  I turned to the man and said, “It was really nice seeing you again, sir.  By the way, my name is Tony”.  The man just smiled and nodded.  I went to the counter to take care of my transaction.

 

I wanted to hug the man.  I was so glad to see him.  The feeling I had was ineffable.  Seeing him gave me the feeling that the city was still mine, still strumming with memories which move slowly though the crowds, the traffic—memories still alive, memories that still breathe.  I wanted to thank him for still being here.

 

I walked out of the post office and the smell of salty air hit me again, reminding me of where I was and of that brother who didn’t—who won’t—go away.  Neither will I. Image

Shine On

Brother Paul,

Was that you I saw

Wearing a baseball cap

Shielding your eyes,

Leaning against a pole

With a sign that said

No parking day or night?

 

I was walking across the

Street and matching me

Stride for stride was a woman

Who was quite attractive

 

The sun was out after

Hiding for several

Weeks

 

The woman pulled ahead

Of me slightly and I thought

About not going back to

Work

 

That’s when i

Saw you

 

You usually say

Hi to me, always treating

Me like a long lost brother

 

But today your eyes

Didn’t see me

When I waved at you

 

I waved at you

Up and down and

Side to side like I was

Trying to flag down a

Motherfucking cab

 

Your eyes followed

That woman

Like I wasn’t

There

 

(and I wasn’t)

 

But I know

You saw

Me

 

You motherfucker

You

 

 

© 2014 Tony Robles

Hayden and Magdangal

These two Frisco boys

Came to my

Office one day

 

I was an employment

Counselor at an

Organization that claimed

It swore off any allegiance

To money

 

And the two Frisco

Boy’s names were Hayden

And Mc Daniel

(Which sounded like a

Pair of cops)

                                     

They were no longer boys

But they were still in Frisco

And Hayden was trying

To help McDaniel

Find a job

 

McDaniel had been

A painter by trade but

Had fallen 3 stories,

Landing on his back

 

Hayden had seen hard

Times, all his teeth

Were gone but the aching

Urge to smile was carved

Into his face

 

McDaniel wanted to

Be a security guard

Saying, “Security guards

Don’t fall out of a third

Story window” so I told him

I’d help with his resume

 

McDaniel was Filipino

With a thick Filipino

Face and with his thick

Filipino lips said

 

My name is Magdangal

But everybody kept

Getting my name wrong,

They kept calling me McDaniel

So I keep it

 

He sat with his

Back straight wearing

A badge of two

Names

 

And I worked on

His resume starting

With his name:

 

Magdangal

 

 

© 2014 Tony Robles

Benito’s Drum (For Eviction Fighter and Son of The I-Hotel, Benito Santiago)

Benito’s Drum
By Tony Robles

Do you hear that sound?
The sound of skin from
Benito’s drum is the sound
of resistance to eviction

The skin of Benito’s drum
is the skin of
Mission Abuelitas
Fillmore black elders
South of Market Filipino veteranos
and lolos and lolas and children
and Chinatown elders carrying
their lives in plastic bags

The skin of Benito’s drum
is the skin of his life,
the skin of Manilatown,
the skin of the lechon Pilipino
struggle, the skin of the I-Hotel,
the skin of poets who wrote on
the walls of their minds:

“Hell no…we won’t go!”

Benito’s drum is the beat
of struggle from the heart
of struggle from the mind
of struggle

The drum bone beat of
hands carry the
dirt poems of the I-Hotel
rising out of the ground

Benito’s drum skin,
drum beat life
awakes the city
from its sleep

It wakes the elders
the children
the workers
the forgotten

Benito’s drum
is awaking the
city

with the sound
of his I-hotel
heart

(c) 2014 Tony Robles

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