A message from Jeremy Bautista on Uncle Al

“eating greasy chinese food together…Uncle Al always grabbing my arm whenever he spoke to me….he came out to my last event when I was living in Oakland (May 2008) but he was so tired that he fell asleep…I’ll never forget the man who rapped with 10,000 carabao’s. I pray that he’s chilling with all the Manong’s on Ifugao mountain….Much love and respect….From the Hip Hop Generation to Uncle Al, our hero!!!!”

Jeremy Bautista–http://www.artsopolis.com/profile/detail/502

Poem: “The Letter”

The Letter
By Tony Robles

Armando and I were students
Studying radio and television
But we both wanted to
Radio announcers

We spun records on our school
Radio station making
Rookie mistakes such as
Playing records at the
Wrong speeds

Our department head
Looked at us and said,
Let me guess…you both want
To be DJ’s in San Francisco

How’d you
Know, we responded

The department head was,
Of course, right

He’d seen a million guys like
Us with a million dreams
Spinning on a turntable, mostly
At the wrong speeds

Armando and I had
Similar last names, his
Was Robledo and mine
Was Robles

We went to a radio
Station one day to apply
For an internship in the
Promotions department

The job involved giving away
Stuffed animals and free
Tickets to wrestling matches

We filled out the application
Which reminded me of the one
I’d filled out for a dishwashing
Job in a trendy part of town

I hope we get
It, said Armando

Me too,
I said

We handed the application
To the girl at the desk who
Chewed and popped her
Gum at normal speed

2 weeks later I
got a letter in
the mail

It said,
Mr. Robledo…thank you
For your interest
But…

They had sent me
Armando’s rejection
Letter

Armando had received
Mine on the
Same day

We tossed the
Letters in the
Trash

A year or so later I
Got a job at a radio
Station as an announcer in a
Not-so trendy city where the
Cows outnumbered the humans

Armando changed his
Mind and his major,
Deciding to become a
Podiatrist

The station that sent
Us the wrong letters
Changed its format
And name

But Armando
Still had
His

© 2010 Tony Robles

Happy Birthday Uncle Al!

February 16th is Uncle Al’s Birthday. Uncle Al was a person who made things happen. But he did it in such a way, in such subtle ways, that before you knew it, what needed to be done was done, what needed to be said was said and what was needed most was provided for.

Uncle Al wasn’t linear in his thinking or in his ways. He could take you around in circles, weaving tales around you until you became a poem, a ritual, a fish swimming, or the twisting, knotted roots coming up from the ground. He would leave you with nothing but a loincloth for the world to see on the corner of Jackson and Kearny Streets. I can still hear the car horns honking as they pass by, people behind the wheel wondering, “Who’s that crazy guy talking about rituals and all that crazy stuff?”

“I am your long lost son” Uncle Al would say when talking about his relationship to the manongs, the elderly Pilipino men, each of whom was a piece that made up the puzzle that was Uncle Al’s life.

I grew up watching him–long hair, dark rimmed glasses, sandals. I remember the first time i’d seen him read poetry. It was 1975 or so. I was unaware of poetry, the I-Hotel; unaware of everything except what my dad told me: “All you know how to do is eat, sleep and shit”. We had a pet bird in a cage that would repeat those words until i was convinced. So, with my eating, sleeping and shitting ways, i watched Uncle Al read poems at Civic Center during a citywide arts festival organized by my cousin’s grandfather Elio Benvenuto.

I remember Uncle Al reading a poem about white snow but what i remembered even more was his girlfriend at the time, who also read. She had this one line about someone wearing “Cakey Underwear”. I remember thinking, “Poetry is pretty Goddamn bizarre”. He described his girlfriend as an “ass kicking lady”. 20 years later she was the driving force behind the publication of his collection of poems, “Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark”.

In 1975 i was involved in a car accident while working as a paperboy for the San Francisco Examiner. I was struck by a Volkswagen bus while crossing California street while collecting from subscribers. The side mirror hit me on the head, leaving a golf ball sized lump. I was laid up for the summer with a fractured leg. I was hobbling on my crutches when i ran into Uncle Al on Clement Street. “Hey Tony, i got something for you”, he said.

He reached into a bag and pulled out a sarape. It looked like the one Clint Eastwood wore in “High Plains Drifter”. “Keep it away from the moths”, he said, “They dig it”. I slipped the sarape on and headed down the street in my crutches with Uncle Al.

We ate chow mein at a restaurant close by. As i was being weaned off crutches, i was sent to live with my mother in Orlando, Florida. It was a private school–red, white and blue uniforms; pledge of alliegance to the American and Christian flags. Someone had put a book in my suitcase when i had left. In it was the poem Uncle Al had written called, “Soon the White Snow will Melt”. I’d sit in my room and read it over and over. I didn’t understand it. All i understood was that i was in Florida where the temperatures got to 100 with an equal amount of humidity–and no snow. I was the only non-white kid in the school. What did the poem have to do with me? What was my crazy Uncle talking about when he wrote:

Soon the White
snow will melt

And the black, brown
yellow, red earth

Will come to
life

Time went by and i learned things along the way. I learned a lot by watching Uncle Al. He was very geniuine, very real and very kind. He gave of himself and never asked for anything in return.

On his birthday, i think about the everyday struggle of people’s to survive, locally and globally. He would want us to remember the manongs and the stories of the past. He would see the birth of the manongs in the brown faces of the children. He would want us to taste the poems of the manongs in our daily rituals of serving our communites, being born, being alive like a river moving through Manilatown.

Last Night

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.

Items Found

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