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.

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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

Some questions

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…

Politics

Politics
Tony Robles

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

Day off

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
He stood

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

Maybe he’ll
Mention the one
He built

Between
Us

© 2009 Tony Robles