Introduction: This excerpt is from Tony Robles’ novel-in-progress, Fillmore Flip, based on his family's experience living in the Fillmore District—a community of blacks, Filipinos, Japanese, Latinos—whose fabric of life is threatened by displacement by city officials, real estate and big business interests.
I don’t know who gave me the name Fillmore Flip. It was a muted birthmark, an invisible tattoo that attached to my skin like a blood flower. I was in my late teens and I could look my older brothers dead in the eye. Nobody ever called out the words Fillmore Flip when they saw me but it came through in nods and gestures. The neighborhood was a big womb that gave birth to a bunch of guys with nicknames—carved into walls and flesh--arms, legs, faces--spirits. Me and my running partners were born in the Fillmore…Fillmo’. Some got here when they were 2 or 3 years old. Some folks called it “The ‘Mo’” or the “Filthy ‘Mo”—others called it Little Harlem or the razor. To me it was Fillmore, the set; not like no Hollywood movie set--fake props, fake Indians—wigs and scripts. On the set we got good actors, bad actors, in-between actors—no script. There were other streets in the Western Addition, but the main street was Fillmore. If you didn’t know Fillmore you didn’t know a thing and if you didn’t know the set you didn’t know shit. There was this lady that lived a few doors away from our house. She was from Jamaica—she was dark-skinned—like Sidney Poitier. She kept to herself. She was always watering plants outside her door, singing and talking to them like they was people. One day a group of us was walking by, on our way to throw down with some other neighborhood when she cried out: You are flowers…flowers, flowers! I looked at that lady like she was crazy. I was cool--didn’t want nothing to do with no flowers. But sometimes I’d think about it. Flowers survive in good weather, bad weather. We were conditioned to survive like our parents who came from other places. It reminded me of that song by Ben E. King, “Spanish Harlem”, about a rose punching through asphalt, seeing the sun from the street to the rooftops. That song could have been written about the set. If me or any of my partners were flowers we kept it hidden, didn’t want no one to know that part of us--if there was a part—that could create beauty where it was said beauty could not survive. My brother gave me a book of poems once when I was sent up to the California Youth Authority—CYA—for the first time. I had itchy fingers--got caught breaking and entering into a place in the Tenderloin. Had it timed, knew where the key was, the money—all mapped out. What I didn’t know was that the neighbor had his eye on me and when I opened the door it seemed the cops were right there to greet me with grins as wide as gates; a real surprise party—them draggin’ me out like I was Dillinger. Always grinnin’ them cops—they don’t know how to smile. At CYA I had time on my hands and I tried to make the time go quicker by jumping into a book. I kept jumping in and out. I couldn’t understand any of it. I felt good that my brother could understand the stuff though. The fact that he gave me the book told me he thought I could grasp the words, take a hold of them in some kind of way but I understood very little. But there was a poem in it about flowers and spring and how you can cut all the flowers but can’t stop spring from coming. I understood that part.
At first I didn’t like it. Fillmore Flip—it sounded like a damn cartoon character that couldn’t jump or fly—useless like Mickey Mouse. The worst kind of guy you could be was a Mickey Mouse kind of guy—seer sucker suit, dull—no color, no fire, no flash—a wet match. We were called flips, the Filipinos: You know that flip? Where’s that flip from? Who he run with? There was flips in different neighborhoods in the city but the flips from Fillmore was different. We had a warrior thing about us. As far back as I can remember I always had my fists balled up tight, even when my hands were in my pockets. My younger brother Hector, he was different. He would clench his jaw, then his fist; but he was a talker too—would unclench that jaw and talk with all the hustlers—had a way with words—part poet, scat singer, preacher, revolutionary—all that stuff. Hector was known as Fillmore Lip…you couldn’t keep him quiet, couldn’t beat him—not even my dad. Fillmore Flip and Fillmore Lip—two peas in the family pod.
Where you from? I’m from the set. I wasn’t the first flip that set foot in Fillmore, there were lots. My old man was born in 1906, the year the earthquake shook it all up and the fire damn near destroyed it all. From what I was told, downtown and south of market got hit bad—but it was the fire that tore it up for real. Fillmore wasn’t hit too hard. Folks came to Fillmore to escape the damage and rebuild—to set up shop. Lots of different people came through, laying the foundation—Jews, Japanese, Filipinos, blacks, Chinese—they opened shops and let loose a whole lot of fragrance that, when it got on your skin and clothes—stayed. My pop hit the city in the early 20’s. The story is that he was a young cat who jumped ship back in the PI on the SS Fillmore and never looked back. Them early cats hit those ships in Manila—that was the launching point; young cats from small towns or the countryside breaking their backs working the land, following the carabao, sharing the mud with it. Them cats was lookin’ to make money in the US and split back home to a hero’s welcome. America bogarted the islands from Spain before the old man was born so you had folks over there telling the Flips that heaven was America, not Spain, that America was ready to welcome them with little fat angels—asses patted down with talcum powder floating with wings on high—open arms, fat cigars and apple pie. Don’t nobody ever talk about the war between the flips and Americans—how they said that the Flips couldn’t run their own country—how they was backwards, all that stuff. They called them savages. Some anthropologist even called some of us noble savages. I guess he was a cool anthropologist. Somebody told me once that a group of flips was brought over to America to the world's fair—in a kind of freak show—putting us on display like savages, like we was uncivilized—cold shot, you ask me. One of my friend’s dads ran it down to me once. I never knew about a war between the flips and the Americans. Shit, I was born in America and I was a flip and somewhere down the line we’d been warring and I’d never heard nothing about it—it never made the highlight reel at the movie theater. What did that make me, a traitor—but to who? It gave people a bad image in the mirror—that is if they even had a mirror. But sometimes when you looked at the mirror, you didn’t know what was looking back at you. What a way to see with two eyes. My dad—I guess—wanted his slice of apple pie—a la mode and everything else—so he split from the land of mangoes and coconuts and crossed that ocean. He was packed on that ship with all them flips—all settin’ out for some kind of adventure. I sometimes wonder what that boat ride was like. It must have stayed with him. Dad was a merchant marine—got seaman papers somehow and kept jumping ship. I sometimes dream about it—like I was on that ship with the old man, only he wasn’t so old in my dream. Makes me wonder if he dreamed he’d have this family here in America, the only home I’ve ever known. It must have blown his mind when he ended up in America on Fillmore Street. I could hear him now, trippin’ that the ship and the street had the same name: I get off da ship and get on at the same time…son ub a bitz!
Dad didn’t talk much but when he got mad it was like one of them Filipino volcanoes got transplanted here in America and blew the lid off the house. I didn’t know what he said half the time but the way he’d turn red in the face, those had to be the baddest words in the Filipino dictionary—if there was a Filipino Dictionary for bad words. Dad was sharp, knew how to dress—spit shined shoes. My mom got here at around the same time. Her aunt had married a US Military officer and came over to the states. Mom wasn’t even supposed to come here—her brother was supposed to—but he got sick with rheumatic fever. That was my uncle who I'd never meet. Mom crossed that big ocean—was only 15 or 16 years old. She took care of her aunt’s child. It was in a restaurant that she met my dad—in Manilatown on Kearny St. near Chinatown. Manilatown was the nerve center for the Flips in the city—the one’s arriving from the farms and the canneries or merchant marine ships. Was where you could find out who just blew into town, who got blown away; it was where the Filipinos who gambled plied their trade—no shortage of gambling houses, prostitutes—always in high demand. My mom, Soledad, worked as a waitress in a Filipino cafe—The Luzon Cafe. People called my father “Adobo Joe” back then because he always ordered an extra big plate of chicken adobo. He always came in and ate that adobo and always complained that it wasn't as good as his own adobo. He'd argue with the cook. One day the cook said—in his language—why don't you make your own goddamn adobo then? What did the old man do but take over the whole kitchen, I mean, the whole operation, showing the cook how real adobo was made. They always had someone on lookout for Adobo Joe, who was always strong arming the adobo pot or whatever pot happened to be close by. And the cooks, grudgingly, thought his adobo was good. The smell of adobo Joe was the smell of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, pepper, bay leaves—or whatever was available. He sweated the smell of adobo, it was on his skin and no amount of scrubbing could get it off—it followed him all over. Dad would walk towards the café, past the enticing glances of the prostitutes. One day he walked in like a some kind of big shot, flashing dollar bills but it was the shoes—clean, buffed and sparkling another language. Mom said, “Ok…he must be decent”. She married my decent father in 1928. He was one of the lucky ones—most Filipino men didn’t have Filipino wives or wives at all. Finding a Filipino woman was like striking gold. It was men—young single cats—that here came to work from the Philippines, to better their lives. But women weren’t allowed to come here but some did. Some wanted to make some bread and book back home to the P.I. Very few Filipino women came in the early days but dad was determined to find one. He would search forever if he had to. Dad and mom landed in Fillmore in 1929, all decent like—in the depression days. Fillmore was the only neighborhood they could get a place at, with the Japanese and the blacks. The old man always had a job, always had a kid too. Mom's belly was always full. Had 10 kids, two died at birth. We could have been a dozen but ten was enough. Mom, always saying that no one could take your education from you…they can’t take that away from you. She even went to night school for a while. Mom worked in the shipyards like dad. My brother Theodore was the peacemaker of the family. He was the one that would run interference whenever the old man blew his fuse. My big brother, he was cool—did a lot for me. He told me I was a poet. Man, I don’t know nothin’ about no poetry, I would say. He would laugh and say that some kind of poetry was boiling inside me and when it came up it came from somewhere deep, that it was like cool air. I didn’t even notice it because—he said—it was natural. He said that that was the best kind of poetry. He would give me books to read. He wanted to have a bookstore. He was a trip, saying things like “Who’s to say the roots are not the weeds, who’s to say the weeds are not the roots?” It blew my mind. He was going to school and he’d be reciting some complicated sounding stuff in his room, pacing back and forth, using his hands to make a point. “Ok, you just sit there and keep quiet…ok” he’d say as he was rehearsing in front of his mini audience of me, Hector and Pilar—his younger siblings. It was like he was a Fillmore Shakespeare talkin’ stuff like that…what the hell did that mean? I didn’t know what he was talking about but I loved him, he was like a father to me. I’m no philosopher but my feelings run deep like San Francisco Bay. My family was big, the biggest in the neighborhood. Everybody knew us. Ain’t you so and so’s brother? People would ask. So I was connected. I’d walk the neighborhood and see the pool hustlers, prostitutes, jazz musicians—every kind of hustler you could imagine on the corner—all blending and bumping and mingling—like pool balls on the break. It was beautiful to see it buzzing. Sometimes people would stand and wait. I remember seeing an old black man standing in the middle of Fillmore Street looking up into the sky. Traffic froze and people in cars honked their horns, cursing the man: Man, you crazy? Get out the motherfuckin' street 'fo you get 'yo ass kilt.” I walked up to him and asked what he was doing. Do you see it? He asked. I don’t see nothing, I said. The man looked down at me with a face that looked beaten by weather I’d never seen. He looked up. “See them clouds up there, they’s sinless. I’m waiting fo’ some sinless rain to fall over me”. I walked away with curses and horns in my ears.
One day my brother Rudy, the one who’d show me the harshness of flowers and generosity that would sustain me in ways I hadn’t considered, introduced me to a pimp. There were lots of pimps in the neighborhood but Blind Fillmore Silk was the top of the pimp world—a gentle shark with a perfect row of teeth. His girls worked hard. I’d see ‘em going into Victorian houses and apartments with off-duty cops, sometimes politicians. We met him on Eddy Street. He had the flashiest clothes I’d ever seen—orange slacks, lime green shirt, camel overcoat, dark shades. Wore a process—hair laid to the side, as straight as a white man’s. Story had it that Silk had initially been a blues singer but found he was better at pimping than wailing the blues. Rudy greeted him with a hug. He introduced me as his little brother and introduced Silk as his friend. I shook his hand. The nails on his fingers weren’t like mine or Rudy's—they had a kind of importance. I’m Silk, he said, his head at a slight tilt, as if analyzing something. I listened to Silk speak. He talked like a mixture of preacher, philosopher, crooner, bluesman, shrink and 10 thousand other things. I couldn’t keep up.
“You look like you about to jump off” said Silk
“Jump off what?” I asked.
“Well young blood, I ain’t talkin’ about the Golden Gate Bridge. You don’t seem to be that kind of guy—you know—the kind that be doin’ something just because everybody else be doin' it. You don’t look like no follower. You the type that dudes want to follow. You got some style about you, some finesse. You don’t look like no one’s fool”
“That's good. Now, I can tell you like to fight, but some folks get to fightin’ nature and they gonna lose every time. You got to remember you can’t fight nature, can’t nothing beat nature, no fists, nothing. That’s why you got to use your head.”
Silk tapped his temple with his forefinger.
“I hear you” I replied, not knowing what he meant by fighting nature.
I looked at his watch. Soon I envisioned myself in head to toe lime green, like a small slice of key lime pie. Silk then pulled out a roll of bills and peeled off a few, gave it to Rudy. We walked off leaving Silk and his lime with the street that was his.
“You notice anything?” Rudy asked.
“You mean, blind…like Ray Charles?”
“Yeah, and like the three blind mice. What other kind of blind you think I’m talkin’ about?”
“Hell if I know”.
I watched Silk walk up Fillmore Street. He approached a woman. He didn’t seem blind.
“Why does he have a watch if he’s blind?” I asked.
“Man, it’s just for show. Silk don’t need no watch” Rudy said. “He always know what time it is.” We walked back home. That’s the set, my home—a place where blind pimps see and the clouds are sinless. But before those sinless clouds appeared to me, there was my mother, and my mother’s house, the place where it began.
© 2020 Tony Robles
Tony Robles, "The People's Poet", was born in San Francisco and currently resides in Western North Carolina. He is the 2020 Carl Sandburg Writer in Residence and an individual artist grantee of the San Francisco Art Commission.