Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin, Jimmy, Barack

This week is a monumental one historically, with the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, followed by President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration tomorrow. I've been watching TV shows on the lives of these two men this past weekend and noting the interesting interplay between one focus on how their work benefits African Americans and the other focus that the benefits are really for all Americans, all people. Similarly, Obama is lauded as the first African American president, but many also note that of course he is part white, with an upbringing that includes Asian influences and experiences. In fact, in an interesting cultural twist, some Irish Americans as well as some Irish claim Obama as one of their own, through his ancestor who hailed from the Irish town of Moneygall; these relatives pronounce his given name with a stress on the first syllable: BARE-uck.

All of this got me to thinking about how Filipino Americans of my generation grew up in this country: we fit in the gaps and hollows between black and white, and I can recall taking on, as a youth, typical characteristics of African American or European American identity, as needed in various situations. One of those environments was the world of "bagboys" — both boys and men, actually — at the US Army Commissary in the Presidio of San Francisco during the late 60s. I particularly remember one young African American man, Jimmy (whose surname in the poem has been changed).

Jimmy Hurt

They called us Schoolboys, the Regulars did.
Mostly men in their forties, all black except
for that old Filipino, Pablo. We were high
school kids, cruised in weekday afternoons

and Saturdays to bag for tips at the Army
commissary on the Presidio. The baddest
of us schoolboys was Jimmy Hurt. He would
float in, with rust alligator shoes, red piping

on his socks, double-breasted Edwardian,
gold-tipped mahogany cane, and a Billy Preston
natural. The rest of us came in our white shirts
and blue aprons, but Jimmy would change

in the back room, among the piled-up bales
of grocery bags, then swagger out. The royal
blue of his apron folded under, an ironed crease
just where a Nehru coat would be hemmed.

And man, could Jimmy bag! Half-gallon
Coke and Pepsi bottles spinning in his hands
like Cisco Kid's six-shooters. Gerber's jars
orbiting in air before the swish into the sack.

The ruby on Jimmy's right ring finger
glinted as his hand swooped down
on a 16-oz. can of Del Monte peaches, then
right hand behind back, the can materializing

over left shoulder, the left hand plucking it
from the air like a Willie Mays blind catch.
Square as Euclidean angles, Jimmy's bags had
edges sharp as his dark Ben Davis pants.

He always made fifteen to our mere five per hour.
And then we might not even get home with that.
Jimmy'd hold court in the back room, playing
"Tonk" for five dollars and ten. He never lost.

I heard he later played secret agent for the cops,
when police stations in San Francisco were under
siege by pipe bombs and other explosive devices.
Jimmy, in black turtlenecks and cords like

some Hollywood commando, lurked outside
Fillmore Station with a walkie-talkie,
reporting any "suspicious individuals" besides
himself. Anyway, last week, Danny McVeigh

and I were shooting nine-ball for beers
at the Town and Country on Geary, when Jimmy
walked in, carrying a glossy cue case, no cane,
sporting a charcoal-gray knit with red accents.

I called a three-ball combination: 4-5-9
into the left corner. Jimmy stopped to watch.
Purple clicked into orange, yellow on white
sliding two feet seven inches into the pocket,

sweetly. Jimmy reached up slowly, pulled
his bottle-green shades down to the tip
of his nose. Looking at me over gold rims,
he said, "How much you want to shoot for?"

— Vince Gotera, from Forkroads: A Journal of
Ethnic American Literature
(Winter 1996).
I really looked up to Jimmy back then. He was eternally sharp, always dressed "to the nines," an unbeatable pool shark, never off-balance, always in charge. The Regulars, the bagboys who were shagging tips to support families, treated Jimmy as an adult, though he was probably eighteen or nineteen when I knew him. I would have been fifteen, probably. And of course he lorded it over us, the other "schoolboys" &mdash Peter Pan to our Lost Boys, though Jimmy would have sneered at that comparison, would have thought of Pan as fey, no street cred. Jimmy was the ultimate hipster, cool and composed, a ladies' man, a cardsharp, con man, player, dancer, hustler, entertainer — the way he bagged groceries was what got him 2-3 times as much in tips as the rest of us (we all worked only for tips, even the Regulars). Jimmy exhibited the mastery and command of James Brown with the poise and looks of Marvin Gaye.

Jimmy would be about sixty now. I wonder what he ended up doing? Could the alleged "secret agent" phase have turned into a career in law enforcement? Did Jimmy perhaps win something enormous in a game of nine ball? A Lincoln Continental with a white shag rug? Maybe his very own pool hall? Or maybe Jimmy became a man of the cloth? A pastor in some AME church in a big-city ghetto. Though part of me sees him as more of the TV-evangelist type, raking in lots of moolah, checks and cash. I bet he didn't end up a bagboy Regular. I bet he didn't end up in prison (maybe you were thinking that; it certainly occurred to me). Jimmy was too much the entrepeneur, a young black man who made the most of the space society allowed him and enterprised beyond that space.

As I was writing that last paragraph, I couldn't quite figure out what I would say about poetic craft in this poem. There is my usual play with line breaks, using enjambment to push double meanings. The usual sound play: "double-breasted Edwardian" paralleled with "Billy Preston" — not just the ən sound at the end but also the echo of rest. The element that jumps out to me in this poem, which I don't think I've discussed before in the blog, is narrative.

Like a movie, the poem begins with an establishing shot: the commissary, the men and boys bagging groceries for tips, the social hierarchy. Then the presentation of the protagonist, Jimmy: both how he looked and what he did. Told in little flashes, micro-vignettes. All in past tense, a distant past: customary, repeated actions. Then, in typical storytelling fashion, the narrative flashes forward to a later time, to something Jimmy was said to have done between the bagging days and today, a kind of "middle past." And finally the transition to a very recent past — "Anyway, last week" — for all intents and purposes, the present, really. We see a scene played out: characters named, a real location, the landing of the combination shot. And finally the kicker: Jimmy, who apparently doesn't recognize the speaker or maybe does but plays coy, starts up his hustle, his con, his game. Always the playah.

For what it's worth, it's all based on "true stories" from my own past. During those bagboy days, I did shoot pool one time with fellow bagboy Dan McVeigh at the Town and Country pool hall on Geary Blvd. Jimmy came in and witnessed me sinking that exact 4-5-9 combination. And he did say, "How much you want to shoot for?" I don't recall now if I played Jimmy then, but I'm sure he would have figuratively cleaned my clock, walked away counting all my money. The difference in the poem is that I build in an implication that time has passed, perhaps quite a bit of time, but Jimmy hasn't changed. Still the playah. And of course that's Jimmy's strength, his attractiveness.

Not sure what else to say about the narrative. What do you think?

Today, I wonder where Jimmy is. And what he thinks of Dr. King and President Obama. Maybe in the nation we have been becoming between Dr. King's day and Obama's presidency, grown men won't have to bag groceries only for tips — no wage, no insurance — to put food on the table. I guarantee, Jimmy would have something really striking to say about all of that. And the man would be dressed up, yo. Slick.


Richard Thackwray said...

So you did learn about pool from Jimmy but snooker requires far more skill. I played snooker for Australia in a tournament in Detroit in 1977.
Sorry I haven't heard much from you recently, don't take to heart all the things I say about Obama.

Vince Gotera said...

Hey, no problem, Richard. No, I didn't learn about pool from Jimmy. I was way below his horizon. That's why it was so interesting when he said, "How much you want to shoot for": he suddenly noticed someone that could be an opponent. But he would have definitely beat me shooting with just one hand. And I think he would have found snooker fascinating probably but only if there was money in it. So you're an international snooker player. Wow. I'm NEVER shooting pool with you! ;-D

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