POOR correspondent - Posted on 30 June 2010

Tony Robles/PNN Tuesday, April 27, 2010 The great escape—I am still working that security guard job at the Land ‘O Lakes apartment complex on the San Francisco/Daly City border. It’s been a year and a few months since I landed on shore wearing my guard uniform—which I intended to wear for a couple of months at the very most—but the economy has kept me nestled in fortress-like surroundings. I tried getting another job through Jobsnow.gov, the stimulus program but I was told that those who do not have jobs or are underemployed qualify. I went from tenant organizer to employment counselor to security guard. I figured I was underemployed but I was informed otherwise. I was told I should thank my lucky star shaped security guard badge I even have a job. Above me is the moon and scattered about are raccoons rummaging through dumpsters. They are ghetto raccoons and I like them. They have to eat, like all creatures, but property management has deemed them a nuisance and requires me to call animal control. I tell the raccoons, “Look brothers and sisters, I gotta call animal control on you. It ain’t me, it’s my boss…you understand don’t you? Why don’t you meet me in the back of the complex and I’ll give you a couple days supply of bread and water? Just do your scavenging elsewhere. I’m sure you’ll find fertile ground up the road. What do you say…? The raccoons get teary eyed and look at me as if I was a turncoat--Judas himself. They tell me, “Go to hell”, and go back to their scavenging ways. I stand and watch the raccoons gather food scraps while conscientiously setting recyclables to the side. I walk to a nearby lake and look at my reflection. I think to myself, you are nothing but an agent of the man, a coward, a gentrifier of raccoons. I look up at the moon with a tear trickling down my cheek and think, I gotta get the hell outta here. I decided to escape. I found out about a writing fellowship offered at a large prestigious university near San Francisco. This university offers fellowships to poets and writers of fiction once a year—5 fellowships in each category. I asked the raccoons what they thought and they said, “We’re struggling to survive on dumpster scraps and all you can think about is a pansy-ass writing fellowship?” I sent in my application, cover letter and pansy assed writing samples to the university…along with 60 dollars. The 60 was the painful part. Why did this rich university need my 60 dollars? I could buy a lot of chow mein with that money. I posed the question in my cover letter. The fellowship is a two year program that pays 26,000 a year for attending writing workshops and focusing on individual projects. The fellowship guidelines indicate that one did not need a college degree to be a fellow. I figured I had as good a chance as any. For the next couple months I fantasized about quitting the security job upon notification of my acceptance as a fellow at the prestigious university. I pictured myself walking into my boss’ office at the security guard company, tossing my badge on his desk and telling him what the raccoons told me—go to hell! 3 months later I got a letter from the prestigious university notifying me that the selection process was difficult etc. etc. etc. I wasn’t their kind of fellow. I was disappointed but I knew it was a long shot--guys like me don’t get fellowships too often--but we do get security guard jobs with frequency. I fell into a funk of security guard despair. But the other day something happened. I stopped at a coffee shop on the way to work. I sat at a table and a man walked over as all other tables were occupied. Mind if I join you, he asked, motioning to the available seat at my table. I nodded yes. He moved lugubriously, placing a bowl of soup on the table and looking around. I wish I had some grated cheese for this, he said. There was a pizza parlor a door away so I got up and brought back 4 small packets of grated cheese. The man thanked me and sprinkled the cheese on his soup—minestrone—thick with a wonderful aroma. The man introduced himself as “J”. He wore a leather safari-styled hat and had the look of a man who’d spent most of his life outdoors. “J” was in pain. He smiled and lifted the spoon. The vegetables were like pearls plucked from the ocean. He told me his health wasn’t very good—heart, skin, diabetes, blood pressure—all problems. He said he’d traveled many places and that he snuck away from home to enjoy a bowl of soup—his wife forbids him from eating canned foods because of the sodium. I told him that my girlfriend does that too. “She sounds like a keeper” he said. “J” told me he had camped in many places and that rocks had been his mattress and pillow many times. In his face were deserts and valleys and when he smiled it was the smile of a man who had earned the right to smile in such a way—such a way that words don’t quite capture. He had a smile that could quench the thirst of the world itself. It was something that I needed. He shook more cheese on his soup. I waited for his smile and he told me of some places he had been—Colorado, Alaska, Texas—he didn’t like Texas, he said. He said Texas should go back to its rightful owner—Mexico. I looked at the clock. I had to get to work. I shook “J’s” hand and got going. Being with “J” got me feeling alive. The 10 minutes we spent at that table, grated cheese and all, was beautiful. I had received my fellowship.


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