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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arthur, Arthur!

Reflections on a punch bowl, my Washington High School reunion -- and what it means to be an "Arthur"

The Washington High reunion, where an Arthur could read his poem and for a moment, remember

I was on Muni heading to my high school reunion. As an author, memory is crucial to my craft. Much of high school I have forgotten. Crowded Muni rides on the way to and from George Washington High School (aka Wash), however, have left their indelible tire tracks on my psyche.

I remember 1980, on a crowded 38 Geary bus, gazing through the fog-blurred window. Heavy rains beat the pavement, its bleat upon leaves sent trees into a shivering frenzy. Among the students looking to cram onto the bus was a student galloping down the hill. I could hear her steps—even now—as she clomped upon the pavement like an enraged bull; her momentum swift and powerful, so powerful that, in fact, she could not come to a halt. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill—in an attempt to stop—she slipped, like a graceful stage performer or fish—her feet giving way, upwards, and, in an unforgettable maneuver, she elevated several feet into the air before landing on the pavement—rump first—with a loud: Thump! I believe the bus shook.

The Washington High reunion, where an Arthur could read his poem and for a moment, remember

The reunion was a coming together of different graduating classes–1979-1985. The event was organized by Fenton—a guy I didn’t really know back in school. He graduated in ’81, a year before me. What I do remember about him was that he acknowledged you with a smile in the hall when he walked by and it didn’t matter if you were popular, unpopular, a hermit, bookworm, or athlete—he had an equal opportunity nod and smile. He was almost an ambassador of some kind of will—and not of the ill kind—but what exactly, I didn’t know with any certainty. And for folks in high school, especially the timid one’s whose only certainty was uncertainty, to be acknowledged by such a person—in any degree—was positive. What better person to organize a reunion, looking sharp, dressed in a red dinner jacket with a welcome as wide as the parting of the red sea?

The reunion started at 6pm and I was running late. I staff a community center on Saturdays—the Manilatown Center—on Kearny and Jackson Streets. The center was started by my uncle, the late poet/historian and activist Al Robles (Graduate of Galileo) to honor the former Filipino community known as Manilatown and honor the memory of the elderly tenants who were forcibly evicted from the International Hotel (Also known as the “I-Hotel”) in 1977. My late uncle loved the old song, “I remember you”. It was a song that moved him deeply:

I remember you

You’re the one who made my dreams come true

A few kisses ago

When one ceases to remember, one ceases to live, he often said.

I got off the bus. The reunion was at El Patio Restaurant, a six-block walk. I thought of my co-Washingtonians, likely pulling into the parking lot in cars, SUV’s—Uber or Lyft at the very least—and I’m hoofing it. If I were carrying a backpack or books it would be high school all over again.

I arrived at around 8pm. I thought of my uncle and that song, “I Remember you.” I felt nervous. What if nobody does, I mean, remember? I remember walking the halls complete with plaques and trophies—remembrances of glories from yesteryear; of young girls whose smiles were beautiful yet terrifying. And of being in a sea of faces and bodies sweating in gym and polishing my rifle in ROTC and what happened to Mr. A? Was his name Athanasopolous? A name no one could pronounce. And why did he think me to be a troublemaker when I was a borderline hermit with maybe one friend who halfway knew me? All those Mr. A’s & B’s & C’s & D’s & F’s—for me it was mostly C’s.

But it was too late to turn back. I entered a dining area that was sparsely occupied yet busy with the sounds of a Mariachi band entertaining the guests. In the distance I heard a thumping sound that seemed to make the floor vibrate. I headed towards it.

I walked through the door and was met by a sea of tables adorned with glasses, silverware, red helium balloons and plates stained with the remnants of mushroom gravy and green beans. Bright lights emanated from the dance floor. The DJ and his equipment looking as elaborate and sophisticated—with lights and switches—as any aircraft cockpit; for the DJ is a pilot, entrusted with the duty of moving human beings—legs, arms, torsos, bellies, limbs, minds etc.

I looked around—people were talking, mingling. And like one of those helium balloons I floated, looking for a face, a place, a purpose. I recalled a story they used to read in elementary school called “The Red Balloon”—the story of a lonely red balloon moving slowly through the world in search of a friend. I slithered about. The one place I didn’t want to end up was the first place I ended up—the dreaded punchbowl.

How many could’ves, sob stories and woe-is-me talks have ended up in its swirl, generation after generation, graduation after graduation? The punch bowl is, in some ways, a festive urinal of sorts—complete with accoutrements including fancy glasses, ladles, and occasional mist emanating from a fog machine—to add a hint of glamour and decorum to small talk that will, hopefully, enlarge or expand.

I dipped the ladle and spilled punch on my sleeve. People were on the dance floor. I looked for a familiar face. I saw several. One face belonged to a guy who’d gone into the same profession as I—radio—having gone through the City College broadcasting department. He was a bit heavier, but not overly so. “I live in Florida, now,” he said, “I work in tech.” His smile hadn’t changed as it appeared, beaming with the Florida sun, brought back home to the city known for fog.

I remember faces for a variety of reasons. One face belonged to a guy who I went to elementary school with, who ran the 50-yard dash in 7.0. I approached him. You probably don’t remember me but…He looked great, having graduated in my year. There was another guy I remember. He also ran fast. All these Black brothers from the past and the only thing I could remember was that they ran fast. But I also remembered that I was—back then—a slow brown boy.

There was a hint of recognition from the folks I approached, perhaps an indirect connection made whole by our presence that we were still here, in our diversity, in a unity that, as a whole, our city is losing. I made my way back to the punch bowl (in less than 7.0) where I wanted to punch something—namely myself—for the person I had been in high school. Why hadn’t I known these guys back then? Why didn’t we hang out? Why did I have to be so timid? Why was it so hard to talk to people? Why did I think I was being scrutinized so? Perhaps the answer was in the boy’s bathroom, when I looked in the mirror. This seemed an appropriate time for reflection. But I see their faces—in the present– their beautiful faces, their tragic faces, their faces of a thousand stories, a thousand semesters. We head to the dance floor.

I fail at dances that require movement in unison, such as the Electric Slide or Cupid Shuffle. I am always off beat, out of step, out of sync. I watch the unity in movement. My fellow classmates, schoolmates, make it look easy—dipping, sliding, catching shadows and shaping them into planets and dreams and seasons—all in the movement of their bodies, keeping time with mind and spirit.

As I look onto the dance floor I see my generation; some well-fed, some well-read, others well-wedor perhaps divorced or separated. And I see those girls I’d seen in the halls, in the cafeteria, in the bleachers—way back when—carrying a variety of attitudes along with their books. I remember thatgirl from math, I remember thatone from Family Life. They still look beautiful. And still I look and not talk.

And then the voice of Chaka Khan overwhelms: Ain’t nobody, does me better…than you. If not for music, we’d have nothing and when the body embodies or embraces music, then it’s time to get down—that is, forget all you’ve learned—just let it go and come naturally. And yes, some of my classmates are heavier, chunkier, a sag here and a sag there but they balance with grace and class all that brought them to this moment, this night. I’m overwhelmed at how good they look, and how they can still get down.

One must remember that getting down is not restricted to the dance floor—it also extends to the dinner plate (always close by) where one can be oneself in the company of those whose presence fills you the most—with laughter and memories and perhaps tears. This reunion was a blending, a diversity of the student body minus the body politic. It was a dance, a revival, a Vegas buffet line and church service all wrapped into one.

So many years have passed. What is left? I realized how much I missed out on knowing the people in my presence, those who helped shape me. I joined in for the electric slide and, again, didn’t make out well. My electric slide turned into a static slip. The girl running for the bus in the rain—landing on her well-formed rump those years ago—had more grace than I.

I made my way to a few tables, talking to folks who I never talked to in high school—a woman who had been in ROTC with me and a guy who had the most beautiful eyes back then, who now works as a counselor in a school; same beautiful eyes, now seeing possibilities. I talked to a guy who I remembered as being extremely quiet—we were in the same math class. I approached him, introduced myself. He didn’t remember me. I told him, “I remember, you were a quiet brother.” “Mmmmm hmmm” he replied. He told me he was now the pastor of a church. I meet his wife, shook her hand. She was in an elegant sequined dress—a touch of royalty to her—her hand filled with down home warmth. “We’re high school sweethearts” the pastor said.

I also sat with members of the class of ’81—all Asian—one of whom was quite lovely and nice and danced with me to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”. I remember the class of ’81 as being rather sophisticated—in a way that I cannot articulate.

Host Fenton gave me an opportunity to recite a poem I’d written in honor of George Washington High School. He took the microphone and announced: “I’d like to call up Tony…he’s an…Arthur.”

I looked around. People were sitting, chatting, drinking—a few seemed to be reflecting. This was a lull, a pause to insert something perhaps profound. Then the most profound thought hit me: Did this guy just say I was an Arthur?

At that moment I’d realized I’d been wrong about my vocation. I wasn’t an author but an Arthur, in the footsteps of giants—Arthur Ashe, Arthur Miller, King Arthur, Arthur Rimbaud, Arthur Mercante (Jr. and Sr.), Arthur Conan Doyle, Art Carney, Art Tatum, Art Linkletter and Arthur Treacher (Of fish and chips fame), and the Palace of Fine Arts, just to name a few. To the world I might be a hot shot author, but to my fellow classmates I was the guy holding up the punch bowl, just another guy. I can hear them: Hey, I remember you, you were that guy who was always by himself. We thought you were a mute. What have you been up to, what kinda work you do?

No longer a mute, I began to recite:

Did you go to
Wash? What year
Did you graduate?

I remember homeroom
like an heirloom

I can’t wash
it out

Mr. Chandler told
me not to bend books
back to the spine because
“books have feelings”
but he also said, Don’t be

I can’t wash the
memory of the fine
sisters in the halls who
were more woman than
girl while i was more boy
than man

and that Chinese girl,
was her name Linda?
She was fine and her
mere presence brushed
across my skin like a sultry
fog that slid
then left

i can’t wash the murals
off the walls of my mind
that showed George Washington
and ex-presidents as heroes until
we got out in the world and learned

i can’t wash
Wash out of my skin

and how the black
settled in my brown skin
to create something that
could never be washed out

i went to Wash
and you went to Wash
and i remember a young
Chinese cat who kicked
a tree branch

turned 360 degrees in
the air like a kung fu movie
and made the air pop

that won’t Wash
from my mind

and i remember taking
the bus, for a nickel
and seeing kids from Fillmore
on the 38 Geary

Kids that didn’t
remember me from
grade school, sitting
Alone in the bleachers
Contemplating splinters
That were to become poems

but i can’t
wash them from
my memory

can’t wash their
voices from my

can’t forget the way
they were when
they were young

and went
to Wash

Funny thing, as I recited my poem, I noticed, in their chairs, girls I had crushes on as a student. I don’t recall them giving me a glance back then. But I noticed they were giving me their—as the teachers used to say—undivided attention. One even smiled. Oh, the benefits of being an Arthur. In reciting the poem, I felt as if I’d dived into that punchbowl, a baptism of sorts, articulating, speaking what had been inside me for so long.

After the poem there was applause. Someone even approached me and said that was some heavy shit, man. Then Fenton took the mic and said, “Ok…let’s get back to partying! And it was back to the Fatback band, the Bee Gees, Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson etc. Who needs an Author…or Arthur…when you have music like that?

Arthur makes his exit, but not before filling up a glass of punch for the road. Group pictures were taken and I watched, not being in the picture but feeling a part of this special moment, observing everything around me, creating a picture of my own that I can only express in the words: I remember you.