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Another Portrait of Dad

I saw him before he saw me, staring off at a distant point. When he fixed on my face as I crossed the yellow lawn, he recognized me and grinned.

By Sesshu Foster

Praised by poet Douglas Kearney as “elegiac, documentarian, furious, and fun as hell,” Sesshu Foster’s latest collection of poetry and prose, City of the Future (Kaya Press), throttles through the highways, barrios, and throbbing arteries of East Los Angeles. The following is an excerpt from the book. Tonight, March 28, come watch Foster read from City of the Future alongside Youmna Chlala and Renee Gladman.


Another Portrait of Dad


I saw dad sitting on the porch of the rooming house on 6th Street, San Jose. Leaning back in a ratty chair with a tall can in his hand, he hadn’t shaved or cut his hair in months. I saw him before he saw me, staring off at a distant point. When he fixed on my face as I crossed the yellow lawn, he recognized me and grinned.

I saw Mario Ybarra standing in the center line of Sunset Boulevard at dusk, between lines of streaming traffic. I yelled “Hey Mario!” driving by, but I don’t think he heard me.

I saw Selene Santiago at the Alhambra farmers market, and when I turned around, she was gone.

In a warm summer drizzle in Manhattan, somebody said, “I heard someone call out your name.” I stepped off the corner at the corner of 5th and 34th and looked up and down the avenue between skyscrapers at the crowd emerging through corridors of plywood and scaffolding, flowing across the intersection in four directions, but I recognized no one.

At the Public Theater in Manhattan, on my way to see Roger Guenver Smith’s solo play, “A Huey P. Newton Story,” I got in the elevator and Roger entered. “Hey Roger,” I said, and he said, “How are you?”

Jimmy Lew had been a runner in hike school, and now on the trail to Vernal Falls at dawn in the Yosemite Valley, he rushed ahead of me. I hurried to keep up, breathing hard, lungs aching in the frozen air, trying to keep him in sight as he zigzagged the icy trail above.

My brother told me that the last time he saw Zeus Gaytan, he was on TV, wearing the blue helmet of a UN peace keeper in Bosnia. The last time I saw him was in the 1980s, in the Japanese garden on the rooftop of the New Otani Hotel, talking about people we never saw.

I had the wife and kids in the pickup truck; we’d visited one of my wife’s college friends who was working as a public defender in San Jose, and then drove downtown to 6th Street, where my father lived in a rooming house. He didn’t have a phone. He didn’t know we were in town. One of the boarders whose name was maybe Kevin (he’d mentioned other boarders in his frequent letters) said my father was out, but that he’d tell him we had come by. My wife said maybe we could return to see if he was in later. As we turned to get back in the truck, my father crossed the street and met us. He was drunk and looked like he hadn’t slept at home in days. In fact, he said he’d spent the week “across town with the Indians.” I could see him trying to shake off the drunkenness, to get a grip on himself internally. “Just a minute,” he said, walking over to vomit into the shrubbery. “Are you all right?” I asked. “I just need a cup of coffee,” he said. And it was true. He heated coffee on the stove in a tiny kitchen, drank two cups, and was ready to meet his grandchildren.

I saw Harry Gamboa in the Starbucks in the Fremont Ave. Alhambra Starbucks; as I entered, he saw me and rose to say hello. I saw Harry in the Mexico City Starbucks off the zocalo.

Dad grew angry when we said we all had to be quiet because the kids were going to bed. “I’ve never been treated so badly in my life!” he exclaimed, as he stalked down the stairs and away through the trees, a twelve pack in a sack under his arm.

The first time I saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I was walking toward City Lights Bookstore and saw him arranging books in the window.

I saw Rick Harsch sitting on my balcony, smoking and drinking a beer. He emitted anxious smoke like my brother.

I saw a raven clucking and burbling in a tree in the Yosemite Creek Campground. Later, maybe it was the same one, the raven was taking a dust bath in the dirt road.

I saw Ernesto Cardenal under the eves of the fairgrounds in Managua where we went for the First International Nicaraguan Book Fair.

The U.S. booth consisted of a consortium of small presses, including Children’s Book Press of San Francisco, Calyx Press of Oregon, Curbstone Press of Connecticut, and West End Press of Albuquerque. The Cubans and Mexico had big booths the next aisle over. Across the aisle, facing the U.S. stall and its improvised shelves and tables, were the Iranians with their giant laminated photographs of dead torture victims of the U.S.-supported-SAVAK strung like sheets on a clothes line next door to the North Koreans, with their immaculate white booth housing one shelf of books, the collected works of Kim Il-sung, underneath his smiling portrait. Sandinista Minister of Culture Cardenal toured the stalls, saying hello. I thanked him for hosting us, and especially for his own poetry, which I said was crucially important to me. Later I met Cardenal’s British translator, who said his books only sold a few hundred copies in the U.S.

Out on the flat Sea of Cortez, the broad back of the whale (a blue whale) broke the surface like the inverted black steel hull of a ship underwater, black and smooth and shining, with a kind of nub on the crest line down the center as it arched its back and swam on.

I saw Carlo Pedace sitting on my sister’s back porch, smoking. We’d first met Carlo in Naples in 1978, and now his hair was gray, but he looked good. Three generations of distant family gabbed around him, but he was thinking of something else. He looked like he was waiting.

I saw my grandmother Alberta Northway sitting on her couch alone in her apartment in Santa Barbara.

In line at airport in Philadelphia, I saw my co-worker (Doctor) Joe Cocozza enter the line behind me. He introduced me to his partner. I saw him at the table of professors with Karen Yamashita. I had walked into the cafe looking for lunch, and when Robert Allen started talking about the Port Chicago explosion and mutiny, I told him, “Robert, we met in Nicaragua more than twenty years ago,” and we laughed and hugged. He had talked about the 1944 Port Chicago explosion and mutiny case in Nicaragua twenty years earlier. “I learned about Port Chicago from you,” I said, “In fact, you’re the only person I’ve ever heard talk about it.”

I saw Willie Herron walking down the long hill on Eastern Avenue by the Dolores Canning Company, toward Floral.

I saw the yucca spike was a light golden blonde, its seed pods rattling like ear rings, halfway between the heavy reptilian green of its emergence and the last blasted desiccated hollow black stalk it would become.