reading and writing the poetry and stories of our people and places

Friday, October 9, 2009

Out With the Family (circa 1991)

Nana and I have been watching TV all night. First, the local news on channel 7, then Peter Jennings delivers the World News before Nana switches to “Wheel of Fortune.” She likes figuring out the puzzles before the contestants. Nana became a fan of Merv Griffin, the creator of the game, when he kept her company with his daily talk show while she cooked dinner for the army of her family. Later when Merv visited Grandpa and the other patients at Laguna Honda Hospital, Nana fell in love forever. At least, that’s how she looks in that photo. Merv’s pale hand is around her shoulder and Nana’s brown-as-her-beans skin glows against his rosy cheeks. They’re leaning into each other like a happy couple. When friends see that photo, I tell them, “Look, it’s Nana and Grandpa Merv.” There’s a black and white, framed with a thick white border photo of her and my real Grandpa on Market Street in the late 1930s. They are side-by-side but not touching. It looks as if they have been caught mid-stride. Grandpa looks to be saying, “Get out of my way.” Nana looks straight down.

Nana pushes 4-8 and we watch the end of an old Mexican movie on Telemundo. Tonight, it’s just Nana and me and it feels better than it ever did during childhood. Back then, more than half of her nine children and bunches of grandchildren constantly needed her attention, wanted some of her beans, or deserved her reprimand. I’m glad to have Nana all to myself, but I still feel a little shy at times. She comes across Burt Lancaster’s 1951 Jim Thorpe: All American and sets down the remote on the table by her side.

For me tonight, there’s no staring at beautiful strangers at Club Q, G-Spot, or The Box. It’s San Francisco’s Gay Pride weekend, and I’m home with my grandmother. I didn’t plan it, but Auntie Diz called and asked me if I’d stay with Nana so she could have some time off. Of course, I said yes. It’s been harder than usual lately because Nana isn’t talking to her again. Uncle Tony lives with his mother and sister, but Auntie doesn’t ask him. She knows that Uncle’s evenings off are sacred for him. I know that they’ll probably meet up at Bal’s or The Double Play near his job at Hostess or The Five or Dove Club near the house. They’re grown adults, but they don’t drink in their home with Nana. No one does unless it’s New Year’s or a family party. Nana has disapproved of drinking, especially at home, since Grandpa used to beat her during his many rampages.

Auntie told me that Nana probably wouldn’t eat much for dinner, but I brought her two enchiladas from Taquería El Toro on 17th Street, and she ate both of them. Nana even asked me to make her a Pepsi float for dessert. Told me to help myself and I did. Everything—beans, Oreos, chorizo, pan dulce—tastes better at Nana’s house. It’s been that way since I was a kid and we’d come next door to her flat for a midnight snack at 8.

We finish our floats and the front door opens and closes. I’m surprised that Auntie Diz has come home so early, then I hear Uncle Tony’s heavy footsteps come up the stairs and down the hall. He stops outside the livingroom door. Nana and I look away from Jim to say hi to Uncle, but he’s not there. We look back at Jim.

“BOO!” Uncle yells.

Nana and I jump even though we know he’s been standing there.

“Want some chow mein?” He asks with an easy smile, holding up a clear, plastic bag with white, Styrofoam To Go boxes inside. His eyes are so bloodshot that I half expect his optic nerves to shoot red lightning bolts like a crazed toy. He must have come from Kenny’s, his current favorite hangout on South Van Ness near 16th, a Chinese restaurant connected to a bar that caters to prostitutes, their dates, drug dealers, and other neighborhood folks.

“Hi, Ma. How’s it goin’, ol’ grey mare?” Uncle says as he crosses in front of Nana in her chair. “How’s it goin’ Cath?”

“We’re fine, Tony. Sit down and watch the movie,” Nana tells him even though he is already on his way to sitting next to me on the couch.

“Hi, Uncle.”

He sees Burt Lancaster.

“What’s Moses doing?” he asks me with a thumb curved at the screen.

“It’s Burt Lancaster. He’s Jim Thorpe,” I tell him.


“Jim Thorpe, the Native American athlete,” I tell him.

“Oh! Those crackers fucked that Indian over!” he says wickedly while nodding his head with closed eyes and pointing at the screen.

“Tony, don’t tell us what happens,” Nana scolds.

“What do you mean don’t tell you? Everybody knows those assholes fucked him over and took his medals,” he says indignantly looking at me. “You went to college. You know that, right Professor?”

“Yeah, well, I never took a Native American Studies class, but—”

“So, how ya been? How’s school” He asks loudly over the movie, as if it weren’t even on and we weren’t even watching it.

“I graduated.”

“She graduated, Tony.”

“I know. I was there,” he says scowling at Nana. “I just thought The Professor might have gone back to brush up on her shit. What’d you study? Or, uh, what was your major?” he asks with a fake serious look.

“English and History.”

“History? And you don’t know about Jim Thorpe? Are you telling me that I know more than The Professor?”

Usually, when I visit and he’s sober, he ignores me. I don’t hear him talk much to anyone. When we arrive, he nods hello or holds his hand up to say hi. If he’s eating something and wants to share, he’ll look at us and point at the food. When we get ready to go, he nods or holds up his hand again. When he’s been drinking though it’s hard to keep him quiet. I feel myself getting warm.

I look at Uncle. He’s sitting up and looking directly at me with the widest grin.

“Yeah, you know more than I do, Uncle.”

“Aw, go to hell!” He waves for me to turn back to the TV and I do. Uncle looks back at the screen too.

Even with Burt Lancaster playing the lead role, Jim Thorpe’s story is more interesting than I expected. Jim didn’t want to go to the Carlisle Indian School. He went and wasn’t happy until he became involved with sports. He won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics and wants to become a football coach. The Olympic committee took his medals away when they learn that he was paid for playing minor league baseball during college. To support his family, he plays pro baseball then football. I try to remember that it’s just a Hollywood movie. A commercial for musical hits from the 1950s comes on.

“Someone to watch over me…” the TV croons.

I feel Uncle looking at me.

“Your mother loved that song,” he tells me. He scoots up and stares at the TV before turning to Nana, “Didn’t she, Ma?”

“I don’t know Tony. Mono liked a lot of music,” Nana responds. “Frank Sinatra, mariachis, those colored singers.”

“Yeah, she liked a lot of different music, but I know she liked him. Johnneee…? Mathis! Johnny Mathis that’s who sings that song.” He seems to remember something and chuckles to himself.

“Remember the Fickle Fox?” he asks me.

“Fickle Fox? What’s that?”

“You know, uh, Mission Playground?”

“Where Nickel Pool is?” I ask him.

“Yeah, Nickel Pool, Mission Playground, same thing. You remember Jets that used to be there on Valencia?”

I can see the large 1 and 9 lit up by dozens of clear light bulbs. Jets advertised their 19 cent fries with those blinking lights.


“Remember across the little street from Jets there was a bar? The little street not Valencia.”

I see the bar with a smiling red or dark orange fox face on a white background.

“Yeah, yeah, I remember.” I can see Jets and Fickle Fox. I’m happy to share this memory with Uncle. Jets was torn down for the park’s expansion and Fickle Fox has turned into a trendy tapas bar.

“Well, I was walking to Mama’s, I mean Nana’s, one day after work and I passed by that damn place.”

I picture Uncle in his tan Derby jacket, white t-shirt, and Levi’s casual slacks.

“I looked and who did I see?”

He looks at me to guess. I have no idea and don’t guess.

“Fucken Johnny Mathis!”

“Cool! Did you tell my mom?”

“Yeah, I told her that he was in there.” He pauses. “She was disappointed, uh, surprised, ‘Aw, Tony!’” He pauses even longer. “It was a bar for, uhm, gays.”

Oh no. Gay is one word that does not get mentioned in Nana’s or any family member’s house. Growing up surrounded by 49ers Faithful and Raiders Haters, the only time I heard anything remotely “gay” was when my uncles watched their cross-bay rivals demolish the homeboys in red and gold on the football field. “Faggot Plunkett!” “Throw an interception, faggot!” “Sack his faggoty ass!” When I was a kid and still figuring out my gayness, I wondered how they knew Jim Plunkett was gay. Without attracting their attention, I studied him in his silver and black. Was it the way he ran? The way he threw?

Nana looks at Uncle then back to Jim. I look back at Jim.

“Did you know it was a gay bar?” he asks me.

“Nah, I had no idea. We used to just go to the playground to get our free lunches and swim.”

“Tony, we’re trying to watch the movie,” Nana tries to nudge him to silence.

“I’m just trying to talk to my niece, Ma.”

We’re all quiet for a while.

“Hey, I ran into Auntie Dizzy earlier tonight at the Dovre Club.”

I came out to Auntie last year. After hearing me talk through tears and cry through talking about a case of unrequited love, Auntie shhh-shhhd me into falling asleep on the couch. Auntie has been very supportive of my queerness since that day. She welcomed my friends when I brought them by her favorite bar and listened with excitement when I told her about my first Pride Parade. I asked her not to tell anyone in the family, and she agreed. I hope she kept her word.

“Yeah, she told me you’re going to be selling sodas tomorrow.”

“Mm-hm,” I pretend to focus on the movie.

“What’s the group raising the money for?” he asks.

“A retreat,” I answer truthfully but not completely.

“You all go off in the woods or some shit like that?”

I’ve never been on a retreat—let alone a lesbian retreat—and am kind of unsure myself.

“I guess whatever everybody decides they want to do.”

Please, God, make him pass out.

“Just women in the woods?” he asks.

“Tony, you have to go to work in a few hours. Why don’t you go to bed so we can watch this movie in peace?”

“Aw, fuck work. Cath’ll call me in. Won’t you, Cath?”

I’ve heard him ask Nana, Auntie Rita, Auntie Diz, and some of my cousins to call in for him. I don’t feel like doing him any favors, but no one has ever said no.

Jim catches the ball and runs past defender after defender. I wish I were Jim, running and running. I’d run past the goalpost and just keep going. I sneak a look at Nana. She’s watching Jim.

“It’s a lesbian group, Ma. They’re gonna sell sodas at the gay parade for their lesbian retreat,” he says casually as if he were announcing a sporting score.

I stop breathing. My eyes widen. I try to blink them back to normal size. My eyelashes are the only things moving. Nana sits frozen for a full minute. The announcer announces that we will take a break for their sponsors before returning with the final scenes. Finally, Nana scoots up in her seat and very carefully removes her glasses. She folds them and puts them in her cushioned pouch. She picks up each puzzle book and folds each cover back to the front. She picks up her pill containers from the side table. She puts the objects in her bag that hangs across her walker.

“She’s a lesbian, Ma,” Uncle chuckles.

Nana continues with putting her things away.

He tilts his head back against the couch and exhales as if he is exhausted.

“Ah, what the fuck. It’s your own damn business, your own damn business,” he mumbles more to himself than to me.

Jim returns. Nana and I watch him throw a football to a group of young boys. “THE END” covers Jim before the screen fades. A cubic zirconium commercial comes on then one for a little machine that dices, slices, and chops carrots. Nana turns to me.

“Are you staying the night, Cath?”

“Uh, no. No, Nan, I’m gonna go home when Auntie gets back.”

“He’s here,” she points at Uncle with her long, brown finger. “You don’t have to wait for her. She comes in late.”

“That’s okay, Nan. I’ll wait.”

“Do you have your car?”


“Well, you know where the blankets are if you decide to stay or wanna lay down, right?”

“Ah-huh, yeah.”

“Okay. Good night and be careful if you go home tonight.”

“Okay, Nana, good night,” I say a little too fast. I don’t look at her, but I start breathing again.

“Tony, get some sleep before you have to get up for work in a few hours.”

Nana waits but Uncle appears to have finally passed out.

She dismisses him with a wave of her hand. Then she pushes herself along with her walker and out the door. He opens one eye.

“Did the ol’ grey mare leave?”

“Yeah.” I have no idea what he’s going to say next if anything.

“Whatever the hell you do, don’t ever act like your shit don’t stink,” he tells me.

My shit don’t stink? This is what he usually accuses his recent ex-wife of: “She acts like her shit don’t stink!”

“Okay, Uncle, I won’t,” I answer quickly to end the conversation.

“There’s this asshole who comes to the bar and he always acts like his damn shit don’t stink. I hate that asshole and it don’t got nothin’ to do with him being…that way.”

Uncle knows a gay man? Uncle knows a gay man. Uncle knows about me. He busted me out to Nana and now he’s saying he knows—drinks with?—a gay man. This is my chance to ask him about Jim Plunkett.

“Okay, I’ll try not to…uh, Uncle?”


“Uh, how did you know that Jim Plunkett is gay?”

“What? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Well, I remember hearing you and Uncle Bobby and Uncle Tommy talking about him whenever he was on TV. You guys were always saying, ‘Fucken Plunkett, fag—”

He cuts me off.

“I gotta go to bed. Call my job. The number’s on that paper near the phone. Tell them I might be 15 minutes late, but I’m coming in.”

“Okay, Uncle.” I guess open discussion time is over.

“Get $20 outta my wallet for a cab for you to go home,” he says as he takes his wallet from his right back pocket and sets it on the couch’s armrest.

“Thanks, Uncle, but I have my car.”

“What’d I tell ya? Don’t act like your shit don’t stink. Take the damn twenty,” he points at his wallet.

“But I have—”

“Take it for gas money then, goddammit.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Damn kids think they know everything. Didn’t even know who the fuck Jim Thorpe was. Brings up that asshole Plunkett. Lemme go to sleep.”

Somehow, I made him mad at me. I don’t say anything else.

He gets up and walks to his bedroom. I call the Hostess office and pass on his message. I watch TV with the sound very low. I flip channels for a couple hours. I try to imagine how it will be the next time I see Nana. Finally, I reach for his wallet. As I do, I look down the hall to try to prepare myself in case of another “Boo!” I take out a twenty and put it in my own wallet.

Soon after, he opens his bedroom door and walks down the hallway to the kitchen. He calls Yellow Cab and orders a ride. He goes into the bathroom. I hear him wash up and brush his teeth. Then he walks into the livingroom and stands in the doorway.

“Did you get the twenty?”


He crosses to the couch, picks up his wallet, and returns it to his back right pocket. He nods good-bye and walks to the stairs without saying anything else. He walks back to the livingroom doorway. I’m surprised that he’s returned and look up.

“Plunkett isn’t gay. He’s a traitor. We don’t like him cuz he played like shit for the Niners for two years then he signed with the Raiders and won two fucken Super Bowls.”

He nods once more then turns around and walks back down the hallway. His footsteps are much lighter on the stairs than when he entered a few hours earlier. I feel the cold wind as I hear the door close. I swim through channels until I find “Saturday Night Live” perform a “Family Feud” skit.