Tichaona Chinyelu

The Death of California Revisited


When death row was a death 
sentence and a record label,
I found myself living 
in the Tenderloin district
of San Francisco.
Laotian faces closed like fists, 
pimps as greedy as Leopold
and refugees from pretty San Francisco
were some of what I found there.

Turn back the years 
and hear the soft refrain of coca, coca
whispered with south of the border accents
because this part of memory lane
has diverged to the Mission:
oldest part of the city 
occupied first by the Spanish
who gave it its "I'm a conquistador
but I love St. Francis" name.
Crowded together on numbered streets
were undocumented scarfaces
Peruvian flutists 
Ecuadorians I mistook for Asians
followers of Che and Pancho Villa
girls living la vida loca
la migra, la policia
and Cinco de Mayo street festivals
where the bars opened early
and offered discounts on shots of tequila
and one year, I got so drunk
I stumbled and fell
for Coco and her flame.

Street hustlers of the lowest order
they bypassed the alluring whisper
of coca, coca and bee-lined it 
to the hard sounding stuff.
Crack, however, wasn't enough.
They were also addicted 
to its liquid form.
Crack, Cisco, Coco
and her flame 
who had the same name
as a version of the bible
became my roommates
who never made their rent.

I blame Eek-a-Mouse
for this sojourn back
to the apartment 
where his music accompanied
homemade sangria parties
and weed-dazed days
laced every now and then
with the purest variety of acid
sold in golden gate park
where food not bombs
ladled out free bowls of soup;
where girls didn't wear flowers 
but instead cursed me 
during Santana's annual free concert
when my vodka bottle splashed all over
their store-bought hippie gear.

In the grip of a California dream
I relocated to Oakland,
stopped looking at my wrist
and began looking 
at the woman in the mirror.
What I saw led me 
to the understanding
that refusing to die 
is a form of rebellion.

I stopped living 
in California
and began living 
in Occupied Aztlán*.
And when I, much later,
moved back
to looted eastern shores
I carried the looks
as my own, personal
butterfly effect.

—Tichaona Chinyelu

Revised from Still Living on My Feet, Whirlwind Publishing, 2007.

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