Pissing Off Jimmy Santiago Baca
By Tony Gallucci
This story must begin with the e-mail. Champ Hood died of cancer the week before. He'd told no one until he was almost gone. His friends carted him to a house on a hill and the gentle guitarist slipped into music and we mourned.
Brad Buchholz is a writer for the Austin American-Statesman--a fine one--and in his piece for the week he spoke of Champ and what he'd left behind, gifts to all of us, the many who'd sat at his feet and closed our eyes and been taken elsewhere. I have no pictures of those past days, before we were digital, when we were all poor, and didn't matter, I didn't like pictures anyway.
I wrote Brad an e-mail. I didn't know this man, had never seen him that I knew of, but knew that sometimes, if you read, you can make pictures of words, can dream up scenarios of how things might have been through someone else's eyes. Sometimes like that, if you can read, you know who someone is. Brad's picture, so close to my own, was in my head when I wrote him to say thanks.
* * *
When I was a child, clients too poor to pay my father would show up at our door to deliver chickens, bags of tomatoes or onions, a rusted frame of a .38 pistola. My family job was to answer the door when these folks came over, to graciously accept their offer, to close the door gently as they returned to lives in the fields or on the streets, and deliver the pay to the kitchen, or the freezer out back, or my dad's desk drawer.
One time a man, I might have called him a ghost crab for his skittering away (but he was a man--I could see that), he placed a rumpled grocery bag in my hands and was gone. I could tell you of the need to see if it was something perishable and that's why I opened it, but that would be fiction and this isn't. Its squareness against the corners of my hands felt of a book or a stack of papers and I quickly unwrapped it, curious.
I was scanning ragged black pages of taped pictures when my father found me in the living room. I showed him the pictures I'd already memorized--a big lake, two ladies standing beside it, a baby out of focus, a horse cart filled with palm leaves and a young man, a boy perhaps, under a straw hat that hid his eyes. My father's eyelids closed slowly, tightly, he took a deep breath, got up and walked out of the room, out the front door, to our blue 1961 Ford Falcon, and drove away. I finished looking at the book of pictures, weddings, fishing in a river, something in a yard, a woman with her hand in front of her face.
* * *
Six inches of cold-front rain and its offspring, flash floods, the third week of November kept me from getting to much of the annual Texas Book Festival. Every year the weekend offers the chance to sit in the Texas Senate and the House of Reps and listen to people with great spirits or great words or both read from their works. I imagined the poetry and stories washing down the front porch river until late the 17th when I was able to escape and make the two-plus hour trip to Austin.
That nine of my student writers were scheduled to read Sunday in the Poetry Tent was incentive enough to arrive early, even with John Heymann promising he'd cover for me if I was unable to get out. The kids weren't the only incentive however: Lance Armstrong was to speak in the morning and for the afternoon, at a time I hoped I'd be free of poetry constraints, Jimmy Santiago Baca was to speak in the Senate Chamber. I wanted a good seat.
I hope I don't cross the line into new age pigwash when I say Baca speaks to me without scrambling the lines between the past of the heart and the brain of the present. He can be broken Apache shaman, he can be oppressed and leave the guilt to the system and not the individual, he can follow you with his eyes and know who you are. All without your ever being unaware of where you are.
* * *
My eyes are going. I am old. Maybe that's not all. Using a camera has become a crutch for me. When I want to see something, to remember it, I use a camera. There are times I want to walk right up to someone, to look closely at them, in the flesh, but just can't. So I film, and later I watch. And then I see who they are. See who it is I can no longer focus on.
But I have this sensitivity to privacy. It's acute. It was I, seeking old friends and the comfort of the drum, attending the Austin Pow Wow two weeks before, who told the TV cameraman not to film in sacred moments. Even the volunteers seemed to be ignorant of where they have come from. And of where they must go.
I remember grandfather not wanting pictures taken--only two remain of him, one young, a hunter with a big cat, the other older, perhaps truly old, in an Easter white shirt and khakis, by the house at 1101 12th Street. Remember stepping in front of a camera in Montana when the ravens were clucking at the drum at a Brush Dance. And once, getting back a roll of ruined film--of a friend I'd never see again.
* * *
Lance was re-scheduled to the afternoon allowing me the chance to relax and trade time with poets: Tammy Gomez, Thom the World Poet, Susan Bright, Michael Guinn, Anthony Douglas, the bright street poets of the moment, before my student writers read.
The kids were on, confident, practiced, proud. They spoke of love without mentioning the L word, they talked of buildings falling in their lives, they jammed on personal space. A reporter for the Statesman stopped by, caught scraps of their words and put them in the paper. I patted their backs, urged them to see other poets, listened to Susan and Clebo read, and snuck away in the November humidity, nametag fluttering in the breeze, carrybag full of books straining to hold me back.
At the towering double wooden doors of the Senate a lady with a volunteer tag stepped in front of me. She glanced at my tag and said to me, "Are you the poet?" with some glee in her voice. Stunned that someone recognized me by name I said, "Why, yes! I just finished with my group out front."
She took my arm and led me inside the chamber, mostly-filled with anxious listeners. She was charming, pointed out the dais "There's where the readings will be," swung to show me paintings of Texas revolutionary battles, and whispered the departure of the previous reader. I said, "I'll just wait," not wanting to draw attention as I sought a good seat with a close view.
We watched the reader gather her books and slip out the back door. There was a tug. The volunteer had me by the shirt and was pulling me up the aisle toward the front. I suddenly realized she must have thought I was Jimmy Santiago Baca. Maybe she didn't get a good look at my nametag? Maybe she doesn't read? Maybe she doesn't know his name? Maybe I just look enough "Official with a Nametag"/Indio/Mestizo/Mexican that she outright guessed? Maybe I was a victim of--gulp--literary racial profiling?
"Oh ma'am, I'm sorry, I'm not that poet, I'm not scheduled to read in here." She was a mess, apologizing all over me and the carpet; my own attempts little more graceful.
I settled into a Senate chair, aware the crowd was staring at me. I wanted to fold myself up like a bad photo and tuck it into some side pocket of my wallet.
Then Baca strode in, missing the poor volunteer completely, and sat to the right of the podium. I was relieved to see a resemblance between us. Eight officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety lined the wall behind him.
A man walked to the podium and, after scanning the room, waiting for quiet, began, "I'm Brad Buchholz from the Austin American Statesman…"
What a stroke. I write a note--Buchholz is here. Mentally that translates, "Make sure to shake his hand and thank him again for his words about Champ…" I prop my camera on a book to get the right angle. Test it. Lean back ready.
Baca steps up and smiles. He takes a moment to thank everyone for the great hospitality he's been shown. For an ex-con, five years for passing drugs, he seems comfortable in a room of state troopers, in a room of drug law history. And he reads.
Baca even does his "Cry." Few expected to hear and we're, every one, mesmerized. Brad's eyes are closed, he's rocked back in that big Senate chair. Baca closes his book. The applause!
Twice Baca says "just one more" only to take a trail leading away from some question, feeling that need to read more. Baca enjoys this moment.
He talks about watching folks when he was a kid. Following them with his eyes. He knows they were afraid of him, how he dressed, how he looked, and he says to them/us, "I was just studying you," chuckles and, as he is saying this, looks my way. By "my way" I mean he looked straight at me.
He stops, there is a beat of silence, just a beat, and perhaps no one notices. Except me. I notice. It's the camera.
* * *
I've always been troubled by dreams. Not nightmares really, not monsters, or murder, though certainly I've had those as well. Been troubled by the dreams I can't remember, and troubled by what the ones I do remember mean about me. How is it possible that people tell their dreams to psychologists without already knowing what they mean?
Want to know? Okay, it starts as four big black bulls chasing me. I open a door there's a bull. I roll out of bed there's a bull. There's a bull on my plate looking at me. I can't eat because I can't get my fork to the food without having to battle a bull. Cowboys can't rope them, they shatter the red capes of the matadors there to save me, can't outrun them in a hemi Dodge Charger.
Puberty sneaks up on me, and suddenly it's seven bulls, buffalo, big and black, bison, and I have only grass to protect me, to run through, to circle in. One bull is faster than all the others. It's always on my heels. I wake up sweating from the hot breath of that beast up my shirt, down my pants.
My grandfather asks me if I've been telling lies. Well, of course I have. Smoking hooch, sneaking across borders to boystown, poaching deer, sneaking into my father's office to look through that book of old pictures, trying to decipher it. Only lies make sense of any of that to parents trying too hard to be the American Dream family.
"Truth," my grandfather said, "is always the fastest, and it always catches you." I said, "But grandpa…" "Or maybe someone is trying to come back and take from you what you've taken from them," he says.
I think one bull was trying to figure out why my dad wasn't coming home very often anymore. Only person I know disliked pictures more than my grandfather was my father.
* * *
Baca finished his line of thought, and then says he wants to tell us something. I know what it is. It's about cameras. It is about theft. Losing the right to own your own face.
Then he waves it off and says "later" and, so not to spoil his setup, reads about studying us to learn who anyone is.
He steps aside, takes a drink of water, then launches into the tirade I knew was coming, the one about not filming him without permission. My assumption about public events in public places, my assumptions from years pretending as the journalist, now withered in front of hundreds of people.
Baca is careful to not look at me during the rant, but few people don't know where the camera is. I reach up and turn it off. He finishes.
I take my own beat--and a breath--before I stand. I already have my hand out as an offering when I reach the desk. He takes it, but there is an edge in his hand and in his eyes. I say only "I'll erase the tape." "That's okay," he says, "don't erase it, just ask permission first from now on, okay." I try to make other small talk, to tell him I was mistaken for him at the beginning, that I've stolen him twice today, but his edge sharpens and I move on, ashamed to have run a stone across his day, to have dulled his enjoyment of the hospitality and our joy in his moment and his language, to even have spoiled a proud moment for the volunteer who mistook me for him.
I sit down.
Someone who actually recognizes me for who I am comes up to rave about his reading, another to commiserate, but I am dulled myself. Turning to pack the camera I remember Brad Buchholz and look to see if I can catch him to thank him before they're gone, though I know he must have watched and listened to the whole exchange, and wonder if I want him to associate me, the writer, with me, the guy who ruined a sweet afternoon of poetry in a cathedral of language. They are nearly to the door and I sink back into the chair not wanting to stir the boiling kettle anymore.
I arrive home late Sunday night, do nothing except erase the tape, and sleep.
Monday morning there is an e-mail waiting for me from Brad Buchholz. "Thank you so much for writing about Champ…" it said, "I hope we shake hands someday."
Six writers from TG's student group, The Locker Room Writers & Thinkers Workshop, were featured in the Poetry Tent at the Texas Book Festival in November 2001. He is the publisher of the online journal The Black Widow & The Brown Recluse, an outlet for aspiring student writers, competed at the 1998 National Poetry Slam, and is associate editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review. Tony can be reached at hurricanetg[at]hotmail.com.