Cruising 99

for Lawson Fusao Inada and Alan Chong Lau


A Porphyry of Elements

Starting in a long swale between the Sierras
   and the Coast Range,
Starting from ancient tidepools of a Pleistocene sea,
Starting from exposed granite bedrock,
From sandstone and shale, glaciated, river-worn,
   and scuffed by wind,
Tired of the extremes of temperature,
   the weather’s wantonness,
Starting from the survey of a condor’s eye
Cutting circles in the sky over Tehachapi and Tejon,
Starting from lava flow and snow on Shasta,
   a head of white hair,
   a garland of tongue-shaped obsidian,
Starting from the death of the last grizzly,
The final conversion of Tulare County
   to the internal-combustion engine,
Staring from California oak and acorn,
   scrubgrass, rivermist,
   and lupine in the foothills,
From days driving through the outfield clover
   of Modesto in a borrowed Buick,
From nights drinking pitchers of dark
   in the Neon Moon Bar & Grill,
From mornings grabbing a lunchpail, work gloves,
   and a pisspot hat,
From Digger pine and Douglas fir and aspen around Placerville,
From snowmelt streams slithering into the San Joaquin,
From the deltas and levees and floods of the Sacramento,
From fall runs of shad, steelhead, and salmon,
From a gathering of sand, rock, gypsum, clay,
   limestone, water, and tar,
From a need or desire to throw your money away
   in The Big City,
From a melting of history and space in the crucible
   of an oil-stained hand—
Starting from all these, this porphyry of elements,
   this aggregate of experiences
Fused like feldspar and quartz to the azure stone
   of memory and vision,
Starting from all of these and an affectionate eye
   for straight, unending lines,
We hit this old road of Highway Ninety-Nine!


A Samba for Inada

Let’s go camping
Let’s go chanting
Let’s go cruising
Let’s go boozing

Let’s go smoke
Let’s go folk
Let’s go rock
Let’s go bop

Let’s go jazz
Let’s go fast
Let’s go slow
Let’s go blow

Let’s go Latin
Let’s go cattin
Let’s go jiving
Let’s go hiding

Let’s go disco
Let’s go Frisco
Let’s go blues
Let’s go cruise

Let’s go far
Let’s go near
Let’s go camping
Let’s go chanting

Let’s go lazy
Let’s go boozing
Let’s go crazy
Let’s go cruising


Cruising in the Greater Vehicle/A Jam Session

“Well, goddamnit, Lawson! Whyn’t you play in key and keep to the
rhythm? First you say you wanna go back to Fresno, back to the fish store
and Kamaboko Gardens on the West Side, and then you say, forget it, I
take it back, let’s go to the Sacto Bon-Odori instead.”

“Yeah. And this ain’t even shoyu season yet, chump!”

“Awww, hell. What’s wrong with you two? Can’t you improvise? You
know, I’m just laying down a bass, man. Just a rhythm, a scale,
something to jam on, something to change, find our range, something to
get us going. Once we get started, we can work our way around to Weed,
put on some tire chains, or break down in Selma, refuse to buy grapes,
raisins, or Gallo, do a pit-stop at a Sacto sporting goods, pick up some air
mattresses shaped like pearl-diving women, and float all day downriver to
the deltas, sipping Cokes and saké in the summer heat.”

“Shit. Whyn’t you just solo and forget the rest of us? You start chanting
and pretty soon we’re hearing the entire Lotus Sutra.”

“You two Buddhaheads just a pair of one-eyed Japs with dishpan hands
and deadpan minds, man. This is the Champ Chonk talking, and we’re
playing Chinese anaconda. Eight-card, no-peek pak-kai, roll your own,
hi-lo, three for sweep, four for hot-sour soup stud, and neither of you’s
put down your ante yet. So shit or get off the shu-mai, fellas.”

“Calm down and watch the road, Alan.”

“Who’s driving this heap, anyway?”

“I thought you were.”

“I thought Lawson was.”

“Don’t worry. This is a dodo-driven, autopiloted, cruise-controlled, Triple-
A-mapped, Flying-A-gassed, dual-overhead-cam, Super-Sofistifunktified,
Frijole Guacamole, Gardena Guahuanco, Chonk Chalupa Cruiser with
Buddha Bandit Bumpers, Jack!”

“Where we going, Alan?”

“Where do you think? We’re going to Paradise.”


On the Road to Paradise

Distances don’t matter
nor the roll of the road past walnut groves.
It’s sky that counts,
the color of it at dawn or sunset,
a match more true to the peach
than a mix of oils by Matisse.
Or maybe it’s actually the weather
we love most, the way it shifts
and scatters over the state
like radio waves bouncing off the face of the moon.
The one over there, near Yuba City,
rising over a backyard garden
of onions, tomatoes, squash, and corn.
The one with the spider
scrambling through celery,
harvesting moths and mayflies
from the web it has strung between stalks.
Sometimes I wish I could harvest the weather,
reap it like wheat or rice,
store it in a silo
announcing steady rain or clear skies on its sides.
When the prices rise,
I could ship hailstorms or Santanas in orange crates,
make Safeway go broke,
do something politically efficacious for a change.
But all I really do besides write these poems
is allow my mind to wander while I drive.
There it goes, down the arroyo,
through manzanita and Mormon tea.
Or there, up the mustard and Indian pipe on the hill.
Might as well let it.
Nothing but God and Country on the radio now.
Wolfman Jack’s syndicated and the Dodgers
haven’t made it to Vero Beach.
I wish this road would turn or bend,
intersect with a spy movie some Spanish galleon,
or maybe a Chinese poem with landscapes
in brocade, mist, wine, and moonlight.
This California moon is yellow most of the time,
like it was stained with nicotine,
or sealed in amber like an insect.
Why is it always better somewhere else?
Why do I always wish I were Tu Fu?


Palmistry Fantasia

There, the pasteboard and neon hand!
Just past the interchange by the bowling alley.
The one with silver rockets, small green stars,
and a trail of red comets flashing through the smog.

It’s still here, the hand
held up in greeting or command.
“Halt!” it says, or
“Peace be with you, brother,”
while the map across its palm
traces excursions into blue trees,
green skies, and mushroom-colored lives.

Blue dun is the color of its neon,
the same as the throat feathers of a teal
scudding over the marshes of Merced.
It matches the purple mascara the gypsy woman wears,
matches the pools of velvet-blue darkness in her eyes.

Her name is Alma Josephina,
and she designed the sign herself,
imitating the figure of her own hand,
the neon indicative of its natural aura.

That was twenty years ago
when Eisenhower was President
and all her customers wore pedal pushers
or Bermudas, and never noticed
the fireflies in the marshes at night.


You’re Oriental, aren’t you?
Can you read tea leaves?
I tried to once, years ago,
had a Chinese woman teaching me,
but her fees were too steep.

I like a joke.
It loosens up the customers.

Well, come here towards the light.
Let me get a good look
at the ghosts in the grave of your palm.
They’re there, you know.
All the people you’ve ever been,
all the trips you’ve taken
and the towns you’ve settled in,
back before the birth of Christ,
back before people were people,
before this paw was a hand.

You see?   The whole palm glows
like purple mist over a cemetery.
Move closer.   Clamp it around the glass.
See it flare on the inside?
That’s the light your bones make,
not the crystal at all.

Look at your hand now.
You can see yourself dancing
on the heel just above the wrist.
You must be a happy man.
You’ll be born again and again,
get to the threshold of Heaven,
never enter but keep coming back,
here, for fun, for friends,
until this will be Paradise,
and Paradise just an old resort
the highway’s passed by.

Well, have a nice trip.
You’ll make it yet.
Says so right in that curvy line
around the Mound of Venus,
that thumbstump there,
right where the long straight line
cuts across like an interstate.


Postcards Sent Home

Dust rolls out of the hills like fog,
and it’s too hot for shoes or shirts.
I’d like to take my hair off too,
peel it from my head, dip it in a bucket of ice,
and wear it around my neck like a bandana.

Crickets attend the night,
add a falsetto drone
to the sound of us
pissing in the tumbleweeds.

There’s a Tastee-Freeze in Fresno,
A & Dub’s closed down,
Jack-in-the-Box keeps popping up,
and McDonald’s owns the town.

Somebody’s drying tobacco leaves
on the laundry line.
There, see them furl
and flap next to the nylons?

A giant oak uncurls over the road,
sprinkles a fine yellow powder on the windshield.
The sun hits, touches it off
in a spasm of golden-red light.


Body & Fender/Body & Soul

At the grill, the Indian girl with buckteeth and dimples serves us a round
of coffee and sweet rolls. We’re waiting for the guy at Henley’s Texaco,
down the street, to find us a fan belt that’ll fit.   It’s early, the sky’s still in
the john, shaving, and the sports page has to wait to get in. Everybody’s
grumpy. We sit around, jab at raisins with our forks, and try to look as
tough as the waitresss.

                           Her name’s Rita. Her brothers jump fires and pump
oil in Alaska. Her sisters string beads and make babies back on the Res.
Her ex is white, a logger who threatened never to come back and didn’t.
She doesn’t hold any grudges. That’s why she’s so nice, why she pops her
gum filling the salt and pepper shakers, why she adjusts her girdle so we
can see, why the egg spot on her dress doesn’t show.
                                             Outside, the sun eases up over
the parking lot, scrambles across the freeway, and runs for cover behind a
pile of pumpkin-colored clouds. 99 starts shuffling its deck of cars and
pickups, getting set to deal a hand of nine-to-five stud. We don’t watch.   
This is Redding, and ain’t nothing thing going on besides the day shift.

                                             Alan says, “Look, there’s Venus,” and
points to a piece of light draining the sky. I want to order a country-
fried steak, talk about the Dodgers, but there isn’t time. Lawson hums a
few chords, stirring the changes with his coffee spoon.
                                                               Rita cruises back like
a bus bound for Reno, starts dealing some ashtrays. She says, “How’s it
going boys?”

               I answer for all of us—“Hey, Rita. It’s almost gone.”


Pilgrimage to the Shrine

Six hours since
the Paradise Cutoff
and running on empty.
No gas stations or rest stops,
no weigh station, no cops.
Just miles of straight road
and a long double-yellow
unrolling in front of us.

Alan recognized nothing.
Lawson pops the glove,
pulls out a penlight,
and fingers the map,
pronouncing a few mantras.

Our headlights slide
over a scarecrow
made of tumbleweeds
standing by the road.

He’s wearing a kimono,
a dark-blue stovepipe hat,
his shoulders cloaked
in a wreath of chrysanthemums.

We pull over,
back up,
and he disappears
into the pale-
grey darkness.

It’s smoke.
We can smell it,
so somebody’s
got to be
close by.

But our eyes
go blined, fill
with tears and ashes
as we stumble
down the off-ramp.

The smell of
frying trout
and steamed rice
reaches us when
we come to.

An old hermit,
dressed like the scarecrow,
crawls out of his barracks
and brings us tea.

“Drink!” he says,
“It’ll pick you up!”
And so we drink,
feeling drugged.

Soft blues
in the key
of sleep
suffocates the air.

From up the mountain,
the sound of obsidian,
flaking in the wind.
Clouds of black glass
waltz around us.

We dress ourselves
in shrouds of tule reeds
stitched with barbed wire,
stained with salt and mud.

We refuse to cry.

We drift back
to the highway,
holding our fists
like rattles,
shaking them
like bones.


Confessions of the Highway/The Hermit Speaks

I know the rituals, the spells of grapes,
the ceremonies of tomatoes, celery, and rice.
I know the color of wind dressed for fiesta,
and the names of carnivals in Spanish and Japanese.
I am familiar with the determination of campesinos
who migrate up and down the stretch of the state
in search of crops ready for harvest.
It’s all a dull ache in my back,
small cuts on the throats of my fingers,
and the alkali of a dry lake in my lungs.
For me, the oracle of the giant orange
always predicts good fortune,
yet, it never comes true.
My stomach is full of sand and tar,
a little bit of paint, a few crickets.
I stand in swampwater up to my hips,
and the stink of rotting figs
escapes my armpits in small brown clouds.
Scrub oak and tumbleweed sprout from my scalp,
make a small grove behind my left ear.
I don’t know why sparrows and starlings
refuse to approach me, to take the grass seed
tucked in the cuffs of my trousers.
Maybe it’s the stain of asphalt around my ankles,
this copper sheen of sweat on my back.
Sometimes, when the valley heat
makes the bones in my feet
start to hiss and burn,
the desire to escape comes over me again.
I can’t help it.
My arms pull down a few telephone posts,
my shoulders churn against the bindings.
I feel myself wanting to sit up,
begin to walk again, and thresh my way
across rice fields and acres of alfalfa.
For once I’d like to lift my face
straight above Shasta into the sky,
shout in unison with thunder,
roar with the assurance of Santana wind,
leap out of these bonds of copper and steel,
slough off this skin of cement,
and walk south or north or even west
into the weather and the sea.

Garrett Hongo, “Cruising 99,” in Yellow Light © 1982 by Garrett Hongo and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
Source: Yellow Light (Wesleyan University Press, 1982)
More Poems by Garrett Hongo