My Derby jacket arrived in the mail a few days ago. I guess you can say it arrived after a 56 year journey. I came home and found it in my mailbox wrapped tightly in a box. I am Frisco born and bred but live in North Carolina. When I think of the word Derby, a few things come to mind. When I was a kid there was a brand of underwear called Derby. I wore them all the time. Kids at school used to cap on each other saying things like, "You got dukey stains in yo' draws." I used to wonder how anybody would know if this were true or not. And why would anyone want to know such a thing? The other Derby involved horseracing. My grandfather loved playing the horses and would watch the Kentucky Derby. As a kid I watched the roller derby on channel 2, a kind of professional wrestling in roller skates. But the derby that eluded me was the jacket called Derby--the Derby jacket. Some important events on my life involved Derby jackets such as when I sold magazine subscriptions and mood rings to raise money for Roosevelt Jr. High School. We were paid for our efforts in candy or other items. I remember getting a string of jawbreakers as my reward for selling those magazine subscriptions. That string of jawbreakers was long, like a boa constrictor and I was walking happily along with that big cellophane string of jawbreakers--that resembled a tapeworm--when a guy wearing a Derby jacket snuck up from behind me and took a hold of the string of jawbreakers. He pulled and I yanked in a ridiculous tug of war. It ended with the guy breaking off a bunch of the jawbreakers I'd earned and stuffing them in the pocket of his derby jacket. I didn't punch the guy, didn't break his jaw. Perhaps the jawbreaker accomplished that when he put it in his mouth. Perhaps he ended up becoming a dentist pulling--not jawbreakers--but teeth for a living. Where ever he is, he probably still has that Derby Jacket.
Of course when I hit George Washington High School there were lots of guys wearing Derby Jackets. I remember one guy, he was in my homeroom. He was out cutting class near the football field. I said, what's up? We started talking. There was a tree nearby. He walked towards it and leaped in the air, turning 360 degrees kicking the branch. It was like something out of a kung fu movie during a matinee at the St. Francis on Market Street. It was such a beautiful kick that he made the air pop. He wore a black Derby jacket. And I'd see all kinds of guys wearing Derby jackets--studious guys, guys that go into trouble, guys who cut class, guys with girlfriends, guys without girlfriends, guys who snuck on Muni and so on. I never had a Derby jacket. I don't know why I never had one. Maybe I didn't feel worthy of having one.
As the years went buy it seemed to me that a Derby jacket was something you earned. In order to really wear on you had to know the taste, the heart, the spirt of the streets of Frisco. You had to keep some of that Frisco fog in your Derby Jacket pocket because that fog is like the burning of sage, it is survival, it is healing, it is who you are. I spent my life trying to find myself in Frisco and eventually I did. I became a poet and my poetry, my song is the song of Frisco that lives in me. After 55 years in Frisco I moved to Western North Carolina in 2019. The only thing I wanted upon leaving the city was a Derby Jacket. After 56 years of searching for Frisco, searching for my voice, my song, my skin, I found it in a Derby Jacket that was sent to me by Derby of San Francisco. I knew it had to be earned and this message is one of thanks to Frisco for giving me poetry and to Derby for sending me that jacket. I'll wear it like a second skin.
Tony Robles, The People's Poet 2021
Bio: Tony Robles was born and raised in San Francisco. He is the author of 2 books of poetry and short stories, Cool Don't Live Here No More--A letter to San Francisco and Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike. He was a shortlist nominee for poet laureate of San Francisco in 2018 and recipient of the San Francisco individual literary artist grant in 2019. He was named Carl Sandburg writer in residence at the Carl Sandburg Historic Home in Flat Rock, North Carolina and is currently a Masters of Fine Arts Candidate in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more info, go totonyrobles.wordpress.com