I Speak of the City: Garrett Hongo

under Highway 99
Originally uploaded by
According to O’Brien

[Most of my City memories involve roadtrippin’ with some homies and after hours of repetitive music (think back to the days of casette decks, y’all), bad radio (sometimes all you can pick up is the Gospel station), and getting on each other’s nerves (sometime Mom jaokes go just a little bit too far) finally seeing the highway marker that tells us we’re close. From there it’s a countdown of miles and minutes till the lights of the City come into focus and, at that point, every city is pure possibility.

This Garrett Hongo poem captures all that and more. It’s about bromance and Americana and claiming what you know is yours. And like the long stretch of road that just seems to get longer the closer you approach it, this poem extends the experience, turns arrival into ritual, and does it with such lyricism that you feel that you hit the best part of the mixtape, tuned into the good Soul station, and all you hear is the infectious laughter of jokes amongst boys.]

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.”

© Garrett Hongo
Complete poem can be found at the Poetry Foundation.

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