Gente that I meet:
(el rough draft)
Una semana más:
Going back to work at the college won't be easy this week, our finals week of the fall 2012 semester at our Southwestern College (SWC) in Chula Vista. With the recent and sudden passing of my good SWC compa/friend, mentor, y colega, Phil, I'm going to have to adjust to a big change at work and adjust to a new chapter in my career. When I think of Gente that I meet, the "Phil Lopéz" chapter in my SWC experience has ended. My condolences to his family and friends and colleagues. He will be missed by many of us. Many many folks at SWC got to meet and work with him through college business/work such as the endless faculty union work he provided and via our English Department, the PUENTE Project, School of Language and Literature y más y más y más. I got to meet Phil about 10 years ago when I was teaching part-time at SWC. Back then, my mentor (who had been a Professor of mine while I studied at SWC in the mid 90's), Susan Luzzaro, was the main person I went to for most SWC advice, talk, support etc. And as a new adjunct, having someone like Sue something very important to me. When I got hired full-time, (about 8 years ago), Susan had recently retired. I remember wondering to myself as I was unpacking my boxes of books and folders and stuff into my new office, with no Susan around, who am I going to go to?
The 400 office building is an enclosed small building with about 8 offices for full time faculty, mainly English Department folks, and 1 larger office in the center that many adjunct faculty share. Upon getting hired full time, I got to move from the center office to one that that I would share with just one other faculty member, and that new office for me is the one that sits next to Phil's. This brought about the beginning of a friendship which has marked my SWC experience in meaningful ways, for I knew Phil when I was an adjunct, but I didn't get to know him well until we became 400 building office neighbors.
Since then, I have had more than one opportunity to leave or move out of the 400 building, and each time, it was a clear "no way, ni al caso que dejo el 400". One big reason was having my daily dose of sitting around the 400 building couches and talking to people like Phil as well as with others, something that helps when going through teaching sessions and grading and countless emails etc. On those couches, we sat around when we got a chance during our breaks to have some lunch or read the paper or simply talk and have a conversation, for a minute or two, a 15-20 minute break, an hour break, or if the long and stressful day was just too long, it wouldn't be uncommon at times, to sit there for over an hour, maybe to re-energize before going home where stacks of English Composition papers would be awaiting us. These talks were a kind of therapy. These talks were about teaching, grading papers, students, the union, sports, jokes, life, stories, etc.. etc... I have to admit, that many times, on my way to class or on my way home, if Phil was somewhere around talking to someone, I would lay down my book bag, lean on the counter for a minute, listen, maybe throw in a word or two if it was appropriate, then move on and say goodbye. Why? Because it's the 400 building and that's the kind of stuff that we do there at times.
Lo que más me acuerdo:
There are a lot of things to remember when I think about my friend Phil. Although 8 years is not a long time, considering how fast time flies, it can certainly give folks a great opportunity to share many good moments. Some of the many stories Phil shared with me included stories about riding a VW bus and organizing teachers to protest and demand higher pay and benefits in schools from his past, countless union stories, stories about ex SWC presidents like Zazueta and Chopra, stories about bike riding in China, getting onto the train in China; he would also talk about his son Nick while he showed me old pictures of he and his kid, pulling out some of the schoolwork that Nick had written from his elementary school years, Phil feeling real proud because his son could read and write well from a very young age; stories about fishing in the Baja, the cabin and the boat which he used to get to the cabin on the little island because it was the only way to get there and cars were useless to get to the cabin, the boat got you to the cabin; stories about the big fish he had to let go once because the storm was coming and about the time he finished his finals and grades and went straight to his truck out in the front parking lot, which was already all packed up and gas filled and ready to go, ready to drive straight to the Baja; stories about many memorable board meetings -- Phil with a paper in his hand, reading out to members of the board and those at the meeting, one time with an actual large home-made pie graph so people can see clearly what he was talking about when it came to what needed to be done to ensure a more just and equal SWC (oh he was fierce and tireless and humorous with some clear cut common sense and practical approaches during times of negotiations and debating); and how about him getting suspended for two weeks (this I got to see firsthand) alongside other faculty for walking close by students during times of student marching and protests on our campus; and the stories kept on coming. I must admit, I heard some of those stories a dozen times or more, but I would never stop him because a good story is a good story and he was a good storyteller and I knew better than to stop that. Besides, it would be a matter of time before a new story popped into the usual ones. What can I say, sometimes, memory has no end.
Some of the things I remember the most include the usual, morning, "ey, que onda Phil, como estas?". And of course, he would say "bien", or "ocupado". This was before starting to usual day of classes, in between classes and during office hours, since we shared one wall and there is a hallway that provide good enough acoustic for us to communicate to each other from our desks. "Ey Phil, did you watch the Marquez fight?" He would ask me the same kind of thing on many occasions "Ey Pancho, viste el juego de Los Lakers?" This usually meant an invitation to come over and talk for a minute or more, then back to the office, then move on to class. If it was the middle of the day, around the time for a break from teaching and holding office hours, the usual question was, "ya comiste?/have you eaten?" Most times, if one had eaten, we would move on to some more work, but half of the time, even if one of us had already eaten, we would still sit and talk for a bit or more while the other one ate. Otro ritual en el cuatrocientos.
Another thing I'll never forget was being able to come over to his place and hang out and jam out too, he on the accordion, me on the acoustic guitar or drum. Sometimes we would jam out a little in between the union get-togethers. Other times, at the end of school reunions or parties which he generously hosted at his beautiful classic and huge yellow house, a few of us would remain until late and transitioned to some jamming. I would play a Manu Chao tune, maybe some Cafe Tacuba or Maldita Vecindad or Caifanes or Soda Stereo. I don't think he really knew the 90's Rock en Español tunes because they weren't bands or songs from his generation, but he played on the keyboard or accordion regardless and provided a nice accompaniment. Then, after he'd let me go through some tunes, he would shift us to some traditional blues, making the accordion flow, many times through minor chords, because he always said the minor keys were the ones that sounded more sad and bluesy. This coming spring semester of 2013, I was going to count on Phil to help me out on some shows and to record some accordion tracks for my poetry/music group "Frontera Drum Fusion". He had agreed to this. It was going to happen and it would have been an audio experience that I could document and share with others. In the past, we had jammed out at his place, we had even jammed out at my suegro's house in Tijuana when my suegro was still alive, but we had never jammed out at my place. Usually, when he came over to my place, it was to watch some boxing and have some botanas y refrescos, not to jam out. The jamming out in my garage was coming soon. Instead, Phil suddenly passed away, and this like so many other things for him and his family and friends, have hit a big change.
I was thinking this the other day, if I were to count the minutes or time spent with other folks at SWC during my teaching career and see who have I spent the most minutes with, it would have be Phil. Running into to him throughout the day, sitting down for conversations and/or lunch, sitting with him and a few others up against the wall and towards the back of the room during department meetings (we were a kind of small Latino clika within the English Department -- El Phil, El Pancho, El Cheno, y el Jose), and of course, walking out to the front parking lot at the end of many days, every week, every semester, for 8 years straight; hands down, the person I have talked to the most in these short 8 years of SWC experience has got to be Phil. It's something that I'm very used to, and now that he is gone, it is something I will miss; adjusting to this next SWC chapter as it relates to people/gente in my career is here. Maybe it sounds too dramatic, but People/Gente are important to me. They make departments and schools etc... etc... they make the world we live in, and when one goes down in my school or department, I can feel it big time. And we have lost quite a few recently in our department. I remember people and colleagues like Jonathan Bates passing, Denis Callahan passing, and now Phil. Folks retiring such as Susan Luzzaro and Elieen Zamora and Steve Kowit among others also bring changes that aren't easy but nonetheless very real and somehow another one of those necessary facts or phases of life. "Asi la Vida" many say. "Asi la Vida".
Que mas puede uno decir?:
Two days before Phil passed away, I remember walking out the 400 with him as we headed to our classes. He was carrying his usual big box of student folders and papers. "This is the second to last time I'm carrying this box this semester". He looked relieved that he was going to get the break over the holidays, and who wouldn't, I know most of us at the college, including students are quite tired at the end of each semester. That was a Wednesday, and on Thursday (the day before he passed) I remember my customary walk up to his office before going home to ask him if it was also the end of his day so we can head out to the front parking lot (other times it was he who would ask me whether my day was done), "Que onda Phiiiillll, ya' stuvo o que onda?" A student was with him and he replied, "no Pancho, 'stoy ocupado".
I told him that maybe I'd see him the next week, after the weekend. He told me he wasn't sure. I walked up to the office and asked him why, "Y eso?" and he reminded me that it would be finals week. It made sense. Finals week is the week when our schedules would deviate into various two hour blocks, maybe just a couple of 15 minute breaks here or there in the week, some days one exam while other days two exams. Not much of 400 building talks occur sometimes during finals, and if they do, they are more sporadic and spread out. He was right. There was a good chance I wouldn't see him during finals week. Of course, I had no idea I would never see him again.