Friday, February 10, 2012

Angeles HD

Angeles City, October 1964

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

--   The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald, 1859 

I saw this photo posted by Taga Angeles Ku on Facebook, and memories beyond the scope of this two-dimensional digital image rushed in. 

Back in the '60s, the Esso gas station sign was one of the first things I saw from my window in my waking hours. My room is on the second floor of a house just about across that gas station. Early at night I heard the occasional jeeps passing by; there were not many then, so the calesas, pulled by skinny horses, were not obstructions at all. Even in the mornings and afternoons of those quiet years, traffic was always light and, as can be seen in the picture, the view was not obscured by pollution.

At ground level of the house we rented was the junk shop my father managed. I was in grade school then, taking up English courses from 7 a.m. to 12 noon, and a Chinese course from 1-5 p.m. I made good grades, but, thinking about that now, I realize I was kind of dumb then. For example, I was not aware that my family lacked in many aspects, such as a house of our own, not exposed to the hustles of Henson Street. Maybe it's because Grade School leveled our status -- poor and lower middle-class kids mixed with rich kids whose family owned a hotel near Crossing, a big grocery store downtown, or a drug store just beyond that Esso sign.

So up and down the junk shop my family thrived. On weekends I was asked to stay at the shop: that meant help my father while he weighed the corrugated boards, sheets of folded tins, rusty iron metals and nuts and bolts, and stacks of old newspapers. In mid-afternoon, as the sun highlighted the road outside the store, I would sift through the bundle of newspapers, separating all the cartoon pages, especially from the Stars & Stripes. Sometimes I got lucky and found a portion of a Peanuts book or -- heaven on Earth! -- an entire comic book, or a letter envelope with a stamp still stuck on it. At night I would pore through my finds, not knowing that the black-and-white strips, the Batman adventures, and my growing stamp collection were influences that would stick for life.

I don't remember the year we moved to Henson St., but the junk shop with second-floor living space was certainly many notch above the rectangular one-room tenement we had left behind in an alley leading to the Apo Church. That church is located in Lourdes Sur East, where, my mother told me, I was born around noon of a Wednesday in 1955. "Yes," my grandmother would add later on, "there was an eclipse, the sky turned dark in the middle of the afternoon, the dogs howled, and all the chickens, after cackling their protest, went to sleep."

Google spat out the only significant event that occurred the day I was born: Ngo Din Diem declared South Vietnam a republic and became its first president. He would be assassinated in early 1963. A few days later, 1963 Nov. 22, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated too. I remember my mother waking me very early on the morning of November 23 -- it's still dark outside -- and showing me the front page of a special edition of the Manila Times. The front-page photo showed a dotted line starting from a top window of a building, leading to a spot in a car below -- the trajectory of the bullet that blew open a side of Kennedy's head. "The president of America was killed," my mother said. "Uh-huh," I said, my mind more on the unusual fact that someone in our house had bought a new newspaper, not a used one to be priced by weight. Strange day. The smell of fresh ink on clean paper would stay with me forevermore, when I buy a new book, when I add a new Batman comics to my collection, when I get fresh bills from the bank. A month and a year later after the Kennedy assassination, the picture above of Henson Street would be taken.

We slept early at night on Henson Street, unlike those crazy chickens in Lourdes Sur East. I remember the fading roar of cars leaving the city, the clop-clops of the hooves of a horse pulling its load to home and a well-deserved rest. I see through my window the high structure across the street and I wonder what kind of people live in such a place, so big and not made of wood. Sometimes I hear a jukebox somewhere, making the night soft with guitar music: Faithful Love, I Miss You So, Sleepwalk. The titles of those songs I would learn when I grew up. Through the years, in High School, in College, I would try to perform the tunes on a succession of guitars bought and broken, with no success. And one song by the Beatles remains magical in my memory because it was played one night when no other sounds obtruded: Ask Me Why. Haunting.

And so they remain, the old songs, the Peanuts strips on half-a-book without cover, Henry, Nancy, Dagwood, Dick Tracy, Casper, Wendy, Richie Rich. The years would pile new memories on top of old, and although the structures of lives and buildings have been so drastically altered now, just an old picture in Facebook can bring the past to life. That version of the past will live, as long as the old cells in my faltering mind sustain the existence of my Angeles, in high definition.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Brown Sugar

Evolution of the Philippine Flag

EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO the world was younger and so was I. I was more innocent, less experienced; so was the world.

Angeles City, too, where I walked on one of her unpaved streets, under a sheet of rain, tiny fingerlings probing me for spots left unwet.

I laughed. I was sopping wet but I laughed with my newfound freedom to get wet with impunity. Drops and drops of waterpins dripped from my hair; there were a lot of drops because I had more hair then.

Suddenly a runt of a jeep – there were very few full-length Saraos then – splashed by, carrying a bunch of palengkera in its belly.

One of them cried out to me: “Oy, boy! (I was that young. At least I looked that young.) Queni, sake na ca; bayaran que’ng pamasahi mu.” She was a stout motherly woman, her heart as stout and soft as she.

The jeep waddled to a stop, but with a friendly wave I l
et it go, the woman still protesting, “Boooyyy…

It was fun while it lasted. Of course I paid for it the next day with a raging fever. A few weeks later the big flood came and washed away the bridge near Tibagin. A few months later bombs exploded and Marcos declared martial law.

But it would take more than exploding bombs and martial law, in fact it would take more than a few years, before I realized that stouthearted fishwives – especially those on their way to Pampang Market to haggle and fight over a few centavo difference in their galunggong – do not instinctively succor a boy in the rain.

But in 1972, 18 years ago, there were still a lot of them.

At that time, old-age pension was unheard of because in the provinces old people were cared for. Orphanages were not built because no child was
ever without a home. Mental hospitals were few because Filipino life did not provoke nervous breakdowns.

And poverty was not a shame then because no Filipino would see his brother starve. Besides:
EDJOP was still alive.
Eman still wrote his poems.
Cory visited Ninoy in his cell.

And through all my doubts, I admired people I would later hate.

But that was a long time ago, when beggars were not syndicated, when coup d’etat was only an exotic French phrase, when we had to look up a dictionary to know what pedophile meant.

That was when Snoopy ruled the Earth. Garfield did not exist,
Calvin and Hobbes still a universe away. The seed of Pugad Baboy was not even planted yet.

Those were salad days even if Nixon was president of the United States, Marcos the dictator of the Philippines; even if we didn't care as much about the US bases and we didn’t ask why we sent our soldiers to fight in Vietnam. We coasted along.

So it was almost too late when we realized that the old-age pension was missing because they closed down the Veteran’s Bank, that orphanages were not filled because the children were sold to foreigners. And the reason why mental hospitals were still few was that most of those who should have been committed there were occupying Cabinet positions instead.

We became sophisticated. We learned to bury some of our dead under film centers. For a papal visit, we whitewashed poverty out of existence by erecting walls around the squatters.

Ninoy fasted and almost starved to death, in a country so richly endowed by nature that it was almost impossible to go hungry.

What happened? There was a time when Rafael Zulueta da Costa, a poet as fine as this country could produce, compared the Filipino to the molave – brown, sturdy and resilient.

Or perhaps my friends Ody, Abner and Joven will agree if I use another definition -- that the Filipino is Brown Sugar: coarse, unrefined, undiluted by foreign and false flavors, yet offering the same sweetness; more natural, therefore more honest.

And brown. As brown as the skin of the fat, gentle fishwife who with instincts as old as the islands, gives sanctuary to any boy running from the rain.

But the boy, sometimes he is not as young as he looks; the rain is not always wet, not when it is made of lead.

I’ve got brown sugar in my veins. 
My veins are as taut as the strings of a guitar strumming the song of a struggle far more destructive than the RAM-SFP coup stuff, much more insidious than the AFP vs NPA war. I am fighting for the Filipino mind.

You see, out there in the streets walks a treacherous woman with more money than brain, more pesos than sense, who would have us believe that white sugar is infinitely better than brown sugar.

She hires hacks with saccharine and nutrasweet in their veins, with molasses as their brains, who churn out tripes in their constant attempt to convince us of the superiority of their pale patrons and the inferiority of our race.

Your culture, they hint, is damaged.

Compare: you have no temple, no Angkor Wat, no grand mausoleum like the Taj Mahal, no Great Wall, no Hanging Garden, not even a Stonehenge, or Easter Island heads. Even poor Peru has Machu Picchu, but you, the only pyramids you have are the ones Johnny Midnight sells.

The Rice Terraces – What of it? It’s only a food-oriented monument to the first brown sugars who molded and cultivated it.

Come to think of it, even the names of your tribes are food oriented. Tagalog, Cebuano, Pampango, Ilongo, Bicolano, Ilocano – translated, don’t they all mean the same thing? A body of people who lives near a body of water, where they pluck the fishes for their food, which make their hair kinky and their noses flat.

Why, even your first freedom fighter was named after a big fish. He made chop-chop out of that grand culture bearer, Magellan, in Mactan.

Wasdimater with you little brown brothers, don’t you like culture? Don’t you like the Aspirin Age?

Ish depengs, I say.
Eighteen years later, the big flood returned and the body of water turned bigger than the body of people living near its edge and washed them away.

On that Saturday morning, while houses in Dolores, Abacan and Sapangbato disappeared, my jeep was stuck in the middle of a bridge in Mabiga.

Blankets of rain poured on me, but there were fewer drops that dripped from my hair.

Cultured men in their cultured cars beep-beeped and whizzed by, followed by full-length Saraos – there’s a lot of them now. One even tried to scrape the backside of my runt of a jeep. Then a garbage truck rumbled behind, and the driver, a thin man with a straw hat, jumped down and we pushed the runt to the shoulder of the road.

When we couldn’t figure out what was wrong, he returned to his truck and drove off – he still had garbage to collect, even in that rain – but not before dropping off one of his men to stay with me.

“He’s our mechanic,” the driver said. The man, shirtless, wet and shivering, looked under the hood.

“I can’t fix this,” he said. “I’ll get my son.”

“Where’s your son?”

“In San Joaquin.”

Thirty minutes later, the man, his son and me – three wet miserable creatures -- worked under the hood until the faithless runt throbbed to life again.

I paid the son for fixing the jeep. For getting out of the warm comfort of his house and coming into the rain to help his shivering father and me, he was not paid. Filipino culture has not yet decreed a price for that sort of thing.

The father did not ask and I didn’t offer any payment. I am much older and more experienced now to know that to do so would be an offense. The truck driver was his compadre.

“Salamat,” I said. It was the only acceptable mode of payment.

Then the truck rumbled into view from the opposite direction, its belly already full of the cultured garbage of cultured people. The driver, his straw hat dripping, waved me away with a smile as his shirtless compadre hopped into the truck.

Salamat, salamat…

Later on, I figured out that the truck driver, the father and the son, and that fat woman 18 years ago, were the same products of this unfortunate land -- uneducated but gentle, less cultured but lacking the great unkindness of sophisticated races.

I’ll stay with them, maybe only for a short time -- because my life is short. I’ll fight the good fight with them, as long as the treacherous woman leads the good life by throwing brown sugar down the river.

This first appeared in The Angeles Sun in September 1990, then in Midweek magazine in November 1991. Maybe it's not surprising that this article has maintained its relevance after more than 20 years.