Thursday, February 21, 2013

Has anybody seen my old friend John?

John in the middle of photo.

2013 Feb.17
I am of the age when any event, even a minor one, triggers association of memories. Yesterday, DZMM TV flashed the news of the death of Governor Faustino Dy of Isabela. I focus on Isabela, not on Dy, because that's where one of my two roommates of high school days came from. Let's hear what my memory has to say.

1972 or 1973
It was sometime in 1972 or 1973 when the dorm master of Chiang Kai Shek College told me that the school's dormitory, occupying the high school building's entire fourth floor, was closing down at the end of the semester. My first reaction, being a rowdy, noisy, skinny and immature gremlin of a student, was: "He's just making up a polite reason to get rid of me." However, I know that the old master may be strict, but he seldom lost control of his temper, of which I have been at the receiving end a few times, and he was never mean. Besides, to close down the entire dorm because of a squirt like me! That seems far-fetched now, thinking back through the thicket of intervening years. But the turbulence of adolescence makes everything personal, and seem plausible.

Most incidents in our lives are made mundane by repetition, even if you are a rock star, an accountant, or the clunky nerd that I was. A conversation with my mother at home in Angeles, Pampanga, will remain vivid all my days. I had told her I had to live outside the campus beginning the next school season. She looked worried for a while. Then she voiced out her concern. "You must know, it's very different outside, living with people not Chinese. They can be rougher, maybe less honest. Oh, I know some Chinese who are worse, but it's different in Manila. Just be aware." That surely made me aware that I must learn to distrust, not to accept what my eyes see at face value, and to interpret the real meaning behind what people claim, assert, vow or promise. Surely others have learned this much earlier in life, and I still envy street-smart kids up to this day.

Anyways, I find myself in the summer of 1972 or 1973 searching for a residence near the school. I will also be made aware later in life that this school, although located in Tondo -- It's still there, but much bigger and fancier -- is exclusive; meaning, it's mostly for children of rich people. I don't know how my parents managed it, but there I was, with classmates whose allowance is always more than sufficient, who were fetched from school by cars and sleek vans, whose parents were educated and owned textile firms, glassware stores, big pig farms, bazaars. I give credit to these classmates for not making me know I'm a kid not in the right place. Maybe we were just too young and had not yet learned that money made divisions between people who had it and those who did not, that there should be a caste for kids with educated parents and another for kids like me. But in time, they learned all that, and more, and now they have become mean, moneycentric, regular Chinese businessmen.

I was the first in my family to finish elementary school. I think my mother barely reached Grade 3, and my father was a farmer in China who, with the help of rich uncles, ended up in Tarlac. I don't know how and when they met; I'm just a product of that meeting. (Mother liked to tell jokes, and she told us: "If your father says 'talak' I'm not sure if he means Tarlac or truck.) What I had, instead of a comfortable background, were extra folds in my eyelids. Chinese are known for their slit eyes, and an extra fold in the eyelid was what they cannot buy in the 1970s, when surgical enhancement was unthinkable and unavailable. My skin is as white as theirs, and I can talk the languages -- Pampango, Filipino and English. Alas, my Chinese -- Mandarin and Fookien -- is worse than poor, barely understandable. This still rankles, not to know the language of your origin. Perhaps this explains the thick volume of English-Chinese dictionary (unread) among my books.

At last I found a boarding house, among a row of similar dark houses on Sanchez St., a narrow alley a block away from CKS. I was assigned to a loft occupied by two college students, my roommates, Alfonso Siy of Lucena City and John of Isabela. It was a boardinghouse owned by a grouchy old landlady, a Chinese with a foul vocabulary (I would learn many obscene words from her burst of curses), and she accepted only Chinese boarders. I moved in weeks before classes began, so I was alone and lonely until Ponso and John arrived.

Ponso had long hair, bangs in front of his wide face and nape-length hair trimmed horizontally straight at the back. His family, if I remember right, owned a bakery; so he was middle class and was not a student at damned CKS. He was taking a computer course, an off-the-common-track subject at that time, at PSBA somewhere in Morayta. He wore eyeglasses with thick, black frame, the kind that made Woody Allen look wimpy and Roy Orbison look like an accountant. But on Ponso the glasses fit right in, reminding me of Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash (Neil Young had not joined the group yet). One day, I peered through hs glasses and it made me dizzy. Ponso was so near-sighted he had to squint when he went through the chords of songs in my copy of Jingle magazine (debut issue No. 1, P5, now lost in time). He can play the guitar better than I, and I learned a lot of Beatles riffs and broken chords from him. The guitar we used was a Lumanog, a good one which cost me P150 (Board and lodging at that time was P90 a month: Different time, different world).

John, who was taller than both Ponso and I, can afford a Commerce course at CKS because his family owned a tobacco farm in Isabela. John, I thought, was an unusual name for a Chinese, out of trend with the prosaic Richands, Antonios, Williams and Roberts. He and Ponso had good taste in clothes: they know to blend colors, choose the right textures, measure the right width for their bell-bottomed pants. I tried to emulate them, but I simply had execrable taste. I looked up to them as adults who knew the right songs (John was moved by Carpenter's For All We Know), the right movies (Woodstock, The Godfather, Fiddler on the Roof, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Magic Christian), and the right behavior in restaurants and good stores.

Alfonso, Harold, John, William Pogi, William 2nd

Living at the boarding house, Time became a problem. Back in school dorm days, the bell would blare throughout the fourth floor as if a fire would break out every 5 a.m. Monday to Friday. The dorm master would hustle us out of bed, then herd us down to the court below and make us stretch, twist, jump and run -- exercise for sleepy heads and growling stomachs. Thirty minutes later we were in the common kitchen on the ground floor, eating meals that did not vary much in taste and quantity. By 7 a.m., fed and bathed, we were in classes, nodding off while the teacher mumbled something about exponents and equations. Now that I'm living off-campus I have no way to determine time. The solution is to buy a wristwatch. 

I asked John and Ponso to help me buy one. They asked me about my budget. "I have P200," I said. They looked at each other. (That would puzzle me for quite a time. A few years later I would realize that P200 is not enough to buy a quality watch, even in those times when prices were comparatively edenic.) I got a cheap Seiko with what I thought was a funky design on its face, something like the atomic path an electron would take, if only its path was not cheap and bleary. Back in our room at the boarding house, I was about to strap the watch on my left wrist, but Ponso and John showed me that they wore theirs on their right wrists. So I was accepted in the brotherhood of right-wristed-wearers-of-wristwatch. Based on my smile that moment, no one will know how much gratitude I felt for the two of them for their acceptance of me. Small acts of kindness can last in the memory for a lifetime.  Weeks later my first wristwatch would be snatched while I was walking aimlessly along Espana Boulevard. "It's different out there," my mother had warned me. I never doubted her. 

When I started college at UST I had to leave the boarding house in Tondo. By then Ponso already had a job at the National Computer Center. John had married someone surnamed Chua. I was invited to the wedding, which was held at the Manila Cathedral. Ponso was best man. I was too young to be anything else but a mascot of sorts. I remember a singer named Richard Tan singing for the newlyweds at the reception at the Manila Hotel. The song is Celeste Legaspi's Gaano Kita Kamahal.  It's my favorite Levi Celerio composition. The next semester I was starting freshman life in another boarding house across the Forbes St. side of UST. Less than two months and my life in Tondo already seemed so far away, even unreal. I was like a cat with a short memory span, not even thinking about Ponso and John.

Ponso I would never see again. John would search me out in Pampanga about 18 years later. And that is the basis of this reminiscence.


1990 or 1991

Late in 1990 or early in 1991, before Mt. Pinatubo erupted and hurled me to another life, I was operating a bookstore at the PX supermart in Dau, Pampanga. The store, a prototype of the Book Sale branches all over Manila now, was started sometime in the mid-1980s, I think. In the afternoon, when business was slack at the supermart, I would leave the store to my two salesgirls and play cards with other storeowners. Or I would be squatting by the side of the store, playing chess amid a crowd of kibitzers. One afternoon I was searching for a move to squeeze out of a problematic position when I heard a familiar voice call my name. I looked up and saw John, who was greeting me like a long-lost roommate, which I was.

Leaving the game, I asked John to go with me to the store. While we talked I asked the girls to get some snacks from the canteen. On hindsight, I'm glad I did that. After the superficial preliminaries -- how I have filled up, not so thin now, how well-behaved I seem to have become -- the conversation turned to the real purpose of his visit. "This is not a chance encounter," he confided. "I have been searching for you in the last few days. I even went to Angeles and asked your parents where you are. Then I asked around in Dau until someone led me your store."

He continued (answering my unasked question about Ponso). "He is in Australia now. You remember how crazy he had been about Carmencita? Well, after that girl's misadventure with a lesbian, Ponso took her in and brought her to live with him abroad."

So Ponso is doing well, I thought. How about you? Why are you here?

"My wife and I have separated. My family has lost its property and business. My father entrusted the family business to a politician, who used the money in his bid for a seat in Congress. The man lost, and we lost all. Now I'm earning some money, plucking feathers off chickens somewhere in Tondo. I cannot go to Ponso, then I thought of you."

I was not exactly rich then, just about comfortable with a small store, a house which my parents and friends tactfully described as "cute," so when someone had no other option left but me, that someone was really in deep trouble. Having hurdled my share of trouble in life, I had learned not to ask for conditions or more explanations from people who approach me for assistance. "How can I help you, John?"

"I'm thinking of asking an aunt for funds so I can start all over."

"And your aunt is not in Luzon."

"She's in Catbalogan."

"How much is necessary to get there?"

John told me the plane fare, which is not too much, but still steep enough to make me hesitate because I had to take care of my family too. "But I can go there cheaper by boat," he added.

Having insufficient cash in my pocket at the moment, I asked him to come back tomorrow and I'll have the money so he gets to see his aunt. Before he left that afternoon, I gave him a small amount to tide him over the night.

At 9 a.m. next day he was already waiting by the store. I gave him the boat fare to Catbalogan and back, plus expenses for food, lodgings, for a change of clothes and other necessities he might need in his journey. "This is much more than I need," he said.

"It's what I can afford. I wish I can give more. However, if you are in trouble anytime, you know where to find me now."

After almost a week, he was back in my store. "I saw my aunt," he said. "She told me to wait for a while until she gets some money to give me."

I looked at him. "If your aunt really wanted to help you, there would be no excuses, no waiting."

"I know, that's why I left. You know, of all the people I approached, you are the one who gave me a chance." He said he was going back to his job in Manila, try to sort things out. And that's the last time I saw John.

There are some people who believe that if they help someone, they will somehow be rewarded. So what happened next? Reality bit me, is what happened.

On June 15, 1991, Mt. Pinatubo erupted and I lost my business, my property, even my identity. There are times when I still think that that volcano erupted just to rid Pampanga of me and toss me back to Manila. Mt. Pinatubo: the dorm master of the 90s. 

With the help of Ody Fabian, who succored me in those dark days, I was taken in by People's Tonight, where I worked from 1994 to 2004. When fate (if you believe in fate) deals you a wild card, you get a magical mystery tour. From bookseller I became a newspaperman. Now I'm selling stamps to international collectors through eBay. And through it all, old friends I tried to help and old friends who helped me survive are always on my mind. Gone, but not forgotten; Far, but not away.

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