Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Maia, Daughter of Oceania (fiction)

Maia looked up to a blur of faces ogling her from the wooden circular ramp a few feet above her watery enclosure which was made up of welded galvanized iron sheets to form an oval basin. She was seated on a wooden chair the legs of which have been sawed off so that half her body would always be submerged in the murky water. Maia was one of the stellar attractions of the feria that had set up camp in the town of Tanza for the feast of San Agustin. Although already in her early forties, she was still attractive, but, in a matured way. She had an earthiness much like a classic Rubens’ ideal though not as corporeal. She has been billed as the mermaid Maia, daughter of Oceania, Queen of the Seven Seas.

The itch on her left calf started again. This pesky affliction began about a week ago from the prolonged immersion in dirty water. The show had been on for almost three months and what started as a slight skin irritation became a grotty fungal infection. She tried to reach out to the itchy part but the scratching did not help any. The thickness of the soft leatherette material that was used to wrap her lower body and the sewed on scallop shaped fake scales on her fish body made scratching ineffective. She didn’t have anything on from the waste up. What kept her modesty was a white kerchief that was carefully draped over her bare breasts. Every time she would extend her arms to reach for the itch she would not only expose a bit of herself but would wet the white kerchief which caused to reveal the roundness of her breasts and the pointedness of firm nipples. At this point the lewd faces of the audience would go wild and breakout in raucous encouragement to reveal more. Wizened faces of men of the soil, fisher folk with hair yellowed by salt and sun and a few eager-eyed boys in their early teens loomed above looking with lecherous glee. The idea of the white kerchief was a token precaution to the town censors, but, also as a part of a tease act. The owner of the freak show must have borrowed the idea from a popular movie trend at that time about Japanese women pearl divers whose white diving clothes turned diaphanous each time they emerged from the water.

This insatiable itch helped keep her mind from the abasement and the shame of the lowest depths that she had sank into. Because of this distraction, the natural feelings of immodesty and embarrassment she felt the first time she did the act, no longer bothered her. She had become jaded and indifferent to her absurd and sordid state. The itch was an incidental solace.

She sat there with half of herself on the water’s surface unmindful of the cold and the din of the jeering from above. The grotesque faces of the crowd above looked like a swirling kaleidoscope. Gradually the faces took turns at being focused and became recognizable and familiar.

The face of Minyong Tengco asserted itself. He was the impoverished sculptor and husband of more than a decade, whom she ran away from to free herself from the fetters of boredom and destitution. She thought that running away with Rudy, the young and roguishly handsome “carrera ng daga” barker would be the fulfillment of her dreams. Suddenly one of the faces darted towards her. It was that of Clara, her retarded daughter. She had turned her back against her and left him to the care Minyong. Despite the dearth of expression of her pallid face it had a tinge of an accusing bewilderment that caused her to quickly avoid her gaze.

The makeshift tent that housed the freak show hardly had any roof. A circular clearing directly above her showed myriads of stars, a glorious array of God’s handiwork as if assuring everyone that He is there and all is well in the world. And yet…the tawdry show place, a place that was secured from the nonpaying crowd outside by patches of soiled tarpaulin and some large poster discards still having the grinning faces and slogans of political candidates in the last elections wrapped around a circular wooden platform that served as perch for the paying crowd. “Wala ng Hubad, Wala ng Gutom, Wala ng Palaboy”, “Kampion ng Api” were some of the faded promises on the tattered recycled posters.

As she gazed upwards to the dazzling lights in the firmament she could see herself wearing a flouncy pink gown dancing the cotillion at her debut held at the Manila Hotel. Maria Paz Reina called Maia by her close friends was beaming with pride as the dancers went through the ritual steps revolving around her. Her siblings were jealous of her exceptional good fortune. The expenses for the grand debut were all paid for by her grandparents. The grand parents took her in their fold from a very early age. Her grandparents were exceptionally adept at spoiling her and she grew up to be an intractable brat alienating her siblings and her parents as well. She defied everyone when she eloped immediately after her coming out party with her young artist boyfriend who didn’t have anything much to offer but his good looks. This was ages ago and from the discomfort of her watery seat those days seemed as distant as the glittering stars in the sky.

About two weeks ago she began to feel a heaviness in her chest which she alleviated by clearing her throat with a heaving cough. Constantly being soaked in her galvanized iron confinement her condition worsened and just a few days before, the coughing became more intense and was accompanied by a stinging pain she felt inside.

As she shifted to reach for the itch she felt a stabbing pain in her chest. It reminded her of the kick that her erstwhile live-in partner, Rudy, the “carrera ng daga” barker, delivered on her ribs as she cowered in a corner after she nagged him for the thousandth time about his womanizing. It was also the thousandth time that he had battered her for being the termagant wife. At that moment she decided that it was the last time she would suffer a beating from him. She hastily packed her clothes in a bundle and with the help of a forceful push from Rudy she flew out of the door into the relief of a dark uncertain night.

She sought the help of Emang, the lady who tended the ring toss game booth. The ring toss was a simple game of tossing a small hoop into the constantly moving and bobbing heads of geese. Emang was a simple woman who has remained single, resigned to the life of manning the ring toss booth not caring when it will ever end. When asked why she has remained single all these years she facetiously remarked that she just enjoyed teasing men but never giving in…just like the geese whose heads were perpetually beckoning and dodging hoops.

Emang was the one who convinced her to take on the job of the Feria mermaid. The hairy wolf lady who was a big attraction in their "feria" decided to shave off her hirsuteness to get married and lead a normal life. Other ferias had mermaids and they were surefire attractions because of the popularity of the movie entitled Dyesebel which was enjoying several remakes at that time. One look at Maia and Emang was convinced that she would make an attractive Dyesebel, so she started to peddle the idea to the booth owner who lost the wolf lady and upon seeing Maia the booth owner gave her the thumbs up.

She was an instant success as a mermaid so much so that they had to reinforce the wooden ramp to be able to handle the weight of the growing crowds that lined up each night. On weekends they were able to jack up the entrance fee and it was really a successful enterprise. The booth owner shared his good fortune with star of the show by doubling her salary but she also had to endure the many amorous advances which the owner thought he was entitled to.

She laid there wincing from the stabbing pain. Her writhing was mistaken by the audience as paroxysms of ecstasy, a fit of passion. They clapped with much gusto and became all the more convinced that this was worth the peso and fifty that they paid for. More customers streamed in as the exiting patrons endorsed the show to the bystanders in the freak show lane.

The pain dulled down, it was still there but it had taken on a new sensation, it was as if she was on a high, so much like the benign numbness one experiences after a heightened and extended agony. It was this that made her impervious to the sting of the cadenced jeering, the lascivious remarks, the insults from a frenzied crowd. It was her purgatory. She was emerging from it devoutly wishing for her absolution, to be cleansed of the sores, the slime, the pitiless cold and the shame of the obscenity that she came to be.

It was a cloudless dawn at the Julugan shoreline and despite it being nearly daybreak it was still a dark gray because the moon had already disappeared in the western horizon. At a distance the light of the basnigs were flickering a few miles offshore. The lights of the city farther off to the north were like an unclasped diadem waiting to adorn someone’s neck as an honor, as a reward or as a token of forgiveness by a waking Poseidon, the awesome god of the sea.

Mang Turing went back to shore a little earlier than usual. It was a bright night and the fish were moving about dispersedly. This made for the scarcity of bites despite the Coleman lights that he lit when he moored at his favorite fishing spots. As he paddled ashore his thoughts were occupied with mermaids. Earlier in the evening, before pushing off to fish, he was in town and was among those who paid a peso and fifty to see Maia, Daughter of Oceania. He was so mesmerized at the sight of the live mermaid. Though reluctant to believe in its reality he was disposed to suspend his disbelief. He felt pity for the mermaid seeing her captive and being jeered and insulted by the crowd. Mermaids exist in the fishermen’s lore. They are known to be compassionate creatures who look after men lost at sea. At certain times of the year they shed off their fish bodies and take on human form to mingle among humans. Maia must have been washed ashore at the time of her transformation and was caught and now displayed in the feria.

After beaching his small banca he pushed it a bit farther ashore so that the tide could not wash it back to the water. He hauled his fishing gears into a basket and lugged the boat paddle on his shoulders and proceeded to walk towards his hut past the cluster of aroma bushes. He trudged on the fine sand with effort as he approached the rise where the bushes were. As he reached the rise the light coming from his hut made the ground in the area shadowy but clear. He could see a large track on the sand which looked like a sack was dragged on the sand or of someone creeping on all fours on the ground. He dropped his burden and followed the tracks which led to the receding water line as the tide was drawing back seaward. He thought he saw a human form walking toward the sea and from the adumbrated image he could make out the outline of a big fishtail which the hazy figure was carrying on its shoulder. Moving in closer, he stopped at the waterline, not daring to go any farther. He watched from there as the shimmering silhouette pushed on to a calm and comforting sea until it was swallowed by the thin early morning mist.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Escrayola Sculptor’s Daughter (fiction)

Minyong Tengco carefully laid down the box containing the materials he used for making escrayola figurines. It was the start of another day and like innumerable days past he would take out the coarse and uncolored figurines on the shelf and line them up on his work table to apply color on them as finishing touches. Escrayola is made up of plaster of paris and other chalky substances hardened to form figures as in statues and other sculpted pieces. The surface of escrayola can be smoothened and made to look like porcelain but duller in sheen.

The box contained a small sack of calcite powder, a brown paper bag of gypsum, another one with plaster of paris and some binding materials. Despite the bleakness of his little studio, Minyong, kept it neat. He sorted his tools and had his materials in shallow rectangular boxes neatly stacked in a corner of the little room that was half roofed and half exposed to the elements. He needed open air as a place to dry his works and also to dissipate the slightly acrid odor of the unhardened escrayola and the invasive smell of paint thinner. Other boxes contained the paints he used in the figurines’ finish; metal chisels, files and sand paper for smoothening the rough edges and the small bulges created by the loose seams of molds.

On one side of his studio were rows of shelves, the upper tiers of which, sat odd assortments of escrayola creations; cute and chubby piglets, wide eyed bunny rabbits, kitschy floral arrangements and ginger bread houses all of which had small slits either on top or on the side to serve as slots for coins. No matter how artistic and well done his creations were they will always have the slit, for without it, the value of the merchandise would have been reduced to nothing but ersatz adornments. The exception, of course, would be the few religious icons that were spared from this demeaning stigma.

He was doing business with a few “Feria” operators who bought his wares as prizes for the various games played in the booths that were the permanent fixtures of all “ferias”. The fair grounds teem with shooting galleries with the leaden pigeon targets, the ring toss on bobbing heads of geese, the “carrera ng daga”, a wheel of fortune type of game where a hamster goes around several small numbered houses and enters one to indicate the winner, and other games played which offered an assortment of small items to be won. The demand for his merchandise was a seasonal one. “Ferias” are mobile gypsy-like communities that move from town to town coinciding with the town’s fiesta celebrations during the summer months then grinds to a halt to pick up again in November in time for the Christmas season.

On the rough cement floor and on the lower shelves were the replicas of saints and busts of the Sacred Heart of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. He had a deference for the religious figurines and saw to it that they were carefully stored and kept away from where they could be accidentally nudged. The religious works where either on the ground or in the lower shelves protected by a thin wooden slat to act as a railing to prevent their falling on the floor. He had an awesome fear that any damage on the sacred pieces would bring immediate retribution from the forces of heaven. He distinctly recalls the time when a statue of Saint Peter which was commissioned by an elderly lady in the neighborhood had its nosed nicked by a wayward pole that his daughter accidentally swung when she shooed away a cat who had climbed on top their food table attracted by the fried tuyo that they were going to have for lunch. He felt that St. Peter had been slighted by such a spiteful act and was the reason for the early typhoon season that shortened the fiesta celebrations of that year. It meant a long stretch of reduced demand for his wares that had to wait until the coming of the Christmas upswing.

He couldn’t bring himself to blaming his daughter, Clara. He harbored a feeling of resentment against St. Peter, for being so harsh and so vengeful even to the spiteless actions of a mindless girl, but, carefully resisting intoning it lest he be heard by the saint’s cohorts all stern and dour as they stared from the shelves looking like rancorous judges seated en banc.

Clara was a slightly retarded thirteen year old who was left with him after separating with his wife eight years ago. Her retardation was caused by malnutrition which they did not detect early enough for the lack of medical attention which he could ill afford. In a moment of despair over her husband’s inability to earn enough to provide even the bare essentials for the family, as well as the dullness of their existence in the company of somber looking religious icons and comic creatures with adumbrated smiles, she left him for a “carrera ng daga” barker. She met this exciting roguish fellow who was ten years her junior when accompanying Minyong to deliver the escrayola items to game booth owners. The gayety of the “Feria” must have beckoned irresistibly to one emerging from the ash gray and joyless world of an escrayola sculptor.

Because of their poverty, Minyong had never given Clara anything of value or anything that has been bought from a department store. She wore thread-worn dresses and other hand-me-downs given by her cousins at Christmas time when she went to her aunt’s house. Her aunt was also her godmother and it was the custom for the godchildren to visit and pay respects to their godparents on Christmas day. She didn’t seem to mind the absence of the nice things that a girl her age would wish for. What gives her a bit of excitement is food. Her dull eyes would show a glint of sparkle at the mention of pancit or siopao which Minyong occasionally takes home from a party given by a friend or of a relative. One time, at the blessing of his brother’s house, Clara was overwhelmed by the sight of a generously endowed buffet table and almost went into a swoon. Minyong filled a plateful of food which she ate avidly after recovering her comportment. It was this simplemindedness of Clara that was the bane of his being. But it also seemed fortunate that she was this way because it shielded her from the cruelty and harshness of a destitute life.

If it were not for the blankness of expression, the lack of animation of her eyes and the pallor of her complexion she would have been a pretty girl. Clara had Minyong’s aquiline nose which he got from his mother who was a mestiza of Basque origin. His father was half Chinese and this is where Clara’s almond shaped eyes could be traced. As if in a conscience stricken mood or as a making up for the deprivation that his destitution imposed on her, Minyong started to sculpt a bust of Clara. He was tempted to use the mold of the Sacred Heart of the Virgin Mary by producing a rough base from it and work from there. Despite the beauty of the idealized reproduction which was done in the best classical tradition, he could not be convinced of the similitude. He felt that his daughter had a more natural prettiness, a virginal quality that could only be hers. He must have done the Virgin Mother’s Sacred Heart bust hundreds of times and he knew that he will not get it right if he used the mold as base. Clara’s likeness emerged little by little. He took his time hand molding the bust finding time for it only after having done his chores; his quota of piggy banks and bunny banks

One evening, nearing completion of his handiwork, he stepped back and contemplated his work at different angles. Perhaps it was the careful and loving handcrafting of this piece that he succeeded in creating an amazing likeness of Clara. It was such a faithful reproduction that captured her in all physical aspects and it was her, alright, down to the inertness and the lack of vitality; the inanimate and non-life quality. Though looking stark, the whiteness and dullness of the surface of the bust was the one that gave it a distinctness that was Clara’s. He pondered on it for along time. He visualized her with cheerful crimson lips and with delicate pink cheeks but was unhappy with what he imagined. In his mind, all the ideal conventional enhancements seemed an aberration, a polluting of the pristine aura that was possessed by this art piece. The essence of innocence that was the hallmark of Clara’s person was diminished with every imagined daub of sanguine vitality. It was the first time that he had created something of value, something far beyond slitted bunny rabbits and piglets, something even greater than all the saints and Virgin Marys that sum up all his creations.

The start of the sixties were exciting times. All sorts of new fangled inventions were being made, “man on the moon” dream of the Americans were nearing realization, international trade had opened up and unlocked the flood gates for Japanese products, Philippine sugar products and coconut oil exports were enjoying unprecedented success in the international markets.

Minyong was not aware of all these important events. All he knew was his business was on the wane and he could not understand why. With the influx of Japanese gadgets and novelty items, the demand for Minyong’s escrayola figurines as prizes in the Ferias went dramatically down. He could not compete with the cheap tin toys, the plastic lighters, stuffed toys and other attractive but cheap little doodads that flooded the market.

There were still a few booth owners who ordered from him but he had to sacrifice his margins to be able to compete with the alternatives that the game booths offer as prizes. This, plus the steady but sluggish trade that he had for religious icons, provided him with income, albeit, a much reduced one. Food in the larder, which he never had a surfeit of, was becoming scarcer by the day. There were days that he had to forgo his share of dinner so that Clara would have a full one.

One of his clients, Dolores de la Cruz, was the head of the CWL (Catholic Women’s League) in their parish. She had been very helpful as a referrer whenever she was asked by her friends where to get Sacred Heart icons as gifts for house blessings and other appropriate occasions. There were special favors he asked of Minyong before to do small figurines and she knew that he was capable of doing artistic pieces but did not because of the expediency of earning a living.

Dolores de la Cruz had an urgent need for a bust of the Virgin Mary. She had to have it in a day’s time to give as a gift to the visiting bishop of Bacarra in north Luzon who was a well known Marian devotee and who was very influential to Cardinal Santos, the archbishop of Manila. She felt obliged to give this dignitary a fitting gift. It had to be special so she thought of commissioning Minyong to do a bust of the Virgin Mary not the usual molded bust that he had done hundreds of times before. It must be an originally composed one. Price was of no issue. She was willing to pay five hundred pesos for such a creation. Five hundred pesos at that time was a minor fortune. It would have been the kind of income an ordinary wage earner would work for over four to five months.

Because of the urgency of her need she herself went to Minyong’s studio for her to tell him what exactly needs to be done. After the usual apology for the humbleness of his place he asked the lady what it was she wanted. She explained that she wanted a bust of the Virgin Mary to be given as a gift to the bishop of Bacarra who was visiting their parish the day after. Minyong said that he had in store several busts of the Virgin Mary, some as Sacred Hearts, others in different poses. She emphatically said that not any of what he had on the shelves will do. It has to be something different, a one of a kind, an original composition not formed from a mold. She said that she knows that it was a tall order but she was willing to pay five hundred pesos for it.

It was her habit to move around while talking, even less inhibited now, because of the excitement as well as the anxiety she felt for her purpose. Not finding words enough to describe her specifications her gesticulations were becoming frantic, almost hysterical. Minyong was becoming more confused than informed but he had to suffer Dolores’ frenzied dance because of the prospect of earning five hundred pesos. All of a sudden she stopped. “There! There!” as if witnessing first hand the Ascension, she pointed excitedly at the dimly lit corner, partly hidden by used clothing draped shoddily at the end of the wall, on an ancient looking table, was Clara’s bust.

He found it difficult to explain to Dolores that the bust was not for sale and that it was not yet finished. No matter, she said, Dolores could not be dissuaded. She was paying five hundred pesos and all he had to do was finish the bust by applying colors to the pallor of the escrayola surface of Clara’s bust, a thing that made him squirm in disgust just at the thought of it.

Minyong did not have a strong character nor did have a will resolute enough to go against the wishes of the formidable Dolores de la Cruz. He was just a poor escrayola sculptor who had very pressing needs. Clara would probably not miss her figurine and would be happy at having something more edible than the usual vegetable and fish sauce on rice, a meager fare that was becoming even less regular on their food table.

Minyong Tengco promised to deliver the bust early next morning. Dolores de la Cruz paid in advance and immediately after she left his studio he went to the Chinese restaurant at the corner of their street and bought pancit canton, lumpiang shanghai, and a small order of hototay soup. For the first time in years he saw a happy glimmer on Clara’s face as they enjoyed the steaming hot hototay soup. It was a face he didn’t recognize, a face that was alien to the one he created for her. It was enough to assuage the pain that he had to undergo when he applied the hated crimson on Clara’s purity to transform it into a bust of the Virgin Mary.

Once Upon A Walk

I remember ages ago I was walking with my Mom in Maria Cristina, the street where we lived after the war. During summer the people living in the neighborhood would come out of their houses and take short walks near sundown taking advantage of the breeze which has started to cool down the asphalt surface of the street. It was a fine time to chat a while with the neighbors in a close community of no more than twenty five families. The street was hemmed in by rows of detached houses, a few two door apartments and about three empty lots and a dead end at the banks of the estero. These walks usually lasted ten to fifteen minutes but may extend to twenty when my mom would stop a while for a chat. It will never go beyond twenty minutes because we would proceed to the Angelus immediately after the walk.

It was dusk and the figures up ahead were just blurry images moving towards us. I rushed towards this oncoming figure thinking that it was my aunt from Cagayan de Oro coming home from her frequent shopping trips. At about two meters away I realized that the person that I was about to give a big hug to was a complete stranger. At the point of almost making contact, I veered away and accelerated like a runaway car not daring to look back to avoid embarrassment.

I continued to run on and on, past the corner, turning towards the corner of the Mercury Theater and upon reaching the corner of Trabajo Street where I felt I was already away from sight, I stopped, heart pounding and trying to catch my breath. I saw my Mom making the bend and I ran back to her arms.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Maria Cristina neighbors - The Dominguez Family

The Dominguezes

Dona Paz was the matriarch of the Dominguez family. She lived in a compound with four of her sons who built houses within a large enough lot to accommodate all of them. “Lola Booger” was what one of her grandsons called her. Perhaps Binggoy, the grandson had little love for his grandmother because she was always at his back, watching his every move and was quick to chastise him for the many awful things that a boy of seven was wont to do. “Binggoy!!! Come up here immediately. How many times do I have to tell you that touching canal water will make you sick!” Binggoy did not pay heed to the shrill admonition that reverberated in the narrow eskinita that was heard from the sari-sari store of Mrs. Godines near the dead end of the street up to the Chinaman’s store at the corner of Espana. He just kept on scrounging with his fingers the bottom of the small canal which served as the conduit of the effluent coming from the septic tanks of the houses that flowed towards the estero, the main sewerage artery, at the end of the street. He would often grope for coins, playing marbles and other small items of little value whose owners did not care to retrieve once dirtied by canal water. Despite the infrastructure improvements done in the city in the last half century, to this day there are parts of the city that still have these open canals as a part of the sewerage system. When his Lola threatened to come down and wring his ears he would just stand up and walk toward the next lot where his uncle lived and disappear closing the gate behind him.

Binggoy is the fourth among a brood of six of Benito and Pilaring Dominguez. Both of them worked and most of the time the kids were left by themselves and watched over by an ineffectual Lola who could only shout from her perch by the window in front of an old guava tree. There were times when the kids will be left as wards of Benito’s distant cousin, Teresa, a woman in her mid thirties, whom he hired to stay in the house until he or his wife came home from work.

Benito Dominguez was a contractor who did construction jobs for government agencies while Pilaring worked in the commissary of the US military’s supply depot, a remnant of the large agency before the war that serviced the needs of the US military bases in the entire Philippines. After the war, with liberation forces have all but left, this has been reduced to just a small warehouse near the port area of the city of Manila servicing the few US military personnel who were left behind.

A hyperactive kid, Binggoy would get himself into the most ridiculous of situations. One time he inserted his head in the square of a wooden lattice that served as the protective grill in the front window of their house. It took more than two hours before he could be extricated from this wooden vise. For a while it was a bit touchy because he was getting tired and if he relaxed the full weight of his body could bear down on his neck and possibly break it. An uncle who was home from work early that day came to his succor and sawed off the wooden grill to free his sore and bruised neck. What happened to him in the construction site of the expansion of his uncle Berting’s house was almost tragic. He got hold of one of the carpenter’s chisel and was smoothening a block of wood which was held in between his legs. As was bound to happen the chisel blade slipped and nicked the top part of his pecker. It needed stitching and so he was brought to the hospital for the emergency restoration. It didn’t heal well and it left him with a slightly crooked tip. The young boys in the neighborhood teased him for being “sungaw”, a term for a slight deformity resulting from a bad circumcision job.

Alonzo or Alon as we called him was the eldest child in the family. Aon, being the most senior was the undisputed arbiter in squabbles between siblings and exercised judgment that was not always fair and just for he occasionally would rule in favor of the prettiest of the sisters, Bunting. He actually didn’t feel obligated to be fair. Often times he would rule out of self interest and would not brook any opposition to his despotic behavior. He was a pompous and flamboyant lad who ruled over not only his siblings but also the many cousins in their compound. This was to the consternation of Buchoy, the second to the eldest who felt that it was his duty to defend the other siblings from the tyranny of their eldest brother. Buchoy was the serious one, sometimes be a bit self righteous but this was alright because he acted as a counterbalance to the excesses of Alon.

Benito’s success was at a hold. He had just completed a government project but collecting from the government was a tricky one. Even immediately after the war the corrupt institutions in the government agencies were already operating with rapacious efficiency. He stood to collect close to twenty million pesos as payment for the restoration of the water system in the city which was left in ruins by the fire bombing of Manila. What would be coming to him would be less than ten million pesos after paying off the personalities at almost all levels of the bureaucracy. A big part of the grease money was to be paid to a senator and three congressmen. Still, ten million at that time was a fabulous fortune and once collected he need not work for the rest of his natural life. He had to have a sustained effort at pressing for payments. This he did by being present at all times in the office of the waterworks authority and taking to lunch all the influential persons almost everyday and occasionally some nights out to make these bureau satraps attend to the processing of the payments. All of his brothers knew of his impending coming into money and treated him and his family with special care bordering on solicitousness.
Pilaring on the other hand was the one responsible for bringing food to the table while the waiting game was on. Her job at the commissary did not pay well but it had some advantages which chiefly had to do with being able to bring home goodies from the commissary. She was able to buy at special prices stateside goods such as Hormel ham, Spam, Hershey bars, powdered milk, K-rations (a complete soldiers meal packed in fatigue green plastic) and other items made available through the US government’s largesse.
The Dominguez’ house was just in front of ours. The narrow street made conversation between us, from our balcony to their front window at the second floor, seem like a face to face chat. All the Dominguez boys attended San Beda College while me and my brothers were in the Ateneo de Manila. The rivalry of the two schools was at its height that time. In the collegiate basketball league, the NCAA, Ateneo and San Beda were alternatingly champions in the senior division for more than six years. Their heroes were Caloy Loyzaga, the Big Difference, Loreto Carbonell, whom we swore was the dirtiest player that ever played ball. The Ateneo cage idols then were “Moro” Lorenzo in the seniors and “Chole” Gaston in the juniors league. After a ballgame between the two schools there would be jeering and taunting from our vantage perches until one party succeeded in exasperating the other, ending the ruckus by them slamming their window, or in our case, retreating into the house.

There were other Dominguez families that one could write about but the family of Benito and Pilaring stood out as one that provided more worthwhile memories because the couple typified the struggle of families during the early fifties and the picaresque nature of their sons could inspire development of interesting fictional characters.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Loneliness of a Long Shot Winner (fiction)

Newly graduated with a BS Accounting degree from the Pamantasan Ng Maynila, a place of learning that was not quite among the top institutions in the country but had a better reputation than most downtown universities, Ton Macarajos found himself in a pared-down number of aspirants to join the management trainee program of a major multinational company.

The board exams for accountancy for that year was still several months away and with this new development he put this on hold until the results of the recruitment in to the management training program came out.

When he received the telegram summoning him to be in the personnel office on the thirtieth of April at 8:30 in the morning he heaved a sigh of relief. He had not expected reaching this far in the recruitment process. He felt as if he was on top of the world and was breathing in gasps in the vast whiteness of a strange landscape feeling heady in the thin but exhilarating air. Days of waiting has heightened his anxiety. A week earlier he couldn’t believe his luck when he was contacted by a personnel officer of a multinational company inviting him to apply for a trainee position in their management development program. He was now in the finals. “Am I really here?”, he exclaimed with veiled vanity.

Only a few days ago he was shattered to find out that the other finalists were made up of some of the finest student leaders and were creme de la creme of the 1980 batch of graduates in the country. Gloria Indice and Gian Zalameda were standouts in the debating team when they represented the country in the ASEAN meet pitting their talents with the best debaters from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and guest country, India. With impeccable scholastic records, both of them were, also known for their active participation in civic projects as youth managers of Rotary and Jaycee sponsored projects. The three others were Joe Valencia, an honors graduate in Chemical Engineering from the state university while the other two, Bino de los Reyes and Carl Gotengco were graduates of better known stateside universities.

He was sorry that he inquired from the personnel department about the backgrounds of the other finalists. It would have been less daunting if he just kept himself ignorant. But there was no way he could quiet his curiosity. His excitement at being given this fine opportunity made him almost obsessed with the idea of winning. Why not? Of the almost a thousand graduates in the university that year he placed second, losing only to a girl who had straight "A"s from first year to fourth. She had an exceptional memory, almost photographic, and "idiot savant" like in extent.

Ton was the compleat student who not only excelled in his scholastic activities but was an active leader in most of the high profile guilds and clubs in the university. He was an unequalled big man on campus. But only in the Pamantasan campus.

Realizing that he may not be good enough he consoled himself with the thought that he could always return to his job as busboy in a Jollibee outlet while waiting for a clerical job in a rural bank promised by a rich uncle in Calumpit and save enough to pay for a review course for the board exams. Before he was contacted by a personnel officer of the company he was quite content with the few prospects he had after school. A job in a bank, being a white collar one, was considered by most of his batch mates as a plum one. It was really fortunate that the multinational company for that year chose to cast its net wider to include other schools in their search for management trainee candidates. It seemed that they have not been happy with the results of the recruitment of earlier training programs which limited itself to a few well known schools. A number of the recruits did not complete the program; some were pirated by other companies after a year, while others, after gaining some experience in a multinational organization joined their fathers in family businesses. There were some who opted to pursue their masterals after chalking up the required business experience. Young men and women with impressive credentials have several options and could not be expected to be committed to any particular pursuit so early in their development. What Ton did not know was he very well typified the ideal management trainee recruit that went with the new recruitment thinking.

The last stage in the selection process was a group dynamics situation wherein the half dozen remnants of about 200 aspirants at the starting gate were to be pitted against each other. The finalists were herded to a room somewhat similar to the police interrogation rooms that you see in the movies, only bigger. There was a long table with six chairs clustered at the half end of it. On the wall was a big one way mirror on the other side of which was a viewing room where the board of selectors disappeared into after giving a briefing to the group on the conduct of the exercise and the introduction of topics and issues that they may choose to take up. The board of selectors is composed of senior managers in the department seeking recruits and the head of Personnel. Occasionally a guest selector would be asked to join either as an expert on issues for discussion or a department head who would have an interest in hiring from the less successful candidates but not as management trainees. They were first asked to discuss current events issues and then theoretical issues all designed to bring out the capability of each candidate to argue their respective stands on the given issues. The group exercise was also supposed to bring out the individual personalities and how each one is able to prevail on the others using wit, aggression, communications skills, organized thought and other subtleties, subterfuges included. The final selection process would normally take from morning till late afternoon. Despite their youth the candidates would all look spent and worn out after the rigors of the ordeal. At the end, a presentation of the summation of their arguments was asked of each candidate.

The absence of the selectors in the rooms during the goings on was designed to make the candidates less inhibited and to allow the selectors to observe body language, quirks and discuss amongst themselves the issues emerging from the discussions without disturbing the finalists. During the observation in the opposite room they may mediate, interrupt and make clarifications whenever asked for by the finalists or when they themselves find the need to do so.

The remnants would most of the time be from Ateneo, Lasalle and UP and since they would be of the same age range they would be acquainted with each other socially or as classmates and/or batch-mates in school or as members of prominent national youth organizations. Often times, the selectors had to remind them that they are vying for only a few slots and that they shouldn’t be too kind with each other in the ensuing discussions. It was not the time to be chummy, if they miss this year’s program they have to compete with next year's batch of new grads, if they are lucky enough to be invited again, but they would have the stigma of having been a loser the first time around.

This would be the first instance where they will face the realities of job seeking. If one gets taken in another loses the opportunity…a zero sum world. Some ploys involve having to ally with another one or two and when the intended victim or victims are disposed of they now have limited the fight among themselves and they now turn on each other to finish off the two or one other. It must have felt lowly when one came to the realization that one must look after “numero uno” only. One had to set aside friendships and some idealistic notions inculcated through all those years of education in respectable and religious schools. At a heated juncture of the discussions it seemed that there was a collaboration of two of the candidates to gang up on him. After deftly avoiding the squeeze play the recurring question “…what am I doing here?” flashed somberly in his mind.

Invariably the kids coming from these schools are happy, privileged kids with the exception of some UP graduates or other less elite learning institutions most of whom may come from lower middle to low economic class families. The disadvantage of those not from the upper class families is that the selectors, who themselves were selected under the same system would tend to look for their clones as they judge the aspirants according to their standards. For instance a bright fellow from UP might be mentally stricken off by a selector for having mispronounced a word or had a singsong accent as opposed to an “Arrneow” one. This happens a lot of times. Perpetuation of species may be the dynamics involved here. Conventional biases like gender stereotyping for jobs also occur every now and then.

With what might be considered as an incredible stroke of luck Ton Macarajos succeeded in getting one of the three available slots. Gloria Indice and Gian Zalameda were the two others who were taken into the management training program

He now got an assignment as an assistant in one of the brand groups. His boss was the typical brand group manager who came from an elitist school and had a willful disdain for those who did not belong. He got his first taste of this bigotry when he was asked by his boss to go to Isabela province which at that time was notorious for having a wild and wooly west atmosphere and where concrete infrastructure were almost nonexistent. This meant having to travel the expanse of the province through pot-holed highways from Dalton Pass to the feeder airport in Campo Sagrado in Ilagan and through washed out bridges in Tumauini. A government tractor was making good enterprise by pulling out vehicles stuck in the Tumauini mud pits.

By some odd circumstance the divisional sales manager of the Northern Luzon area who was supposed to meet him in Ilagan was nowhere to be found. He was in Manila. It was no coincidence that there was a national sales meeting going on in Manila when his boss sent him to Isabela. He had a taste of the kind of meanness and oppression that his boss could dish out but this is something he can handle. He had experienced worst treatments than this and he dismissed it as an initiation of sorts.

The dormitories in Campo Sagrado were not exactly the Ritz and without dining facilities but it was the friendliest place in town to sleep in. The small hotels were risky but could not be avoided because they were the only places that served food. The restaurant in the hotel that he went to looked like a typical hell-hole where at any moment a shootout between Django and the Trinity Kid can happen. There were mining folks out for an evening of raucous fun, military types drinking with their side arms ostensibly displayed as an announcement to all that they rule the place.

There were some local toughies that minded their own business and were behaving less boisterously because of the presence of the armed military. After finishing dinner and a few beers there were a few overt taunts coming from the menacing looking groups. They couldn’t help themselves because Ton really looked every bit the well scrubbed city boy. The local toughies were rolling their empty beer bottles towards his table every time they finished one. After being surrounded by more than a dozen beer bottles he furtively asked for his bill and disappeared quietly by faking to go to the toilet then hurriedly left through the kitchen door and vanished in the nearest street corner to ensure that he was already out of sight in case they fancied playing around with the Manila boy some more.

Once he got to the dormitory the first thing he did was to summon the house boy and gave him a peso and fifty to clean up the toilet to make it less repulsive, not spotless but useable. At first sight of the toilet bowl he squirmed at its disgusting filthiness. He considered staying constipated but the peristaltic turbulence within his innards was so persistent and there was no choice but to relieve himself. “When you gotta go…you gotta go” as the saying goes.

The price that he had to pay the hotel boy was a princely sum considering that he only paid two pesos and fifty centavos for an over night use of a cubicle the size and the looks of a pigsty. He had second thoughts about having to get into his sleeping clothes the moment he saw the bed and the bed sheet that he will lie in for the night. The bed had a native mat with frayed edges and the mat itself had splotches of caked dirt like bas-reliefs on two corners and felt a bit damp. The blanket was probably white when new but has now turned gray with splotches of yellow-brown smudge looking as dirty as a treasure hunter’s map. He then decided to rest his tired body with his street clothes and jacket on and using his softbag as pillow carefully avoiding contact of his bare skin to any part of the bed, mat and bed sheet. It must have been the excitement of the new experiences he has encountered in this desolate part of the country and perhaps his awareness of the squalor all around him in this dingy room that kept him awake for almost an hour more.

The whole thing that happened that day seemed surreal. “What am I doing here?” he thought with trepidation. He didn’t fit into the picture. His mind was active now. Images flitted and flashed as if in a spool of unedited film rushes. The mean faces of the toughies in the hotel restaurant…the rolling beer bottles that crowded him, hit his shoes and the table legs…his boss rudely giving out detailed instructions a day before he left for Isabela…at the canteen with Gloria Indice at lunch…the empty office of the divisional sales manager in Ilagan…the dirty toilet bowl and the over solicitous boy who cleaned it up…flashes of Gloria again, walking the length of the corridor as a final vision before succumbing to a stupor. He woke up with a heaviness caused by the inertia of a troubled sleep.

In the morning, after having done his market checking and making the rounds of the local dealers and distributors he went to the PAL office to find out the flight schedules. He sorely wanted to get out of the place by way of any available transport. The flight schedule only had Friday when a PAL plane would have a stopover in Ilagan. It was only Tuesday and he didn’t relish the idea of having to stay for a few more days. He caught a bus going to Tuguegarao where PAL had more frequent flights. Upon reaching Tuguegarao the first impulse was to check in to a decent hotel and take a long bath to wash away the itchy feeling caused by real and imagined dirt that have lodged in his pores in the two days stay in Ilagan. He then went to the PAL office to buy a ticket for Manila in the afternoon of that day.

Gloria Indice was a product of the Assumption Convent. She was one of the few recipients of the loyalty award which was given to students who were enrolled in the school from Kindergarten up to completing a college degree.She had a bachelor of arts degree in Sociology minoring in French. She was an outstanding student who excelled in academics and was the pride of the convent sisters who saw in her the fruition of their tutelage and guidance in Christian piety, etiquette as well as in gracious living. None epitomized better than she the ideals of this venerable and respected institution. This was something that was not lost in the eyes of her family who were intensely proud of her , especially her father, a politician who held on to a position of power and influence for more than twenty five years. He has been governor and congressman in alternating series through all these years in the province of Antique. The youngest and only girl in a family of four siblings Gloria was doted upon by her parents and they provided her with all that she desired. She would have been a spoiled brat were it not for the careful nurturing and supervision of the nuns who inculcated in her strong Christian values and a selfless social concern. Even without her father’s patronage to the convent that saw to it that the school was the beneficiary of a substantial amount of support from his foundation she would still have been a favorite daughter of the school because of her inherent graciousness and intelligence. She was pretty in a special way. It must have been an emanation from the innate goodness in her and the sincerity of her aspect that added to an already fine-looking physical beauty.

Gian Zalameda was one of her close friends. While in school they met at national convocations and conferences of the youth organizations that they both belong to. Both were in the debating team that brought home the trophy in the ASEAN competition. Gian never thought of Gloria as someone he could have a relationship with other than the earnest friendship that existed between the two of them. It could have been possible except that it just never crossed his mind. Neither did it enter Gloria’s mind. They have been too preoccupied with various things and now their focus is in surviving the rigors and challenges of the management training program.

Gian comes from a prominent family in Ilocos Sur. He is a scion of the landed gentry. Although they were not overly wealthy; the land reform program of the government severely diminished their proprietary acreage, theirs was a family who have provided a legacy that they could be proud of. The family had given the country sons and daughters who have been eminent educators and gallant heroes in the Philippine revolution and in the last global war. Zalameda was an old family name that was respected and highly regarded in Ilocos Sur.

Gian and Gloria could have made a handsome pair. Two thoroughbreds with all the papers to show their unassailable lineage; brought together by similarity of persuasions, the milieu they move in and stature. Their friends around them seem to give encouragement for them to be more than just friends seeing how admirable they were together.

Even Ton seemed to agree with this popular sentiment although he harbored a secret longing for Gloria, one which he most zealously guarded. In his mind it was a sacrilege just to think that he is worthy of her. While it often crossed his mind he had developed a mental default which automatically blocked out notions and images in reference to this silliness. But Gloria has unknowingly been unkind for she seemed to encourage a closeness between them that he was desperately trying to avoid. Because he looked lost she seemed to be a little bit more understanding with him, a bit more considerate. This show of empathy could be dangerous and cruel for it could be misconstrued as a show of care…of love, not of the beneficence that Gloria had for all. For Ton, who seemed to be the disadvantaged one, she gave a little bit more.

So when Gloria went with him to the canteen for merienda he gave it meaning for it was seldom that the marketing guys went on a one on one during breaks. It was always with a number of people. They even kidded about it by saying that you have to be present at these things every time because if you don’t, you would be the one they would talk about. While he thought that it was an encouragement he just couldn’t bring himself to act on it. Just like in the movies he will just have to be content to play the role of the long suffering village lad who will never profess his love to the daughter of the hacendero.

He had been in love before and at that time it was so much easier to open his heart to the intended. Aida was a pretty neighbor to whom he had special feelings for. It was a simple and comfortable affair. He had shown his love and this was returned without much bother. Perhaps it was this nonchalance that shielded him from having a painful parting. Aida left him to go abroad to work as a data processing analyst in a Singaporean research company.

It was his resolve to cut cleanly from this forbidden yearning. He could not ignore the weight of the biases and prejudices of centuries of serfdom and servility that was his family legacy. His father was a farmer who went to the city to become a family driver and his father before him tilled the soil of the cane fields of Iloilo and so with his great grandfather…sacadas all. For the depth that he had dug into his ancestry there was not even a single vestige of highness in any of the generations. His family was of the soil…an indelible distinction as hard to deny as his flat-footedness which is said to be an indubitable sign of peasant ancestry.

What helped him in his decision was that he didn’t want to waste this grand opportunity to rise from the humble state that he and his family were in. He now had a chance at making something of himself and create a future that was not as stark and sorry as their family history. So what is one more love lost? It is a fitting price to pay to realize another dream.

And so it went…Gian finally awoke to the fact that he was in love with Gloria. Despite Ton’s efforts to distance himself from Gloria she seemed all the more resolute to be friendlier. What at first Gian thought to be a jealousy on the friendship he had with Gloria turned out to be a jealousy borne by the threat of his losing her to Ton. Gian launched a determined effort to woo his beloved Gloria and soon enough Gian won her heart.

Ton was rid of this distraction that bedeviled him for so long. He now focused his attention on his work. It was not going smoothly because his boss seemed to be very critical of his output and was never supportive of any idea that he would recommend for product promotions or for thematic directions. The usual criticism was that the ideas that he broached were mediocre and “baduy” which meant in bad taste and of low class. He was often rebuked for not having a feel for what is artistic and refined and that his attempts were, at best, pretentious and smacked of artificiality. More and more the feeling of not belonging became stronger as the rebuffs became more when some of the brand managers made taunts similar to what his boss dished out.

During company socials, he would, oftentimes find himself isolated because he could hardly contribute to the topics being talked about. It was the cocktail talk, the small talk that he found difficulty in contributing to. He was not aware of the gossip items which involved the high society coterie, he didn’t know any of the personalities being talked about. One of the wives remarked “I don’t know if Ton is just being na├»ve but it is as if he was born only yesterday”! Even with the guys in the brand group, talking by the cocktails bar, he found himself just listening and nodding on a chanced familiarity. He could not make a comment on the latest fashionable male items, the interesting articles in Playboy magazine , the latest gadgets that everyone is gaga about and the features of the recently released BMW roadster. It seemed like being in a gathering of foreigners who were chattering away in their own languages…a tower of Babel. There wasn’t a single group he could attach himself to. The guys in the school he went to and those in his neighborhood half knew or never bothered about the things that went on in cocktail talk. “What am I doing here?” he blurted to himself exasperatedly.

What a relief it was to get home after work on a Friday. He plopped on his easy chair, a luxury purchase he allowed himself when he received his first paycheck from the company and prepared himself for the weekend. He would turn on the television set, an old Korean brand whose colors were beginning to overlap each other, to catch the end part of his favorite soap opera. His mother would soon call him to have his dinner which he usually takes alone because the rest of the family had already taken theirs. He put in long hours in the office and would reach home past nine o’clock most evenings. This show of devotion and industry was not appreciated by his boss who said that he should finish his work within the prescribed working hours because he was using up an inordinate amount of electricity having the air conditioning and the lights on when he stayed late at work.

He loved chatting with his mother who was very interested with what has transpired during his workday. He would tell her about the how nice and clean his office was and about the visit of some movie stars who were going to be used as endorsers of their beauty products. The first set of commercials that he was involved in would be aired the following day and his mother would be all ears as he told her to watch out for the new commercials and as if in disbelief she would remark how important his son has become. Sometimes his younger sister would join in and tell him the latest gossip in the movie world. He was keen on keeping abreast with this kind of news.

His youngest brother would wake up and join in the conversation. The comic antics of his little brother never failed to amuse him. He was comfortable with the shallowness of the things they talked about and the simple slapstick humor which sent him reeling with unrestrained laughter. These were the things that made him happy.

That Sunday, after hearing mass in his parish church he bought a newspaper. Reaching home he leafed through the thick classified ads section until he reached the section on vacancies in accounting positions. With pencil in hand he started encircling some attractive prospects.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Maria Cristina Neighbors - The Romans

The Romans

Attorney Angel Roman, Sr, was a tall and patrician looking gentleman who liked to dress up in a white suit. He was a professor in the College of Law in the Far Eastern University and was considered one of the best sartorialists not only in our neighborhood but in the whole faculty group of the university. Florentina, his wife taught in the high school department of the same university. She, herself, was definitely no slouch when it came to fashion. Wearing a pair of shoes with three and a half inch heels, called platform shoes at that time, she shortened the more than a foot height difference between the two of them. Wearing a fashionable shoulder-padded dress, Florentina was eye-catching. She was well groomed and had make-up which seemed overly done by that time’s conventions.

They were a handsome looking pair, though a hint comical because of the marked tallness of the man who at first glance looked like he was walking with his little daughter astride. They had a car, a Pontiac if I am not mistaken. It was seldom that you would see them walking to and from work but whenever this happened it was a pleasure to see the distinguished looking pair walk down the whole length of the eskinita, Maria Cristina, to their house at the end of the narrow splotchy asphalt stretch. It was a bit incongruous that their house, a well built concrete structure, would be alongside a redolent and almost stagnant open sewer canal, hardly fitting the image of an eskinita nobility.

There were five children the eldest of which was Angel, Jr. Though not a lawyer, nor as fastidious a dresser as his father was. Angel, Jr. inherited the dignified and serious mien of the older Angel. He excelled in his studies and went on to become a bank executive in one of the bigger banks in the city. In contrast, Roger, the second eldest was a regular guy who spent most of his time sitting around the corner of Maria Cristina and Espana to hang around with the other boys. It was as if he was accident spotting or waiting for something interesting to happen, something funny or something tragic together with two or three other boys from the eskinita. When tired of this non-activity they would walk to the end of the eskinita where the makeshift basketball goal was. If the other kids were there they would play “tatluhan”, a three to a team game or if not play “twenty one” a foul shot and layup game. These ball games invariably were played with wagers. They would play for twenty five centavos per player and the losses of the losing team would partly be given back to them because the winners would pay for the ten centavo bottle of soft drinks which they drank at the end of the game.

The prim and proper Mrs. Roman did not look too kindly on Roger’s mingling with what she considered riff raff in the tiny realm. How she wished that he would turn out to be something like his older brother who in her mind had all the politesse that is indicative of their stature in the community, a real blood heir of a Roman. There was no way this could happen. Roger was a stubborn kid who would ignore his parent’s admonitions even under threat of discontinuing his schooling or reducing drastically his daily allowance. He would even flaunt his rebelliousness by rebuking his parent’s in front of any body who was around at the time of the confrontation. This was a scene which I suspect was enjoyed by the neighborhood wags… something similar to what the readers of British tabloids get a kick out of when members of their royalty are in the news for some bourgeoisie indiscretion.

The third child in the family was Carol. She was a pretty looking thing. She had the good looks of what was as a result of the combination of the best features of her parents. She had a creamy porcelain like complexion which complimented her raven black hair. Her finely chiseled nose and slightly pouted crimson lips framed by shimmering black tresses seemed like a portrait masterpiece conjured by a renaissance master. Best of all, she took after her father’s height. Her tallness gave her an awesome regal bearing.

I was among the horde of young lads in the neighborhood who were spellbound by this magnificent creature. But, alas, Florentina guarded her with the ferocity and vigilance of the Beefeaters who guard the Crown Jewels. We were content just to see her perched and framed by the window fronting the basketball goal, looking wistfully beyond us, looking straight ahead the full length of Maria Cristina, all the way to Espana.

I wondered as to what went on in her mind. How could anyone look through a rowdy game of streetball oblivious of the frenetic movements of young plebeian sweaty bodies jostling amidst the noise of the rabble. Was she being held against her will and being held captive in a tower where she has been doomed to wither her life away in hopeless dismay. What dragons were there waiting for my sword to eviscerate to free this lady in distress? Or like in the fairy tale will she ever cast down her tresses (though not blonde) to me so that I can scale the perilous walls that separate us? What fantasies are we given to in our youth!!

The other two children were too young to have made an impression on me and so I am left without any thing to write about them.

The Romans will always be in my mind as a family who stood out with a touch of royalty in their looks and demeanor in a place where you would least expect it. Maria Cristina was not only a place of mixed demographics but also a small fiefdom whose nobility did not really rule but were given a regard befitting the rank.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Maria Cristina Neighbors - The Oasan family

The Oasans

The Oasan family house was near the end of an eskinita. It was beside a makeshift basketball goal where neighborhood kids played street ball from morning up to the time when there was still enough light to see the ring. In front of their house was the only sari-sari store in the whole length of our narrow street. The sari-sari store was where we hanged out for refreshments after a “tatluhan” (three to a team) game of basketball. Towards the evening, when it was too dark to play “21” (foul shot and layup game) we would settle on the wooden benches in front of the store and pass the hat around to buy a flat bottle of Tanduay or Manila rum and a bottle of Coke to make our favorite “rum coke” cocktail. The organizer of these post basketball drink sessions was Peng, one of the Oasan brothers. We would drink without fear of being confronted by the police because the store was isolated, almost at the end of the eskinita. A stray police on his beat would be easily seen as he turned into the street and we would have ample time to disperse. An estero that flowed through the Trabajo Market up to Dos Castillas St. abbreviated our place into a nice and tight community, an urban cluster made up of mixed demographics.

I have never met their parents. I think the older Oasans died before the Japanese war. There were six of them, a sister and five brothers. They lived in a wooden house with a design that was typical of the peacetime period. The house had a concrete base but the upper section of the house was made of wooden boards. Windows were framed capiz shells that slid on grooves on the upper and lower portions of the sill. The ground floor had wrought iron bars as a security measure. It was a two door affair with both units at the ground floor being rented out. The second floor was where the four brothers stayed. We had the luck of having our house and all the other houses in the eskinita, untouched by the holocaust that the American liberation forces' strafing and bombing of the city of Manila created during the retreat of the Japanese soldiers. The Japanese, who were ordered to raze the buildings they occupied during the hurried troop pullout, as the Americans neared, did not do so in our Sampaloc neighborhood. My father told me that our house was occupied by a Japanese Officer who at the time of commandeering the house talked to him and in a very civilized manner asked permission to occupy the house. He did the courtesy of asking permission even when he knew that this was not necessary at all. I think we all owe it to the civility of this man that our neighborhood looked exactly the way it was at peacetime.

In this wooden house lived four brothers. Their married sister no longer stayed with them and a brother had employment outside of the city.
The eldest in the Oasan family was a lady medical doctor whose name I can no longer recall. She was married to an engineer whose practice was in Pangasinan, a town in north Luzon.

The eldest boy is George. George was already an adolescent during the Japanese time and was conscripted by the Philippine Army at the start of the war.. He was one of the survivors of the infamous Death March where the Japanese soldiers forced the prisoners of war to trek the distance from Bataan to Capas, Tarlac. I presumed that he was severely mistreated, as all of them were, and that this wartime ordeal left him with dilapidated looks and lacerated emotions. He was an exaggerated caricature of someone who had experienced extreme hunger, exhaustion, deprivation and excruciating pain. He was a reticent fellow and had a pitiful demeanor that had all the indications of being shell-shocked.

After him was Felipe also known as Peng. Peng was the most colorful of the brothers and bandied himself as a self styled toughie. Many saw through his rough exterior and just tolerated his stance which at times was more comic than menacing. He had a resemblance to the actor Richard Widmark and was thrilled when anyone mentioned the similarity. Maybe he was just aping Widmark”s movie portrayals of being a tough detective or as a heavy in some films as he tried to intimidate some of the younger people in the neighborhood. Peng was also known for his being the resident Lothario who preyed on all of the household maids in the neighborhood. His predation turf was the balcony section of the Mercury Theater, a cinema house that was just at the corner of our eskinita.

Juancho was his twin brother. He did not stay in their house anymore but occasionally would pop up in the neighborhood to visit his brothers. He worked as pesticide sprayer in the agricultural fields in the province. The exposure to unsafe agricultural chemicals affected his health and died from an undiagnosed illness. There wasn’t much care or warning about the toxic effects of the agricultural chemicals during that time.

Nonching was the brightest among the brothers, he was majoring in chemistry at that time but I don’t recall him ever getting his degree. He invented a depilatory cream which my brother Pete became a willing guinea pig to test its efficacy. Dado, my other brother, swore that the reason for Pete’s hairless armpits was as a result of this experiment. He also had other inventions but most of them had dubious beneficial applications. One of his inventions was responsible for curtailing the proliferation of stray cats in the neighborhood. A concocted potion was injected on stray cats which caused the immediate annihilation of all nine lives of the unfortunate feline. Another application was the dipping of BB pellets in the concoction and using this as a long range toxic artillery. Chemical Ali, the notorious Iraqi chemical warfare expert, would have loved to recruit him in his pool of mad scientists.

The last one was Isidro. He worked as a mailman and everyday he would ride his trusty bike to deliver the mails all over the city. We called him El Manisero because of his peanut shaped head and his penchant for Latin music, notably Perez Prado’s band music. He loved to mimic Perez Prado’s guttural shout to punctuate every refrain…”aaahh, uh! A really funny guy he could create jokes out of any situation. He was a big fan of my brother Dado who was in DZMB then. Isidro had a short stint as a radio announcer in a relatively unknown station in Pangasinan. The signature sound he established during his board work was the distinctive Perez Prado bellow at the end of the refrains.

An extended family member was a dog named Baron. Baron imbibed the same beverage that his masters drank during the frequent drinking bashes that they had at home. Baron got drunk ahead of his drinking masters. When inebriated Baron would seem like he had a heavy leaden head and would drag this on the floor to all corners in the room. When it seemed like he found a comfortable nook he would curl up and plop his deadweight at this favorite corner. Despite what seemed an effort to search for a comfortable site he would end up in the same spot every time after making the rounds of all four corners of the room. It was a droll but pathetic sight.

These characters have their uniqueness, an inimitability that ranges from the charming to the sordid. They would be rich material for character development in fiction. Maria Cristina of my youth was full of these incredible denizens with quasi aboriginal qualities native to an isolated neighborhood in the middle of an urban environment.