Luneta 4

I am reading the Luneta 3 blog, this was the first chapter of a novel I wrote in my mid-twenties. That was the age  I was full of insecurities in my writing,  something I still carry on today despite three decades of life in  the USA where I spoke and wrote English everyday. 

I have posted this mini-novel on the Internet since the mid-1990s at least, using it as my testing ground for different computer languages and frameworks, whether it be html, php-drawn blog, javascript etc; I  even published this on Kindle using a different name. I like being  anonymous because I lacked confidence as a writer. Also,  this story that was so far-fetched from my actual life might be misconstrued as autobiographical. That would be impossible given how good looking and sexy my protagonists were. Of which I am and was never. But then, readers always assume that whatever you write might have something to do with your life. The only thing that emboldens me to write whatever is that nobody nowadays reads the sort of things I write. I watched the Internet grow from being a tool of useful communication between universities to becoming a message board to email to text to, well, nowadays people can recreate and transform their lives through it. The competition for attention is fierce and intense. And for people like me who write long and tedious sentences, good luck to having any reader or audience at all. 

But then, I am one of those  who write stuff for the sake of writing. I’d even venture to say that it is a personal need, like a painter’s need to paint or a photographer to take pictures or a songwriter to write songs. We don’t care much about praise because what we need is self-expression. That is all. 

Looking back now, my motive was  to write something about Manila during the 1980s, a decade when the country was dubbed as the ‘sick man of Asia’. People at that time had nothing to look forward to except the measly jobs available, especially in the capital. The homeless people overcrowded  the smallest spaces offered by the city. Law and order wasn’t at its best. Corruption, crime, abuse of power were rampant. Hunger drove people to every form of con jobs, they robbed at knifepoint, ate and dashed out  of restaurants without paying. Scrupulous employers tricked job seekers into pyramid schemes, all labor jobs were snatched up very  quickly, and those who had no more jobs  to rely on despite their college degrees and skills,  descended to self-degrading jobs  including prostitution, hustling in every sort and way. Those who had nothing left and lost all hope, just stayed in one spot and waited to die. It was a bitter decade. It was survival of the fittest. 

 I find  the city today  a thousand times better since I saw it last in my youth. There are still pockets of homeless people here and there, like on the sidewalks  of Mabini or Recto but for the most part, the majority of Manilenos move as if they have to go somewhere or do something. New constructions are in progress everywhere, markets and streets are busy with foot traffic, trains rush and run in all directions. It is the Christmas season too and I made the mistake  of taking the train  to Baclaran. It was pandemonium in that place. I walked like a zombie because I could hardly move in  a crowd so thick and crammed like we were sardines in a can. 

Vehicles of all sorts shared the streets like all sorts of  animals roaming in the jungle. Stagnation that I saw decades ago is gone. Mobility is the rule of the day. Do I feel the city at its best now? Hell no. But I won’t call it the sick man of Asia.  It needs a lot rehab and healing, but sick no more

I stayed seated on my rock spot at the Luneta as the night descended over the city, the  people were starting to pack up; it is the holiday season and families traditionally gather nightly in this park. That is a Manila tradition. I feel envious although ambivalent in having a family like ones I see around me. I like watching the contentment on the faces of parents and their children as they huddled on their little carpets that are spread on the grass, but I may not enjoy their noise. I am so used to living alone in my house in Florida where noise is blocked by thick walls to allow playing only the beautiful music of my choice,  while  I  read a book or blog or even  program using  computer languages I like. Like what I am doing right now.  I love the zone of focus and concentration.  I can manage the noise of my work and my normal day to day existence but when the day is over I need to be alone and in peace. It is supposed  that total isolation  can lead to a lot of mental issues. Not me however.   I have mastered the switch from noise to quiet, from being surrounded by people to living in my cave. I have no mental issues as far as I know. My brain  prefers isolation and solitude. 

To be in a  family gathering  similar to the ones around me might actually  throw me into unease especially at a time of day  like this, which is night. This is the time I lengthen my   distance from others and withdraw to my mancave. It has nothing to do with mental issues, it has something to do with habit. This is how  I lived my life for three decades and sudden alteration to it might actually throw me into a mental crisis.   At this age, my tolerance is much shorter when it comes to  endless chatting, children playing, people cramming  too close to each other. At a certain point I need  to get back to my room and let my brain settle in quiet. Even if I had my own family, in fact I do have my extended family around me every now and then, I spend time with them as needed but I withdraw to my own room once the warm hugs and chat and gossip are over. 

I was orphaned at an early age. My mother died giving birth to me and I am not sure if my father willed it, but he died early with TB after losing my mother. Before  you start oohing and aahing over my unfortunate plight, my parents each came from large families so I was moved and shared between uncles and aunts all the way from my province of Balanga to Manila. So keep the sympathy to yourselves for now. Now —  my relatives were kind and willing to play the role of my departed parents but they were poor. They could offer me a place to lay my head on and use the bathroom and kitchen of their  houses but if there was no left-over from their family meals, which was barely enough to feed all of them,  I did not and could not  have the audacity to ask for my share. When hungry,  I often wandered  the streets, but not at the level of street urchins and waifs wandering the godforsaken places of the city, but close. If I had no relatives that offered me space to sleep, I could pass for them. But never did I beg like them.  

I hustled.

I found my way  to Manila Pier and used my muscles for lifting crates of fruits and veggies for a few pesos. Otherwise I negotiated with  market vendors in Quiapo or Divisoria or Avenida to sell a portion of their wares and merchandise, and hawk it to every passerby for a few extra pesos as my daily allowance. I offered to power wash the grime off the streets fronting the sidewalk eateries. Sweeping and dumping garbage, opening and closing stores, setting up tarpaulin as covers when it rains, I even sold flowers and other miraculous knick-knacks by the doors of Quiapo, Santa Cruz and Binondo churches.  With some money earned, I located the  cheapest food stall where I ate my meals.

 I  lingered around the city streets at night, alone and hidden from the prying eyes of the world while studying my school lessons and doing my homework, usually on vacant spaces that could offer me light, whether by the statue of Rizal or by any lamppost or any side of a restaurant. Sometimes I got apprehended by the park rangers or police or the restaurant owners but time became my friend eventually. When certain people see you in the same spot, doing your own thing  without harming  or disturbing anyone, they soon drop their guard and start tolerating you if not befriending you.

When the clock struck 10 pm or so, I crept back to my relative’s house silently like a feral cat, knowing everyone was asleep by then. I took whatever spot was available inside and slept there. I woke up earlier than everyone because I knew everyone would be busy using the bathroom, shower, and dressing for school or work. I left the house before their breakfast, I didn’t want to be around for breakfast knowing there is not much for the family. 

I went out early, at around 7 AM to my highschool,  Sayang High School in Mabini. If you’d see how I dressed up properly and clean, you’d never suspect my daily struggles. That’s one thing I learned since I was a kid – how  to play any role expected of me with convincing mastery. No one would know the reality of my life.  I always carried my knapsack that contained my paraphernalia. Clothes for school and clothes for work tucked between pens and notebooks and books. I’d be lying though if I’d say my anonymous self was sustained the whole time. Some classmates would find me roaming like any stowaway kid but they turned  their blind eyes from me, they were more embarrassed seeing me than me seeing them. I was sure they talked behind my back but who cared? People like me did not attract anyone, I was non-existent. Those times were hard, even some of them  classmates struggled against poverty in their own unique ways. That often gave me a relief, a comfort spawned by most of us sailing on the same boat. There were a few rich among us in school but no one cared about them either. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Many would blame the Marcos regime for our total failure as a nation then, but as I matured and now  looking back at that segment of our history, the economic destruction started way back, as far back as when OPEC abruptly reduced oil production that led  to gas prices  spiraling out of control. In order to survive,  the country borrowed money most likely from the IMF to sustain itself. Some of the borrowed money went to private corrupt hands unfortunately and some to sustain corrupt politicians’  lives of opulence amidst the squalor and disembowelment of the country’s resources and coffers. 

That was the gist of the reasons for my misery, of other people’s misery. I don’t see much of that nowadays, (or do I?)  the light at the end of the tunnel is getting nearer. Unless the current people and politicians fuck up again.

That is what alarms me the most, currently, as I observe this incessant and almost sprint-like building  and development of the city. On the positive side, it means work for more people, it means business boom, it means improved livelihood.  On the negative side, I have this fear stemming from these structures  rising out of Manila Bay that are valued  more for their aesthetics without addressing  their impact on environment and culture. I see this bay, which to me was a gift from God,  being partitioned and handed down to a few business people,  privatizing it in such a way they could now charge  only the moneyed city dwellers  for a glimpse of the bay’s sunrise and sunset. The bay is increasingly getting beyond the reach of those who, like me in my impoverished youth, could still claim ownership of the view.  I meditate on these things because my time in this city  was a time of contemplation. This was how my generation thought then. My youth in this city was spent trying to understand what went wrong in the 80s, why we ended up in so much misery in the 80s. It all boiled down to one thing : no one cared. 

Especially now with the popularity of social media. Everybody seems mesmerized by the power of the  grandeur of highrises and imported dolomites; everyone holding up their smartphones to aim at the best angle of the bay and the boulevard to facilitate the creation  of a  reel that would get a lot of likes and followers in FB( LOL) without stopping to think why this glamor is so concentrated in this Bay; why it seems to cater only to a certain segment of society; why it does not conduct studies on their impact on the environment; why no one cares about other places where these kinds of investments and structures would greatly benefit more people? 

I miss my youth when students gathered by this bay to deliberate and question whatever they see as change. That was a tradition started by the great youth at the time of Rizal. They spent their free time observing changes, contemplating and even writing about them. When I visit Intramuros, I imagine those old Filipinos who fought for Independence, gathering around isolated spots on the promenade, then strolling the length of the bay, with their canes and hats, casually chatting and talking about the state of the nation, about the changes;  it must have been an intellectual stimulating time. I hope we still have the thinkers, I pray they have not been subjugated by the idiocy and stupidity of the social technology that, like the opium of the 1930s, addictively  rendered people into complacency, sleeping themselves to fantasy and dreams while ‘Rome burned’. Where are the devil’s advocates? 

Ah,  questions, questions. 

There is a need, in every society, an advocate for itself. This advocate’s main goal is the general good. Perhaps there are advocates in this city but they are rendered  invincible behind the fences and tarpaulins set up to hide their truth. In a country where time is spent  more  contemplating beauty pageants and boxing,  a country who tops the world on  time spent on social media, it would be hard to look for the country’s  advocate. Pilosopong Tasyo and  Padre Florento were pushed inside their caves and made sure no one heard their voices again.

I did not change from my youth. In those days when the city lived on the edge of a knife, I sat down here at the Luneta contemplating what was going on. As usual, I was in total solitude even then despite being  surrounded by crowds and crowds of people busy enjoying what truly belongs to them.

Despite my busy life in highschool; despite the fact that I could maneuver my way into the hearts of people who let me sit by the lamppost or the statue of Rizal or lean against restaurants to get  free illumination to aid my study and  homework;  despite my mastery of talking and dealing with market  vendors to share their products with me so I could hawk them on the  streets for extra money;  despite my streetsmart ways of offering manual  labor to serve all sorts of businesses big and small, despite all that  –  I chose to sit alone by myself thinking and contemplating about everything when  all the hustle and bustle of the city dwindled  to quiet echoes and dying to the stillness and quiet of the night when even the feral dogs and cats and cockroaches and rats fell asleep.

People like me are known for this. There is the young boy sitting alone on a ledge or a rock or seawall. He is very inviting due to  his innocence and vulnerability. He looks powerless and acts like it. He appears to be an open ear where you could pour out all your thoughts to him, secured by his non-reaction, his quiet nodding. You are certain whatever you say would go into his one ear and out through the other.

That unfortunately is one assumption you are wrong about. For I do retain your story in my brain. One secret  I don’t share and dare to show to people is my love of writing. Tales that pass through my ears are captured and recorded; later written in my diary  –

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