In a Time of Ammonia

Recto, Manila, 3:00 PM

It’s not too often that I find myself freaked out.  Not that I got robbed at this infamous place, but because of the many things I found out about this seedy section of the capital city.

In a word: ammonia.

The long weekend, no thanks to the President herself, leaves me bored on the very first day.  Once again, I decided to commute to wherever the road will take me.  In this case, the train tracks.  After a lunch at some eatery at Katipunan, I decided to take to the LRT station and go to Recto.  After all, I have to buy a book for my sister back home.

The moment I left Recto Station, the rank smell of piss filled the air, so much that I just had to smoke.  As I walked along, the ammoniacal smell of urine grew stronger.  Then I came to the source: a woman was pissing right on the sidewalk like it was a normal thing.  As she stood up and walked away, you could still see trickles of piss falling from deep under her skirt.  Even the most perverted won’t go there.

As I was walking along asking vendors for book titles, I realized that I didn’t have the monopoly of questions at Recto.  Save for those kids tugging at my jeans asking for loose change – which I didn’t have – the enterprising cheaters and tricksters that populate this section of the Metropolis ask me to violate my honor in my face.

“Boss, resibo?”

“Boss, pagawa ka ng diploma?”

“Pards, transcript?  Mura lang.”

So I bought the book needed by my sister, and decided to walk around to see what these sidewalk bookstores have to offer.  Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed.  Maybe it’s because I don’t have patience, maybe because I’m in the wrong section of Recto, or maybe because this is Recto.  By the time I got to the infamous seedy bars and GROs who start hawking their… services, at 2:30 in the afternoon, I was entreated to “literature” that pass for “erotica.”  Right by military supply stores you would find all sorts of pornographic magazines and novellas that discuss everything from incest to sadomasochism.  Rags that talk about “love tunnels” and onomatopoeic transcriptions of primal coital screams.

Then, seeing it from the corner of my eye, an insane man was defecating near a pile of construction cement.

“Now I’ve seen everything,” I said.  Maybe saying it out loud sent the wrong message to a scantily-clad woman in a red tube top and an extremely abbreviated miniskirt, who asked me if I could take her to the nearby Sogo “for P500.”  In broad daylight.  Then she told me she needs the money for tuition.

That did it for me, as I walked far away really fast, huffing and puffing on the filter of my Philip Morris, knowing that maybe there’s no semblance of decency in Recto.  If there is, it’s very hard to come by.

It’s not too often I find myself disgusted by Metro Manila, knowing that I made the choice to stay here.  I’ve seen my own fair share of “dark underbellies” in this complex of 17 cities and municipalities over the course of three months: the motels and “dance clubs” of Pasay, the poverty of Commonwealth Avenue, the annoying traffic of Cubao, and the tasteless pomposity of Ortigas, Eastwood, and Makati.

I’ve always thought that whatever moronic report is broadcast on primetime news is merely fantasy.  Like murders, robberies, pickpockets, rapes, and the literal diploma factory that is the “University of Recto.”  I thought wrong.  There’s ammonia everywhere here: not only in the urine of old women and the feces of madmen, but also in the very souls of people who make a living out of whatever soul that there is in the bodies of the desperate.

And then you feel it stick to you.  I am a cog in the wheel of this abyss of skyscrapers and congested roads.  Every day – whether it’s work day or a day off, is a time for ammonia.

Paying It Forward

   I don’t believe in luck or serendipity or anything, but I’m sometimes tempted to believe that omens and good fortune come in all the right places.  If anything, I think that good karma won me my first job.

   I can barely pick my way around Ortigas Center, so I decided that the shortest route to the office building would be the corporate headquarters of San Miguel Corporation.  It turned out to be a bad idea, since I could have saved myself a few steps by not going there at all.  It was 10 AM: I was getting a bit sweaty, and my boots took their toll on my feet.  And I was damned nervous.

   Then an old beggar woman approached me.  “Sir, palimos naman po, pambili lang po ng bigas,” she begged.  In this land of tall buildings and John Gokongwei, she stood in stark contrast to the Ortigas trend of business casual.  If she looked that thin, I could only imagine the sight of her children.

   For the few seconds that I dug around my pockets for spare change, I think we stood in stark contrast.  There I was, dressed in the smartest way I could muster with blue jeans, trying to make a place for myself in this world.  There she was in her faded blouse, her old skirt, and her tattered sandals that you might as well consider her barefoot.  I was begging for a job, she was begging for spare change.

   With the five bucks I gave her out of my way, I entered the office expecting a nightmare.  As it turned out, I was only there to sign a contract: I’m employed.

   I don’t know exactly what got me my job, but I do know of one thing.  Fortune smiled upon me that day, and I’ll always remember that crosswalk near San Miguel Corporation… and that woman who got me my first job.

Memoirs of an EDSA

Beterano ako ng EDSA2!

   In the spirit of the times, I’d like to do my bit for Blog Action Week in remembering the seventh year anniversary of the EDSA Revolution of 2001, or EDSA II, sponsored by Blogger’s Kapihan.

*     *     *

   No, I wasn’t in EDSA when it all happened seven years ago.  That was January 18, 2001: I was a third-year high school student at Baguio City National High School.  After classes were dismissed at 2:30 PM, me and a few friends hopped on over to the UP Baguio campus and joined the protest.  I rallied ober da bakod: I gave up a game of CounterStrike and gave mettle, testicle and principle to join the people in what was then tagged as a “revolution.”  For that time, I was an honorary “Iskolar ng Bayan.”

   Along with the UP students who walked out of their class, we marched down Harrison Road, up to Session Road, and stayed at Malcolm Square for a while.  We went back to UP for as long as it took for Joseph Estrada to get on his boat at the Pasig River and row off into the sunset.

   In a way, I powered EDSA II.

   EDSA II was everything an EDSA should not be: it was a concert, it was a backlash sponsored by elites, it was a mobocracy disguised as revolution, it was the insurrection that damaged our democratic institutions for years to come.  But I didn’t see that when I joined the pro-EDSA rallies here seven years back.  I fought for something more important than deposing a corrupt President: I fought for my future.  I fought for a future that was supposed to be decided by exposing the errors and excesses of Estrada’s administration, by opening the second manila envelope, by going out there demanding change.  I fought for a brighter future: brighter than the smile in Tessie Oreta’s face when she danced that little jig that nailed the door shut for a legal way to get rid of Erap.

   The future doesn’t seem so bright anymore than I imagined back then.  Seven years into that future, there seems to be a good reason for us to go back to EDSA and oust Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  Gloria was not only the Constitutional successor of Estrada: she was, whether we like it or not, the symbol of EDSA II.  But as much as I’d like to say that she betrayed EDSA and became a symbol of something else, it doesn’t work that way anymore.

   EDSA – like democracy and freedom – is a perspective.  It’s not just that major thoroughfare usually associated with traffic and red banners.  EDSA is not a noun that denotes an avenue named after a great journalist and a great hero, nor is it a verb that denotes the uniquely Filipino way of deposing a President.  EDSA represents our hope for a better future: the reason why the Filipino went to EDSA three times is not because of the desire to depose a President or the desire to see Nora Aunor in person, but the desire for change.  It is the perspective framed by hope.  That there’s something better out there for us.  That we will fight for that future, and we have a big road to do it in.

   Do I regret “powering” EDSA II?  I should: after all, if it weren’t for me joining that chorus of ousting Erap, we would perhaps be in better straits right now.  But at the same time, I don’t: I joined EDSA II because I believed that I deserved something better.  I fought for what was my future then, and today’s here-and-now.  Granted that I didn’t know what was at store for me when I wrote my own history, but at the very least, I took a stand.  I have something to tell my children in the future: that I gambled on EDSA II for the hope for a better future.

   No, you won’t see me in the streets rallying for a President’s ouster anytime soon.  Too many people look at EDSA from a different perspective, and there are as many interpretations of the “EDSA Spirit” as there are vehicles traversing EDSA on any given day.  But if EDSA is called in the hope of a better future – if we are all called to EDSA to demand the democracy that is rightfully ours – I will see you there.

   But what we need is more than just a road.  We need more than just an alternative President.  We need perspective.  The spirit of EDSA resides not in the politicians, not in the celebrities, not in the styrofoam containers of free food.  We, the people, are EDSA.

   Seven years ago, I didn’t just join EDSA.  I was EDSA.


   If anything, my brief episodes in Psych Ward taught me a valuable lesson on complaining: there are men without shoes, and there are men without feet.  In that imposing structure of concrete and iron bars, there is a lesson to be learned in handling the weight of the world.

   Every time I go there, I rub shoulders and share prescription pads with the poor, who take the brunt of mental illness in the country.  I know some of their stories: depressives who became so because of defeat, maniacs who became so because they were misguided, and schizophrenics like me who were dealt what seems to be the wrong hand.  I know how some of them attempt to pay the psychiatrist’s free services: in baskets.  There are baskets of bananas, baskets of lowland vegetables, baskets of dried fish.

   Before the building of the Department of Psychiatry was finished, there was an informal economy that revolved around baskets in the hospital: hawking.  You would think that the old woman selling kakanin and vegetables for pinakbet is only doing it for extra cash, but then after a day’s worth of making the rounds and selling at the hospital perimeter is done, you would see her sitting down on the benches for a prescription for her sick son.  Her apron is half-full – or half-empty – with coins and twenty-peso bills: hopefully enough for that pink pill that would save her son the indignity of dog’s chains.

   From what I recall, I never did once see a new basket.  They were old ones: the kind of kamalig worn from trips between mango trees and the market.  And then I wonder why: these are hard-working people who are worked enough to die of their own labor.  Why them?  Then I realized why.

   Nobody in Psych Ward’s outpatient department ever opened up a hand for a handout: there’s always a hand up.  There were always questions about work to be done, like construction work or laundry.  You would see calloused hands everywhere: fresh wounds from fresh work.  These are hands that would be worn to stumps given the sledgehammers and scrubbing boards that would buy the lifetime medication necessary for the sick to have a normal life.

   Why them?  Heck, why not?  Life was never the fairest of bosses.  They’re here pushing around baskets, and whoring themselves to whatever economic prostitution there is in building houses or taking in some lazy family’s laundry.  They’re here: whether they deserved it or not, whether it is a punishment for some long-lost sin or not, is out of the question.  It’s never the question.  What matters is the here-and-now.

   Then it hit me: I thought I had it bad when my hallucinations were diagnosed not to be a “third eye,” but an extreme illness.  I thought I had it bad when I figured how much it was going to cost to “heal” me.  But as I looked around, I realized how bad and extreme I had it compared to these people.  They are decent people: hard workers who tilled the fields and cast the nets to earn a decent living, and here comes one of those challenges people wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies.  And I don’t pay in baskets: cold, hard cash passes through the cashier’s window.  So what do I have to complain about?

   The weight of the world, as I always thought it to be, was that everyone carries crosses.  But when someone carries your cross for you, there really isn’t a weight to speak of.  Not a damn pound.