Penman for Monday, December 21, 2015
THERE’S NOTHING better we’d like to do on a weekend—unless we’re running off to some southern island or parts beyond—than to have a foot massage from our suki Tonton branch on West Avenue before taking in a movie and a Chinese or ramen dinner at Trinoma. In fact, we don’t even wait for the weekend to indulge ourselves in these pedestrian pleasures, but do this routine on a Tuesday and then again on a Thursday, whenever the spirit moves us.
Every other month or so, we do something special—we go down to Sta. Cruz (my students no longer have any idea where these districts and streets around Quiapo are), have a fried-chicken lunch at Ramon Lee’s, then check out our favorite ukay-ukay and Japanese-surplus shops on Avenida Rizal, happily carting home several bagfuls of glorious junk, with as much pleasure as we would’ve gotten from the flea markets of New York or Paris.
Beng and I cheerfully acknowledge that this must be one of the signs of aging—settling into a fairly small and thoroughly familiar comfort zone, and stepping out of it just often enough to keep things lively and to refresh the horizon. Or maybe I’m mainly speaking for myself, because Beng’s always been far more adventurous than me, especially culinarily speaking, and now and then exhales a wistful longing for some Indian food (which flusters me, because I can’t stand curry, recognizing only salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and soy sauce in the kingdom of spices and flavors).
The simple explanation is, ours is a generation used to walking a lot. And it wasn’t as if we had a choice. We grew up without cars—the richer kids had them, but not us—and even getting to the jeepney or bus stop meant walking. I remember, as a boy of nine or ten, walking from our rented place on Halcon Street along Boni Avenue in Mandaluyong to what was then Highway 54 (EDSA to you younger ones), crossing the highway, and then taking the bus to Gilmore Avenue, crossing the highway again, and walking several blocks to La Salle Green Hills (“Greenhills” was spelled as two words then)—lugging my heavy bag of books and notebooks, whose cheap unpadded leather cut into my hands. In the afternoon, I would do the same thing all over again, in reverse, unless a chauffeured classmate took pity on me and gave me a ride.
But as torturous as that routine was, it was nothing compared to the literally kilometric walks that our elders took. One of my favorite walking stories is that of the late NVM Gonzalez, who walked many kilometers from their barrio in Mindoro to the poblacion, where he could type his manuscripts in the municipio, making the long trek back in the afternoon (and when his contributions returned months later, rejected by some editor, his father would kid him and say, “Your stories are like homing pigeons!”). That’s a story I like to tell my writing students, who—with the fanciest computers and the Internet at their fingertips—will still sometimes complain about not having “enough material” or “enough time” to produce their first drafts.
Another story I recall having read somewhere involves Bienvenido Santos and Diosdado Macagapagal, who—as students of the University of the Philippines back when it was just on Padre Faura Street in Manila—walked to school together from their lodgings in Tondo. And until his death some years ago, my uncle Juan, who must have been in his nineties, thought nothing of walking the seven kilometers of mountain road between his home in Guinbirayan to the poblacion of Sta. Fe in Romblon, just to deposit the cash in his pocket to his savings account.
I myself took to walking for my health a few years ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes, and had to undergo a radical lifestyle change. Three or four laps around the UP Oval every day, Broadway blaring in my ears, quickly took care of the problem; I lost 45 pounds in five months (some of which I’ve regained since then, but my blood stats still look good).
But walking, of course, is never just a chore and never just exercise to the willful and the observant. I’ve used my long walks around campus as thinking time, composing paragraphs in my head, mulling over turns of phrase and gentler ways of expressing unpleasant truths (the sad corollaries of holding an administrative post). I enjoy the scenery—both natural and human—and store striking details, scenes, and vignettes in my head that I can use for my stories. Once, walking towards the Carbon market in Cebu, I found myself on a street full of sellers of cut flowers, in the midst of which emerged a dark, wiry man, bare from the waist up, heaving over his head a huge basket full of red roses—a veritable Charles Atlas, bearing the weight of all that beauty. That haunting image became the germ of a story I would title “Delivery,” the tale of a lie and its terrible if unintended consequences.
And many of my sharpest memories of my foreign sorties are from long walks taken on fabled boulevards and strange alleyways, very often leading to unexpected discoveries off the tourist guidebooks: a pen shop in Edinburgh, a Filipina hotel worker taking a quick puff from a balcony in Como, a pair of fierce guard dogs prowling the perimeter of a mansion in Johannesburg, beneath a copious spray of jacaranda blossoms.
So it was in this quest of adventure that Beng and I took her sister Jana and our niece Eia on a walking tour of downtown Manila a couple of weeks ago (a zone my friend Krip Yuson affectionately calls “the armpit of the city”), to reacquaint them—newly returned from many years in New York—with home, in all of its bewildering, exasperating, ammoniac intensity. We took them to our Japanese-surplus suki on Avenida and then to lunch at Ramon Lee, before essaying Escolta and the Art-Deco innards of the First United Building; we lamented the loss by fire of the old Savory Restaurant, but pressed on to Chinatown for bagfuls of hopia and ma chang (sampling the goodies both at Polland and Eng Bee Tin) before turning into Ongpin and re-emerging into Sta. Cruz and its amalgam of gold and grime.
It was a day well spent, much of it on foot, and while our soles may have complained, our spirits tingled with reawakened excitement.