Penman No. 122: A Meeting in Manhattan

IMG_5861Penman for Monday, November 10, 2014


BENG AND I were in Philadelphia and New York these past two weekends, so I could do more interviews for my martial-law book project and also get in touch with a few old friends. I normally keep a very low profile and don’t tell or call people when I travel to places where friends are living, not because I’m a snob, but because I don’t want to be a bother, knowing what it’s like when somebody drops in from the blue and throws your schedule out of whack.

But there are always some friends you never mind breaking your routine for, and who never seem to mind, either, if you break theirs. And I was glad to meet up in Manhattan with two such writer-friends, the poet and essayist Luis “Luigi” Francia and the fictionist Gina Apostol, both of whom live and work in New York. Luigi teaches at Hunter College and Gina at the Fieldston School.

The first time I met Luigi, many years ago in a Malate bar on one of his visits home from New York where he has been living since 1970, I remember seeing his calling card, which described him thus beneath the name: “POET. EDITOR. PRINCE.” It seemed cheeky and chic, and I was deeply impressed, being none of the above. (I’ve since written some middling poetry and have done my share of editing chores, but remain utterly unprincely.)


I had the recent pleasure of writing a blurb for Luigi’s forthcoming collection of essays titled RE: Reviews, Recollections, Reflections, to be published by the University of the Philippines Press, and this is what I said:

“Luis Francia knows New York and America better than many of the native-born, but he never loses his moorings, his critical awareness of what it means to be Filipino-American. But these essays are about far more than racial politics, as they chronicle the travails of that most blessed and in other ways most cursed of citizens—the artist, particularly the artist abroad, for whom alienation acts as a lens that magnifies and reshapes every little thing that crosses the eye. The most arresting and delightful reads are his portraits of the expatriate masters who preceded him in America—most notably Jose Garcia Villa, lover of martinis and hater of cheese. Despite the plaints, Francia has been clearly and distinctly privileged to be where he has been and to see what he has seen, and he shares that privilege with us in this well-wrought collection.”

Gina was my batchmate when I returned to finish my undergrad studies in UP in the early ‘80s; I was ten years older than everyone else, so I was kuya to all of them. It was a time when we were all dreaming of finding a way to take our graduate studies abroad—as English and writing majors, we wanted to become the next Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the next Sylvia Plath, the next Ian McEwan, the next Pablo Neruda, and so on; as Pinoys, we wanted to see America. Eventually, we just became our older selves, but we did get to see the States through one ticket-paying subterfuge or other—for me, a Fulbright grant; for Fidelito Cortes, a Wallace Stegner fellowship; for Ramon Bautista, an assistantship at Wichita. But we had to compete for these, while all the brilliant Gina had to do was to lick a few stamps and mail a couple of her typewritten stories off to John Barth, who directed the writing program at Johns Hopkins and who wrote her back forthwith to offer her an assistantship, smitten as he was with her talent. It was pure magic, in those pre-email days.

That brash young woman from Tacloban who flew off to Baltimore would go on to write several prizewinning novels. Gun Dealers’ Daughter, published by W. W. Norton, won the 2013 PEN Open Book Award given by the PEN American Center to outstanding works by authors of color to promote racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities. (Luigi himself had won this prize in 2002, the first year it was given, for his nonfiction book The Eye of the Fish.)

Here’s what the judges said about that novel in their citation: “You will read Gun Dealers’ Daughter wondering where Gina Apostol novels have been all these years (in the Philippines, it turns out). You will feel sure (and you will be correct) that you have discovered a great fiction writer in the midst of making literary history. Gun Dealers’ Daughter is a story of young people who rebel against their parents, have sex with the wrong people, and betray those they should be most loyal to…. This is coming of age in the 1980s, Philippine dictatorship style, where college students are killed for their activism. The telling is fractured, as are the times…. Not only does this novel make an argument for social revolution, it makes an argument for the role of literature in revolution—the argument being that literature can be revolution.”

These then were the two literary luminaries who happened to be my friends (or should that be the other way around?) whom I was happy to set up a date with in a coffee shop in the West Village, near the High Line (an elevated garden and walkway that deserves its own story, among other New York landmarks). The coffee place was full, so we brought our steaming cups instead up to the roof deck of Gina’s apartment a few blocks away, pausing for a picture in front of the late Jose Garcia Villa’s old place on Greenwich Street. “This was where he held court,” said Luigi, one of Villa’s acolytes. “Nonoy Marcelo also lived in this area for many years, and I did, too, back when the rent was 65 dollars a month.” Then Gina added, “That white place is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived.” And I thought, if they’d stayed here instead of moving to the Dakota, he might still be alive.

We went up to the roof deck and Beng and I savored the scenery in all its 360-degree magnificence, as the sun set in the west and the full moon rose in the east, competing with the Empire State’s tricolor spire. We talked books, life, and loves over Frangelico, bread, and cheese; channeling Villa, I steered clear of the curd. Looking sharp and happy despite a recent illness, Gina said that her iPhone’s Siri had told her, in response to a question, “I’m just glad to be alive!” At that instant, we all were.

Penman No. 19: Autumn in New York

Penman for Monday, November 5, 2012

I FIRST visited New York 32 years ago, as a young man on his first trip abroad, and I can still remember the convulsive thrill that I felt as I peered out the window of my plane from Detroit and saw Manhattan’s spires rising toward me, to the accompaniment of a Gershwin tune.

At the same time, I looked at New York with not a little dread, both because of its sheer immensity and also its fearsome reputation for harboring mobsters and hucksters. While I marveled at the Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center, I also saw Times Square and Bryant Park at their worst, long before Rudy Guiliani came in with a broom, and 9/11 lent the city the kind of composure that comes with tragedy.

I’ve been back many times since—with my mother, daughter, and sister, and Beng’s sister living in the US, we try to visit every year—and over the years, I’ve slowly learned to trust if not to love this mother and mentor of modern cities, holding my wariness in check just long enough to let New York’s many and unexpected charms seep through and permeate my senses.

It’s a tired cliché by now, but while I go to my sister’s place outside of Washington, DC for rest and recuperation, I go to New York for the energy and the excitement, for the buskers in the subways playing everything from Vivaldi to That’s Amore, for Paul’s Burgers in St. Mark’s Place, for the two lions guarding the library (Patience downtown, Fortitude on the uptown side), for the $6/lb. Chinese takeouts, for the Art Deco flourishes nearly everywhere you look, for the Housing Works resale shops, for the discounted Broadway tickets, for the Sabrett’s hotdogs on the sidewalks, for the muscular subway, for the parks that sprout up amidst brownstone and cinderblock, for the warren of words that’s the Strand, and, of course, for the translucent glass stairway leading down to the reverse-heaven of the Apple Store.

New York can have the newest of the new—think of the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini—but oddly enough, what Beng and I enjoy most on our New York visits is seeking out old treasures (or what might be junk to most other people) in the thrift shops of 23rd Street and the flea markets of the Upper West Side and Hell’s Kitchen. Sometimes these treasures even come free, shamelessly dragged in off the street on my sister-in-law’s block in Forest Hills, like that miniature wooden Christmas sleigh that I salvaged last week off the top of a pile of detritus (the polite Roman word, I think, for garbage).

Inevitably, despite our absent intentions, every visit brings something new. Two years ago it was the magic of dusk in Coney Island, at the very end of the F subway line and, it seemed, of New York itself, so serene was that velvet hour with the amusement park’s fun machines in off-season repose. This year it was a day trip we took by train to a small village called Cold Spring, up the Hudson River, after learning that it hosted a cluster of antique shops and was a good place to catch the fall colors, besides.

It did not disappoint on either count; autumn declared itself resplendently for most of the 90-minute ride along the ribbon of the Hudson, and exploded in brilliant yellows and reds on our arrival in Cold Spring. As Beng and Mimi scoured the shops for old buttons, bottles, and trinkets, I strayed into a shop with a small door that turned out to be a huge warehouse of vintage knickknacks—among them, a lovely black hard-rubber-and gold Conklin ladies’ pen from around 1920 and a marbled Parker Vacumatic desk pen from 1935. Having earlier picked up a Waterman silver-overlay pen and a contemporaneous brass inkwell from 1915 at the Greenflea Market on the Upper West Side, I pronounced this trip sufficiently penworthy, and contented myself for the rest of the day with photographing the Hudson’s color-washed banks.

Another novelty on this trip was my first walk into and across the heart of Central Park, which I had somehow never done in three decades of visiting New York. All that time I had contented myself with reconnoitering the fringes of the park, forewarned by a score of movies and CSI New York episodes about the demons and dangers lurking within. On the Saturday that we crossed the park on our way to Greenflea, we met nothing more dangerous than sprightly squirrels and latter-day hippies channeling John Lennon in Strawberry Fields, the corner of the park across the Dakota Apartments, where Lennon lived and was shot dead (a few days after I left New York on my first visit there in 1980). And how can you walk across Central Park without (again) George Gershwin, Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, and Liza Minnelli performing in concert in your dreaming head?

We had earlier visited the 9/11 Memorial downtown, where the Twin Towers used to stand; last year it had been under construction—and still was, to some degree, as the museum within has yet to open. But the two large reflecting pools were already in operation, acting like four-sided waterfalls whose constant flow—broken only, when we looked, by an almost unbearably theatrical rainbow—seemed to represent a perpetual dousing of the fires that burned the towers down, a cleansing of the evil and the ill will that came before and after the event. I had also been there in 2001, a few months before 9/11, and had seen the towers—had even gone up to the top of one of them on an earlier visit—but had no personal connection to the place. Still, I paused when I caught a name—one of almost 3,000 names etched deeply into the bronze railings around the pools—that was unmistakably Filipino: “Ronald Gamboa,” who turned out to be a 33-year-old Fil-Am, a manager at The Gap who died as a passenger on UA 175, one of the hijacked planes.

In yet another unintended irony, I’m writing this paean to New York from Lansing, Michigan, where I’m attending a conference and from where I’m supposed to fly back to JFK tomorrow and then back home to Manila on Thursday—but can’t, because New York and much of the American East Coast has been shut down by super storm Sandy, and I’m effectively stranded. If I can’t get back to JFK by Wednesday, I’ll have to rebook my Manila-bound flight, and stay in New York a little longer. That’ll be mildly annoying—but I can’t wait to spend a bonus weekend in Manhattan, poring over heaps of junk at the flea market, in quest of that golden glint that could be the clip of a 1936 Parker Vacumatic Oversize, one that George Gershwin himself might have scripted a tune or two with.