Alex Maskara


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A Night at the Luneta Grandstand



Edited Grandstand
I am a blessed man after all. I recall my impoverished childhood, as a boy without a single penny in his pocket, walking alone on the side of an empty road because I had no fare money. I was either going to school or to my grandparents’ home to ‘borrow’ some money or rice for my family. That was oh so dramatic, like Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone with the Wind. I am not sure how I managed from that road to where I am today. I was miserable then, knowing there was no money, food was inconsistent and my future was unpredictable. But through a series of more dramatic events, even as the Lord subjected me to walk on fiery coals I jumped over, here I am.


I am a blessed man after all. I recall my impoverished childhood, as a boy without a single penny in his pocket, walking alone on the side of an empty road because I had no fare money. I was either going to school or to my grandparents’ home to ‘borrow’ some money or rice for my family. That was oh so dramatic, like Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone with the Wind. I am not sure how I managed from that road to where I am today. I was miserable then, knowing there was no money, food was inconsistent and my future was unpredictable. But through a series of more dramatic events, even as the Lord subjected me to walk on fiery coals I jumped over, here I am.



I continue my own life’s narrative as I walk back on the old Manilaroads after living for decades in America. I am blessed because I need not worry about money anymore and I can afford the fares anywhere in Manila. I can eat at any eatery or restaurant.



I was basking in nostalgia like other Filipinos who are pining for the days of old, arguing against those who claim that this current city modernity is better than the old. I would agree on modernity but the old was full of challenges that to surmount them would make one proud to have survived. I walk alongside the bay, which is easy to access using all sorts of public transportation. I used the taxi, LRT train. I hailed a foot pedaled trike when my knee started bothering me. The trike was manned by a young kid, ‘Where to?’ he asked me. ‘I am hungry’, I said, ‘Can you bring me to the nearest eatery?’



He pointed at the far end of the Luneta Park where construction was rampant, it appeared that the Quirino grandstand was being remodeled. I suddenly recalled a night I had at the Quirino a long time ago.



----



Eighteen (Chapter 18 of the novel Four Students - Amazon Kindle)



(circa 2006)



"Tonight", Rene whispered in the dark, "I will make them equal".



If everybody would converge into a single representation of a Maliwalan, that representation would be Mod. What makes another man different from others? Power? Money? Might? Why not make them equal in each measure? And see how pride would disappear. Then, nobody would take advantage of anybody because no one would allow it. Take Mod as an example. He is a dreamer, he is ready even to stop breathing to achieve his dreams. But he is being reduced into a worm because of poverty. And men of power over him turn into birds of prey flying over, watching and waiting for him to weaken and die, then an opportunity to pluck at his flesh, like worms. Mod doesn't know the dynamics of the city like the many others who came from their remote villages to try their luck in the city. All he knows is the hard work philosophy of degenerate barrio folks.



This city doesn't believe in hard work anymore. This is a world of dogs, of taking advantage and avoiding being disadvantaged. You bark and bite. That is a requirement to survive.



He was now walking away from Quiapo Church to Quezon Bridge to Lawton to Intramuros.



In the dark, Rene observed Manila pedestrians hastily crossing the street. Some were looking at each other with suspicion. Who couldn’t; blame them? In a city where crime and violence was a daily occurrence, it was hard to trust anybody. Women hid their money inside their bras instead of their purses, men parked; their cars where security guards were bribed to prevent theft without even knowing the guards were thieves themselves . Young girls didn't walk alone anymore for fear of addicts and rapists. He saw an old comatose man sitting beside the now polluted Pasig river. He could not; blame the man for choosing to die beside the river. All he needed was his corpse to be rolled; over to merge with; the pollution. Long ago, the river accompanied the songs and poems of lovers. The river was noble and innocent and fresh and full. Now it was dead.



He reached Luneta Park. This was the national park and true to its name, it represented the nation as its miniature. From the Maliwalan map up to the sea-wall of Manila Bay, assorted Maliwalans came in a fashion so varied, sometimes confusing. Besides a parked Mercedes Benz a young waif rolled down a plastic sheet to sleep on. Families in groups were a mixture of rich and poor: a giggling fat well-fed baby and an emaciated baby; a well dressed woman, a woman in rags. A man stood on top of the wall with closed eyes, clenched fists and tight jaws. Was he a father thinking of a far - away family? A family he must but could not support? A man who couldn't find a job? See how different he was from the man who stood by his well kept car, bearing a face of contentment, wealth and security. Oh, if one could just read what is in the heart of every man!



There was a commotion in the park. A mild drizzle that progressed into heavy tropical rain had started, over the green grass, over the garbage bins and waifs sleeping beside them, over the Mercedes Benz, over the man standing on the wall, over the man beside his car. Everybody started looking for a shade. Yup, he quickened his steps towards the nearest place that would shield himself from the rain; it was the grandstand. Soon, all the foot traffic was converging in the same spot where Rene was, water was accumulating on the streets, hindered by the garbage blocking the storm drains of the city sewage lines, it was dark and he noticed only the white splashes as the rain hitting the growing puddles. Some held their straw fans to cover their heads while others magically produced plastic bags for cover as modified raincoats.nbsp;nbsp;



Rene was amused.nbsp; The rain was always an equalizer. Was it St Augustine who claimed that the sun or rain spared no one?nbsp; Whether rich or poor, intelligent or dumb. The rain, just like the air, the sun or fire could not tell who you are; in its eyes, there is only you- no more, no less. But watch the movements... Rene climbed up the stairs of the Grandstand.



When it rained.



Umbrellas were opened, people ran to the nearest shades, cars started rolling away and those who were agile climbed; the first jeepneys and taxis and buses and trikes.nbsp; Rene stood silently on one of the Grandstand's steps. A policeman blew his whistle. With the bearing of a dictatorial authority, he yelled at the people, "Don't stand on the Grandstand steps!" The folk looked at him with askance, as if asking, "it's the only shade there is. Where the hell shall we go in this heavy downpour?" Nobody moved. The perturbed policeman probably read the defiance. He withdrew away quietly.



The distinction was made clear to Rene. The poor, with nowhere to go or who had all the time with nothing to do stayed here in the Grandstand - the homeless and the wanderers alike. The rich were driving away in their cars and other modes of transport to their homes. In the end only the homeless lingered in the Grandstand.



The waifs held on their plastic mats, their only property. And homeless mothers held their babies whose mouths were glued to their atrophied breasts for feeding. Everybody in the Grandstand was quiet until somebody shouted: "Who allowed you to stay in this place?" The kids who were just about to roll open their plastic mats directed their sleepy eyes towards the speaker. Homeless fathers, who by nature protect their families, held tight on their bundles and stared at the man. Rene, who was not really familiar with the place, watched the man with curiosity. The speaker was thin, discolored around the eyes, his hair stood like a spike up to the sky in the thickness of oil drenched in rain water. Smelly. Jaundiced.



"I want you all to know that Rizal, our national hero, is my cousin. Rizal, whose monument stands in the middle of the park, owns all this place. He owns this entire country. Since he is dead, and I am the nearest relative survivor, and whom he can trust, all of you, in God's name, all of you should ask my permission before stepping into the Grandstand". The kids giggled as they started to ignore him and continued laying their plastic mats. Men drew deep sighs as their grips around their bundles relaxed. Even the thin breasts of feeding mothers seemed to swell after realizing the craziness of the man. Rene became serious.



So it is all true after all, he thought. They tell us not to pity the street children of Maliwalu because they are the fronts of syndicates who use them for private gains. Where are the syndicates here? Who is the head of the syndicates? Is she the thin mother whose breast is sucked by the infant? Or is he the father taking a hold of the only bundle that carries all the assets of his family? Is he the crazy beggar claiming to be the cousin of Rizal? He trembled at the realization that these street children and homeless are indeed genuine. These crazy people have no institutions to take care of them. And how they are kicked around!



Moved with sympathy, he lingered, feeling as if, in accompanying these miserable creatures of the city, he is lessening their suffering. Or maybe it was his suffering, really, it was him who was suffering, discovering this life in the city existed. This Luneta suffering is far greater than that of Mod's. This is suffering emanating from the disparity of the poor and the rich. And he was just now seeing it in the front seat view.



When it rains.



More poor folk poured to the steps of the Grandstand. From tens, hundreds came running in, some were wet, some stripped off their shirts, women clung to their lovers, gays held tight their make-up kits; old women tied their wet gray long hairs. All came, the urban poor. In an instant, the Grandstand which has been the stage for politicians, artists, TV soaps and movie entertainers turned into the citadel of the poor. It was ironic in some ways.



He embedded himself within this mass of people. He tried to become one of them (because Rene's skin is fair and his clothes belong to the preppy - at that time) by striking a conversation with any of them. His focus was directed at one step where a group of five people were leaning towards a supine man, a woman was fanning him with a worn out piece of cardboard. Children around him were playing with bottle caps.



"What is wrong?", he asked, addressing the woman who eyed him with suspicion.



"He is sick", she replied. The woman, a little swollen in the legs, wore a duster that seemed to have been unwashed for days. Her eyes were eyes of resignation. Her voice is devoid of emotion. The man, who was aroused by his inquiry tried to prop up his body, to no avail, and managed to throw a weak smile back at Rene; he was toothless at a young age, his head was skeletal, so thin it looked like a skull. Rene hastily moved towards them, (because the other three were children, their children apparently).



"Oh it's just the flu", the man said, as if consoling himself. "This weather is crazy; a few minutes back, it was so sunshine-y and hot but look now, the rain pours heavily. I remember, there was somebody who told me that sudden change of temperature affects the temperature regulatory mechanism of the hypothalamus... Oh, I am telling you, the hypothalamus is a part of the brain which controls the body's temperature... I took a little bit of Anatomy in college", he giggled.



The wife's eyebrows seemed to meet, an expression showing how silly this type of conversation is. Who will be talking about hypothalamus at this time of night?



"Have you got some money?, she asked Rene.



Rene was taken aback by the unexpected question. He shook his head.



"Food?", she persisted. "My children are hungry. My man is sick. Trouble is, nobody wants to help us. And mister, if you've got nothing to help us, go away".



Rene was moved by this extreme directness, he searched into his pocket and found a five peso bill. "This is all I've got".



"Puh! What a liar you are. With your clothes and looks, you've got nothing but five pesos? Christina, take that bill from the man. Take your brother and sister down that stall after the rain stops. Now, stop playing with those bottle caps, you lazy mice. Get the money. Hurry up; buy soup for all of us before this man changes his mind. And mister, you've got that nice watch eh?"



"Stop, woman!" shouted the sick man. "Why are you looking at the man's watch? So you can start begging for it? You pauper! Mister, don't pay attention to her. She keeps a-begging to everybody, like she is about to die".



"Aren't we going to die anyway? Aren't we?", she bawled at him. "We started here in Maliwalan like everyone else from Negros. Thinking that by coming here we will become well off. We sold our house believing that the twenty thousand pesos we got will pull us through because," she stared at Rene and her voice became mellow, relaxed, "because me and my husband are good mat weavers. We can transform rattan into beautiful baskets, beautiful hats... why, I even taught these children to make dolls from mats. Back in Negros, they told us we'll make money through our skills. Department stores will buy our products. God, how the soles of my shoes have worn out consigning to stores without success! How my heels developed calluses in my walks. There are thousands and thousands of basket weavers here in Maliwalu. All trying to outdo each other in survival. We lost all our money to monthly rentals, fares and food. And my husband can't find a damn job. Why? There are countless job seekers like us. And so mister, here we are slowly dying in hopelessness. Christina, the rain has stopped, stop playing with those bottle caps and buy something. Buy soup; your father is hungry. Look mister, look around you, funny people eh? Well, well, well. The nice thing about Luneta is you are not alone here in your misery. Everybody is hungry here, everybody is willing to do anything to get paid. And look at you, so well dressed, parting a few pesos to our hungry stomachs. Why not pawn your watch eh? You must share your wealth with the poor, ha ha".



Eyes of different expressions stared at Rene. Eyes stared at his wrist watch too, at his preppy clothes as it mixed with their rag clothes. Eyes of anger and envy. Eyes of distrust and suspicion.



A whistle is heard. The policeman was back howling at the people, "Now, you can leave this place. The rain is over".



The families huddled together, children pulled their bundles and held on the skirts of their mothers. The mothers held the bony arms of their husbands as the men started walking aimlessly away from the Grandstand, they wandered around cars and stalls where they thought they could find a dry, safer and warmer place to sleep. One could not hear the grating teeth of Rene. He was pushed aside by the woman who didn't stop in looking at his watch. Moving away, he blended anonymously with the community of hungry children and wet elders who didn't care anymore about the rain.



Let me picture this forever, Rene thought. Let my country see this forever. He, like the rest, wandered aimlessly around Luneta Park. He looked down at a young frightened girl, who was carrying her own bag running frightened at midnight after the rain. And the glittering neon signs flashed at his eyes again, and the wet muddy roads glittered as splashes of mud swirled with the jeepneys which stopped at almost every street corner to wait, call and carry passengers to different destinations. He rode in one.



No, he wouldn't come home tonight. He will not get any sleep. He will not fall asleep.



When the jeepney reached its final destination, at the intersection of Avenida and Recto, he dropped off, to see once more the decaying humanity flowing through the fibers of the city. The air smelled rugby as waifs sat against the metal bars of Odeon theater, sniffing the compound wrapped in plastic bags made in Taiwan. The others, who were now feeling the rugby effects, dreamed blissfully in prostrate positions while those who were already savoring its final effects are lying on the pavement in utter forgetfulness... He could not understand the feelings emerging inside him at that moment. He felt like he was them. He felt like a rugby sniffer, like a dog who is content in smelling bones.



"Hey you're new here?" inquired a skinny man of around twenty, as his half-closed dark eyes stared at him. Rene nodded yes.



"Well, do you want girls? I have plenty. They are cheap my friend", he chuckled while his entire body shook in a fit of coughing that seemed endless. Rene shook his head no.



"You must like boys then, eh?" offered the man as he winked at Rene, attempting to seduce him. "I've got lots of them here. Young ones and they'll do anything...how about me?"



Rene leaned over the metal rail like a man who contracted the other one's disease, like a contagious disease he couldn't get run from. Mildly, he shook his head once more. "I'm tired", he whispered, and he was telling the truth.



"You need this stuff then", the other offered his plastic with rugby.



Rene declined the offer.



"Are you bringing some business?" persisted the man.



"No", replied Rene. "Why are you here?", Rene asked the man instead.



"I don't know". The man coughed violently once more. Rene almost feared the man would burst his lungs. When the coughing subsided, he grabbed his rugby plastic bag and greedily sniffed its content. Deeply and fully. In a few seconds he relaxed.



"Where do you live?" Rene inquired of the man again.



"Here", the other's lazy lips uttered.



"What do you do for a living?"



"Anything".



"Have you got a family?"



"Yeah, one wife, two kids", the man burst into laughter followed by eternal coughing.



"Where are they, your family?"



"Somewhere...they may be dead... maybe".



"Do you see them?"



"Oh stop being nosey puneta", screamed the man. "I don't give a damn where they are. If you've got nothing to do here just leave. You don't belong here son of a bitch."
2024-04-20 09:34:53
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