I dutifully drove to the big family reunion instead of waiting to be picked up, and ended up somewhere on the outskirts of Navotas before realizing I wasn't in Kansas no more. I doubled back and promptly got ensnared in Manila's teeny-tiny streets chock-full of jeepneys, buses, calesas, and all other forms of transport known to Pinoydom.
I proudly managed to locate Abad Santos after navigating blindly through the Escolta/Binondo area, but threw in the towel after traffic refused to budge after 15 minutes of standing still. Hurtled back down Roxas Blvd. and the safe harbor of home; only, the neighbors' Christmas party was in full swing and I wasn't enough of a grinch to spoil their fun by ramming my car into their infernal videoke machine.
I endured a couple of hours of caterwauling Christmas cheer before I fired up the car again and headed for Malate.
I've been a stranger to the bohemian district for months and months now, and had been meaning to pay a visit to see if anything's changed. It's also the last free Saturday before my year-end tortures enter maximum overdrive, and I felt I deserved a night out. No work, no internet, no nothing. While I love my fortress of solitude, cabin fever was getting to me. I just needed to get out and chill out.
The parking manang was so ecstatic to see me I felt like I was the Homecoming King. She must've missed my generous tips, the poor dear. It was just a little over 10 p.m. - too early to party - and so I sauntered off to Silya for a quick bite, and this:
My first beer after months of staying super-dry. It was strange how it tasted after months of sobriety; I harkened back to my teenage years and the remembrance of my first taste of beer. That bitter sting, the frothy aftertaste, the rush.
As I sat lazily people-watching, I was struck once again by how much pathos lives side-by-side with all of the eros Malate is notorious for. There were the usual street beggars. The guys selling manggang hilaw and kropek. That dark, beefy fellow pushing nilagang mani (oh, I'm sure you've noticed him.) A couple of kids came to my table singing jangling carols; I gave them my coins and they sang a happy "Tekyu!Tenkyu! Maraming salamat po, tenkyu!" before moving on to the other diners.
Presently a boy carrying a box of something came around and I promptly waved him away. He moved on to the other tables and I found myself observing him and the people who were looking at his wares. He crossed the street and tried selling his stuff to other people - with little success.
Then I saw this:
And I remembered this:
At which point I summoned the boy to come over and sit down at my table.
"Ano ba yan?"
"Kinse po isa"
"Ba't ang mahal?"
"Nagglo-glow po kasi ito."
"Pakita nga ng isa. Ipa-glow mo."
"Bawal po kasi buksan, eh."
Aw, kid, don't you have a display unit or something? Sigh. But hell. I was moved by the sight of this kid hawking useless gewgaws so late in the night when he should be home sleeping. And I remembered why Malate is Malate. Reality intrudes even in the midst of escapism.
I ended up buying a whole box before telling the kid to go home. He seemed happy and thoughtfully reminded me, upon seeing my camera and cell phone, "Ser, ingatan po niyo yang mga gamit ninyo dito,marami pong sasalisi jan."
I coolly replied "Mamamatay muna sila bago nila 'to masalisihan" before I sent him on his way.
A beggar boy approached the next table and I averted their misery by telling the boy to get one of my glowpops instead. It wasn't surprising at all that soon enough, I had a steady parade of streetchildren coming up to ask for glowpops. These included three little girls selling those infernal cheap roses.
"Wala akong pagbibigyan ng roses nyo," I said. "Kumuha na lang kayo ng lollipop."
Entire box of glowing lollipops decimated, the girls gamely mugged for my camera and went off.
Then I noticed my unopened pack of Marlboros was missing.
I summoned the oldest girl back and bluntly asked "O, sino sa inyo'ng pumitik sa yosi ko, hm?"
To her credit, she promptly frisked her mates and vanished for a short while before returning to present me with an unopened pack of Reds.
"Heto, kuya," she said. "Nakita ko dun sa kalye."
Unless that pack managed to hop off the table by itself to escape the agony of being puffed to embers by my lips, that was as likely a story as Arroyo surrendering power gracefully and willingly. But since my ciggies were returned unharmed, I brushed it off as just one of those things, and hoped that the girl who snagged my cigs took to heart what I said earlier when I discovered them missing and none of them - understandably - would admit to stealing it.
"Kaya hindi kayo pinagmamalasakitan minsan, eh. Binigyan ko na nga kayo ng lollipop, kukunin n'yo pa yosi ko."
To my surprise, though, the oldest girl bussed my cheek before they left, reminding me I promised to give them their pictures the next time I was in Malate. Getting beso-beso from a rose-selling street urchin was surreal, and I wasn't even drunk yet.
Ah, these nights before Christmas.