I like it here.
Little cousins are scampering everywhere, everyone has bunny ears because it's Easter, the rain is coming down gently. Grandma's having trouble walking again, and she's leaning heavily on me, since all the Uncles and Aunts are busy herding children. I'm having trouble saying anything to the woman who gave birth to us all. Might be because Grandpa's ghost is walking with us.
The Uncles, and my Dad, are all choked up about the one year anniversary of Grandpa's death. It happens to fall on my Dad's birthday, coming up in about a week. The Aunts are the strong ones, loud and forthright, making their plans about who's bringing what to the next gathering and gossiping about children and distant relations while the menfolk awkwardly stare red-faced at their cold cups of coffee, trying to clear their throats.
And so now Grandma and I are walking out to one of my Uncle's cars, and I'm helping her not just with doors and stairs, but even just walking, just walking is toilsome and difficult for her. She's tired. Her steps are halting and fragile. She misses Grandpa desperately.
And then she farts, loudly.
And she smiles, and says, "That's Grandpa for you."
must wait till after hell.
I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete,
And none can tell when I may dine again.
No man can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.
See, on rare occasions, you'll be puttering about in the Library, not really looking for anything, when suddenly one finds something that speaks so perfectly to you, that captures it flawlessly, that even in the deep wilderness the spark of recognition will re-light the dry tinder of our emaciated little hearts, and a brief flicker of hope illuminates the wastes.
The poem is from an anthology entitled, The Hell With Love--Poems to Mend a Broken Heart. Normally, I would nod and smile and shelve the book without a second thought, but the book happened to open in my hand, and I caught the byline of a poet I love, and here was her poem, which I'd never read before, and now I remember why I love poems just as I do theatre, why the humanist ideal of All the Arts In Concert is so essential to who I am. And it's always good to remember who you are.
I'm a bit giddy at the moment, having had a fine evening holding forth on Art and Theatre with old friends at a bar late into the night, and so the magic glamour of passionate ideals still lingers, like the richly stale smell of barsmoke clinging to my clothes. And I've just been watching Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's Notorious again, which will always render me more punch-drunk than any quantity of beer could possibly induce, Christ on a stick that woman is gorgeous, and so brilliant it hurts. Hurts the way such that you always want more...
In Warsaw, I had myself a profoundly transcendental experience, one I know has marked me indelibly, and answers more and more questions as the months unspool. I know my own fanciful memory has imbued the actual events with some creative embroidery. These are my memories, after all, and the question of whether the events transpired quite exactly as I recall them, really doesn't matter in light of their impact. I remain amazed all the same.
I was in Poland, performing "Blue" with H2M Theatre and Stacja Szamocin. It was a very difficult work, as some of my previous entries will attest. And I'd just experienced, in quick succession, the ancient communities of Szamocin, Gdansk, Katowice, Krakow, Radom and Warsaw, and the Silesian Museum, and Auschwitz, and the Wyspianski Museum, and so very much more, all while touring a highly physical, deeply demanding work.
By the time we arrived in Warsaw, I was ready to leave. I was ready to leave not just Poland, not just the overwhelming memory of Eastern Europe, but my theatre, my narrative, everything. Wash my hands, put the chairs up on the tables, turn out the lights and lock it all away. I didn't know quite what this might have meant, I only knew how tapped out I was, spent of my passion for peers and substantive work, awash with emotions, lonely, indignant. I was tired of bleeding and timing and hunger and alienation, tired of being so isolated and out of my element, tired of being taken for granted--in short, tired of theatre.
[Auschwitz deeply affected me. How could it not? I have no words that will serve here. It hurt me physically, it penetrated my substance...]
Our Warsaw performance was our Closing Night. Any of you polyformites out there who happen to dabble in these infernal arts, you know what a terrifying relief of an experience Closing is, especially it's anticipation. Ours is a transient art, it leaves no monuments, we give everything of ourselves when we build our lovely sandcastles, and we walk away quietly as the tide takes it all away. But Closing--and, also, but differently, Opening--have Other Properties. Our memories of these performances tend to take on mythic proportions. We tell our stories around them, much like I'm doing right now. These are the Moveable Feasts, that change and hasten like fickle lunar cycles, following rhythms much beyond our limited ken. And Warsaw was all of this and more.
We'd been provided with a performance space in one of the old, vast industrial quarters of the city, still quite visibly scored with tattered remnants of the Soviet era, yet also incongruously marked with Eastern Europe Home Depot analogues and relatively new roads threadbare at the seams, like everything else Polish. Our space was a gravel courtyard in the center of an old power station, recently renovated into an exquisitely fashionable arts complex--a fully stocked bar with leather couches set amongst the rusting turbines, a theatre and studios packed in with the smokestacks and the railcars. Much the same way the Pearl District has been re-fabricated, here in Portland.
Outside, grey communist apartment blocks (with all of the rich smells of Paris' Metro) hemmed in the sky around and above us, into a narrow urban bowl. Our stage was built there, and covered bleachers held seats for our audience, in a typical proscenium arrangement, with thin outriders of seats on the sides in a half-hearted, disorganized nod to the original 'theatre-in-the-round' intention. (As I have said, by this point it had been a dreadfully ill-poised tour.) We arrived in the afternoon, built our stage elements and rehearsed, all immediately prior to the performance that evening, a grueling routine no matter how bloodied a Theatre Marine you may be.
I bought fuel at the Eastern European Home Depot Analogue, and built my torches, and the Wall of Tears, for the last time. We sang our songs, mismatched fragments of work songs from the Deep South and folk songs from the Ukrainian Steppe, none of which any of us really understood the lyrics or the meaning of. I felt them resonate off the serried grey ranks of windows, stirring people the way the wind stirs dry leaves. It was a bright, warm afternoon, with rainclouds scattered in the wind and the sunlight. There were raindrops on the stage, and the stiltwalkers were nervous on the gravel.
The audience was a glorious horde, the kind of Closing Night audience you dream of. Potentates and fashionistas sat side-by-side with country relatives. Extra chairs were scoured out from the deepest reaches of the gutted arts factory. The mood was expectant, smug, crowding and tense, everyone eager to see the kids the US Embassy had brought over, plus the ever-present tinge of vodka sharpening the breath. A wide spectrum of ages and dignities. For our purposes, a Perfect Audience.
At the last minute, our director rushes around telling us that he thinks the US Ambassodor to Poland is in the audience. Now, the Embassy basically made this tour possible; everyone's stomachs implode.
The show begins, and every one of us feels it, it's the Best and Bravest we'd ever done. The pitches were just right, the energy was electric, the audience was hushed with open-mouthed wonder, the colors and the fires were superb, the sun went down just as the first torches were lit, and the stiltwalkers drew gasps.
One of them, the White Bird,
falls on her ass.
There is a horrifying moment, when time stops, like when you're at a stoplight in your car, with cars in front and on both sides of you, and you're watching a truck coming up in your rearview mirror and you can see them not-slowing-down, and you tense to do something when there's absolutely nothing to be done but brace yourself.
For an endless moment, everyone freezes.
And then, we do exactly what we're supposed to do.
We who are nearest get her back up on her stilts (3 1/2 footers), in character, and then we realize we're supposed to be afraid of her and we dash away right quick. Meanwhile, the Bird never dropped being the Bird even when she fell, and this, I'm sure, is what saved us. Afterwards, audience told us how they thought it was all choreographed, it was so smooth.
And the show goes on.
By now, the energy of the cast is sharp and rattling, scared like roller-coaster scared when the roller coaster is lashed together with duct tape and there's an Indiana Jones boulder riding your ass, and the US Ambassador to Poland is in the audience.
We tumble through the scenes quickly, pacing ourselves into a whirlwind of heartrending songs and explosive masks. The fire tableaux continue to burn in our blazing voices and eyes. The desperation of Closing is burning in us.
I have a scene, where I play this Bear, in a brilliant mask and coat that looks like little more than rags until--and here I will indulge in a bit of a boast--I wear them, and I wear them well, and I am a Bear that both scares and enraptures children, and claims the stage forcefully, and holds everyone in my paw, because the art is pitched just so, I am an Actor that is a Bear, which the Poles accepted warmly. This night is no exception. I confront my antagonist, and he wrestles me with his bare hands, throttling me, and I bleed real blood from my nose, which ruins the art, I know, but this happened almost every time, anyway...
I die and I'm stripped of my Bear, and I'm carried off half-naked and bleeding.
And a scene or two later, I re-enter, as Elijah the Prophet, wearing a rag coat and shaking a beggar's staff. It's a simple scene. Using only gestures and half-grunts, I ask my antagonist (who has just killed me) for a coin which he doesn't have. He refuses me. Disgusted, I ask the audience for the same coin.
The first few performances, no one would dare meet my eyes. But by this time in the tour, like the Bear, Elijah drew people out because I'd learned to recognize this coin I sought. Some gave me change, some gave me beer, there was much laughter, there were bright eyes everywhere, it was a joy to play--and that joy, of playing, of being, this was Elijah's coin.
This night, Elijah drew out this Perfect Closing Audience only slightly. No one dared to tip their hands, as it were, in the company of the US Embassy and much of the rest of Warsaw's glittering diplomatic corps. I saw immediately that they needed something more to draw them out.
It opened in my mind like a flower. I began it even before I fully saw what I was doing.
My open hand reached out to the windows of the apartments above and around us, and suddenly our fiery world was nothing but a small, narrow bowl, but our stage had grown into the walls of the hemmed-in night sky, and the distant spectators in the apartment windows suddenly multiplied, and their voices grew excited and then hushed as Elijah reached out to all of them in turn, people literally coming out of their walls and crying out to us in our narrow bowl, and I heard sobbing in the audience. A pile of rags and a beggar's staff, and the stars came out over us in the night sky in Warsaw, and our proud, crowded audience was suddenly no more than a handful in the multitude, the lights of their open windows endless like the stars themselves.
It was beautiful.
The moment passes. The show goes on. Another stiltwalker falls, and again we get her back up on her feet. ("Yeah, when I saw that, I figured it wasn't planned," the audience member told us.) At the curtain, the audience claps in time when they stand, and this ovation is our highest accolade.
After the show, we learn that the Ambassador was not in fact in the audience, merely his Deputy for Cultural Affairs. We also belatedly recognize the reckless folly of gravel alternating with slick, rain-wet stage surfaces for our battered but brilliant stiltwalkers. That very night our cast breaks up for home, the Poles returning to their village and their cities in the south, the Americans for home, or, in my case, Portland, Canada, Berkeley, Vermont and the Philippines.
I fly west and begin this blog, and now here I am some months later, rehearsing, writing and creating, because of the taste of that Closing Night, which Opened something in me.
Most likely H2M is going back to Poland this summer, and most likely I will not be serving with them, which is as it should be. But I will always be deeply grateful for the privilege of that evening, as the months unspool and these other Moveable Feasts open like windows all around me, and the memory of Elijah wraps my scarred self like a pile of rags that becomes so much more when I wear it right.
I'm still rather fucked up, as the diligent polyformite will well know by now. As I said, these are only my memories, which are notoriously interesting in their workings. And not even Elijah can undo Auschwitz.
Those windows opening. My hand opening to the sky. Elijah's coin, in the eyes of my cousins. I continue to create theatre, almost as an afterthought, as a matter-of-course, for who can be truly lonely in such a multitude?
Thank you for reading this.
I'm ashamed I don't even know all the names.
But for starters.
The Grandmother holding me called me 'guapo' (handsome) (yeah, you know it ladies) and 'gordo' (big) (ahem).
The children wouldn't stop staring at me, until I looked at them. There are more outside the door.
When this picture was taken, I was in some shock, as this was perhaps my 16th straight hour awake, and there were many more to come. Me and two of my elder cousins were about to take an overnight bus north from Manila to La Union province, to see the Jimenez properties (see The Lawyer below). This was the first time many of these younger people had seen me, their Manang (elder). Even my elders hadn't seen me since I was 12.
I'd just been looking through old, precious family photographs, meeting the images of Uncles I'd barely known. Tracing the trajectory of their slender, florid lives in black-and-white, crumbling, greasy old snapshots, kept in crumbling, greasy albums that have the texture and patina of sacred relics. Indeed, they are almost the only relics the Jimenez family has of their past prosperity. These cousins live in the tiny space bounded by the walls you see in this photo, plus a few small adjoining rooms, none of them larger than half the area you see. And yet, they are lucky for their part of the Manila slums they live in.
The hardest thing I will ever do in this life, is to believe in myself. Easily, the hardest thing. With luck and much determined effort, I know this beast will be laid low. I'm relying on:
- The Ocean.
- Ray Charles.
- Images of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.
- Lope de Vega's play, "Fuente Ovejuna."
- My bike, a proud Bianchi Volpe touring model, built by Elven master-craftsmen long ages since, One Bike to Rule Them All.
- My Library card.
- Catullus' fragments, and John Donne's sonnets, and Elizabeth Bishops poems.
- My boots.
- Mt. Tabor, the only dormant volcano within the city limits of a US municipality (in the lower 48 states, that is).
- The Hawthorne Bridge.
- Post-it notes.
- The NY Times crossword puzzle.
- "Alberta, 'Berta" and "When I Went Down to Leland", recorded on the Parchman Prison Farm in the '40's.
- V.S. Naipaul.
- Joyce Carol Oates.
- This blog.
- Moveable feasts.
- String quartets.
- My barongs tagalog.
- Mos Def.
- Our Lady of Remedies.
- Son Volt.
- Nikos Kazantzakis (goddammit I need to update my What I'm Reading sidebar).
- Images of the facade of the Ummayad palace of Mshatta.
These things, and so very much more, are icons of my self, which is greater than the sum of my parts and only partially reflected through these facets. I am the only living being built this way. I have much work to do. Let's get it on.
Yesterday I had a chance to hang out with my half-brother, whom I didn't grow up with, and this was A Very Good Thing, as I happen to be a very strong believer in Communication and Open-ness and other generally positive, healthy family dynamics. Which the drive back from the coast perfectly provided for. I grew up essentially alone, and so there's something reassuringly (surprising? serendipitous? I don't quite know the right word for, 'pleasingly unexpected') about having a sibling as a so-called "Grown-Up."
But then today I get a message from my Aunts in Canada, and suddenly this other side of my family is dying and crying and yelling again, and I'm in the thick of it, doing my share, too, and it feels as though there's absolutely nothing I can do to make any of it better. In fact, I'm probably making things worse.
I asked Mom some hard, direct questions. About the properties in the Philippines. About what she wants. About why she never shows any gratitude or respect to me or my Aunts, who've done all we could to help her and satisfy her wishes. It sounds so stupid as I write this, because I have to remember that this woman hasn't spoken a coherent sentence in over a decade, and even before then she's always been stubborn and proud, and yes it certainly does run in the family, doesn't it? Of course she doesn't take kindly to being told how to live her life. The woman was a nurse for 20 years, of course she doesn't like being coddled or condescended to.
I suppose no small measure of this sturm und drang is due to living in two incredibly different families, and the strain and latent other-ness guilt clings and coils around my bifurcated identity. On Thursday I take Grandma to the hospital to talk about cataracts and narrow-angle glaucomas, and I debrief my aunts and uncles. On Friday, my half-brother, his girlfriend and I drive home from the coast, sharing dreams about families and homes. On Saturday I hear the news that an Aunt has cancer. Trouble is, it's (at least) two different families I'm talking about here. But there's only one me.
And I'm not even going to go in to what a Splendid thing Isolation is right now. (Every time the phone rings, I still hope it's her. Every time I drop by the post office, I imagine a letter from. I walk streets dreading and hoping to see her, and every day is a small wound that tastes of bitterness that I just can't afford anymore. Harden your heart, Catullus says.)
Mom, you're never going to read this, I love you and I wish I could take back some of the things I've said and done. But it's going to take me a very long time to forgive you, and if that means I'm an asshole of a son, well then, there it is.
Thankfully and luckily for me, thrice-loved folks like The Lioness have been kicking around in these unwieldy Polyform inner-works, and slowly but surely, we're getting there.
So while I work on this, enjoy the pretty pictures.
That's all. Back to work, all you glorious bastards.
This is my Uncle Jun, who hosts daily live newsbroadcasts, both in radio and on TV. He doesn't have his TV face on here, but in my next post I'll relate how I sat in on a live broadcast and went to a spa and drove through oncoming traffic with my kickass Uncle Jun, a great guy and a generous man of means in Manila. His sister, my Aunt L., works at the US Aid office and she's a rockstar, too.
We're eating seafood at a posh upscale Manila place, run by my Uncles' childhood friend Nicky (not pictured), who just the day before sat out back with me and a bunch of the guys, like a scene out of The Sopranos, and we drank Red Horse beer and talked about love and family, while the mothers and daughters played cards and talked dirty about the local cockfight tournaments.
In every film noir worth it's bourbon, there's gotta be a morally ambiguous, overwhelming, vaguely sinister legal presence. That would be the good ol' boy sitting behind the desk.
The others standing next to me are my cousins, and the woman on the far left is the legal assistant specifically assigned to our file, the one exuding sultry cunning.
Me, I'm the poor bastard with the exhausted, "I don't even know how to fix my own blog" look on his face. (Thanks, Lioness!) Plus, for some reason, it looks like they've been feeding me nothing but Miracle Grow.
My family is setting up a clearinghouse account in my name, but ALL donations will go to Remedios School. We need to reach $4,000.00, and to date we've got about 1/4 of that.
Every little bit helps. I've been to this school; we're talking about dirt floors and 1 textbook for thirty kids, the usual third world stuff, but they're also very proud of having put together a school out of scratch and of having built it up gradually over the years. The kids lucky enough to be able to go save up for months so they can wear starched white uniforms, as often barefoot as not.
I undertake to send full accountings and receipts back to you. Please make out cheques or money orders to:
Paul J. Susi
P.O. Box 3072
Portland, OR 97208
Sorry, we haven't set up non-profit status or anything like that, they're trying to start building the theatre before the summer heat hits. But like I said, accountings will be sent to you. And write or e-mail if you have any questions.
Welcome to my Family. You're a kickass, ghetto-fabulous, uber-magnificent mighty-mighty poet-warrior for your interest in this. Yes, you are. Don't try to hide it. Especially you, dear Lioness.
It's taken me some time to re-acclimate, as expected. I'm still not really here yet, I think I left some important parts of me on the Tokyo-Narita concourse, but no matter. There's rent to be paid, and lines to learn, and all this stuff to process through my manic fingers.
The Journey Home was a twenty-four hour cross-Pacific odyssey, as journeys home so often are for me. I mean, maybe I don't cross the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean quite so often, but I do tend to experience the overwhelming sensation of traveling home in long-hour doses. And, in crossing such distances as once took months to accomplish in a matter of hours, there's a psychic toll to be paid. This toll always hits me like a world-ending hangover effect, with the physicality of a kidney punch/charley horse combination, like what my cousin J. so often doled out to me throughout my upbringing oh because I don't know, he was in a hurry to get away with it before I GREW UP TO BE BIGGER THAN HIM (which isn't saying much because your average shrubbery is bigger than him).
We packed up and slowly left the Remedios house early one Thursday, with many detours for final farewells to Grandma's friends, much hand-wringing. Grandma now resembles a tragic Greek matriarch, she cries and casts up her hands the way I saw black-clad widows do in Naxos years ago. I hold her shaking hand and arm as she totters through resplendent mansions and reeking hovels, seeking out long-lost friends and relations, and then they sit and cry softly together and sip coconut juice, listening to each other's stories about dead husbands, brothers, sisters. I play with the little ones while we wait, or smile encouragingly when the conversation seems to turn my way.
Grandma: (Something something something)
[wails and weeps]
Long-Lost Fellow Matriarch: (Something something something)
[pats Grandma's arm, cries softly]
Grandma: (Something something something)
[Sounds like Grandma's dry humor peeking out]
G: (Something something, something something something)
[points at me with her cane]
LLFM: (Something something something something!)
[Both then Turn and Stare at Me, Giggling]
Me: Uh, right.
[Smiles, in what he hopes is a dashing, confident manner]
[Room erupts in laughter]
[Repeat ad infinitum]
We reach Manila by mid-day, where we check in to a hotel on Mabini Ave. to ditch the baggage train and do some shopping. I bought my half-nephews barongs tagalog, which my Grandma helped me haggle over (see below). We ate at Jollibee's and looked for toys and trinkets to take home for family back here, and then Grandma and the babies come back to the hotel to sleep, and me and my Aunt N. stay up all night, her re-packing and catching up with old friends and tucking in the little ones, and me re-packing and writing and wandering the streets of Manila.
I pass a pile of rags with various crutches and wheels stacked beside it. As an EMT, I look closer because I always have to look closer, and I gradually recognize the stumps of human limbs poking out, and the gently rhythmic rise and fall of deep sleep. Stumps, because I see no hands or feet, just scar tissue, callouses and peeling bandages, and crutches and wheels battered and smoothed by constant use. I take a deep breath and a long pause, and I keep walking.
Then followed the Epic Flights Home, which I will relate in another post later, because I have never maintained any regard whatsoever for the propriety of chronology and I have no intention to start doing so now.
One of the first things I did when I got back into town, after downing gallons of coffee to make it through the first day (in a vain effort to summarily defeat the Daemon Jet Lag in one mighty go of it), was to see a Trailblazer game at the Rose Garden. Because my father probably runs a drug smuggling operation, and he gets these season tickets for free. And because my Grandpa used to love to go to Blazer games, even though we haven't had a triumph season since the Carter administration.
And so picture this; a jet-lagged, hyper-caffeinated paulmonster fresh off the plane, reeling from customs and luggage and Manila and San Fernando and the Flight of the Screaming Babies (similar in cacophonal impact to the Flight of the Valkyries, except noticeably lacking in any beautiful Nordic shield-maidens), now plopped into an average American sports arena in the midst of acres and acres of middle-class white people working out their aggressive mass-cultural tendencies through a drug-riven, steroids-driven, money-soaked posse of ball players on a hardwood floor. I can think of few better ways to re-introduce myself to my home turf. (The Blazers lost, because Portland is dead set on being the NBA's version of the Red Sox 80-odd years from now.)
My roommate S. was gracious enough to come with me, and we ate hot dogs and ruminated on lost loves and cheered on every daring breakout attempt our Blazers made to reassert their dominance over the perfidious Indiana Pacers. S. is a great roommate, who is currently in Haiti working with Clowns Without Borders, and she bakes mighty cookies too good for far-traveling, air-weary, family-shepherding chumps like me.
And then I Slept.
I woke up and it was tommorrow night, and I had completely missed a schedule of meetings and readings I was supposed to do that day, and the Library was already calling me to shoehorn in more shifts, and suddenly there I was, in the middle of my life again.
And in the past week I've been swimming out here in the deep end ever since, seeing shows and gearing up for rehearsals starting next week and working on the Work Song project and figuring out how the hell I'm going to make rent, and talking to family about another Philippines trip soon (more on that later)...
And more pictures later. And more updates. And more and more and more.
It's a drop in the bucket for a Third World country like the Philippines, given the problems they're facing. But it's something that can be done, and it should be done, and goddammit we're doing it and that's why I love my family.
If you want to chuck some pocket change our way in support of said cause, know that you yourself will win much praise here, not to mention the undying affection of one who is descended from a glorious line of rascals, poisonous doctors, barangay captains and blessed matriarchs. Give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.
yours in foul-mouthed, broken-hearted, gut-twisted insomniac splendor,
You incorporate eclectic references to previous structures, both from this site and from the other side of the world. Pineapples, thistles, and aquiline nosebridges all show up in the friezework. You blend colors and motifs derived from wildly divergent spiritual traditions and all but extinct physical environments. Vaulted ceilings and a floor surface that varies in height from room to room, are both useful in keeping the interior cool. Maybe you build a bit lower to the ground than you would otherwise expect. You flood the space with flowers and open windows. Peeling stucco is frankly mandatory, and the wood fixtures must incorporate ornately carved bamboo and rattan extravagances.
Earthquake Baroque is my new favorite aesthetic. To me, Earthquake Baroque is Manila, a vast melange of improvised influences--jeepneys and charismatic syncretism and Steve McQueen driving and anime forcefulness, where traffic is a state of being, where time is savory and simmering-slow, where people of all privileges pack and tumble together in a city of crumbling concrete rubble, roosters and hens all scratching the same patch of dry earth all at once, strutting and clucking in their preening, dusty finery everywhere you look.
Bargaining, whether in the markets or even sometimes in the malls, always follows the same fascinating, hilarious routines, reminiscent of Commedia del'Arte performances. The buyer's face contorts with astonished, contemptuous incredulity at the mention of the seller's first price. The seller's face settles into a jaded, pursed-lip sneer at the buyer's lowballing counter. The duration of the bargaining then lasts for as long as both parties can deliver their shaded variations on these first two themes. Truly talented performers manage elaborate physical motifs, like the walk-away, the exasperated hand-through-the-thinning-hair, the shocked chest-clasp, the subtle shoulder-snub. Mouths and eyes flash with dexterous expressiveness. It's a creeping fascination to see, like watching matadors mate. My Grandma will wrangle every peso for everything she's worth, and even though she looks frail, she can be obstinate like a carabou if she feels the ocassion merits it. Me, they hear me speaking English and the game is over even before I try to play it. There's Harlequino, there's Columbine, there's Pantalone, and then there's me, the Chump.
I think the fetish for bargaining is another function of Manila's Earthquake Baroque. You wrangle for every sentimo because everyone's hoarding for the next coup attempt, or when Mt. Pinatubo wakes up again, whichever comes first. Manila suffered almost complete devastation during the Second World War, on par with Warsaw. And like Warsaw, the city was rebuilt in a frenzy of hastily mixed ferro-concrete; to this day basic city services remain nominal at best. The Fire Department consists of antiquated third-hand tanker engines from Seoul or Hong Kong, run by volunteer firefighters wearing threadbare gear dating from the Truman Administration, complete with vintage 48-star US flags. Tanker engines, because there are no fire hydrants.
One of my Uncles is a Barangay Captain--truly, an Earthquake Baroque office, which combines the attributes of a city councilman, a police commissioner, a fire marshal, a godfather, a justice of the peace and a tribal chieftain. He wears pinky rings and pomades his slick black pompadour, and drives a battered Mitsubishi with silvered windows. He doesn't have to obey traffic laws. He administers his prestigious office with a safe, paternalistic rigor. But should he ever leave empty the open hand of some dark street urchin, his little kingdom would soon forget him.
At all hours of the day and night, Manila is simmering with activity, hurrying up and waiting, roiling with movement and hunger and desperation. The smell and the taste of the air is delicious and rank, the stars are entirely obscured, the seawater of the Bay occluded with landfill, bamboo fishing platforms, forests of kelp and bloated animal carcasses.
We fly home in a few hours. I'm not done posting about the Philippines yet, there will be more to come on this, as usual. I can't wait to go home, to be alone again, to speak English without feeling exposed, to be able to talk to people without someone asking me if I'm married yet. I'm nervous about walking into a supermarket after everything I've seen. I'm hungry for Splendid Isolation (but I miss her so very much). I'm worried about my cousins and uncles and aunts back here. I'm worried about Grandma's failing eyesight. I can't wait to work in an ensemble again. I miss my books and my bike. But I already miss Manila.
Be good, get something to eat, I'll be back soon.
My Uncle Rem is named after Remedios. It is said that when he was born, the midwives thought him sickly and likely to die within days. In desperation, Grandpa sent for the priest to baptize him quickly, and on such short notice, they couldn't think of a name, so they named him Remedio--since Remedios, after all, is a feminine name. Perhaps thanks to their quick-thinking piety, Uncle Rem in fact survived, and now drives a Tri-Met bus in Portland, the spitting image of my Grandpa, right down to his playful charm and unstinting appetite.
This past weekend was the Fiesta of Remedios, and the whole tangled cluster of reed shacks and corrugated hovels lit up with bare light bulbs strung across the roads, and lines of blue and white plastic streamers dancing over the rice fields. Parades of ragtag marching bands in shabby white uniforms and battered antique sousaphones march up and down the dusty highway, stalling traffic for miles. A small amusement park with crude gambling stalls and the ever-popular videoke stands light up the night. The town market spills out into the streets, teeming with fish and baked goods.
On Sunday night the sacred images of every nearby barangay led an enormous, growing procession of devotees through the boundaries of Remedios, through highway and beaten path and secluded grove and riverbank. At the head of it all was a small, brightly lit, blue-and-white statuette of Our Lady of Remedies, borne along by a crowd of sweating young men holding its palanquin high over their heads. Every turn of the procession was announced by frighteningly splendid homemade fireworks.
As the procession reached the parish church, the throng grew to unbelievable size, chanting, dancing, clapping and drumming their thanks for a bountiful year of the Patroness' protection. Children and young men swirled around me as the Image of Our Lady arrived, and the trumpets and drums struck up an ecstatic cacophony. Debris from spent fireworks clatter on the rooftops. I cannot rightly convey to you the magnificence of it all. Pictures I took on my father's digital camera show a blur of lights and crowds, to say nothing of the strong fragrance of lilies and sweat that clings even now to my clothes.
The Patroness was then taken into the church, and the vast crowd followed, everyone crowding for a chance to touch the hem of the wooden skirt, and cover Her feet with sacred oils. The oil clings to the hand, and brings good fortune and healing, especially if you rub the residue on your injuries.
My Grandpa was once the mayor of Remedios, and so this Fiesta holds even more meaning for my frail Grandma. She waited until the crowds melted away, and put on her best white dress that she wore for her 50th wedding anniversary. We helped her into the car and drove the short distance to the church.
It was already locked, everyone having gone to feast on roast pork and gin and sing soulfully bad renditions of Celine Dion. Luckily, the sacristan and his friends all remember the family well. They touch their foreheads to the back of Grandma's hand, and open the church for us quickly.
Inside, the church breathes lilies and exhausted night air. The Patroness sits on the tabernacle, and Grandma slowly kneels and prays. We help her to the wooden hem of Her skirt, and she covers her hands with holy oils, and performs the adoration.
Our Lady of Remedies, may She mend all of our broken hearts and bodies.