I WAS around ten years old when the Americans liberated Manila. Years of hardship under the Japanese regime were finally coming to an end. Though the air that morning was no different from two days earlier when the Japanese soldiers left, there was some tension, a hurry-up kind of tension intensified by crowd noise–the sound of running footsteps and of people yelling for others to hurry up. Looking out through the iron grill of our living room window down the looban, I could see our neighbors, young and old, rushing past the rickety wooden bridge to Surbaran Street and farther on.
There was Mang Enteng without his fighting cock. He was in his usual faded undershirt with a black cigarette hanging from his lips, running like there was no tomorrow. Not far behind was Aling Isyang, our local gossip, dragging her wooden bakya and pulling up her skirt to run faster and keep pace with the crowd that was now becoming a mob. There was also Conrad, the handsome college basketball player and craze of the looban women. He too was running. It wasn’t long before my good buddy Pitoy came and called me to join him.
“Madali ka, may luting sa Azcarraga,” he yelled above the noise of the crowd.
“What looting?” I yelled back.
“Just come. Maybe we can get ourselves something. A bike maybe.” Pitoy was firm. Living on the edge of the Tondo slums, we sometimes fantasized about owning bikes so we can go around like the rich boys of Santa Cruz and Binondo. We could even bike all the way to Santa Mesa to see those big houses we had only heard about.
“Okay,” I yelled again and by way of taking leave, hollered to Inay and Ate Panching who were in the kitchen, “There’s looting, they say.”
I then headed for the door. Since my father’s death, Inay had been very liberal about letting us kids come and go as we please. She set a curfew of ten o’clock, which we followed, give or take five minutes. My older sister was stricter in demanding that we tell her where we were going and what we were going to do. Inay said something I didn’t catch. So did Ate Panching but I only heard the last part which sounded like “lipstick.”
I left in a hurry in my undershirt, raggedy shorts and bare feet. My puny, lethargic body got into gear. There we were–two skinny boys, barely four feet tall, rushing to where everybody was heading, half-running, half-walking. As we turned the corner of O’Donnell and Surbaran, we saw more people heading for Azcarraga. In the bedlam, I lost sight of Pitoy who until then had been running next to me.
When I got to Azcarraga near Avenida Rizal, I saw men carting away all kinds of goods–clothes, radio, small appliances, and bikes–from the Chinese department stores that lined the streets. One man had a small bike in one hand, a frying pan in the other, and dresses draped over his shoulder. Someone asked where he got the bike. He pointed with his lips towards a store and said, “Duon.” He continued on his way without losing a step. I knew he was going to leave them at home and come back for more.
I went straight to the store the man pointed to. I was deterred from joining the looters partly because of my Catholic upbringing but mostly out of fear of getting hurt or getting caught. The latter, of course, was almost impossible as there was no longer law and order but I didn’t know that. To minimize my guilt, I went into the store after most of the looters had left. There was broken glass, furniture and garbage all over the place. Most of the merchandise was gone except for some broken and torn stuff. There was a loose bike wheel but somebody grabbed it before I could get it.
Being barefoot, I had to carefully pick my way to look around. I have been cut by a shard of glass before and it took forever to heal. In a corner behind the counter, I saw a stack of new calendars lying untouched. After some hesitation, I grabbed an armful and went out. At the next store, it was the same thing–ransacked, empty, broken glass and garbage all over, but nothing worthwhile to pick up. So I decided to go home with my calendars.
When I brought my loot home, Ate Panching blew her top. “Gago, why didn’t you get something we could use?”
We could use these calendars, why not, I thought. We could have one in the living room, one in the bedroom where all five of us slept on the straw mat wall to wall, one in the kitchen and even one in the bathroom. Besides, the color picture of the nipa hut near the rice field was really nice, I said to myself. I didn’t answer as she rattled off a list of things I should have picked up–the pots and pans Inay mentioned and the cosmetics she wanted.
I quickly took off for Azcarraga again. I knew I could do better this time. It was a good twenty minutes of half-run and half-walk. There were still a good number of people going my way and I blended in with them. By this time, the looters had picked up almost everything and had moved up several blocks along Avenida Rizal. As I scrounged around the nearly empty shelves of once glorious stores, I found more clutter and garbage than usable goods. There were piles of stationery I could use in school but they were not on Ate Panching’s list.
I caught up with the main crowd and saw a few things that would have pleased her. But looters were fighting and grabbing the goods from each other. I saw cosmetics strewn about but was afraid of getting hurt so I stayed away. When the place cleared out, I picked up a lipstick and a small powder case, put them in my pocket and moved on. At another store, I saw a pile of toilet paper rolls. I wanted to string them up but there was no string so I gathered as many in my small arms as I could to take home.
As I got closer to home, it felt like my arms were about to fall off. Toilet paper wasn’t heavy but it was bulky and made my arms stretch awkwardly during the long walk home. Even from afar, I could already see Ate Panching by our door with her arms akimbo. She didn’t blow her top this time. When I got within earshot, she said, “Toilet paper lang? You better quit your looting before you get killed.” I was grounded for the rest of the day. I wanted to give her the compact and lipstick bulging in my pocket but she was so mean to me.
“What will I do with these?” I said to myself as I fingered the cosmetics in my pocket. So I slowly dropped them on the floor and kicked them under the aparador. All the while I wondered how Pitoy did. I didn’t see him the next day although there was looting still going on. Two days later, he came to our apartment and yelled for me under our grilled window. He showed off his spanking new bike.
“What? You got it!” I said as I looked in disbelief. I eyed the cross bar where I could sit to hitch a ride with him.
“Yeah, got it yesterday.”
“How? I don’t believe it. Are there any more? Can you show me where?”
“Sure. But you can’t hitch a ride with me yet because I’m still learning how to ride it. Let’s leave it at my home and we can go.”
After walking briskly for some ten minutes, Pitoy turned to me and with a broad grin said, “Nah, it was Conrad who got it and gave it to me.”
Now that really got me wondering. Although Conrad was popular in the looban, he was no philanthropist. I had seen him give a bag of mangoes to our neighbor Clarita once before but that was because he was courting her. At another time, he handed a bunch of hibiscus he picked from the bush to pretty Sonya. But a bike to Pitoy? I didn’t believe it.
Pitoy and I walked back to our regular haunt behind the rickety Surbaran bridge. It was a clear spot covered by a discarded galvanized iron sheet. We sat on the broken benches and Pitoy told me how it happened.
“Remember last Christmas when I was delivering pyembreras of food for Aling Maria?” Indeed, he was. Aling Maria was in my opinion the best cook in our looban. I especially liked her dinuguan and her ginataan.
Several of our neighbors had their meals catered by her. There was Mrs. Malacon who was always in poor health and couldn’t be bothered to cook for her husband and two kids. There was Aling Conching, the seamstress, who was advised not to wet her hands after working long hours with the sewing machine. Then there was young Mrs. Garcia who wouldn’t let kitchen work ruin her beautiful hands, Cutex on her nails and all. We heard she didn’t want kids because they would ruin her figure and that was why Mr. Garcia, who was an assistant manager at Tiger Store, spent more and more time at the store.
“Yeah, I know you made a lot of money then.”
“Nah, that was only ten centavos a delivery in Japanese money and now it’s worth nothing.”
“So what happened?”
“You know when I deliver pyembreras to the houses, people usually left the payment on their kitchen table for me to pick up.”
“This time at Mrs. Garcia’s house, there was no money. I thought she probably forgot so I walked to the bedroom where I heard some noise. The door was slightly open and I was going to call her when I heard heavy breathing. I peeked in and saw Conrad half-naked on top of Mrs. Garcia. They didn’t see me but I knew they were doing you know what.”
“Yay! Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
“And where was Mr. Garcia?”
“You know he was at the store and wouldn’t be home till late that night.”
“Did you stay and watch? What did you do?”
“I was scared. I tip-toed softly back to the kitchen, took the pyembrera and went back out. I then knocked loudly on the apartment door and called out, ‘Mrs. Garcia, here’s your pyembrera. Will you bring me the money? I am late.’ I had to wait a few minutes before she came to the door in her bathrobe.”
“What did she say?”
“She said she was in the bathroom. I tell you, Tony. She is the most beautiful woman I ever saw.” Pitoy then told me how he pretended to hurry but went to hide a few doors down the street and waited for Conrad to come out. When he finally did fifteen minutes later, Pitoy sauntered towards him and asked how he liked the bistek, the beef steak in soy sauce, Pitoy had just delivered to Mrs. Garcia.
“What do you mean?” Conrad asked, his face a little flushed.
“Oh, I just delivered the pyembrera to Mrs. Garcia. I brought it to the kitchen but took it out again when I saw you were busy in the bedroom. You heard me yell from the door, didn’t you?”
Conrad, though proud of his sexual conquests, hated it when caught red-handed. He grabbed Pitoy by the collar and threatened to kill him if he ever repeated to anyone what he had just said. He quickly let go when he saw Aling Isyang some distance in the looban. He glared at Pitoy. When he cooled down, he promised Pitoy a reward if he kept his mouth shut.
“So that’s why he gave you the bike?”
“In a way, yes. You see when you and I got separated at O’Donnell I just kept going to Avenida Rizal and up towards Times Cinema. I was almost all the way to the bike shop on Carriedo Street when I saw Conrad coming out of the store with a big radio in one hand and steering a bike out with his other hand. I ran to him and asked if there were any more bikes left. He said yes but that I wouldn’t be able to get one because I wasn’t strong and big enough.”
“So how did you get it?”
“I begged him to go back in and get even a small one while I kept an eye on his radio and his bike. I also reminded him I hadn’t said anything to anyone about what happened at Mrs. Garcia’s home. Since that had been so long ago, he smiled, winked at me and agreed. He got me this smaller bike.”
“Great. But now that you’ve told me what happened last Christmas, won’t he be upset and take the bike back, or worse beat you up?”
“Tony! How will he know? Are you gonna tell him?” Pitoy was suddenly angry and screaming at me. “This is supposed to be a secret and you are not to tell anyone. Not even your brothers or your Ate Panching,” he yelled.
“Of course, not. We’re friends, are we not?” When I saw how agitated he had become, I added, “Wait, I have a new calendar for you. Maybe you can teach me how to bike once you get the hang of it. It’s a nice bike.” I was going to give him a roll of toilet paper too but Ate Panching had locked them away in the footlocker. (Hah, I knew I got something useful.)
Pitoy gave me a worried look, scratched his head and mumbled, “Putang ‘na, you have to keep my secret.” Though I was never one to squeal on a friend, I realized I had something on him. I knew I could now twirl him around in my fingers as I wished. From that time on, Pitoy began to give in more and more whenever we argued. He also began to say “putang ‘na” more and more when he got upset.
That was a great summer for me. I learned to ride a bike. Pitoy and I took turns pedaling while the other hitched a ride. It was almost as if I was part owner of the bike. We biked all around our neighborhood and even ventured to Binondo and Santa Cruz. We became the best of friends and we told no one about our little secret.
©2000 by E.L. Koh
This story is a BPSS original.