And now for something completely different.
I finally ran into a photoblog which accurately conveys something of the landscape in certain scenes of my novel, No Way In. The My Sari-sari Store site is a treasure-house of images that capture a world that very few people, least of all the better sort of indigenes, will ever know. The photoblog is subtitled Happyland: a look into the world of the utterly, utterly poor. That is a title of genius which could only have been generated by somebody who truly “knows” that millieu and can be used to describe the entire civilization of the islands. It is not entirely facetious. The people who live in Happyland feel the same sorrow, but also the same joy that every human being feels.
“Sa Tondo man, ay may langit din” is code phrase which means that “we too can reach heaven” and is often uttered in an undertone to assert a fundamental equality of humanity with those who zip by in automobiles. It is the key to deciphering the us versus them dynamic of a Third World society of which the diplomatic set usually knows only the upper crust. The people eating the food salvaged from dumpsters, or living off the trash are brothers in their own way, to the poor in Cairo and those who want a better life. That is the half we should get to know if we want to understand what the societies of our “allies” are really built on. There is value to running around with the English speaking elite, and swap stories of common memories at Georgetown, but it is the people of Happyland, who, in whatever language, make up the bulk of those who are aspirational.
Better is a relative term. To inhabitants of Happyland, a tarpaper shack would be a mansion. Half a sandwich that wasn’t pulled out of a trashcan would be a feast. I remember being shown around Harlem in 1982. I found it hard to feign shock. Maybe there was unhappiness and sorrow there too, but no more or less than in Happyland.
To some extent the readers of the Belmont Club and those who’ve read the novel have gotten a glimpse into a world which some native born Filipinos don’t even know exists, in the asides of the comments or sometimes in the subject of the posts themselves. Not that it matters, but it’s interesting. And the novel itself is a reminder of how effective an operator who can move naturally among the lowest of the low can be. The baleful influence of the Belmont Club has apparently extended even to the redoubtable Ed Driscoll, whose latest blog is titled — wait for it — Sigue-sigue Sputnik.
Ed Driscoll’s post is about the Sputnik moment in the President’s State of the Union Speech. But I guess it is a hat tip to the Sigue-sigue, which as some of you readers may remember, were the street gang that was happy to call me one of their own. They were divided into two factions, the Sigue-sigue Commando, whose symbol was the Wildcat, and the Sigue-sigue Sputnik, whose heraldry runs to a planet rampant on a field of dirty skin. “Texas” — which was what they called me — was a Wildcat having the distinction of being cuerna — there, that’s another word — meaning able to get by with no tattoo.
The photos are great. They are not compositions of pity, but depictions of people whose sufferings while not to be underestimated have a humanity that is not undervalued. I am particularly grateful to Happyland photos for depictions of scavenging, which readers will remember from the book. Note this scavenging is the genteel stuff, not the hard core demonic scene that characterized Smokey Mountain.
For those of the readers of my novel who wondered how much of the Tondo I described was real, the answer is that it was all real. Even the Boteng Umiilaw. You may remember the scene:
As they crossed the walkway over the rusty bridge, she glanced down at the meat works below. The stench of decaying flesh rose from it. There was a small building to one side of the abattoir from which jangling music still issued, even at that late, stormy hour. A door opened in the side of the building and in the flare of red light some men could be seen stumbling out.
“That’s the Boteng Umiilaw – the Blinking Bottle – a bar for slaughterhouse workers and petty criminals,” Alex said. He scarcely gave it a glance. “They drink mostly Marca Demonyo gin down there, the one with the label showing St. Michael and Satan fighting for the soul of man.”
Justine looked back down at the Boteng Umiilaw and wondered how Alex knew about it. “Have you ever been there?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said, “and didn’t quite fit in. Maybe I’ll keep coming back until I do.”
And of course Alex always did fit in, but he didn’t know it then. And that jangling music that he heard, the one blaring from jukebox under a 25-watt incandescent bulb? I found even that. On YouTube.