Chapter 53 – Beggars Banquet
Following hours of sipping on beers and reveling in the bloodshed of the real life Mortal Kombat at Makati Coliseum, I returned to my hostel for a brief afternoon nap. When I awoke, I headed over to a section of Manila Bay which runs alongside an eight-lane thoroughfare called Roxas Boulevard from where I planned to watch the sun set over the water.
The area where I posted up had been somewhere near the old Spanish city of Intramuros on a long, clean, paved baywalk flanked by new-looking skyscrapers. Along this path that’d been being used by bicyclists, joggers and tourists alike had been equidistantly interspersed concrete planters housing a line of palm trees that stretched as far as the eye could see. After grabbing a popsicle and a bottle of water from some guy operating a mobile snack cart, I posted up on one of the aforementioned planters next to a wealthier looking Filipino woman in designer brands who’d been getting a pedicure from some plebian. As I sat there licking my lemon-lime flavored frozen-ass treat, waiting for the sun to dip down behind the silhouettes of massive ocean liners out in the harbor, some skinny dude who looked like he was about forty-years-old give or take came up and popped a squat right next to me.
“Hey,” he said then pointed at the two women to my side, “are you next in line to get a pedicure?”
“Nah,” I said. “That’s not really my style.”
“Oh c’mon, you gotta get a pedicure,” he joked. “Look how glamorous her nails look. Don’t you want yours to look like that?”
“Nah man, I’m good. You can go ahead and get your nails done if you want. I kinda just wanna sit here and watch the sunset with my bottle o’ water.”
“No,” he shook his head, “that stuff’s not for me either. But what I do like to do is practice my English by having conversations with native speakers. Is it okay with you if I hang out and chat for a while?”
“Yeah, sure, go for it. But from what I can tell your English doesn’t need much practicing.”
“Thank you,” he smiled, “but there’s always room for improvement.”
“I suppose,” I nodded.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, Chicago. It’s wintertime there right now, isn’t it?”
“So, are you working here or are you on holiday?”
“Uh huh. And how long is your holiday here?”
“This is my last night. I fly back tomorrow afternoon around one or two.”
“Are you from around here?”
“Yes, I’m from the Philippines but not Manila. I came here many years ago to go to school.”
“Oh yeah? What’d you study?”
“I tried for business but I was unable to finish my education.”
“Well, my parents died in a car crash and I had to support my younger sister so she could go to school,” he said. “For that reason, I had to quit and get a job.”
“Hmm. I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied before attempting a change of subject. “So what are you doing nowadays?”
“I’m just looking for work, but it’s hard to find a steady job.”
“Yeah, I hear ya.”
“What is your job in Chicago?”
“I wash windows with my dad. It’s too cold to work right now, so I thought I’d take a vacation until it warms up.”
“Wash windows – on high buildings like those?” he asked, pointing to the nearby skyscrapers.
“Nah, just houses of the affluent.”
For the next three or four minutes, we sat in silence, eyes locked on the fiery sky. During this time, some equally skinny woman of about the same age came up and sat on the other side of this dude. She’d been wearing a dirty white T with a Wheel of Fortune style, Vanna-TV-touchin’ game board printed on it that read “B_Y M_ A DR_NK.” She said something clearly directed towards my fellow discourser in Tagalog but he pretended not to notice and continued looking out over the water. The chick got up, walked away to another flower box, took a seat over there and kept glancing over in our direction.
“So,” the guy ended the conversational drought, “how you like that sunset? Manila Bay sunsets are world famous, you know.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty nice.”
He nodded in agreement.
“So, have you been eating a lot of fresh Filipino seafood while here?”
“I’m not gonna lie to you. I’ve been feeling really homesick this past week so I’ve been eating McDonald’s and other shit like that. I’ve been feeling too messed up to wanna try anything new.”
“What!? You come all the way to the Philippines and haven’t tried the food? That’s crazy!”
“Well, come on,” he added, “you gotta try some of the local cuisine before you go back to Chicago.”
I shrugged again.
“Okay,” he said, “how ‘bout this? There’s this place nearby with really fresh seafood. I could take you there and introduce you to all the great Filipino dishes so you can return home not feeling like you missed out on anything. How does that sound?”
I looked at him as he eagerly anticipated my answer and then over at the woman in the Wheel of Fortune T on the nearby flowerbox who’d been staring over at us until I’d glanced at her and she quickly turned her head away.
“Eh, maybe,” I said, thinking of how I could figure out what this dude was all about. “So, where’d you learn to speak English so well?”
“I learned my English from a friend I have that is just like you. His name is Luke and he was part of the United States Army. He liked to travel just like you do and he’d pay for me to go places with him.”
“Okay,” I looked back out over the water.
“Here,” he said, reaching into the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and pulling out a stack of Polaroid snapshots, “I have photos of our travels. Take a look.”
I was handed five pictures in total. Four of them had been of this guy standing by himself in front of famous landmarks around the Philippines and the fifth had been of him and the woman in the Wheel of Fortune t-shirt standing in front of the rice terraces of northern Luzon.
“Yeah, these are nice pictures,” I said as I handed them back, “but where’s Luke? I thought you went travelling with this guy.”
“Luke is the one taking these photos. See, look,” he flipped one of the Polaroids over to show me some messy-ass handwriting on the back, “he even signed it. ‘To my good friend Joven.’”
“Yes, I’m Joven. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you Tim.”
“Yeah, yeah, nice to meet you too. Who is the woman in that one photo with you?”
“Oh, the woman?”
“Yeah. The woman.”
“The woman is my friend Christina.”
“And Luke paid for Christina to go travelling as well?”
“Sometimes he would.”
“Well, this Luke character sounds like a pretty nice guy.”
“He is. But you seem like a pretty nice guy too.”
“Well, thank you.”
He smiled and we watched the center of our solar system take a plunge without another word said. Once birth had been given to the night, I took the last sip of my water, dropped the popsicle stick in the empty container and headed for the nearest garbage can. Joven popped up right behind me.
“So,” he said, “would you like to try the Filipino seafood?”
At this point of our interaction, it was fairly obvious what this guy was all about. He saw the only white guy in the area as a walking ATM and had his little spiel down pat. I’m sure I was one of many over the years on whom he’d laid his dead parents sob story before handing over a stack of photos allegedly taken by a dude named “Luke” with a heart of gold that I was made to feel I should aspire to be like. That said…
“Yeah,” I replied, “let’s go out to dinner.”
“Okay,” he began, “the restaurant is this way and…”
“Nah, sorry dude. I’m not lookin’ to eat any local shit tonight. You know where we can grab a pizza and some beers?”
“Yeah, if that’s what you want.”
“Yeah. That’s what I want.”
“Okay, we can go this way then,” he began walking towards the skyscrapers of Makati City. “There’s a pizza place at the mall where they sell beer. But before we go, I must tell you I cannot afford to pay for it.”
“Yeah, I know. Let’s not make a big deal of it. Tonight you can eat and get drunk on me.”
“Yeah, really. And that girl over there,” I pointed to the chick in the Wheel of Fortune shirt, “that’s your friend Christina from the photo, right?”
“She can come too. But let’s get going because I’m fuckin’ starving.”
After walking about half-a-mile to the aforementioned mall, Joven led me to some place called Shakey’s Pizza where we pounded a pie, some pasta, a few appetizers and a couple rounds of beers. It was during this time that I noticed Christina’s English wasn’t nearly as good as Joven’s and that she’d been missing one of her upper front teeth. The bill for three people was somewhere between thirty and forty US dollars. I put it on my credit card.
After that, we made our way over to some whore bar called G Place where we drank San Miguel and Red Horse while watching possibly under-aged local girls please older Western men for the following three hours. Aside from a basketful of shrimp, no food was ordered. At G Place we did however do significantly more drinking than at Shakey’s so the bill was in the same price range. I again put it on my plastic.
Sometime around ten o’clock, my drinking companions took me to a place called Hobbit House. Hobbit House is an establishment that was opened several decades ago by some former Peace Corps expat that must’ve been gay for J.R.R. Tolkien. The front door of the place is colorful and circular and meant to resemble that which leads into the abode of a Hobbit. The inside of the joint was filled from top to bottom with all types of Lord of the Rings shit and – my favorite part of the place – all the waiters and bartenders there were exclusively little people.
After the three of us had posted up at a table near the stage where non-midget musicians had been playing The Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden,” a wee waiter waddled up to the table to take our order. This is when Joven and Christina decided they were hungry for a second dinner. Figuring this would be the clincher and that I wouldn’t have to get any more meals for them afterwards, I let them order whatever they wanted and got a Red Horse for myself. The two of them had also gotten another round of beers to sip on while waiting for the food.
Sometime in between when they’d put in their order and the time it’d been delivered, Christina began coughing up a storm. She’d had a little bit of a cough all night long, but this time she’d broken into a fit that sounded the way someone would had they had a chicken bone lodged deep in their throat.
“Holy shit!” I said after a minute of her choking and weezing. “Are you okay?”
She nodded and held one of her index fingers in the air to signal that I wait a second for her current burst to subside.
“I choking on tooth,” she said before opening wide and pointing to the void in her smile. “It stuck in throat.”
“No fuckin’ way! Your missing tooth is stuck in your throat? Are you for real?”
She started giggling.
“She’s got a tooth stuck in her throat?” I asked of Joven for confirmation. “That’s why she’s been coughing all night?”
“No, no, my friend,” he too chuckled. “That is just a joke she likes to tell. She hasn’t had a tooth for a long time.”
“Oh, okay,” I replied. “I was gonna say, that would’ve been the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.”
Joven nodded and took a sip of his beer.
“Can’t she go to a dentist and get that shit fixed?”
My inquiry almost caused him to spit out his mouthful of Red Horse.
“A dentist, my friend?”
“Yeah, why not? They do fake teeth and shit, right?”
“Fake teeth?” he set down his beer. “Tim, Christina and I cannot even afford to buy a tube of toothpaste.”
“What? You can’t afford toothpaste?”
“No. We can’t.”
“Well, why not?”
“Christina’s English is bad and she’s sick so no one will hire her. I can’t find a job at the moment either, so every bit of money she and I get, we spend on food.”
“Well, uh, what is she sick with?”
“I don’t know. We don’t have the money to find out. But she’s been coughing for as long as I can remember so I think it’s tuberculosis. TB is pretty big here.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
As a preventative measure, before taking the next sip of my beer, I secretly wiped the neck of the bottle on my shirt to remove any errant TB might’ve become stuck to it.
“You know,” Joven said a minute or two later, “Christina’s birthday was a couple days ago.”
“Oh yeah?” I turned my attention back over to her. “It was your birthday?”
She smiled and nodded her head.
“That’s cool!” I said. “Happy Birthday to you!”
“Thank you,” she replied then said something to Joven in Tagalog.
“Oh, uh, Christina says she’s never had wine before and was wondering if you’d buy her a glass for her birthday.”
“You’ve never had wine before?”
She shook her head “no” and smiled.
“Well, yeah, I’ll buy you a glass. You want red or white?”
She didn’t understand the question. I thought perhaps it had been a language issue and asked Joven to translate. He did and she still appeared perplexed.
“Um,” I began to explain, “they have red wine and they have white wine. Which would you like to try?”
I decided to make the decision for her. After grabbing the attention of our midget waitress the next time she’d been scooting past, I put in an order for a glass of red.
“Okay,” I said to my tooth-lacking friend, “your wine is on its way.”
She clapped and giggled.
Minutes later, when the waitress returned, she brought the food as well as the glass of vino.
“Well, there it is Christina. There’s your wine. Happy birthday!”
She picked the glass up and posed with it like she was a fashion model at a photo shoot and started laughing. When the chuckling ceased, she put it to her dome, took a nice big sip and made a face that looked as if she’d just taken a swig of battery acid.
“How ya like it?” I laughed.
“It…it good,” she replied.
“Nah, I can see you don’t like it. That’s okay. You don’t hafta drink it if you don’t want to.”
“No. It okay. I drink.”
Throughout their second dinner, Christina nursed her red wine to completion. After the meal, she had a few more gulps of her beer, set her head down on the table and passed out cold. Neither she nor Joven had eaten much of the dishes they’d ordered and had the midget waitress package it up for them to take with.
“You all good?” I asked Joven. “You full now?”
“Oh yes. Thank you. Very full.”
“You wanna stick around and keep drinking for a while or are you worried about Christina sleeping here?”
“No, she’s okay. I can drink.”
Over the next hour, as Christina stretched across a makeshift bed consisting of four chairs we’d pulled up next to each other, Joven and I continued to pound beers and smoke cigarettes like the fate of the world depended on our getting fall-down fucked-up. During this time, the band stopped playing and the jukebox went on. One of the first songs that somebody had selected was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Surprisingly, Joven knew all the words and he and I ended up singing it together, alternating between the high and low voices as Mike Myers, Dana Carvey and the other excellently long-haired party dudes had done during that scene in the car from Wayne’s World.
About an hour after the waitress had boxed up the half-eaten meal for Joven to take away, I went to the bathroom to take a piss. On the way, I got distracted by a few framed newspaper articles they’d had on the wall just outside the pisser that I failed to see the last time I’d gone to hit the head. They were all about midgets and they were all pretty funny. Both before and after expelling my urine, I read a few of these articles then scampered back to the table, excited to discuss the content with my drinking partner.
When I returned to the table however, my excitement about the midget articles had suddenly taken a back seat when I found Joven with a menu in hand pointing out several more dishes he wanted the waitress to bring out for him. This, I decided, had been more than I signed up for.
“Yo! No, no!” I pulled the menu from his hand. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“I’m getting more food.”
“Yeah, I can see that, but you told me you were full! And even if you weren’t full, why can’t you finish all these fuckin’ leftovers you already got right here in front of you, huh!?”
“I will eat those leftovers but…”
“But what? What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“I was ordering food to take back to my friends.”
“Your friends!? I said I’d get you fed tonight. I didn’t say anything about feeding your friends.”
“But they too don’t have the money to feed themselves.”
“Dude, who do you think you are – fuckin’ Robin Hood? Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor?”
“And who do you think I am? I’m not some fuckin’ rich guy. I live with my parents and got student loans out the ass. This is total bullshit dude!”
“You don’t understand.”
“Yeah I do understand. That’s my money you’re sneakily spending while I’m away taking a piss. I said I’d feed you two tonight, not all your fucking friends.”
I looked over to – I guess I should say “down at” – the midget waitress.
“Please cancel whatever he just ordered and give me the bill…Thank you.”
“I’ll take you back to the bay and you’ll understand,” Joven said. “The area where I met you earlier.”
I was tempted to just go back to my hostel but was curious to see what there was back that way that could suddenly make me feel okay about this dude ordering another thirty dollars’ worth of food on my credit card without asking.
“Fine, let’s go to the fucking bay. Make me understand.”
After I’d handled the payment, Joven woke Christina up and we gave her a minute to get her bearings before making the walk back.
We retraced our steps and after padding for no more than ten minutes, we returned to the baywalk area with all the palm-tree-housing planters where I’d met Joven about six hours beforehand. The area which had been vibrant and bustling with activity when I’d been there back around sunset had looked dramatically different after midnight. There were no families of tourists riding bikes, there were no ice cream vendors and there certainly weren’t any wealthy women getting their feet massaged by poor-ass pedicurists. What there had been instead were hundreds – maybe thousands – of bodies lying sprawled out across all the planters and all over the sidewalk along Manila Bay.
“Holy shit,” I said, “what the fuck is this?”
“This is our home.”
I stopped dead in my tracks as Joven continued guiding a very sloppy Christina through the nocturnal settlement.
“Our friends are up there,” he whispered, “right by where I met you earlier.”
I nodded and continued tiptoeing, trying not to trip on any sidewalk sleepers. Soon thereafter, we came to a halt at a planter box housing about ten people.
“Okay,” he said, setting Christina down on an open spot beneath a palm tree, “home sweet home.”
As she and several others snoozed, Joven introduced me to the rest of his friends that were still awake – a few of whom were women with newborn babies. He then said something to them in Tagalog while setting the leftover-containing bags onto the flowerbox/bed/dinner table. Five or six of these skinny-ass people intrinsically pounced on the two-dish rations of leftovers as if they were a pack of zombies fighting over human flesh. Whatever was in those bags had been demolished in a matter of minutes. No one seemed satisfied by what little they were able to get their hands on and put in their stomachs.
“Yo,” I pulled Joven aside, “where were all these people earlier in the day when I met you?”
“The police make sure we’re cleared out by the morning because this is a popular tourist area. Visitors seeing all these people lying around would make for a bad image of the Philippines, you know? We walk around during the day and come back after dark to sleep.”
“Alright,” I said. “You were right. This is fucked up.”
“Yeah, I told you.”
“Yeah, ya did. But still, next time ask. Maybe people are willing to help, you know? You don’t have to be a sneaky bastard ordering a bunch of shit like that when I’m off taking a piss.”
“I apologize. I was just trying to help my friends.”
“I see that. But like I said, you didn’t have to be a dick about it. Cuz I would’ve helped if you would’ve just explained it to me.”
“Alright, well, now that I’ve said what I had to say, I think we should get your friends some food.”
Ever since my freshman and sophomore years of college when we were required to live in the dorms and purchase a meal plan that provided, without limit, access to all the plain, Eucharist-tasting, dormitory cafeteria riffraff one could physically handle, I’ve had the dream of gathering and feeding a bunch of homeless people. In my daydreams, I’d always figured I’d round up a pack of grubby, down-on-their-luck, I-sleep-in-a-box type hobos from the streets of Milwaukee, bring them in as guests to Marquette’s cafeteria and let them have a feeding frenzy at the university’s expense. Unfortunately, during my time there, I never worked up the balls to do so.
Back in Manila, even though economically-deprived, third-world, tropical-island-dwellers weren’t the breed of derelict I’d ever imagined lending a helping hand, I felt that that was the perfect time and place to fulfill my dreams of putting together a hobo crush fest. As such, I took Joven and a handful of others out to some pizza place that was open late-night and let them order whatever food they wanted in addition to tower after tower of San Miguel. The whole evening, from the first slice of pizza at Shakey’s to the last slice at that place of which I was too hammered to take notice of the name, cost me around two-hundred-and-fifty dollars. More importantly though, the memory of taking a group of impoverished Filipino vagabonds out to dinner, getting them fed and getting them so drunk they had trouble walking back to their outdoor home is something that I cherish and will forever regard as priceless.
Beggars Banquet in photos…