Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Intro To Philippine Literature

AFTER DAYS OF WAITING, I finally received Sara's copy of The Turtle and the Monkey from Amazon, her introduction to Philippine Literature. She just lost two front teeth, but tomorrow, she will bring the book to Ms. Lanzilotta's first grade class at P.S. 153 to tell her classmates about banana trees. That's my girl. Just wait till she gets to Nick Joaquin!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Here Comes Jollibee!

PARDON THE PICTURES, but I just drove by Roosevelt Avenue early this morning and took these shots with my bad camera. Yes, Jollibee, that popular Filipino fast food chain, is opening its first branch on the East Coast, right in the heart of Manilatown in Woodside by the 7 train. As you can see, the place is still boarded up (the place used to be a Mexican restaurant), but the ads are already there. Though I am not a big fan of fast food, I know a lot of other Queens Pinoys are rejoicing. One thing is sure: it will bring much-needed jobs to kabayans. Mabuhay!

UPDATE (02/14/2009): According to the owner of the Jollibee franchise in New York, the fastfood joint is going to open Saturday, February 14 from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Seating capacity is 70 people, but according their Facebook events page, about 1,200 are already attending. Thanks, Buj, for the information! Although I am working on Valentine's Day, Sara and Mom will go and try to get in. Below are the latest pictures, thanks to New York Magazine and Serious Eats New York.

UPDATE (02/20/2009): Almost a week after the grand opening, people still have to wait in long lines to be served. Still no telephone number. I guess they will give it out when all the novelty and mania subside. Hey, at least for the moment, they already have enough people to worry about!

UPDATE (02/27/2009): Lines not as bad. Winter schedule: Lines open 8 am to 8 pm on weekdays, and 7 am to 8 pm on weekends. And finally, here's their menu and phone number!

Jollibee, 62-29 Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside, Queens, New York 11377, phone (718) 426-4445

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hawthornden On My Mind

AN EXPERIENCE THAT I will always remember is my fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers in Lasswade, Scotland, from 19 November to 16 December of 2000, exactly eight years ago today. The memory is timely; it was also autumn and post-US presidential election period, but then there was a bitter contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore about the election results, particularly in Florida. In fact, it was then when I learned that the meaning of the word "chad" other than a country in Africa was a paper fragment created when a hole is made in a ballot card, from reading The Scotsman newspaper in the castle living room. My candidate Al Gore had apparently lost because "hanging," "dimpled" and "pregnant" chads which had been punched, though not completely, on ballot cards were not counted to his favor. I had become an American citizen in April of that year and was happy to have exercised my right to vote, but was very disappointed. Today, after eight years of Republican dynasty, I am happy to see a Democrat get elected once again, and what a president-elect he is. I know this has been said countless times, but I am going to say it again: Barack Obama will lead this country through the challenges of the times. That said, please allow me to sit back and indulge in a little nostalgia.

On November 18, 2000, I took a Northwest Airlines flight from JFK to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, then transferred to a smaller KLM plane to Edinburgh (pronounced Edin-burrah). I took a cab with a courteous driver who drove me to the castle for about twenty minutes, lamenting how tourists had descended on his town since a ski path had been carved out of a hillside along our way. I arrived in the castle just before dinner, was welcomed by Amy, the administrator, and was immediately led to a room called Jonson on the third level, my home for the next four weeks. The castle had winding stairways that provided a challenge as I dragged one of my two heavy luggage upstairs (sorry, no elevators in ancient castles), but Amy, despite her little frame, did the other without effort; she had obviously done this for other fellows before. Not too long after, it was dinner time and sherry was served, on the house, as Amy welcomed the fellows formally.

What followed was a succession of days of writing privilege; as silence was maintained in the castle at all times, except dinner. From the castle through the trees, one could actually hear the waters of the River North Esk. Lunch, which consisted of simple fare like sandwiches and a thermos bottle of hot soup, was brought to the fellows' rooms, who were left on their own most of the day. Some fellows packed their lunches and caught the early bus that passed by the castle gate to make day trips to Edinburgh, the capital city, or to see Rosslyn Chapel for its Knights Templar history. Some simply stayed and made the river walk behind the castle. I went to the city on days when I craved good old rice, which did not seem to be part of the castle menu. Around downtown, there were Chinese and Indian restaurants where I had beef broccoli or chicken curry with rice to quell my Asian stomach. After lunch, I wandered about Princes (not Princess or Prince's) Street, the main thoroughfare, dominated by the majestic Edinburgh Castle from Castle Rock, before catching the last bus to Midlothian, where my castle was. At dinner, the Garden Room became alive as fellows shared stories about their ventures of the day. Sherry flowed; there was a list to tally how many glasses one had had for the evening, to be charged upon checkout. I became friends with Tom Kennedy, an American living in Copenhagen who used to live in Jackson Heights, New York, and Parm Kaur, a British poet from London with a Punjabi background. Maybe because she was the only other minority writer and smoker in the group, we became chat buddies. One evening, the shy kitchen ladies prepared haggis, that traditional Scottish dish of sheep's stomach stuffed with liver, heart, lungs and a bunch of other goodies only a Filipino could also eat. I was expecting it to taste like dinuguan or higado, but was disappointed as it was mostly bland.

Hawthornden Castle sat on a secluded crag overlooking the River North Esk, providing impressive views of the surrounding glen. It was the home of poet William Drummond, who built a new house around a ruined 15th century tower in 1638. The castle remained home to the Drummonds until 1970 and is now owned by philanthropist Drue Heinz, publisher of The Paris Review and widow of H.J. Heinz of catsup fame. From what I remember, there was a working water well on its courtyard, and a cave further down where Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots from 1306 to 1329, was said to have taken shelter. By the gate, there was a little house that Mary Sharratt used to call "the gamekeeper's cottage." The bathroom of the castle had an ancient toilet bowl that flushed by pulling a chain, but it also had a sunroof that gave one a piece of Scottish sky while taking a dump.

Whatever, the silence and privacy were what mattered. In the retreat, I got to polish my short story The Capture, which early that year won Best Fiction in the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards. Later, it was shortlisted in the Fish Short Story Prize sponsored by Fish Publishing in Durrus, Ireland. Before leaving, I wrote a poem for Drue Heinz in the logbook and donated a copy of A Habit of Shores: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English to the castle library. All in all, it had been a great experience, and today, sitting in my cubbyhole at Rosenthal Library, aging and arthritic, I relive the memory and hope that I will have a similar luck someday.

Here is a picture of the fellows in the Dining Room. L-R: Mary Sharratt, Linda Leith, Parmjit Kaur, Patricia Duncker, Amy the administrator, Thomas E. Kennedy and yours truly. Also, a shot on Calton Hill with the Dugald Stewart Monument in the background, and a picture of Edinburgh Castle, thanks to Wikipedia.

Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, Lasswade, Midlothian EH18 1EG, Scotland, United Kingdom, phone 44 (0) 131 440 2180, fax 44 (0) 131 440 1989, contact the Administrator

Monday, November 17, 2008

An Old Document In The Aparador

ONE OF THE DISCOVERIES during my last trip to my hometown of Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro in the Philippines was a 78-year-old document, mildewed, insect-eaten and brittle as a dry leaf, inside an old aparador. It was a lease contract between the Singer Sewing Machine Company and my grandmother Marcosa Closa. (Click on the document to enlarge.) It shows that she paid 10 pesos downpayment to rent a sewing machine Model 128-4 valued at 100 pesos, on August 28, 1930. (Coincidentally, that day was the fourth birthday of my father, her would-be son-in-law, still unknown to her family; my mother was then six years old.) According to the agreement, she was to pay three pesos on the 28th of every month in Philippine currency.

Though not exactly a find that will make me rich, the document is interesting in many ways. The form was surprisingly still in Spanish even though the Americans had been around for 32 years. The preparer who filled in the blanks had written the entries in both Spanish and English, with the month entered as "Aug." for August (instead of "Ag." for Agosto) and the word "complete" to describe the accessories included with the machine. On the back of the document, which showed my grandmother's age as 29 and my grandfather Genaro Castillo as co-leaser, the answer to question Cuanto tiempo han residido en la direccion arriba mencionada (How long have you lived in the address mentioned above? was "(illegible) years." Son los arrendetarios maridos y mujer--"yes." Occupacion--"H. Keeping." "Laborer." Two of the references I recognized as other lolas (Augustina Closa and Vicenta Lontoc) and a Jose Morente.

Interesting. I wonder how the document had survived the elements (typhoons, humidity, insects) and unknowing katulongs who disposed of old-looking documents as trash or stove kindling. I also wonder just exactly when English replaced Spanish as the language of business in the Philippines. Before WWII, were business and government forms printed bilingually in English and Spanish, with the educated (like the preparer) using English and the not-so-educated (like my grandparents) using Spanish, or even Tagalog? And how many households today still have a sewing machine? Do people still sew their own clothes, or repair them at least? Finally, what can my grandmother's monthly rent of three pesos buy today?

I believe Grandma eventually bought the machine. My mother inherited it and made lots of pajamas, pillow cases and curtains when she raised her own family. One of the tasks I had to do before she used it was to get a bowl of water and dampen the abaca rope that served as its belt (the original rubber one had snapped) so it would expand and tighten, to turn the hand wheel when she pedaled. Finally, after a strong typhoon blew our roof off, the sewing machine's wooden fold-out cover warped from the deluge and mother gave the thing away. Below is a picture of what it looked like: probably a 1924 or 1930 Singer treadle sewing machine model 128.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Done With Kindergarten

ALTHOUGH IT IS A BIT LATE, I still wanted to post Sara's kindergarten class picture, with teachers Ms. Curry and Ms. Lee. Twelve more years before college!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Pho On Grand Avenue

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A SUCKER for pho, that great Vietnamese hangover buster. So it was a welcome idea when Little Saigon opened on Grand Avenue. The owners used to operate (under the same name) in a hole-in-the-wall with five tables on 9th Avenue and 46th Street in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, but closed down after the rent went up to $14,000 a month. Hey, welcome to Queens!

If you want to make your own pho, the best recipe I have found so far is Andrea Nguyen's of San Jose Mercury News. She has tips only a Vietnamese would know, like charring the onions and ginger and using yellow rock sugar.

Little Saigon, 85-32 Grand Ave, Elmhurst, Queens, New York 11373, (718) 205-4279, cash only, Vietnamese cable TV

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Baby Food And Other Stinkers

ALTHOUGH THERE ARE SCORES of Asian grocery stores in Queens, one has entrenched itself more deeply in the hearts, and stomachs, of Filipinos in New York. Phil-Am Food Mart, in the heart of Little Manila in Woodside (on the 69th Street station of the 7 train), is owned by hard-working Batanguenos who may well be millionaires now, with the kind of customer traffic they get especially on holidays and weekends. The contents of the store in themselves are not that rare or special: the usual food products like Pampanga's Best tocinos and Mama Sita's flavor mixes, mass-produced for the homesick tongues of Filipino expatriates. But it has a small fresh produce section that carries ingredients for pinakbet, and a cooked food section that offers fried milkfish, dried squid, goby (biya), herring (tunsoy) and other apartment stinkers packed in little aluminum foil boxes. Fastidious Pinoys buy these salty treats even though they are overpriced to satisfy a craving without stinking up one's living space or offending their next door neighbor in the building when they fry these stinkers. Another important aspect of the store is the makeshift bulletin board by its entrance, where enterprising Filipino subletters advertise cheap rooms for rent (usually carved out of apartment spaces using portable dividers, a la Sampaloc, Manila) to jobless newly arrived kabayans, who know nothing of New York city codes and are unlikely to report building violations to 311. This is one of the reasons why some people come here, then shop later. We got the tenant of our attic room through its posting board.

Other than that, the store is special to our family because it is the only place in Queens where we can find frozen baby mackerel tuna (tulingan), not those huge mercury-laden behemoths that sushi chefs hunt at Top Line or Fulton Fish Market, for our Mindoro soul food tinigang. These babies are tender and sweet-tasting; they probably went to the same school (pardon the pun) as the ones they sell in Pinamalayan wet market. One could imagine the tropical sun coming back to life in their eyes after they have been defrosted. Even the sinking of passenger ferry Princess of the Stars did not dampen our appetite for tinigang like it did to our relatives in the Philippines, because we thought these babies were safely asleep in a freezer somewhere in a New Jersey port when the tragedy happened.

Anyway, tinigang is one of the easiest and earliest dishes I learned to cook; I got the technique (or the lack of it) from my grandfather. I use a sharp knife to cut a lengthwise slit on both sides of each fish, press them with the palm of my hand on a chopping board until they are as flat (and nearly round) as a tortilla with a bony smile, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and stack them in lattice pattern in a wide-bottomed pot. (We bought a cast iron paella pot made in Colombia for this purpose.) I throw in a piece of bacon and a handful of crushed garlic, add water and vinegar (Heinz will do, but Datu Puti is better) and bring it to a boil. Once it simmers, I am instantly transported to the tropics, but my wife cries "Foul!" and scurries all over the house to shut bedroom doors and protect our wardrobe from the clinging, acidic fish smell. Perfect tinigang takes at least an hour to cook; the water has to evaporate almost completely ("tigang" means "dry" in Tagalog), the bones have to be edibly soft, and the fat of the bacon has to incorporate with the sauce for the best patis, so she has to endure the atmosphere for a while. (I usually cook tinigang, fry tunsoy or saute shrimp paste over a hot plate in the garage, but it has become quite a challenge to stay outside because the temperature has dropped to winter levels even though it is still autumn officially.) Once dinner is served, however, usually with some vegetable cooked in coconut milk and freshly steamed Thai jasmine rice, everybody is happy and all stink is forgiven.

Phil-Am Food Mart, 40-03 70th Street, Woodside, Queens, New York 11377, (718) 899-1797, no parking

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Cheapest Property In The Adirondacks

IT IS OFFICIAL. I am the proud owner of half an acre of hillside property in Port Henry, NY with a "fixer-upper" (euphemism for decrepit) farmhouse. I had to take the Amtrak to Albany to close the deal and obtain the deed from the lovely wife of a young investor. It was a great trip along the Hudson River, and the transaction went smoothly. But where on earth is Port Henry? As people asked, "Ano bang meron sa Port Henry?" To justify my decision, which people may think is as stupid as Seward's purchase of Alaska, here are my reasons: 1. Location, location, location. Port Henry is in the Adirondack State Park in upstate New York, "an area of unparalleled beauty.” It is the largest park in America, covering 6.1 million acres, a land area about the size of the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined. I have always dreamed of living in a mountain cabin by the lake (preferably with a fireplace), and live an idyllic Thoreau-like life. A kid who grew up among the rice paddies of Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro in the Philippines, I have always had this idea of an American home, slightly different from that of my friend Susan Lara: a white picket fenced suburban home with a dog named “Spotty” running around. Maybe I’m just a rural guy. Anyway, Port Henry is a small village between the shores of Lake Champlain and the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, and reminds me of Scotland and even Sagada. Maybe someday, I can invite my Filipino friends over.

2. Accessibility. Port Henry is on the Amtrak's Adirondack route between New York City and Montreal (Map above), which was proclaimed one of the ten most scenic train trips in the world by National Geographic Traveler Magazine. The train departs Penn Station in Manhattan early in the morning and follows the banks of the Hudson River and the shores of Lake Champlain through historic towns and pristine woodlands in upstate New York to the Canadian border, terminating at Gare Centrale in downtown Montreal before dinner. One way trip to PH costs about $50, and there is a food car where one can buy hot instant Ramen and sandwiches. Although PH's train station is no Grand Central and does not even have a passenger waiting platform (one has to use a stool to step up and down the train), it is a piece of architectural history, being built in the 1880's when PH was an iron mine port. At present, it is staffed by friendly senior citizens who bring the stool in and out, and get to use the depot for their own activities in return. PH is also along the route of a major inland waterway that runs from New York City to Quebec City. One could actually sail inland from the Atlantic through the Verazzano Narrows in NYC--Hudson River--Champlain Canal--Lake Champlain--Richelieu River--Chambly Canal--St. Lawrence River--Quebec City in the Gaspe Peninsula, back to the Atlantic. This is a dream cruise that I would like to take or do before I die. Along this water route, PH has a marina near Bulwagga Bay, where legendary lake monster "Champ" has been sighted many times.

3. Nearby institutions. Middlebury College, Robert Frost's summer home and the famous Bread Loaf Writers' Conference are about forty five minutes away, across Crown Point Bridge on Lake Champlain. Meadowmount Summer School of Music (where artists like Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman trained) is fifteen minutes north in Westport. The University of Vermont at Burlington and SUNY Plattsburgh are about an hour away. If you don't want to leave town, there is a small public library downtown, and a professional theater company in nearby Westport.

4. Cost. I got the property for about seven thousand bucks, thanks to Plattsburgh Craigslist. It is cheaper than a used car.

5. Finally, because I am a crazy dreamer. I think I have found my other retirement home, apart from our ancestral house in Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro.

Watch for updates on my progress rehabilitating the house until it is ready for housewarming, open to all Pinoys who can come. I also have a title for a piece: Port of Entry to Port Henry.

Here are pictures of the house on 109 Stone Street, the bathroom (those are not bird droppings on the tub), and Sara feeding the gulls on Lake Champlain, five minutes away.