Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Room With A View

COOPED UP BY THE ARCTIC WEATHER and happily on a break from work until the last week of January when the spring semester begins, I have shut the world out in the past few days and retreated into our attic. It is the perfect place to hibernate (nunong in Mindoreño dialect), always warm and toasty thanks to the natural phenomenon of less dense hot air rising to the upper floors of the house. Because it faces the backyard on the west, it is away from street traffic noise and the early morning sun, and I can stay in bed as late as I want. Before we moved into the house, attics have always conjured in me images of cobwebs, trunks of dusty family relics, Ouija boards and sinister denizens like the character Mrs. Allardyce in the horror movie Burnt Offerings. So when we found out that previous owner Martin O'Brien (who had moved his family to sunny Florida) had painted it pink for his little daughter, we were delighted and decided not to redo the color to keep the cheerful atmosphere of the room. Sara liked it immensely, but because she is allergic to dust, I spent one weekend ripping up the old carpet to expose the underlying hardwood floor, which I sanded and treated with wood stain to restore to its former glory. At present, the attic serves as Sara's TV room, and my escape when I do not feel like socializing with holiday visitors who linger to chat for hours with my in-laws downstairs or to watch Wowowee or The Buzz on the large living room TV because building rules in the apartment where they live prohibit them from having a Direct TV satellite dish installed. So I just let them be, grab my food and drink, and hit the stairs.

I like to call the attic my "swallow-thronged loft," a la Dylan Thomas (actually, it's a symbol for death), except that this time of year, the swifts, swallows and other feathered troubadours that are supposed to sit outside the window and keep me company have long migrated south or hibernated in the woods of Mt. Olivet Cemetery, and the only birds I see are the swarms of homing pigeons pooping their way back to their trainer's roof deck down the block. (Welcome to New York!) I have also claimed one corner of the room by parking a desk for my laptop, the desktop salvaged from the neighbor's trash, and the handheld relic but reliable NEC MobilePro 780 which I use when I am in the Philippines. Here, I do most of my writing and catching up on my reading. (My goals this winter break include writing about the legacy of Germans on the island of Mindoro and reading Nam Le's The Boat.) I have hauled my books in the garage to winter them here and prevent frost damage, including those that I sell on my Ebay store. (For your eyes only: We have a Pinoy friend who works in a publishing company; he gives us boxes of advanced reader's copies and uncorrected proofs of all subjects and titles, unreleased and hot off the press. I made Christmas shopping money selling those books.) I also tried to create a self-contained living space here, complete with a mattress plopped on the floor, an old mini-fridge (you know what's in it), a microwave (I eat my meals here), and a porcelain arinola that my wife brought from a vacation in the Philippines, for those lazy nights when a trip to the bathroom downstairs is a hassle.

Most of all, the room has a view (as I have described in my second blog entry); its west window offers views of Manhattan that can be quite spectacular when the sun sets behind its skyline. I have even bought Sara a toy telescope so she could share the view. On a clear day, we can see the spires of the tallest skyscrapers of the city, including the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building midtown, the Woolworth Building downtown, and the towers of the Williamsburg Bridge. Other sights include planes preparing to land on La Guardia airport, the Fourth of July fireworks on the East River, and the twin columns of light from the World Trade Center every September 11. On clear nights, we see the Empire State change colors depending on the occasion: obviously green on St. Patrick's Day, red on Valentine's Day, and red and green this time of year. When I have the money, maybe I'll buy a real telescope and we'll try astronomy.

Other than a vantage point, the attic gives us a quiet space to sit back, look at the neighbors' rooftops, and, on occasions like this, reflect on things like the year that was, the mistakes made, and those that could be done differently next year. I reflect on the follies (depending on one's point of view) that I have done and still do, and try to reevaluate them if they are justified or simply need to stop. Among them:

1. I quit a higher-paying job with the Department of Homeland Security for a position in a community college. For my wife, it was the ultimate sira ulo decision; a federal job would have ensured Sara's future and the monthly mortgage of the house, but I had to do that I want to do. (More on this in a future post.)

2. I bought a house on a piece of property in the "Adiroondocks" (contracted Adirondack boondocks, used when Port Henry tax collectors piss me off; mark the term as originally from Queens Pinoy) which sits unused and rotting away while I pay its taxes year after year, including nonexistent water service. For some peace of mind, I bought dirt-cheap insurance just in case lightning or one of my disgusted neighbors sets my house on fire (which I secretly hope will happen) while I wait for the economy to get better so I can afford to build a new house or at least buy a used mobile home for the lot.

3. Despite that scumbag Bernard Madoff's $50B loot and other potential Ponzi schemes, my wife and I continue to invest my late father's insurance benefit with my bank even though we have lost a lot (and I mean a lot) the last month alone. JP Morgan Chase does not seem to be a victim of the swindler, so, instead of panicking and withdrawing what was left of our investment, we try to calm down, give it one more chance and keep the gambling spirit, hoping that we will recover next year when Obama becomes president. Barry, here is one more crazy guy waiting for your miracles.

4. I still smoke.

5. I can be quite antisocial, and I know some people think I'm cuckoo, although I couldn't care less.

Of course, I know better than that. Money is not all, and what matters ultimately is maintaining one's good health and good relationships with other people. Ho-hum! When it gets warmer, I maybe I will take a bath, get a haircut, face the world, and perhaps emerge from this hermitage a wiser man.

Here is a picture of Sara enjoying her show (this time enthralled by Michelle Obama), and a zoomed view of the Empire State Building (left of the neighbor's chimney in the foreground) from our rear window. Too bad we cannot see the ball drop in Times Square from here, but in this cold weather, we'll just stay home and watch it on Sara's TV. Cheers for the New Year!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ghost Stories And Tales Of Glories

PARTLY BECAUSE I WANT to learn about the history of my neighborhood and partly because I am in the mood for a Dickensian Christmas, I am posting what I have unearthed, while on semestral break, about the history of the town of Maspeth and other curiosities about it. I also cannot deny the fact that I live two blocks away from Mt. Olivet Cemetery on the highest point of the neighborhood (the best real estate in Queens and Brooklyn belong to the dead, the result of an old zoning measure of the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847 that prevented graves from being washed away by floods), and its 71-acre presence is hard to ignore even in the frenzied city life. I drive by its gates on my way to work each morning; I am even thinking of buying a plot in it in case a heart attack or a driver high on drugs kills me instantly and shipping my remains to the Philippines becomes a burden to my family (I tremble at the thought of being cremated). There is another Pinoy who lives closer to it; the property of drinking buddy Makoy Fernando adjoins the rear of the cemetery with only a grill fence separating his garage from the campo santo, as he calls it. A jolly mechanic from Bay, Laguna who works for the City's water system, he is the least affected by it, much more so on hot summer nights when the chilled beer starts flowing from his Coleman cooler and the liempo and tilapia sizzle on his barbecue. He has even set a mini-theater with a wide-screen TV and karaoke speakers in his garage; his teenage son plays his drums there, indifferent to neighbors departed or not. (His next door neighbor is an NYPD officer who doesn't seem to be bothered by the noise, but knowing Makoy, the diplomatic host and cook, I am sure that he has found a way to the cop's stomach.) On beer party nights when distended drinkers want to take a leak behind Makoy's garage, they have to be warned that desecration of hallowed ground brings doom.

Maybe the residents of Mt. Olivet Cemetery are benevolent, because so far, there have been no signs of curses inflicted on anyone. They include James Maurice (photo above), its 1850 founder whose name survives as a street name. He was a Congressman, landholder and founder of St. Saviour's Church, a cash-strapped heritage church dismantled early this year and transferred, after much protest from civic groups, from its original site in Maspeth to Middle Village when developers purchased the property. He shares his crypt in Mt. Olivet with two brothers and three unmarried sisters. Interesting residents of the cemetery include cosmetics royalty Helena Rubinstein and Prince Matchabelli, gangster Jack Diamond, 25 veterans of the Civil War and their wives, and 16 unidentified victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Other interesting facts and characters in Maspeth history:

1. Maspeth was the first European settlement in Queens, having been founded in 1642 by about 28 English settlers of the Quaker religion, sixteen years after Peter Minuit bought Manhattan island. (The Spanish city of Manila had been existing for about 70 years then.) The town was named "Maspat" after the Mespatches Indians, one of the thirteen tribes of Indians that inhabited the region. The term is translated to mean "at the bad waterplace," referring to the many swamps in the area at the time. At present, there is a street called "Fresh Pond Road" which attests to the once boggy nature of the land. The highest point of the cemetery, however, is 165 feet above sea level, and was used by the Mespatches Indians as a lookout point. (If you look at the picture in my blog header, you can see Manhattan in the background.)

2. It was the summer home of De Witt Clinton (not interred in MOC), once governor of New York who conceived the idea and drew plans for the Erie Canal, to connect the Great Lakes with the Hudson River. Upon completion, the canal made New York City the nation's primary port.

3. The building now housing the Grand Florist on Grand Avenue was once the Queens County Hotel, built in 1851 along what was then Grand Street, an old colonial road. Farmers and tradesmen used to rest here when hauling goods between Williamsburg and towns further east in Queens.

4. Following the immigration waves of the 19th century, Maspeth was home to a shanty town of Ludar gypsies between 1925 and 1939, though this was eventually bulldozed.

5. Maspeth Movie Theater on Grand Avenue and 69th Place is a 1,200-seat theater built around 1924 and showed movies until 1965. Judy Garland performed here live before becoming a screen star. The theater’s lobby is now a Rite Aid store and the auditorium a bingo hall.

6. Transfiguration Catholic Church on Perry Avenue was first built in 1909 to serve Maspeth's swelling population of Lithuanian immigrants. The present structure dates from 1962; Lithuanian folk art adorns the inside of the church. The Lithuanian phrase above the doors, Mano Namai Maldos Namai means “My house is a house of prayer.” Masses are still celebrated in the Lithuanian language each weekend.

7. Maspeth is famous for its mafia ties. John Gotti's wake was held at the Papavero Funeral Home on Grand Avenue; the connection has brought the movies and TV to Maspeth. The Sopranos filmed a car chase around Grand Avenue. Clinton Diner on Maurice and Maspeth Avenues, a local truckers' favorite that has been around since 1935, has appeared in more than one motion picture, most famously Goodfellas. The diner is near the site of the former Queens Head Tavern, in use during the Revolutionary War and later a stagecoach stop.

8. Resident Pinoys of Maspeth? Well, aside from Makoy and his family, I know at least five others who go to the same Sunday mass at St. Stanislaus Kostka church: Dr. Asuncion Pacis (my wife's gynecologist), a schoolworker at P.S. 153 and her kids, Sara's classmate Miguel and his family who live on Fresh Pond Road, the deli kid who sells my beer, a bus driver on the Q59 line, and Rebecca, a Visayan girl married to a Polish guy who lives on the same street as Makoy's. Of course, the number swells when Makoy hosts his famous parties, the drunken Pinoy transients from all over Queens sleeping on his living room sofa after the party is over. By the way, 58th Road on which he lives is a dead-end street (yes, there are dead people at the end of the street, too), and its residents have formed a club that closes the street to traffic once every summer to throw a block party that is always fun, complete with alcohol, hired DJs and line dancing. Who cares about the dead?

Now, the ghost stories. On July 27, 1884, The New York Times and The Brooklyn Eagle published them (to put the date into perspective, it was eleven days after El Comercio, a Manila newspaper, announced that Juan Luna's Spoliarium won gold medal in the National Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid). They are quite compelling; two major New York newspapers reported the same incident front page on the same day, but you be the judge. Also a picture taken in 1936 of what was thought to be a ghost emerging from the rear of Mount Olivet Cemetery at Eliot Avenue, all courtesy of The Juniper Berry. Last is a picture of my family with Makoy (left) on a trip to the Adirondacks and Montreal. Happy Holidays!

1936 photo of a ghost emerging from the rear of Mount Olivet Cemetery
Trip to the Adirondacks

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The New Christmas Tree

THE DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING, I rummaged through the garage clutter for the reusable (OK, fake) pine Christmas tree that we bought from Target five years ago when we were still living in an apartment in Elmhurst. Through the years, this tree had served its purpose faithfully, though it had shed some needles from each boxing and unboxing, and with the economic recession and our tight budget this season, I am in no mood to replace it with a new one. I don't mind being called a cheapskate recycler, though I prefer it if you call me an environmentalist, who scavenges through the neighborhood trash every Thursday night for aluminum cans, glass bottles and what-have-you that are still worth something before they ended up in a Staten Island landfill. My best finds so far: a hardly-used futon sofa bed that we shared with our basement tenants, and a computer tower with 20GB hard disk memory.

Anyway, to make up for the lack of a real tree, we thought it would be a good idea to decorate the potted Cestrum nocturnum (aka dama de noche) as well, which we took inside the the house and placed next to the thermostat when the temperature outside went below 40F. (It used to sit on the doorstep and bloomed gloriously in the summer, but it is an annual plant that dies in frost.) Then, it dawned on me (and I know it sounds awkward and silly) that sometimes we, consciously or unconsciously, make use of what we have in our hands to have the things that we long for, even in the imagination. Like Christmas trees.

As children in Mindoro, my siblings and I were expert Christmas tree makers. Our father used to go to the lalao swamps in Lumambayan to cut a pyramid-shaped mangrove tree, whose twigs we cleaned and coated with La Torre gawgaw glue, covered with shredded cotton and white papel de japon so we could imagine snow, then planted its trunk in a floorwax can full of pebbles. But, at this point in our lives, the tables have turned, it seems. This time it's the other way around; we are decorating a tree to remind us of the tropics. Man is never satisfied. As Don Henley sang in Desperado, "you only want the ones that you can't get." So, trimmed and trained on a bamboo stick, the Cestrum is certainly unimpressive, but with a little imagination, especially when a blizzard is howling outside, one can relive those sultry summer nights in Pinamalayan when, sitting on the porch after dinner, he saw the fireflies, heard a distant guitar, and the Cestrum wafted its fragrance through the tropical air.

Next week, Sara is going to read in class the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore (here in his original handwriting). The poem was supposed to have been written by the author thinking about his grandparents' homestead farm on the corner of Broadway and Woodside Avenues in Newtown Village (Elmhurst, Queens), now occupied by a large apartment building.


Friday, December 5, 2008

One Hundred Years Of Universitihood*

BEFORE THE YEAR IS OVER and it is too late, I want to jump on the bandwagon and join the centennial anniversary celebration of the University of the Philippines by posting an entry with an old postcard (of the Padre Faura campus where I spent my first semester in the UP system) that I had bought through Ebay from a guy in North Clarendon, Vermont and by, what seems like a pattern emerging in this blog, reminiscing. This is the least I can do; I am indebted to my alma mater figuratively and literally, but the constraints of distance, time and money prevent me from actively participating in the activities, which are probably winding down now as the year comes to a close. Just two days ago, my friend Susan Lara sent me an invitation to the UP Writers Night (which would have been over by now) and another missed event worsens the guilt and nags me into doing something, anything. My coming to America would not have happened if UP (specifically the English Department) did not take me under its wing and send me on its faculty development program to study in the United States. So, for all its worth, I will write my memory of the Writing Center, the focal point of my stay in the university, and drop a lot of names that I hope will not bore some readers.

The UP was established on June 18, 1908 (the same year the University of Nebraska at Omaha was founded) as the American University of the Philippines by Act No. 1870 of the First Philippine Legislature, also known as the "University Act." I entered the university in 1981 as a returning student after two years of soul-searching, trying to figure out what to make of my three years of study at the Ateneo de Manila earlier. I was trying to decide if I wanted to be in a school where most everyone wore Lacostes and Florsheims and drove cars, while I wore my pair of citizens' military training combat boots to school because I could not afford to buy another one, and took the tricycle from the jeepney stop on Katipunan Avenue to Berchmans Hall only when it rained hard. Don't get me wrong; I made many friends at the Ateneo, mostly in my English class of "needy but deserving" scholars under Lourdes Vidal, but I was glad that I left campus before I became angrier at my family, society and God for what we were not. At UP Manila, I took a poetry class under Ricky de Ungria who told me about a Writers' Worskhop held in Diliman every summer that I should apply to. I did, the following year, and was accepted.

In the workshop, I met writers that I read only in books: the late Franz Arcellana and Alex Hufana, Jimmy Abad, Amel Bonifacio, Edgar Reyes (whose piece Lugmok Na Ang Nayon is still my favorite Tagalog short story), Linda Ty-Casper, you name it. Before that, my knowledge of literature was limited to Ang Lumang Simbahan by Florentino Collantes, a poem my late father used to recite at bedtime when I was a kid, "The Beetle" by Consorcio Borje in high school, and "Clay" by Juan Gatbonton in Lourdes Vidal's class at the Ateneo (in the same class, by the way, was writer James Laquindanum, now a priest at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Long Island City, Queens). Needless to say, the workshop broadened my literary horizons, so to speak. I discovered writers like Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves and Kerima Polotan, learned about the "tangential approach" and "objective-correlative," and met junior writers like Susan Lara (who used to smoke Philip Morris 100s, believe it or not), Carlos Cortes and Simeon Dumdum. I got lucky; my story "Big Wind" got the Best Fiction Award and a Napoleon Abueva trophy.

Heady from the workshop, I dumped biology as a major and transferred to Diliman the following semester to study English. (I kept this from my family until I graduated.) I commuted by bus everyday from our house in a government housing complex in San Pedro, Laguna, and packed home-cooked food to save lunch money on take-out at CASAA, hanging out at the Writing Center in between classes. I had to leave campus early to avoid the EDSA traffic, missing writers' get-togethers, readings and inumans, which happened late in the afternoons into the night. But there was another English major and returning student named Butch Dalisay, a Palanca award-winning writer and former political detainee who read my manuscript one day and apparently saw some potential in my florid prose. Without second thought, he offered me a job as his copy editor and researcher, although he himself struggled at the time financially, with a family to support on a government job at the National Economic Development Authority. To this day, I have not forgotten the spontaneity and magnanimity of his gesture, and the encouragement and confidence it gave me.

Soon, things fell into place somewhat. I was given a local fellowship for fiction at the Writing Center, thanks to the late Alex Hufana, the director who had a library science background and was some kind of a mentor to me. I also found an old boarding house with a restaurant called Jacy's where food and lodging were cheap right behind the Faculty Center. I spent most of the time at the Writing Center (or FC 1003) which was an air-conditioned office created by combining two faculty rooms, with barely enough space for three desks, four steel file cabinets, a book shelf and a long conference table where people held meetings, did homework or graded papers, played Trivial Pursuit, ate lunch, and at the end of the day when no one was looking, gathered for "libations." It was a refuge open to any writer or English major, and even the sleep-deprived or hangover-nurser could use it to catch some Zs when no one except staffer Tony Serrano (the vegetarian and everybody's kuya) or Glo Evangelista was around, only roused when curious faculty like Lily Rose Tope peeked in to find out what was up for the day. There were rotary phones and manual typewriters for duplicating manuscripts using stencils. At dusk, when the acacia trees outside stirred legends, the halls became quiet, and the chicharon, balut and peanut vendors appeared by the building entrance, it was the perfect place to drink Bobot Bitonio's basi or the late Clovis Nazareno's ESQ, to discuss Dylan Thomas, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, gossip, or simply find a victim to roast for the evening (former Labor Usec Bitonio was a ruthless alaskador). Discussions became heated and more lively when writers like Edel Garcellano, Enrico Enerio, Manny Espinola, Rey Luminarias or Ed Farolan joined in. Beer was bought for those who preferred it by the late Ernie Damasco, the messenger, using Mang Rene's tricycle, bypassing the guard at the entrance and delivering the bottles through a side window. Warmed up and ready for wider space, the tipplers dutifully locked up the office by 7 pm and reconvened at a nearby watering hole, usually PCED Hostel on campus or Trellis in PHILCOA. On Friday nights, interested writers gathered for a work-discussion group that met (and, of course, drank) in Isabel Mooney's apartment, the LitCritters of our time. As I lived on campus, I did not have to worry about anything, and freedom seemed infinite.

I spent the following three years in Diliman, only changing residence when Jacy's was demolished to make way for a new academic building, temporarily sleeping in Vice Chancellor Louie Beltran's garage in UP Village for free to help son Ricky complete a paper for Yolanda Tomeldan's class, before ending up in Narra Residence Hall where the late Clovis Nazareno and Donat Alvarez lodged. Before graduating in 1985, I met other English majors and writers who would also pursue further studies abroad, including Gina Apostol (our paths crossed inside Strand Bookstore in Union Square; she is now an English teacher at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York), Fidelito Cortes (is he in Stony Brook?), the glamorous no-nonsense gang of Judy Ick-Ging Kagawan-Diana Atencia, Neferti Tadiar (professor of Women's Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University), the late Luisa Mallari, Don Dona (connected with Financial Services of NYU) and of course, Butch Dalisay. I ended up in Wichita, Kansas, where the only US university that would give me a graduate assistantship was. Most of them would go back to serve the university, but I would stay on and move around America for reasons that are hard to articulate at the moment. But I know the day will come when I will have to go back, face the music and square accounts with someone for things that I owed in the past.

Here is my cum laude diploma and a picture of the Writing Center in the 80's (photo retouched) with the late Franz Arcellana, book designer Donat Alvarez, Reni Roxas, publisher of Tahanan Books, and Susan Lara. (Notice the Johnnie Walker lapad on the table.) Also a party of English majors, including Cristina de Leon and Neferti Tadiar (back to the camera) and a reading at the Faculty Center with Jimmy Abad and Isabela Mooney.

*"Universitihood" is a word that is apparently used only in the Philippines; I do not know if it is accepted in standard English, but I take risk in using it in my title because it rhymes with "Solitude." You know what I'm going for.