Thursday, February 26, 2009

Chillin' In The Neighborhood Library

AN IMPORTANT ITEM ON OUR Friday to-do list after we pick up Sara from school and get our groceries (I don't work Fridays, and so doesn't Mom, most of the time) is to stop by our neighborhood library to borrow our Saturday night movie. A title rented from Blockbuster or bought through the remote from Direct TV would cost at least $5, so we get to save a few bucks as long as we remember to return it by Monday afternoon. We park on CVS Pharmacy's rear lot next to the library staff's, enter the drugstore through its back door and buy a few sundries, then slip out the front door to our intended destination.

The Maspeth branch of Queens Library is well-lighted and roomy; it has a lounge, ten workstations with an automated sign-up terminal (just scan your library card), free Wi-Fi access, and a genuinely friendly staff. It also has automated circulation machines for self-serve check outs and renewals, and a slot where materials to be returned, including CDs and DVDs, can be dropped even if the library is closed. While I check out the DVDs (which usually takes a lot of time), Sara and Mom browse the children's section for weekend homework or project resources, choose her movie, or simply take a break from schoolwork by feasting on materials that feature her favorite stars the Jonas Brothers or Selena Gomez (she outgrew Miley Cyrus).

Indeed, a public library is a great place to go if you want self-enrichment or entertainment without spending money; it is safe, quiet, fully air-conditioned in the summer, and offers many free events and programs like ESL and computer classes, literary readings, job search workshops and even cultural presentations with free food. When we were still living in an apartment in Elmhurst and I was studying and working evenings in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College, I used to spend most of the day in the Elmhurst branch while babysitting Sara. We never had to hire a nanny all those years before my in-laws arrived. A little after Mom had left for work, I would load her stroller with grapes, diced apples and Ritz crackers packed in Ziploc bags, milk and juice, then head out and hit the local library.

Now threatened to be demolished to make way for a larger library, the Elmhurst branch is one of 1,700 edifices originally built and financed by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie when he founded public libraries all across America from 1900 to 1917. Here, I got to see the everyday routine, probably representative of other branch libraries in the city. Before it opened at 9 am, there would already be a long line of people waiting to use the computers, as the library had only about ten of them. Once a staffer unlocked the doors, the stampede generally headed for the computer sign-up desk or the section with daily newspapers. The patrons were mostly recent Chinese immigrants, who read Sing Tao or World Journal newspapers in Chinese. Around ten o'clock, strollers filled the children's section as parents brought their toddlers to storybook hour, doing coloring books as they waited for the children's librarian to get ready (sometimes she had to put on make-up and a hat or some costume). Here, Sara had a great time as a toddler listening to children's stories being read aloud, and doing Ring Around The Rosie and The Hokey Pokey Song with other kids, a social interaction that was impossible to get if we spent the day cooped up inside our apartment watching PBS TV. Around three o'clock, when school was dismissed, the library was invaded by rowdy teenagers who checked their email and MySpace accounts. Occasionally, a person who had not taken a bath for ages and was chased by flies wandered in, spoiling everybody's pleasant library experience. (Incidentally, the first public libraries, though not lending libraries, were collections of Greek and Latin scrolls which were available to bathers in the dry sections of the huge Roman empire baths. Maybe people who need a bath and libraries go together?) Seriously, library staff cannot turn away people like this, at least during business hours, because a public library should be open to everyone by law. When this happens, it a sign for us to hit the playground instead.

Speaking of laws, in his fifth law of library science, Indian librarian S. R. Ranganathan said that a library is dependent on life and change and must be dynamic, like an organism that evolves according to its environment. Without the human and organizational changes that occur, the library would not be able to function properly or meet its purpose. This is the reason why, in answer to the recent sharp rise of immigrants in the borough of Queens' population, Queens Library has revised its collection development policies to add more print and non-print materials in the native language of the people residing in the communities its branches serve. For example, the Maspeth branch collection now contains materials in Polish, Greek, Italian and Spanish, while the one in Elmhurst (a more diverse community) has materials in Chinese, Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati and even Tagalog (a Carlos Bulosan Heritage Center was launched here by Philippine Forum). Initially, this decision struck me as a disservice to the immigrants in the community, who should instead put effort to learn the language of their adopted country for quicker integration, but I understood the principle behind it eventually.

In the Philippines, public libraries are a rare sight. When I was a school grader in the 60's, our town of Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro was lucky to have a single-room library (called municipal library) in a squat building on Leuterio Drive where I lived, next to the municipal hall. It was open three afternoons a week and was staffed by a clean-cut civil servant named Mr. Baldoza who performed other duties in the municipal office on other days. I would stop by this library after school and be awed by the sheer amount of books shelved from floor to ceiling, while the librarian thumbed through boxes of skewered index cards, the good old card catalog long before OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) was invented. From this library, I borrowed books like Dr. Seuss' The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (books with numbers in titles fascinated me), and a curious Filipiniana book entitled The Aswang Syncrasy in Philippine Folklore by Maximo Ramos, which my cousins and I read with much gusto at bedtime.

According to Prudenciana C. Cruz, director of the National Library of the Philippines, the total number of public libraries in the country was 949 seven years ago (I don't think the number has increased since then), distributed into the following categories: 1 regional library, 1 congressional library, 49 provincial libraries, 79 city libraries, 507 municipal libraries, and 312 barangay libraries. These figures show that the case of municipal libraries is dismal. At present, there are about 1,509 municipalities all over the country, but only 507 have their own libraries, or a little less than 33%. Maybe the internet provides the information gap in these areas, but considering the technological divide between the Filipino haves and have-nots, I think only a very small percentage of rural Filipinos are able to afford to visit an internet cafe in the nearest town to get to the information highway, much less afford his own computer with internet service. Quezon City Public Library, the Philippines' largest public library, serves nearly 22 percent or 2.173 million residents of Metro Manila’s total population of 9.932 million, according to a 2000 census. Although they have 19 branches, that's a lot of people to serve for a city library.

If you want to donate books to libraries in the Philippines, here is one website. For an interesting read, get a hold of Advice on Establishing a Library by Gabriel Naude, a seventeenth century Frenchman who wrote this influential book on library science.

Pictures: Maspeth Public Library (above), Quezon City Public Library, Philippines (middle) and two year-old Sara (the pink-sleeved girl clapping on a chair) during a storybook hour in the Elmhurst Branch, and our public library certificates (bottom)

Maspeth Public Library, 69-70 Grand Avenue, Maspeth, Queens, New York, phone (718) 639-5228

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How Fiction Works: A Roundtable

LISA FLANZRAICH, MEDIA LIBRARIAN at Benjamin Rosenthal Library, shared her work with me over the weekend, and it's great to know that there is another writer among the library staff other than yours truly and my boss, Systems Librarian Arthur Ben Chitty. Other things literary going on at the Queens College campus, from its Evening Readings website:

A Roundtable on How Fiction Works with Peter Carey, E. L. Doctorow and James Wood
Date: Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Time: 7 pm-9 pm
Admission: $20, free with CUNY student ID

Peter Carey is one of only two writers to win the Booker Prize twice. He is the author of many novels, including Oscar and Lucinda, Illywhacker, Jack Maggs, True History of the Kelly Gang, My Life as a Fake, Theft: A Love Story, and His Illegal Self. The Boston Globe has said: “No other Australian writer in our time has succeeded as well as Peter Carey in writing novels that compel the attention of a worldwide audience. His work…occupies a high plane of literary brilliance.” The New Yorker has said of the work of Mr. Carey: “The ingenuity, empathy, and poetic ear that the novelist brings to his feat of imposture cannot be rated too highly.” The Los Angeles Times Book Review has said: “We have a great novelist living on the planet with us, and his name is Peter Carey.”

E. L. Doctorow is the National Book Award-winning author of many novels, including The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Billy Bathgate, World’s Fair, and The March. The New York Times Book Review has said: “E.L. Doctorow is an astonishing novelist—astonishing not only in the virtuosity with which he displays his mimetic and linguistic skills, but also in the fact that it is impossible to predict even roughly the shape, scope and tone of one his novels from its predecessors.” The New York Times has described Mr. Doctorow as being among “the first rank of contemporary novelists.”

James Wood is a book critic at The New Yorker, and the author of The Broken Estate, The Irresponsible Self, and, most recently, How Fiction Works. Cynthia Ozick has said of Mr. Wood: “He is our best critic; he thinks with a sublime ferocity. One can…be swept away by his exactitude, his penetration, the remarkable range of his reading, the unsurpassable (and sometimes unsettling) force of his autonomous prose; above all, by his stringent originality.” Janet Malcolm has described Mr. Wood as a critic “who reads more perspicaciously and writes more incisively than almost anyone producing criticism today.” The New York Review of Books has described Mr. Wood as “perhaps the strongest, and strangest, literary critic we have.”

The Roundtable with Peter Carey, E.L. Doctorow and James Wood will be moderated by Leonard Lopate.

The Queens College Evening Readings Series, begun in 1976, has grown in popularity over the years, a success owed to Joseph Cuomo, founder of the series, who consistently attracts the world’s foremost literary talent to the campus. “I read an awful lot,” Cuomo explained, “and when a writer connects with me, and I see how important his or her books are, I then reach out. We’ve had most of the Nobel Laureates here, many of whom gave readings before they had even won the prize.”

Queens College Evening Readings is made possible by support from the Office of the President of Queens College, the Office of the Provost, and the Office of the Dean of the Arts and Humanities. Other sponsors include the Student Association, the University Student Senate, the Committee for Disabled Students, Poets & Writers, Inc. and The New York Times Foundation.

Queens College, Music Building, Lefrak Concert Hall, 65-30 Kissena Boulevard, Flushing, Queens, New York 11367, phone (718) 997-4647

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Forty Niner And His Daughter

BUT HER SHOES are #7. I thought I should take advantage of this ditty to mark my forty-ninth year to heaven. Mom took this picture by the River Seine a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Viva Villa!

A CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE and work of the late, critically acclaimed Filipino poet Jose Garcia Villa. Poet and editor of Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Classics' reissue of Villa's collected works) John Cowen, poet and author of the introduction Luis Francia, and poets Sarah Gambito and Ron Villanueva will be reading from the book.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009, 7 pm; $5 suggested donation; open to the public

Asian-American Writers' Workshop, 16 West 32nd Street, 10th Floor, New York, New York 10001, phone (212) 494-0061

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blood, Hearts And Flowers

WALKING BY THE FRONT YARD of a former neighbor in Elmhurst a couple of years ago, I came across a flowering vine that struck me as a near clone of the Philippine coral vine, known back home as the romantic cadena de amor (chain of love), a plant that used to thrive on the drab concrete fence of my childhood home on the island of Mindoro. After making sure that no one was looking, I picked some mature pods from the vine straying on the sidewalk and soaked the seeds in water when I got home, thinking my wife would love a potted plant of this specimen beside her sampaguita on the kitchen counter. However, autumn came and went and the seeds never sprouted. (Maybe I soaked them too long or the seeds were not fertile, but I certainly do have a green thumb.) So, instead of going back to the street and being caught vandalizing a garden, I spent time the following weeks browsing pictures in a spring plant catalog, swearing that no matter what, I was going to find out what that vine was. And last year, I did. Its scientific name is Lathyrus latifolius (common name perennial sweet pea), a favorite specimen in English gardens that is believed to have been introduced to the United States during the colonial period. It also comes in shades of red, white, purple and blue. Impatient with seeds, I ordered a couple of potted seedlings online from Gurney's and they arrived via UPS wonderfully packed, just in time for last year's fall planting. (The best time to plant in temperate zones is late fall or early spring.) I planted them in a spot by our doorsteps to give their tendrils the iron rails to grab on when they grow. Lathyrus can also be quite prolific and invasive if unchecked, and the seeds inside the fruit pods are slightly poisonous, so everybody had to be warned. However, the best thing about it is that it doesn't have to be taken indoors and placed next to the thermostat in the winter, as it is a frost-hardy perennial plant that comes back year after year. I can't wait for spring to see this near twin of cadena de amor (I call it cadena de America) come to life and bloom in the summer.

One way to beat the cold this winter season is to eat a lot of spicy food, and speaking of spicy Filipino food, what else can be hotter than our Mindoreno version of kare kare, which is totally different from the popular oxtail-and-peanut sauce stew known to the rest of the country. Ours is actually a variation of pork blood stew (dinuguan), but the meat and internal organs are finely chopped (like bopiz), and it uses banana hearts and tons of red hot peppers, chopped as fine as the cabbage in coleslaw, and coconut milk. Also, the finished product is dry and oily and not soupy like dinuguan. In my childhood, the sound of a cleaver knife rapping on the butcher's block as my mother chopped away the meat, banana hearts and chili peppers into minute pieces was a happy noise that gave our house a festive atmosphere. But because of all the chopping the kare kare required, we usually bought ours instead from an old lady who came by a coconut wine cantina down our street every dusk, balancing an aluminum pot on a turban around her head to sell her spicy viand to local tipplers as pulutan (hors d'oeuvre or pupu).

In New York City, fresh banana hearts can be quite rare and expensive (canned ones are just too soggy), and we get ours from New York Supermarket in Elmhurst which has a great Oriental produce section, with tropical fruits and vegetables that I believe have been imported from Thailand or Mexico. (This is also where we get green papayas for our tinola, and mangoes.) Banana hearts are like artichokes; you must peel away and discard about 2/3 of the product you paid for as weight before you can get to the edible part. So, for this dish, you may spend around $10 on banana hearts alone because you will need at least three of them, considering the portion that will be thrown away. In the supermarket, you can also buy pork blood in a sealed plastic cup, chitterlings and other internal organs for the dish, but the Chinese butchers will give you a funny look if you ask them to grind the innards for you (they only do the flesh), so be prepared to do the job yourself. Unless you have your own meat grinder or food processor, you certainly don't want to do this manually with a cleaver knife and chopping board, especially if someone in your house is nursing a hangover or if your apartment is not sound-proofed for fussy neighbors.

To make kare kare Mindoro style: In a deep pan or pot, saute garlic until brown and onion until wilted in hot oil. Add the ground meat and internal organs, season with salt and pepper, and cover until it boils. Meanwhile, mash with your hands the finely chopped banana hearts with some salt in a colander, and squeeze the sap out. (Not doing so will give the kare kare a mapakla aftertaste from the juice of the tiny immature fruits.) Add the resulting banana heart pulp and a can of coconut milk to the pot and bring to a boil without the lid on. Then cover and simmer until everything is tender. (You may have to add water before you achieve this, because there is a lot of cellulose in the pulp.) Add the pork blood mixed with vinegar, stirring nonstop to prevent the blood from coagulating until the mixture boils again. Add the chopped hot peppers last (the amount depends on your tastebuds' stamina, but I like to put about one fourth of a cup) and reseason. Simmer until all the water evaporates and the deep brown dish glistens from the oil rendered by the meat and coconut milk, exuding a slightly acidic, coconutty aroma. Serve with freshly steamed rice or as an appetizer or pulutan, but always have a glass of water handy. A spoonful of it is guaranteed to wake up the most drunken toper. Cheers!

I wish to thank Big Berto for the image closest to that of Mindoro kare kare that I found in his blog and borrowed. Happy Valentine to all, especially to my better half and Sara.

New York Supermarket, 82-66 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens, New York 11373, phone (718) 803-1233

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bayanihan's First Birthday

TODAY MARKS THE FIRST anniversary of the Bayanihan Filipino Community Center in Woodside, Queens near the 69th Street station of the 7 train. A project of the Philippine Forum (a community service organization founded ten years ago whose office had moved around different locations in New York City before settling down in Manilatown), BFCC is located around the corner of Krystal's Cafe where my wife buys our pan de sal, and its present location certainly helps bring in a lot of traffic. According to executive directors Robert Roy and Julia Camagong, the center is the new home of Filipinos in New York City, offering activities from weekend line-dancing classes to computer classes, as well as a banquet room available to rent for parties and group functions. The center is also the hub of activity for a number of other Filipino organizations and projects, including the domestic workers support group known as Kabalikat, the Filipino-American youth alliance Sandiwa, and another project known as YEHEY (Young Educators for the Health and Empowerment of the Youth) , which is sponsored by the Ford Foundation and meets here every Friday to conduct health education for the Filipino youth.

"Bayanihan Center will bring in a lot more foot traffic than our previous locations, simply because now we are in the heart of the community, when before we were in the periphery," Roy stated in last year's opening. Roy and Camagong have since turned the nonprofit organization to a full fledged protector of the rights and welfare of the Filipino immigrant community, beginning with the case of escaped Filipina domestic worker Elma Manliguez in Queens, who had been locked up and enslaved for two years by her employers, to the successful fight for the repatriation fees of alleged suicide victim Fely Garcia of the Bronx, to the campaign for justice of the Sentosa 27 nurses who were victimized by illegal recruiters based in Manila. Truly, the Philippine Forum offices have seen the stories of pain and suffering of Filipino immigrant workers through the years, among others. Since its opening, the center had been host to speakers like Edith Burgos, the mother of missing agriculturalist Jonas Burgos (believed to be abducted and tortured by the Philippine military because of his activism organizing peasants and farmers to fight for their rights) and leaders of the Pinay feminist group Gabriela. Bayanihan is a Tagalog word that means the spirit of working together for the common good of the community.

Above is the entrance to the community center, below are sights in the 69th Street-Roosevelt Avenue area: standby Hispanic day laborers (exploited and paid way below the minimum wage, they can use a community center of their own) waiting for their luck to be picked up by contractors or movers, and Johnny Air Cargo and Krystal's Cafe (BFCC is a short walk straight ahead on the sidewalk past the traffic cones).

Bayanihan Filipino Community Center, 40-21 69th Street, Woodside, Queens, New York 11373, phone unavailable, email for space rentals.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Living High on the Hog

REPORTED WAY BACK IN 2005 to be renting a 2-bedroom apartment in the Trump World Tower in Manhattan for $10,000 (that's half a million pesos) a month, Cecilia Rebong, consul general of the Philippine Consulate on Fifth Avenue, had defiantly justified her choice of living situation in The Filipino Reporter despite protests by Filipinos both in America and the homeland who cried that it was a wasteful use of taxpayer money which should be used instead to uplift the lives of the 90% of Filipinos at home in poverty. But coming to her defense was another public servant, Foreign Affairs undersecretary Franklin Ebdalin who said that the amount that the Philippine government pays in New York is comparable to rentals spent by other Pinoy diplomats (a shocking discovery) in Los Angeles which is $10,500 a month, Berlin ($11,000), Paris ($11,000), Rome ($10,000), Seoul ($10,000) and Vienna ($10,000). According to him, "New York is an expensive city, and considering the stature of our consul general, also in the light of security problems, we thought we’ll give her a place where she could represent the country well and which is also safe." So there. It seems that diplomats deserve this luxurious lifestyle in order to be able to represent the country well. Para maganda ang dating.
To my disappointment, the uproar had settled down somewhat since that initial discovery, and I wonder if anything had been done to stop this unforgiveable crime committed by our diplomats. For sure, the consulate's services do not seem to benefit from the Philippine government's high budget. Last year, I accompanied my father-in-law to renew his Philippine passport at the consulate and found out that the only copying machine available to the public in the building had been busted for days, according to kabayans (it also charged .25c a copy), and I had to leave the 72-year-old by himself waiting in line on the third floor to make copies of his green card and other papers at Staples about three blocks away, because we did not want to lose our spot. It seems that service to its constituents (like helping to repatriate sick or deceased penniless Filipinos) is not the first priority of the agency; rather, it is to attract foreign investors and tourists to the Philippines for the moolah (as she so emphasized in an interview with Awee Abayari of Radio Manila), the major goal of all Philippine posts abroad.

Above is a picture of the consulate and below are pictures of the Trump World Tower (flanked by the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings) and the consul general in an Imelda terno. Don't they just look the same?

Consulate General of the Philippines, 556 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10036, phone (212) 764-1330