Monday, December 21, 2009
THIS COMING-UP SONG...
This 41-year-old article, first published in the December 14, 1968, issue of the Philippines Free Press, was recently reprinted in the December 5, 2009, issue of the same magazine. I am indebted to Ricky S. Torre, currently associate editor of the Free Press, for rediscovering, and giving new life to, this old piece—and for giving me a jpg copy of Danny Dalena’s illustration.
“THIS COMING-UP SONG IS EXCLUSIVELY AND ESPECIALLY AND ALSO DEDICATED TO EVERYBODY, DEDICATION COMING FROM YOURS TRULY”
Being a Carol and a Paean to Downtown after Dark, Where They Celebrate a Beery Merry Christmas All Year Round.
by Jose F. Lacaba
(Philippines Free Press, December 14, 1968)
THE CROONERS at the downtown beer joints are dreaming of a White Christmas these days, just like the ones we used to know, the only White Christmases we used to know being those that saw a corner of the sala graced by a leafless guava tree painted white and covered over with thick fluffy soapsuds simulating the snow most frequenters of beer joints will never see, except in movies. Anyone can dream, right?—and the crooners, whose calling gives then better chances of making it to temperate climes, have snow-white dreams like you and me and all our little brown brothers; above the din of the beer drinkers, in the tearjerking smoky dimness, the crooners dream of a winter wonderland and valiantly assert that all is calm, all is bright, in these dives where every night, while neither silent nor holy, is always full of good cheer. Good cheer! good cheer! even if the year has not always been good and the beer is, ecchh, served warm and on the rocks. They are keeping the faith, baby, yes, they are, these crooners and their attendant combos, in this season of chill and good will they are keeping the faith in their fashion: with their profane caterwauling they are proclaiming the good news that unto us 1968 years ago was born a Savior whose feast we now celebrate with merrymaking and prayer, with misa de gallo and noche buena.
Noche buena! The good night into which none must go gentle! Quaff the glass, lads, that’s what the downtown beer joints are for, night after night, all year round; and the dolce vita, too, if you don’t mind the juxtaposition. Let us not belabor the analogy, but if Christmas is Joy to the World and No Room in the Inn, Away in a Manger and Gloria in Excelsis Deo, if Christmas is gaiety and spirits in the wretchedness of the human condition, then, downtown, Christmas isn’t a sometime thing. The essence of Christmas, which is the mystery of the Incarnation—“the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor,” Christ humbling divinity in human flesh and exalting human flesh with divinity—that is not what we are talking of here, though that, too, surely applies. What we are talking of here are merely the trappings of Christmas, and some of its grim existential reminders: the gaudy colored lights, the caroling, the feasting, and, past midnight, the sight of the homeless on the sidewalks, asleep in their rags on newspapers, unable like Christ to come in from the cold. It is so easy to be mawkish about Christmas, and downtown after dark provides grounds for perpetual mawkishness.
Now, of course, you could say the same of Dewey after dark, or Mabini after dark, or any other spot in the country where the lights are just as bright and the wretchedness no less glaring; but what the heck, the analogy stands: downtown celebrates Christmas all year round, those sordid little alleys with the peopled doorways notwithstanding, or included.
Lest the metaphor get stretched too thin and we be drawn into a theological argument, let us leave Christmas for the nonce and get back to those crooners crooning Christmas carols.
They are crooning Christmas carols because Christmas carols are the top tunes of the moment, will be for some time, and top tunes are what the beer-joint vocalists vocalize 99 percent of the time. There was a time not too long ago when they were all singing “De Colores,” which had replaced “Together Again” as the most popular number in their limited repertoire. It never failed. The moment the band struck up the tune, you got staggered by the multitudinous clapping and foot-stomping and lusty screaming all around you; and when the crooner launched into the kiri-kiri kara-kara refrain, man!—the boozy chorus that joined in was such as to bring down the walls of Jericho.
In beer joints more than in posh nightclubs does the heathen become aware of the awesome power of the Cursillo, and how far it has gone. You expect the kiri-kiri chorus in the posh places where you can’t get in unless you are in coat-and-tie or barong, because you have been told that the movement works through the pillars of society. But in the beer joints you realize that the humbler temples of the Holy Ghost have also been infused with “that Christian spirit.” You should hear them. And after the song, they go table-hopping, introducing themselves to each other. Brod! What was your Cursillo House, brod? Lipa, brod, only last month! The bunch with Father So-and-so, brod? The very same, brod! We serenaded you when you came out, brod! Is that so, brod! De colores!
Every now and then, in the midst of these effusions, you hear a dissenting “De colorum!” from some unconverted table, and then all the gentiles turn to that table with a sly smile at the heckler, as though he were a partner in crime. In that instant, there is a communion of kindred spirits—dialogue! I and Thou together, against Them!
The cursillistas, let it be said for them, never take offense; at least, I have not seen one take offense. If they do at all, it is at something said or done by one of the brethren. There was that time at the Peacetime in Quiapo. Past midnight, when “customers and waitresses are allowed to sing,” one cursillista lurched over to the bandstand, had a brief consultation with the combo, turned to the mike with hands in pockets, then softly, tunelessly crooned “Mañanita,” which is about the beautiful morning. It was a nice tune, if he only sang it properly. I know it was “Mañanita” because, a few minutes later, in the comfort room, I was the unwitting listener to a tongue-lashing. One cursillista from one table was chiding the singer, a cursillista who had come with another group.
It wasn’t really a tongue-lashing. It began with praise for the singer, but praise almost immediately turned to censure. The gist of it was that the singer shouldn’t have sung that particular song. “You were okay, brod, you sang good. But that was foul, brod, foul.” “Why, brod, what was foul, brod?” “Singing that ‘Mañanita,’ that was foul, brod. You should not have sung that here. This is not the proper place.” “Why, brod?” “Basta, brod, this is not the right place. ‘De Colores,’ puwede pa. But ‘Mañanita’—foul, brod.” “It was special request, brod. I was requested to sing it.” “Even then, brod. What is a request? You could have turned it down, you could have sung another song. That was foul.” They were using foul the way it is used in basketball, I soon realized that; but I didn’t stay to hear the end of the argument, which a third cursillista from yet another table had joined. I excused myself (they were blocking the doorway) and went back to my beer.
Audience participation in the entertainment, while permissible after midnight, is not really common in the beer joints. The drinkers here are not a timid lot (as evidenced by the occasional shootings in these places), but most of them know they are no singers, and leave the entertainment to the professional crooners and the combos. Most of the crooners can’t sing, either, but that is of little consequence. The most popular singers are not necessarily the best ones; the most popular are those who know the most people.
There are usually three singers to a joint; in one hour, each has the microphone for 15 minutes; the last quarter is break time. During break time, unless they are having dinner with their mother, sister, or maiden aunt (the chaperons are almost always seated at a corner table near the kitchen), the crooners are circulating, greeting old flames and old friends, making new ones. Making friends with the crooners is the easiest thing in the world to do; the privilege goes with the price of your beer. Just tell your waitress which one you would like to meet, and she’ll come, escorted by your waitress, as soon as she has fulfilled all her commitments, i.e., greeting and talking with the other customers. Once introduced, you will never be forgotten. A tremendous memory for names and faces seems to be one of the requisites for success at the beer joints.
There’s this slip of a girl at Alex, for instance. Sally Buena. Small, slim, creamy-skinned, and still a teen-ager in looks though she must be in her early twenties by now, Sally has been with Alex for as long as I can remember; and one reason for her staying power must be her prodigious ability to remember names and faces. She is also developing into a sophisticated singer, has extended her repertoire to include more standards, but that is not the point here. I wrote her up once long ago; she has never forgotten that. I had stopped frequenting Alex for more than a year, but when I went back there a few months ago, though I had glasses on and wore my hair longer, she spotted me right away. The waitress who had always served me failed to recognize me, and when she did she could not recall the name I had given her; not Sally.
“This coming-up song is exclusively dedicated to Pepito and company,” she said when it was her turn at the mike, “dedication coming from yours truly.” A marvelous ego-booster! I felt like Joe Quirino entering the Nile and suddenly being surrounded by all the ludicrously dressed waiters, who momentarily abandon what posts they may be manning to ask Joe for movie passes. It was a great feeling. “And company” was impressed—even when, after that exclusive dedication, Sally looked around and started reeling off the names of other guys to whom she was dedicating the coming-up song. Sally knows practically everybody who has been to Alex more than once.
All the other crooners, especially in the more popular joints like Alex, Luisa & Sons, the new Avenida Beer House, and Peacetime, cannot begin a song without first making kilometric dedications. The typical prose intro to the lyric goes like this:
“This coming up song is dedicated to Manny, Danny, Sonny, and Tony, dedication coming from yours truly. Also dedicated to Gene, Doming, Tino, Hermie, Berting, and company. And especially dedicated to Bobby, Totoy, Emet, and company, dedication from yours truly. Also heartily dedicated to Attorney De la Cruz, Engineer Punongbayan, and Director Bustamante, from yours truly. Finally, dedicated to Daniel, David, Samuel, and company. Also dedicated to Ninoy, Ferdie, Dadong, and Serging. And exclusively dedicated to Bondying, Engot, Kenkoy, and Tikyo, dedication coming from yours truly. And to everybody.”
All this time, a sophisticated piano player, like Odon Cabailo, who’s now with Avenida Beer House, will be playing a beautiful standard like, say, “I Concentrate on You” or “Manhattan.” Sometimes, the band will even go into all of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” As soon as the dedication portion is over, however, down go the standards, in more ways than one, and the band strikes up the tune of some real stinkeroo like “It Hurts to Say Goodbye” or “Memories of Our Dreams,” enough to make a grown man cry. But the grown men here just love it; they yell for more, and they don’t mean “More.” The bravest are the tenderest, as they say—tough guys are sentimental slobs at heart, raving over the ickiest song.
Not a few come to the beer joints for the singer, not the song. We all have our dreams about having famous movie stars for sweethearts, to put it mildly. Well, famous movie stars are unobtainable, unless you have the looks or the lucre; so the beer-joint habitué settles for another item in show business: the novato crooner. There is always a wolf at the corner of the bandstand where the crooners wait their turn. Some wolves not only woo but waylay, and management in some beer joints have deemed it wise to erect glass partitions to prevent the damsels from getting distressed by the drunks. The less aggressive would-be lover waits at his table for break time, where the object of his desire may be gracious enough to tell him where she lives, where she can be visited on a Sunday, when she is free to go out bowling or to the Luneta.
The less ambitious ladykillers come for the waitresses. These girls are really waitresses, make no mistake. They serve you beer and peanuts or whatever pulutan you ask for, spoon blocks of ice into your beer, dally at your table for small talk; that’s all; you can’t touch them, or dance with them, or have them sit with you, at least not while they’re on duty. Many of them are real knockouts; they’re part of the attraction, a vital part of the decor, of the beer joints. You can spot the best lookers in a trice. They have all these sampaguita necklaces dangling from their necks, the gifts of admirers. Give them a little polish and, as the class-conscious kanto boy would say, puwedeng pang-display. Scions vie with prole and peon for their hands.
A friend of mine knew a fellow who won a girlfriend at one of these beer joints. The first time he came to the place, all by himself, he cased the joint, saw a pretty waitress to his liking, got her name from one of her co-workers. Let’s call her Gina. The next time he came around, he asked for Gina; she served him; he was silent throughout it all, addressing her only to order more beer. All the time, he pretended to look glum and disconsolate, stared into his beer, seemed oblivious to his surroundings. He returned to the joint again and again, always alone, and did exactly the same thing. Of course, the girls in the place began to notice him, began to talk about him: me problema sa buhay, they said of him, me problema sa puso, etc.
It was then that this fellow decided the situation was ripe for dramatics. One night he came to the place with a box of chocolates he had bought only a few minutes earlier. When Gina arrived with his first beer, he gave her the chocolates. “Take them,” he said. “I was going to give them to my girlfriend. But when I went to her house this afternoon, she had gone out with another man.” As corny as that; but this fellow was a good actor, he really looked downcast and bitter, and there was a catch in his voice when he spoke. It broke Gina’s heart. She began acting like Miss Lonelyhearts all of a sudden, dispensing advice with the the ice. The following week, she agreed to go out to a movie with him.
This is a true story, my friend swears, and he plans to try the novel approach himself. Unless you can keep a straight face, I would advise you to try something else. Not that I’m an expert in these matters, but I would suggest a simple, corny approach (the cornier, the better) that doesn’t strain the credibility too much. Don’t be like this Chabacano I know who introduced himself as Muslim in search of a second wife, preferably Christian; he wanted a taste of Christianity. He was the ninth of 32 children, he said, his father having had three wives; himself, he was the father of five. Incredibly, his tall story worked. The waitress fell for him, thinking he was such a joker. Unfortunately for her, my Chabacano friend wasn’t joking. Though he was no Muslim, he was indeed a father, but not of five, and he was indeed married, but to a Christian girl.
Oddballs as well as cornballs abound in these dives. There’s this old man who’s at Alex almost every night, an old man somewhere in his fifties, scrawny and cadaverous. Almost always, he is alone, often comes in brown americana and garish shirt, sometimes with dark glasses. He takes a table near the bandstand and orders coffee, nothing but coffee, the only drink he will have the whole night; sitting there, enveloped by the noise, swaying to the music, he grasps the ends of his table as one would grasp a pinball machine, and sways, shakes, swings, rocks, rolls to the insistent rhythm of the drums and the electric guitars and the piano and the crooner’s reedy voice while on his table coffee cup, saucer, teaspoon, sugar bowl, and napkins’ wooden container sway with him, who now has a look of orgasmic rapture on his face, obviously feeling like a psychedelic tripper. A real music lover he is, that old man.
You know the night’s about to end when the kitchen boys push out, past drinkers and bandstands and out the door, newspaper-topped cans of garbage, and the waitresses doff their uniforms and start changing into street clothes. A few minutes before two, the combo packs up, the crooners go by with their chaperons, waving to all the boys they have dedicated songs to, and the lights are all turned on, a blinding radiance that can make you squirm and make the best-looking waitresses vain.
It is then time to go, out into the streets where cab and jeepney wait and the night is never over. The neons flash and flicker; the air is clean; the sidewalks are all yours, if you don’t count the huddled bodies near the shut stores and the security guards asleep on rattan chairs. You can jaywalk and no cop’s voice will bawl you out over a loudspeaker.
If you’re still raring for action, you can go to Plaza Miranda.
At two in the morning, Plaza Miranda becomes an impromptu Hyde Park. With nothing but the occasional honk of jeepney horns and the mesmeric swish-swish of streetsweepers’ booms as counterpoint, many Walter Mittys of daytime acquire the nerve to shoot off their mouths. They harangue; their listeners heckle. Under the bronze marker with Magsaysay’s dictum—“Can we defend this in Plaza Miranda?”—people argue, debate, discuss, dispute, wrangle, proselytize, polemicize, propagandize. There are those who say that the current issues of the day don’t really touch the man in the street, are only objects of controversy in the coffee shop patronized by businessmen and highly paid columnists. Bullshit. I’ve heard a streetsweeper arguing with a drunk over the advisability of trading with Communist China. “Bakit, kung bibili ba ako ng sigarilyo sa Intsik e Intsik na rin ako?” cried the streetsweeper, clutching his broom like a spear. "E, ba’t mo sasabihing magiging komunista tayo kung makikipagnegosyo tayo sa komunista?"
Another time, there was this popsicle vendor expostulating on the Sabah issue with apparently more lucidity than all our foreign officials put together—in English yet! It wasn’t Acchhneo or television-commentator English, but it was decidedly a notch above the English you hear in Congress. He must have been talking for some time when I heard him, at past two in the morning, for he was growing hoarse, his voice rasped each time he raised his voice, and his voice was raised practically all the time. “What Marcos did, it is wrong!” he screamed at the men clustered around his popsicle cart, some of them eating popsicles. “We should have not recognized Malaysia! Macapagal is right! We should send our beloved countrymen to Sabah to do business, to live with the people of Sabah, so that they will see the enlightenment of us Filipinos which is enviable. Not like Jabidah! Jabidah is stupidity, I tell you! We only make the Malaysians angry! That is why it is wrong that we recognized Malaysia! Now look! Look what happen! They want to burn our flag! Our flag! I tell you!”
It isn’t current events all the time. Sometimes, it’s religion.
I remember a particularly heated three-sided debate on faith and truth. I couldn’t quite follow the drift of the argument because, first of all, I was, to say the least, loaded, and secondly, the drift led to non sequitur most of the time. But the speakers were extremely good, were very fluent in Tagalog. One was a clean-cut young fellow, in his late twenties, with a boyish haircut, wearing a polo barong and slippers; his adversary was another young man about his age, kanto boyish, wearing tight maong pants and rubber shoes, holding a plastic envelope under his arm; the third was a policeman who acted like a kind of devil’s advocate to both speakers and spoke like an Iglesia Ni Cristo minister.
Belief is based on truth, argued the clean-cut young man: Ang paniniwala ay batay sa katotohanan. Not so, said the kanto boy; it is possible to believe in something that is not true. You mean to say, said Clean-Cut, who kept cutting the air with karate chops and never once raised his eyes from the ground, that you will believe in something that you know to be untrue? Why not? countered Kanto Boy, who kept jumping around and staring from face to face with mercurial eyebrows and a conspiratorial smile. You mean to tell me, went on Clean-Cut, that if this guy here were to tell you that your wife is making a cuckold of you (kinakaliwa ka ng asawa mo) and you believe him, what he tells you could still be untrue? Of course, assented Kanto Boy. Then if it is untrue, why do you believe him? Clean-Cut persisted. But belief and truth are two entirely different things! said Kanto Boy: I may believe this guy here but he could be telling a lie. Then why do you believe him if he is telling a lie? But how do I know he is telling a lie? Well, if you know he is telling a lie would you still believe him? Maybe. What do you mean maybe? You either believe because it is true or you disbelieve because it is untrue!
And so forth. Clean-Cut began to sound more and more anguished, Kanto Boy grew even more lighthearted. Finally, the policeman, who, like the rest of us, had kept silent except for laconic comments, broke in, and delivered a stirring sermon. Picture this cop, not yet 40 from the shape of his stomach, a gun at his hip, delivering a sermon on faith and truth; a sermon, no doubt about it, and just the rhythm of his words, the rise and fall and swell of his formal Tagalog sentences, was enough to rouse the most sluggish spirit. At least, I found it rousing, even if I couldn’t follow his argument. He was disputing, he acted as if he was demolishing beyond repair, the arguments of both Clean-Cut and Kanto Boy. And having had his say, even as the two flabbergasted young men started speaking at the same time, this cool cop excused himself because, he said, in a smug imperious drawl, it was time for him to make a report.
At this point, I decided it was time for me to get into a cab and report to bed, and only now that Christmas is approaching do I recall that, with the spirits of beer spreading within me at the time, I was almost tempted to give my two-cents’ worth to the theological dialogue, with some handy quotes from Kierkegaard about the leap in the dark, about the faith when faith is impossible, the belief in the incredible. For the Incarnation is the most incredible proposition of all: that God should become man is a proposition incapable of rationalization. It simply boggles the imagination, and you end up concluding that faith means Take It Or Leave It; the leap in the dark, the leap of faith.
Downtown after dark, where the beer is lousy but the atmosphere congenial—where else, I ask you, can you get drunk and have Good Clean Fun on less than ten pesos, and not once bump into an R & R gringo?—downtown after dark is the best place for indulging in maudlin sentiment and amateur philosophy. God rest you merry, gentlemen, wherever you may be. Me, I’ll take downtown to a White Christmas any time, I think.