Several days ago, historian Guillermo Gómez Rivera informed me that he received an email from Mr. César Quinagan of Solidaridad bookshop who was inquiring about his latest book, “The Filipino State and Other Essays“. Solidaridad was interested in distributing them. Unfortunately, since Señor Gómez has been wheelchair-bound for the past few years, he couldn’t attend to this matter himself anymore. I gladly volunteered to meet up with Mr. Quinagan, if only to help Señor Gómez.
This book of historical essays is now available on Amazon. It will soon be on the shelves of Solidaridad.
But then, at the back of my mind, I had to be cautious in visiting the famous Ermita-based bookshop because of a scathing blogpost that I wrote against the owner last year. Before that, I was friends with F. Sionil José on Facebook. No, I have never met him in person. It just so happened that I found out that he has an FB account years ago. Since he was a close friend of my favorite writer Nick Joaquín, I just thought of clicking on “Add Friend” and was lucky enough to be accepted. That blogpost I wrote earned for me an unfriending. 🤣 But it was to be expected, of course.
Close friends know that I appreciate F. Sionil José’s fiction but not his opinions on Filipino History and other matters. That is why I developed a disliking of him, even if he’s the best friend of Nick. Besides, the two have been known to be at loggerheads against each other. How many times have we been told about the famous story on how Frankie and Nick debated about our country’s Spanish past? Nick would usually say that if not for the Spaniards, Frankie would have been an Igorot. Frankie would then claim in interviews that Nick would always fall silent whenever he replied with this:
“Don’t forget the Spaniards killed Rizal.”
* * * * * * *
Last November 16, a Saturday, I attended an art-history lecture at the National Museum of the Philippines which was curated by my famous comadre Gemma Cruz-Araneta (a great grandniece of Rizal, if I may add). I brought with me a few copies of Señor Gómez’s book to be delivered to Mr. Quinagan afterwards. I tagged my family along (except for my two eldest, Krystal and Mómay, who were already busy with other things).
Juanito, Yeyette, Gemma, and Clarita after the lecture (photo: Jefe).
Thankfully, Jefe, Juanito, and Junífera Clarita are inclined toward the arts. They always enjoy their stay at the National Museum.
After the museum event, Yeyette decided that we just walk all the way to Calle Padre Faura where the National Artist’s bookshop was located. The move surprised me a bit, but it delighted me as well because I really prefer walking through the streets of historic Manila. It was also an opportune time to familiarize our three younger kids to the Manila of our college days (Yeyette and I were classmates in Adamson University, and we used to ramble around the place) as well as to observe some of the newsmaking makeovers that Mayor Isko Moreno did since taking over City Hall last June.
Just passing by our alma mater‘s iconic walkway along Taft Avenue. 😊
We didn’t know what happened, but after several minutes of walking along the (surprisingly clean) sidewalk of Taft Avenue, we suddenly found ourselves facing the vehicular traffic of Quirino Avenue… we missed Padre Faura by several blocks! The new establishments must have disoriented us, or perhaps we have not been to that part of Manila for a long time (besides, I was busy doing Facebook live during our urban jungle trek, hehe). We had to cross Taft and walk all the way back to Faura. It was already dark by that time.
After trudging back, we turned left to Calle Remedios to avoid Taft’s polluted air, then turned right to a quieter Calle Pilar Hidalgo Lim. Yeyette was very annoyed at my miscalculation, so I kept my distance from her by walking several steps ahead. Junífera Clarita got tired with all the walking, so I had to carry her (but she kept on talking and talking and talking). That is why I was soaking wet when we finally reached F. Sionil José’s famous little bookshop. Unfortunately, the sign on the glass door says it was already closed. I didn’t know that they close at six in the evening, and it was almost seven when we got there (I’ve passed by the place numerous times but have never bothered to go inside because of my dislike of the owner). However, we could see a female cashier who was still at her desk, busy with her android. My wife tapped on the door to see if we could still continue our meeting. The young lady was not smiling but she still opened the door for us.
Solidaridad at night.
Yeyette told her of our agenda, but she informed us that César had already left; we missed him by about an hour. However, she took two copies of the book and gave me a calling card. During this brief exchange, a man in his thirties appeared from behind the shelves. I assumed, perhaps, that he was César, but he didn’t look the type who manages a bookshop although he was wearing what seemed to me a guayabera. He grabbed one copy from the lady, went past the shelves, then watched him ascend a stairway at the farthest end of the store.
I asked the unsmiling lady if I had to sign anything before we leave, but she said to just contact César on Monday (so that’s it, guayabera dude was not César). Yeyette then engaged her in small talk. I took that opportunity to rummage around the shelves while shooing away Juanito and Junífera Clarita who were already all over the place.
Moments later, Mr. Guayabera went back to us with some unexpected news: “Aquiát dao po cayó sa taás, causapin dao cayó ni Manong.“
Of course I knew who that Manong was. I felt a surge of apprehension, half wanting to leave and meet F. Sionil José at the same time. Really, I was only after César Quinagan, not him. But then, I thought of Señor Gómez’s book. Months before all this, I went to National Bookstore’s main office to inquire about the possibility of them distributing The Filipino State and Señor’s other book, “Quis Ut Deus,” a novel in Spanish. They made me wait for almost a month, only to inform me that they were not interested! Their explanation that Spanish books will not sell was understandable, but to say that they’re not focused on selling books about historical essays at the moment puzzles me up to now. So this, perhaps, was my last chance to have at least The Filipino State to be distributed by a major bookstore. Whether or not I didn’t want to go face to face with the 2001 National Artist for Literature, I really had to.
The problem was my shirt was really wet. I hurriedly went to Yeyette, who by then was fixated with her android, to ask for an extra shirt (I always have an extra with me because I perspire easily due to hyperhydrosis, another bane from childhood). While changing clothes at an enclosed corner near the stairs, my mind was struggling whether or not to tell Manong Frankie my real name. He’s in his nineties, I thought. Perhaps he has forgotten that blogpost of mine? I was trying to assure myself that I was not really that well-known of a troll, that I’m just another unknown basher of his.
After changing in a rush, I hurriedly reached for the stairs. I didn’t want to make Manong Frankie wait; I heard that he is such a character. When I was all set, I saw that Junífera Clarita, my annoying five-year-old baby girl who kept on talking and talking and talking, was already at the stairs! My golly, there was no more time to bid her to stay at the ground floor, lest she made a scene. I whispered to her, while trudging the wooden stairs, to just stay put and behave.
Manong Frankie, wearing his trademark beret, was seated on a wooden bench at the top of the stairs. Far to his right was another elderly lady behind a desk; I immediately recognized her as the wife, Manang Teresita José. The upper floor was not as well lighted compared to the ground floor, but the light coming from Manang Teresita’s desk made it bearable. The upper floor was actually a mezzanine, so the light coming from the first floor also contributed to the lighting.
After the greetings, I was not able to shake his hand because Junífera Clarita was all over the place again. Before I could even scold her, Manong Frankie immediately interrogated me as he bade me sit down in front of him.
“Are you the author of this book?” he said in his booming voice.
“No, sir! I’m just, uh, … an assistant. The author’s assistant,” I said, groping for the right words.
“I see. But do you also write?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Actually, I already have a book under my name. But it’s nothing big, really. It’s a project by our local government, a biography about our city’s local hero. That is why it cannot be sold in bookstores.” I was of course referring to “Captain Remo: The Young Hero“, a book which catapulted me to fame in our apartment building.
We then discussed a few things about the consignment of the book, and of course its author. “You know, I find Guillermo a very radical writer! How is he now?” he asked while holding a copy of The Filipino State. I suddenly remembered that they both know each other personally. I described to him his fellow writer’s condition, then he boasted that at 94, he could still walk around. “I’m turning 95 next month!” I feigned surprise. “I’m older than him by several years and yet I can still walk around. How old is he now?”
I suddenly forgot Señor Gómez’s age, so I just told him his year of birth: 1936. Because I’m bad at math. Humorously, Manong Frankie still made me count. “O, 1936. ¿Eh ‘di ilang taon na iyón?“
My golly. I saw Jefe behind him taking photos of the room. I called out to him. “Jefe, 1936 si Señor. So how old is he now?” I asked while counting nervously with my fingers. I turned my head back to the National Artist. “See? I’m bad at math,” I chuckled. I was irritated at myself as to why at that moment I totally forgot Señor Gómez’s age. And doubly irritating was that Jefe couldn’t do the math too. De tal palo, tal astillo. 😆
I didn’t know that my son Jefe was taking pictures of my impromptu meeting with a living legend.
The small talk ventured to other topics: his life, his writings, and my most favorite topic of all — his best friend Nick Joaquín. And when I told him how much I idolized his friend, it made him all the more joyous.
He then repeated the oft-told story of how he beat Nick in arguments. “He tells me that if not for the Spaniards, I would have remained an Igorot. Ang sagót co namán, eh di más mabuti pa ñgâ, ¡hahaha!” I faked a laughter. “Whenever he loses in a discussion, he takes his handkerchief from his pocket and waves them at me as a sign of surrender!”
I’m familiar with the story, but that is very contrary to Nick’s biography written by his late nephew Antonio “Tony” Joaquín. According to the biography, Nick would blow his nose and shove the snot-filled handkerchief to his Frankie friend. 😆 This funny scene was also discussed in Sari Dalena’s documentary “Dahling Nick”. I almost raised the issue to him, but I thought better.
“There was never a week when he was not here,” he declared proudly. I was waiting for him to tell me that Nick used to sit on the same stool that I was using. I would have embraced it right there and then. But he never did. “Nung namatáy si Nick, napaiyác talagá acó, eh.” I told him that I already saw Dalena’s documentary where a footage of him crying while delivering his eulogy at the Cultural Center of the Philippines was shown. That scene made me tear up, too.
“Actually, sir, I almost met Nick twice.” I saw a shimmer in his almost half-closed eyes, rendered as such due to more than nine decades on earth. “Señor Gómez was to introduce me to him many years ago, but on both occasions they didn’t materialize.” I noticed that both husband and wife were listening intently, so I continued. “And then a few years after that, I found out on the Internet that Nick already died. I was at the office when I read about the sad news. I then left my office cubicle, went to some isolated corner, then cried my heart out.”
Upon hearing that I’m an office worker, he suddenly changed the topic by asking me where I work. I told him that I’m a technical support representative at Mærsk (Manang chimed in that she knows the company), and that I’ve been working the night shift for fifteen years already. I sensed a hint of pity on Manong’s countenance upon hearing my predicament. For a fleeting moment, I remember his writings on social justice, about the toils and challenges of Filipinos belonging to the lower rungs of society. One unforgettable line that really struck a chord in me was from an impoverished character of his from his most famous novel, “The Pretenders”…
I really don’t ask for much. Just a chance to have my wife and children go through life with the least physical pain. That isn’t much to ask, is it? But in this bloody country, when a millionaire has a cold he goes right away to a fancy clinic in New York. And me, I can’t even afford to have my head examined. Hell, there’s justification in the old class struggle — I don’t care what you call it, but does a rich man have more right to live simply because he has more money?
I could relate to this very much. It seems that Sionil José, himself a victim of social injustice, has a soft spot for people like me, people with dreams but had to become wage slaves just so that they could keep their heads (and dreams) above water.
“Where is your office?” he said. I told him that it’s in Pásig, and that I live in faraway San Pedro Tunasán. Daily commuting to and from the office takes up more or less five hours of my life. “What?!” both husband and wife gasped in horror upon hearing this. I’m sure I heard one of them whisper “Dios co“.
“But at least,” I said, trying to reassure them, “I am still able to read a book during the commute, hehe”. The concerned look on Manong’s face was genuine. For sure, a man like him knows that a writer shouldn’t experience the kind of life that I’m enduring. I also shared to them something personal: that I couldn’t read or write well anymore the way I used to, that my attention span has gotten short, that I couldn’t finish a chapter in a book in one sitting, and I attribute all these ills to my night toils.
“I think you should go see a psychiatrist,” Manang said from her desk. I didn’t know if I should laugh or comment back. I just muttered “a psychiatrist” while looking at her with wondering eyes. Her husband then called my attention to another topic.
We talked about many other things: the Spanish language situation in the country (he was delighted to hear that I teach my kids the language and expressed his sadness that it did not become widespread in our country), his celebrated arguments with his friend Nick, and a host of other subjects. But I couldn’t stay the whole night. Manong looked at his wristwatch and politely told me that he and his wife had an appointment. So that’s why both were dressed up. “We are going social climbing!” We all laughed.
Before leaving, I asked if I could have a photo op with him. He was very accommodating. Jefe was already gone, so I rushed downstairs for the cellphone camera. She didn’t want to go up as she was busy with her phone (“kids” these days). I had to ask my son Jefe to take our photo. I rushed back up. Juanito and Junífera Clarita were still all over the mezzanine. My golly! Manong Frankie was just gazing at them while telling something to his wife. Upon seeing me, he then asked me about my kids, my family, and other personal stuff. Before our conversation could turn another half hour, I heard Yeyette finally climbing up the stairs. Seeing Manong Frankie, she tactlessly said: “O, ¿ayos na cayó?” She was aware of last year’s online vitriol that I had with the fictionist, but she didn’t know that I did not tell anything to him that it was I who wrote all that, haha!
The jolly and candid person that she is, Yeyette proceeded on greeting the esteemed couple, asked for their age, showed surprise when she got the answer, then asked for tips on what diet we should take for longevity, much to my embarrassment (no wonder why Junífera Clarita kept on talking and talking and talking: she got it from her Mamá). She didn’t have any idea of Manong Frankie’s literary worth, so I told the latter to excuse her for her forthrightness of character because she doesn’t read books. Manong was laughing heartily. My wife really amused him.
We then had the obligatory picture taking. I was asking for only one, but my wife had wanted more. Goodness gracious…
Me, Junífera Clarita, F. Sionil José, Juanito, and Yeyette. Photo by Jefe.
Manong Frankie and Yeyette.
Manang Teresita and Yeyette.
As I shook his hand, I said to him: “I may not have met Nick in person, but I feel that I have already met him through you.” He looked very, very pleased.
* * * * * * *
It was hard for me to contain my amusement and excitement as we went downstairs. There I was, planning only to see Solidaridad’s manager, but I ended up chatting with the owner himself who also happens to be one of the country’s greatest literary figures alive today (and a dear friend of my favorite writer). As we were about to leave, the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of “Mass”, the last of Manong Frankie’s five-part Rosales novels. I have an embarrassing confession to make: I have not yet completed my collection of Manong Frankie’s famous Rosales saga until that night. I already have in my possession for years the first four novels (Po-on; Tree; My Brother, My Executioner, and; The Pretenders), but Mass was the only book missing. Whenever I chanced upon it in bookstores, I always didn’t have money. Now was the perfect time, I thought. What better way to cap off my collection than to buy the book from where it was originally published and sold! And perfectly still: I will have it signed by the author himself!
After the unplanned purchase, I excitedly ran upstairs for an autograph, but I saw that the José couple were already descending, assisted by Mr. Guayabera. I just waited for them at the book store’s lobby. They were trudging slowly due to old age.
At Ms. Unsmiling Girl’s desk, F. Sionil José wrote a message on my purchase. It was there when he finally asked for my name.
“What is your name?” he repeated.
“Pepe?” He was waiting for me to tell him my last name.
“Umm… Pepe… Alas?”
“Pepe Alas, sir.”
“¿Anó?” he said, drawing his right ear to my face.
“You have to speak loudly,” called his wife who was already at the door, looking amused. “He is already hard of hearing”. But I was very close to him. Besides, we didn’t have that aural problem upstairs, even if we were about a meter or two apart from each other. He was able to hear me well during that tête-à-tête.
“It’s Alas, sir. A-L-A-S.”
“Alas?” he asked, almost frowning.
“Yes, sir.” He gazed at me for several seconds. I could have sworn he recognized the name (“Aha! It’s that bastard, trying-hard, sonuvabitch of a blogger who was hoping to go viral at my expense!”). But he proceeded to sign the book, anyway. I must have seen a scowl on his face, but I could be mistaken. He didn’t say anything to me after signing the book. He had another cheerful talk with my wife before we all said our goodbyes (Yeyette later told me that Manong was just inquiring if we are teaching our kids Spanish, she said yes, and it delighted him). They were going somewhere else, to social climb, as what he had told me upstairs.
As my family marched towards Taft, F. Sionil José, with bastón in hand, was still sending us off with a gaze.
* * * * * * *
I read the book immediately upon arriving home. I was amused to learn that the protagonist’s name was also a Pepe. Pepe Samson.
Had I known about this before, I would have told Manong Frankie that Samson was my last name.