The QC I know
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - September 29, 2017 - 4:00pm

Fifteen years ago, I lived in an apartelle in Cubao. “Apartelle,” of course, along with “bed spacer” and “senatoriable,” are words that only Filipinos can understand.

My apartelle unit was on the fourth floor of a street parallel to EDSA. It was shaped like a small cube. At one end of our street was Aurora Boulevard, with its jeepneys going to Manila on one side and the mountains of Montalban on the other. At the other end of our street was Nepa Q-Mart.

In front of our apartelle was an old house where, almost every day, I would see the grown-up children in their Makati suits rushing out in their cars. The parents – their faces wrinkled like the barks of the star-apple trees behind them – would stand by the garage, waving goodbye. One hundred meters away would be the lean-tos of what we now call “informal settlers.” When the rains fell, this part of the street would be flooded, and on more than one occasion, I braved the floods just to be able to reach my apartelle, leptospirosis be damned!

Thus, this is typical Quezon City territory, where crumbling compounds and towering condos commingle with the squalor of the slums.

I began filling my apartelle with things that I needed. First, I borrowed my father’s double-decker bed made of sturdy steel, the same bed I had slept in as a child growing up in Basa Air Base, Pampanga.

But after a few months, my double-decker began to sag, and I had to replace it. I bought a mattress and slept on it for months until I began to feel back pains. My therapist told me to buy a bed, since the coldness seeping from the floor had begun to leave “lumps” and “knots” on my back. So I bought a black sofa-bed.

I also began stacking piles of books around me, like walls in a fort. The piles just grew and grew that I had no choice but to bring them back to my former office at the Ateneo’s Department of English. My apartelle unit was turned into the nest of a mad librarian. I sat on a red swivel chair surrounded by wooden shelves crammed with periodicals and books.

The residents in the fourth floor included Alma, who was married to a devoted Japanese guy who drove a truck in his country. He would visit her monthly; he also doted on their only child. I liked them, except when out of loneliness perhaps, the woman would play her karaoke and sing songs about love that lasted only for a week and other such classics.

Farther down, there lived another woman married to another Japanese guy, who would visit her and her son every quarter. She said they lived in this apartelle because it was new and cheap and was near EDSA, the nerve-center of Mega Manila. She had a shrimp farm in the province, and would sometimes sell me a kilo of her harvest, which I bought in those days before cholesterol and its allies came into my life.

The door in front of me was occupied by a woman who then must be in her 50s. She had hennaed her hair a blazing orange that would make the Manila Bay sunset pale in comparison and she wore makeup that made her face look like espasol. She also wore dresses with plunging necklines and short skirts that hugged her buttocks. The cockroaches in the stairs wisely avoided her sharp, stiletto heels.

I met her two or three times on the stairs. I smiled at her, and her ruby-red lips also curved into a shy, tentative smile. The janitors said she worked as an auditor in a Makati corporation. She lived here because it was easy to grab a cab going to Makati. Or if there was none, she could just walk one block and cross EDSA, and there would be the air-conditioned buses from Japan, waiting for Makati-bound passengers. The boys in the building made fun of her behind her back. Of course, they could not do it in front of her, since men in this country are always afraid of spirited women.

My neighbor on the right side was a semifinalist in a national beauty contest. She used to play supporting roles and extras in teleseryes produced by the two TV stations nearby. This is not the “City of Stars” for nothing. When her showbiz career didn’t pan out, she began working as a guest relations officer in a night club in Cubao while her gay brother kept house.

The gay brother had wavy hair and naturally curly eyelashes as well. He would bat his eyelashes like butterflies when he told me funny stories about movie stars (male) whenever we saw each other on the stairs. I think the stairs are the equivalent of water fountains in corporate offices.

However, he was not there when his sister had a fight with her boyfriend. The beast had taken away all her clothes and hid them somewhere, and so the poor woman had to run down the four flights of stairs with only a white towel draped around her. She made a call at the reception table, sobbing her story that, naturally, the whole apartelle knew within one hour.

Cubao before Gateway Mall and Manhattan Condominiums was already turning into Avenida Rizal, a has-been movie star waiting for her close-up. But there was still the four-story National Bookstore, where I sometimes saw Ricky de Ungria, or full-stocked Rustans’ Supermart, where I sometimes met Lito Casaje, or the big Farmer’s Market, where I sometimes bumped into Jun Cruz Reyes, who was on his way  home to Bulacan.

I left the noise and pollution of Cubao for the calmness of a condominium unit in Loyola Heights. At least, I did not have to commute anymore and snap at all those rude cab drivers every day. But in the middle of my green and quiet oasis, where the matrons have milk-white skin and the men drive their Audis, I sometimes miss my old apartelle – and its cast of characters who had guts and gumption, and real character as well.

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