Life in the city

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

People have different coping mechanisms for the sense of isolation wrought by the pandemic. People still do office and school work online, yes, but they still do other things to calm them down.

Some people watch movies, documentaries and shows on YouTube and Netflix, with its new and interesting offerings. Others listen to music in Spotify or YouTube. Most stay in the virtual world of social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and, increasingly, the short and dynamic medium of Tiktok.

In my case, I continue to teach part-time at Ateneo de Manila University, Far Eastern University and San Beda University. I am finishing the translation in Filipino of Eileen Tabios’ novel, “Dovelion.” Penguin Random House South East Asia also signed me up for a two-book contract to translate in English the novels of National Artist Amado V. Hernandez: “Ibong Mandaragit” (“Birds of Prey”) and “Luha ng Buwaya” (“Crocodile Tears”). Penguin has also just accepted my newest book, “Heart of Summer: Selected Stories and Tales,” for publication this December.

Writing, indeed, has saved me from the malaise wrought by this long-drawn pandemic. I also write memory pieces, just like this one when I was a Law student a few years ago.

*      *      *

If you were a drone, you would see a slow Light Railway Transit (LRT) 2 train wending its way from Santolan to Recto station. I would board it in Katipunan station, with its smelly toilet and unwashed floor. It was a Thursday morning, and I was going to Law school at a university in Manila.

The train would be crammed full of students going to the University Belt: Iranians taking Medicine, wearing their white uniforms and talking in a strange and melodic language; frisky teenagers wearing their Physical Education uniforms and Law students like myself, reading our tomes, err, our books. There were also office employees and factory workers, who kept on looking at their watches or trying to catch some sleep.

I looked outside and there was the Saint Joseph’s Church; we were now in Anonas. I remembered my mother, who used to teach Music at the Quirino Elementary School two blocks behind the church. She would often pass by this route, my beautiful mother who taught Music to four generations of students.

The ugly buildings of Aurora Boulevard blurred before my eyes, and now it was Cubao. Half of the people in the train alighted here, workers going to Caloocan in the north, or Makati in the south. Then we would resume our trip, cocooned in the caterpillar shape of the train, past the smart town houses of New Manila green with tall trees, past the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, past the beautiful building that used to be Goethe House, the German Cultural Center, where I attended book launchings 20 years ago.

The Iranians had stopped their musical conversations. Now they were reading their thick medical books. The Law students continued reading their books on Persons and Family Relations, the Revised Penal Code or Obligations and Contracts. They muttered words and closed their eyes, memorizing the provisions that the terror professors might ask later in class.

You knew you were no longer in Quezon City and now entering Manila because the tangle of electric wires were more prominent, the rooftops rustier. Sometimes the air was a gray dome above us, until we reached the terminal at Recto.

From Recto would then branch LRT 2, one going north to Roosevelt in Quezon City, the other going south to Doroteo Jose in Manila. I took this train later, when I lived in a condominium unit near Muñoz Market. I was appointed dean of the College of Journalism at The Manila Times College in 2016, and when my car was on number coding, I took the train. The Roosevelt station also had smelly toilets. Students and factory workers made up most of the passengers here, aside from people going to the markets at Cloverleaf or down south, in Baclaran.

But the passengers of LRT 2 were more aggressive, pushing and shoving to get inside. I would automatically stand in the space near the door, and let them rush in and out of the train. The sights from this train were sadder: smaller houses made of thin plywood, a scraggly line where the laundry was hung.

My heart leapt when I saw the solid building of the Scottish Rite Temple, remembering the one and a half years that I had spent living in merry, old Scotland. This would be followed by small buildings and dormitories. Only De La Salle University looked grand, with its tall white columns and vivid greenery.

More condominium buildings were rising in the area since I began taking the train, and now they must have been finished, including that ugly one that stood behind national hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s monument at the Luneta. It was just too bad that the Second World War came, killing almost a million Filipinos and destroying our grand buildings. Manila was the second most-bombed city in the world during that war, after Warsaw.

I would get off at the Arroceros station, and thank the Lord that the beautiful park was still there, on one side, and the Metropolitan Theater was still standing, on the other side. There were only a few places in the Philippines where nature and culture were within breathing spaces of each other.

Sometimes, I would go to the toilet near the bus station. You had to pay ten pesos but that was all right, since it was air-conditioned and clean. While inside, you could see on the wall the photographs of Old Manila, in black and white, our beautiful churches and our great universities, before the bombs whistled and fell, destroying them forever.

Lives can vanish in a blip, whether you are a civilian trapped in one of the buildings in Intramuros during that terrible war, or you are presently afflicted with the COVID-19 virus, fighting it with all the bravery and energy God has given you.

*      *      *

Email: [email protected]. Danton’s book Riverrun, A Novel, has been published by Penguin Books.

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