Into the Realm of the Underworld
From the book “Betel Nuts & Other Stories by Simeon G. Silverio, Jr.
He was off from school by three in the afternoon. As usual, fourteen-year-old Eric would spend the rest of the day hanging out with friends in his neighborhood in Quiapo District in downtown Manila instead of doing his homework at the library.
Sometimes he would watch movies. There were no television sets then, and people only listened to the radio in the evenings. There were no video games to entertain a curious boy like him. He would work for an hour in his fathers printing press located on the first floor of their apartment doing bindery work like sorting receipts or stapling booklets. Once he had earned his movie money, he would go to the nearby Society Theater on Echague Street or the Boulevard or Times Theater on Quezon Boulevard. For less than a peso, he could watch a double feature of second-run movies. For only 25 centavos, he could see two second-run Tagalog movies at the Illusion Theater a block away. One peso and 20 centavos was the price of a movie ticket for a first-class premiere showing of one movie.
Other times, he would read comic books at a nearby high school after class. From his house on Platerias Street, Eric would turn left on Carriedo Street, pass through Plaza Miranda and cross Quezon Blvd. through the newly-built underpass to R. Hidalgo Street where a high school was located. Across the school was a comic book rental place. He would rent Pilipino comic books and spend the rest of the afternoon in the world of comic characters like Kulafu, the jungle boy; D.I. Trece, the private detective; Bondying, the adult baby boy; and Silveria, the talking horse. Some of the comic books were old, published before he was born.
“We ordered them from faraway Santa Rosa, Laguna, he heard the owner boasted to a customer.
At that time in 1962, Santa Rosa was in the boondocks. One had to take a Laguna Transit Bus and travel the narrow highway road towards the south to reach the place in a two or three hour ride. Some people from Santa Rosa would work and stay in the Manila on weekdays and go home to their families on weekends.
Today, Santa Rosa, with its new housing developments, is part of the metropolis. Residents who work in Manila commute every day thanks to the South Express Way and other roads.
ERIC WAS WALKING HOME along R. Hildalgo Street after spending two hours reading comics when four boys, two years older and much bigger than him, approached him.
“Give us your money, they demanded.
He wanted to refuse but was afraid they would beat him up if he did not give in to their demand. He handed them his wallet.
“Let us take his watch also, the smallest of the four suggested.
Eric came home that afternoon without his money and his watch.
Two days later, his playmate Teddy wanted to read comic books on R. Hildalgo Street with him.
“I wouldnt go there anymore, Eric told Teddy.
He told him about the four boys who mugged him.
“Why didnt you tell me? Teddy asked him. “Let me take care of this.
Teddy lived on P. Paterno Street. He was a year older, much bigger and slow-witted. When he was in kindergarten, a classmate dared him to cut the classmates finger with scissors. Teddy did and his classmates finger bled profusely. Lucky for the classmate, the scissors were small, the kind that children use to cut out paper and are not that sharp. Otherwise, the classmates would have lost his finger at an early age. With that initial “claim to infamy, Teddy always tried to further boost his self-proclaimed “legendary reputation among his peers. He, however, did not fail Eric when he handed Eric his stolen watch and money two days later.
“How did you get these back? Eric asked.
“Chico made some calls, Teddy replied.
CHICO WAS A TOUGHIE who hung around the corner of Platerias and Carriedo Streets, watching over the sidewalk vendors. A city ordinance had prohibited selling wares along Carriedo Street because the activity clogged the sidewalks and made it difficult for pedestrians to pass through. But just like the prostitution den that operated across Erics house, the authorities tolerated it, presumably because the city officials and police were on the take. Occasionally, raids would be conducted for show. When policemen tried to apprehend them, the sidewalk vendors would run away to the side streets and sometimes put their wares easily under the parked cars. The practice must have been a rule in the game because the apprehending policemen would ignore the wares under the vehicles. If the police were able to grab a vendor by the collar, they would just take him to the precinct. After a few hours, the apprehended vendor would be back in business. For residents like Eric, it was a cheap form of entertainment and a welcome break to the humdrum of everyday life.
Chico would park his shiny, fiery red jeep on Platerias, near Carriedo. He often wore loud, long sleeves shirts, with his thickly pomaded mane of black hair combed backward, and his pointed, shiny black shoes. He gleamed in black from his head to his feet. Occasionally, a vendor would approach him and give him money, which he would surreptiously put in his back pocket. He would call Teddy who would be playing with Eric on the street and give him money for a pack of cigarettes. Teddy loved to do errands for him because he was always told to “keep the change.
Still, Eric was hesitant to go back to the comic book rental place. It took him another week to muster enough courage to do so, but not after he had seen all the movies shown in the nearby second-run theaters and there was nothing else for him to do. Upon reaching R. Hidalgo Street, he saw the four boys who had mugged him. This time, however, they seemed to back off, staying away as far as they could. They crossed to the opposite side of the street as if clearing the path before him. After going into the comic rental place and reading a bunch of comics, he stood up and tried to pay the owner. Oddly, the owner refused to accept his money, telling him it was on the house. Eric did not ask why and proceeded to enjoy the sudden privilege from then on.
One time, a pretty teenager was manning the place. Eric could hardly concentrate on the comic book, as he kept glancing at the girl, admiring her beautiful face. When he stood up to leave, the girl called him and demanded his payment. At that time, the owner arrived and stopped him from paying.
“Hes Chicos ward, he told the girl. “He gets to read for free.
The girl, who seemed to be oblivious to Eric at first, seemed to notice him now. She gave Eric a sweet smile and admiring glance on his way out. Eric looked forward to seeing the girl in the days ahead, but he never saw her again.
“LETS WATCH A BURLESQUE SHOW, Teddy, proposed to Eric one day.
“How? he asked his playmate. “Were minors.
“Let me take care of it, Teddy assured him, donning his tough guy persona.
The theater “Inday was showing a striptease show in their neighborhood. Teenage boys like them could only look at the photos of the beautiful girls wearing bikinis displayed in the lobby. Only adults were allowed to see the show.
Teddy and Eric walked towards Carriedo Street, turned right and left on P. Gomez Street.
“But this is the back of the theater, Eric told Teddy.
“Yep, Teddy said. “Well enter through the back door.
They waited for ten minutes when two of Teddys other friends came and waited with them. After a while, they saw Chico coming towards them.
“Bakit kasama iyan (How come he is with you)? Chico pointed at Eric.
“He will watch the show with us, Teddy said.
“No, he cant, Chico said. “Nakakahiya sa tatay niyan. Baka pagalitan ako (Its a shame to his father. He might scold me).
Teddy could not help Eric.
“Sorry, he told his friend.
Eric was not disappointed, however. He felt proud his father commanded so much respect from a tough guy like Chico.
Eric proceeded to the nearby Clover Theater and watched a wholesome stage show featuring the comic talents of Aruray, Chuchi, Doro de los Ojos and Tommy Angeles and the beautiful voices of the singers like Letty Liboon. He also marveled at the blind singer Norma Lapuz and the “Perry Como of the Philippines, Diomedes Maturan.
YEARS PASSED AND CHICOS REPUTATION OUTGREW QUIAPO. At one time, he was mentioned as a suspect in a bombing incident, one of the most sensational crimes of the decade. One Christmas morning, a photo showing the dead bodies of a notorious gangster and his henchmen was shown on the front pages of the newspapers. Their suspected killer was Chico. The former small-time tough guy from Quiapo, however, seemed untouchable and was said to be a boyhood friend of one of the high officials in the city.
One morning, a photo published in the afternoon paper caught Erics eye. It was Chico. According to the news, a rival hoodlum had shot and murdered him in retaliation for the murder of the notorious gangster on Christmas Day. While the high city official was able to shield Chico from the long arm of the law, the lawless bullets in the underworld took him out for good.
Eric continued to use the watch Chico had retrieved for him until the day it stopped. The afternoons he had spent in 1962 with Teddy and Chico were possibly his closest ventures into the realm of the underworld. These memories, which became part of his formative years, had enabled him to see how things were done by force, if not illegally. Chico might have lived a normal life and eventually seen his grandchildren grow; however, he chose a different path and paid the price. Eric hopes his childhood friend, Teddy, made it through – the right way. – AJ
(To purchase a copy of the book, “Betel Nuts & Other Stories by Simeon G. Silverio, Jr. send email message to firstname.lastname@example.org)