Children of the City
Amadis Ma. Guerrero
(For the newsboys of Manila, in the hope of a better life for them)
"Suffer the little children to come to Me...”
THE father of the boy Victor worked on the waterfront and got involved in a strike, a long drawnout affair which had taken the following course: It began with charges that the employees were not being given a just compensation, that part of their earnings were being withheld from them, and that their right to form a union was being disregarded. It escalated with the sudden dismissal, for unstated reasons, of several workers, giving rise to fears that more layoffs would be carried out in the near future. This led to organized defiance, and the setting up of picket lines. Finally, one stifling summer evening, violence broke out on the piers of the city as the strikers were receiving sandwiches and soft drinks from sympathetic outsiders.
Victor had been, and still was, too young to understand it all. But when they were living in one of the shanties that stood in Intramuros, he would frequently overhear snatches of conversation between his parents regarding his father’s job. Sobra na, his father would say, we cannot take it anymore. Naglalagay sila, they are depriving us of our wages, and they even have this canteen which charges us whether we eat there or not.
Then his mother's voice, shrill and excited, would cut in, urging him to swallow it all, accept what little was given to him and stay away from the groups that wanted to fight back. She spoke bitterly of the newly emerging unions - and that priest with his cohorts and his student volunteers - who were trying to organize the workers. Victor's father defended these groups, saying were only protecting the dockhands' interests. You don't know what it's like out there, he would say, there have been beatings, and all sorts of accidents. It's a dreadful place really…
Once the boy interrupted them and wanted to know what the discussion was all about, only to be met with a rebuke from his mother. But he was insistent, the heat of the argument stirring a vague fear within him, and he asked what a cabo was. To distract him, his father playfully laid hold of him and hoisted him over his shoulders (although Victor was getting a bit heavy for this sort of thing). And thus they horsed about the house, or what passed for it, to the tune of the boy's delighted shrieks and the cold stares of his mother.
Occasionally, whenever he would find the time, his father would take him out at night for a stroll along the Boulevard, to feel the breeze and to walk gingerly on the narrow embankment. The place at this hour wove its spell around him, a kind of eerie enchantment, and he would gaze fascinated at the murky waters gently, rhythmically swirling on the shore, and at the beckoning lights of Cavite, and thrill to the mournful blast of a departing ship.
- Tatang, where is the ship going? -
- I don't know, Victor. Maybe to the provinces. Maybe to another
country, a faraway land. -
- When will we be able to travel too? –
- I don't know, when we have a little money, perhaps. -
The whistle of the ship, which seemed to be a big liner, sounded once more as it steamed out of the harbor and headed in the direction of the South China Sea. Arm in arm in the darkness punctuated only by a few insufficient lights, father and son tried to make out the dim outline steadily moving away from them. Then the ship faded into the shadows, and its whistle sounded no more.
Later they strolled on the promenade and made their way slowly to the Luneta, where his father bought him some chicharon.
The park was dimly lit and ill-kept, and as they passed by the Rizal monument they noticed a number of rough-looking men lurking about in its vicinity. Two women, dressed gaudily and unaware of their presence, were approaching from another direction. As they neared, the men unloosed a volley of whistles, yells and taunts. Then stones were flung, triggering screams and curses from the two. Victor was startled at hearing their voices, which, though high-pitched, sounded distinctly masculine.
His father hurriedly led him away from the scene, and to his puzzled queries replied that it was nothing, just a quarrel, an incident. As an afterthought, he observed that the park had not always been like this, that once in the distant past it had been a clean and picturesque place.
- Maybe it will become beautiful again in the future...
A week after this the dock strike materialized. It was called against a shipping firm following the breakdown of negotiations. The picket dragged on, with the strikers and their families subsisting on funds raised by student, labor and civic-spirited elements. And the tide seemingly began to favor the strikers, for soon the case attracted national attention.
Victor's father would return home late at night from the marathon picket manned in shifts, exhausted but excited, and brimming over with enthusiasm for the cause. His mother made no comment, her protests having long subsided into a sullen silence.
Students and unionists drummed up public support for the workers, organizing drives for them, detailing their plight in pamphlets and press interviews. They reinforced the picket lines, held rallies to boost their morale and distributed food and money. And the shipping management's haughtiness turned to concern and then to desperation...
ONE evening, four months after the strike began, the silence of the piers was broken by the rumble of six-by-six trucks. There were three of them, and they were heading straight for the picket lines. A shot rang out, reverberating through the night, then another and a third.
Panic spread through the ranks of the strikers, and a few started to run away. Calls by the activists to stand fast, however, steadied the majority, who stood rooted on the spot following the initial wave of fear and shock. - Easy lang, easy lang, they won't dare crash through. - But the huge vehicles advanced inexorably, and as they neared, a kind of apocalyptic fit seized three picketers who, propelled by the months and years of exploitation, charged right into the onrushing trucks.
Amid screams and yells, the barricades were rammed. And the scores of strikers fell upon the 6-by-6s loaded with goons in a fury, uncaring now as to what happened to them. They swarmed over the trucks, forced open the doors and fought back with stones, placards and bare fists, as more guns sounded.
Then the harbor police moved in, and as suddenly as it began, the spasm of violence ended. The moans of the injured mingled with the strident orders of the authorities to replace the noise of combat. In addition to the three who had been ran over, two other men had been shot to death. One of them was Victor's father, and his picture appeared on the front page of one newspaper. It showed him spreadeagled on the ground, eyes staring vacantly, with a stain on his breast.
Later that evening, the news was relayed to Victor's mother, and she fell into hysterics. Her cries betrayed not only anguish but fury and frustration as well, and learning of his father's death and seeing and hearing his mother thus, Victor, eight-year-old Victor, cowered in the shadows.
Neighbors took care of him that night, but in the morning he managed to slip out, and he made his way to the Boulevard, once there walking about aimlessly. He heard the call of newsboys going about their job, and unknown fears began to tug at him. At a newsstand in the Ermita district his glance fell on the photo of his father, and he stared at it long and hard. It was the first time he had paid such close attention to a newspaper.
Victor's father was laid to rest three days later at the crowded cemetery to the north. His fellow workers had passed the hat around, and although the amount collected was meager, contributions from the union organizers and their supporters had made possible the fairly decent burial. His mother sobbed all throughout the ceremony, and broke down noisily when the time came for a final look at her husband. The boy stood at her side, subdued. As the coffin was being lowered, he felt like calling out to his father, tatang, tatang, but the impulse died down, swept aside by the copious tears of his mother. It was a bright, clear day. On the avenida extension, the early morning traffic was forming and the sound of car horns intruded into the place where the mourners were gathered.
Not long after his father's death, Victor, a third-grader dropped out of school, and plans were made to employ him as a newsboy with the help of an uncle who was a newspaper agent. His mother, who had gotten into the habit of disappearing in the afternoons and returning home early in the evening, pointed out that he was healthy and active, though lacking somewhat in aggressiveness. Surely this could be easily acquired once he was thrown out into the field?
One day she brought with her a man, a stranger with a fowl breath who swayed from side to side, and introduced him to Victor as your new tatang. The boy did not respond to him, thinking some joke he could not comprehend was being played on him. And in the days that followed he avoided as much as possible all contact with the interloper. This man, unkempt in appearance, seemed to be everything his father wasn't. For one thing he was always cursing (his father had done so only when angry, and kept this at a minimum whenever Victor was around.) And in his friendlier moments he would beckon to the boy' and say -want this, sioktong? - in such a falsetto tone that Victor coldly looked away. At night he heard strange sounds behind the partition, accompanied by his mother's giggling and the man's coarse laughter, and he felt like taking a peek, but some instinct held him back. He was disturbed no end.
One morning a week after the man moved in. Victor woke up to find him gone, along with his mother. In their stead stood his agent uncle, Tio Pedring, who said his mother had gone on a long vacation, and amid assurances that she would come back soon, informed the boy that he was to start to work immediately as a courier for the newspaper he was connected with. It's easy, Tio Pedring said, and forthwith briefed him on his duties.
He was to report at the plant every night at 9 o'clock, wait for the first edition, which came out at 11 p.m., and observe the routine. He was to sleep right outside the circulation offices, and then awaken before 4 a.m., for that was the time the city edition was made available. A number of copies, perhaps 15 or 20, would then be turned over to him, and it was up to him to distribute these in the Blumentritt area. Tio Pedring, his mother's older brother and a thin man with a nervous tic, gave him the names and addresses of 10 regular customers, and said that it was up to him to develop, his own contacts so as to dispose off the rest of the newspapers allotted. When he was off-duty, Victor could stay in his uncle's Blumentritt place, and for every newspaper he sold he would get three centavos. No mention was made of resuming the boy's interrupted schooling.
THAT evening at the appointed hour he went over to the newspaper's building located in the downtown section, and was greeted by the sight of scores of ragged, barefooted newsboys swarming before the dispatcher's section. A few were stretched out on the pavement, asleep on kartons that served as their bed, while others were having their supper, bibingka and soft¬drinks, from the turo-turo that catered to them. The majority just milled around, grouped together in tight bunches playing their crude game of checkers, or simply loafing, awaiting the call to duty. The noise of their conversation, loud and harsh and punctuated by words like putangina, filled the newspaper's building.
In reply to his hesitant queries, the guard directed him to the distributing center, a stifling, enclosed place adjoining the printing presses. Victor entered, knowing that the notice which said unauthorized persons keep out was not meant for those like him, and for the first time he heard the throbbing of the machines which daily poured out thousands of newspaper copies. He listened for a while, fascinated, before seeking out the chief dispatcher, a harried-looking man who looked at him sharply and said - so you're the new boy? - ¬then told him to stick around for the provincial edition and observe how things went. After that he could sleep if he wanted to, and he would be awakened at 4 a.m., when the city edition came out. Fifteen copies would be given to him, and if he consistently managed to sell all of these, the number would be increased and he would make more money.
Our work here is rush, rush, rush. You've got to be listo.
Victor nodded, then, dismissed, made his way back outside, where the chill of the evening had replaced the heat of the plant. A mood of foreboding descended upon him, like a pall. He was hungry, but had no money, and so contented himself with watching the other newsboys. He wanted to mingle with them, but they didn't seem to be very friendly. A dilapidated ice cream pushcart stood at one end of the corner, and to this the urchins went for their ice cream sandwiches, consisting of one or two scoops tucked into hot dog and hamburger-sized bread. Beside it was a Magnolia cart, patronized by outsiders.
One boy stood out from among the throng. The others called him Nacio, and like all of them he wore a dirty T-shirt and faded short pants, and had galis sores on his legs, but cheerfulness emanated from him and he seemed to enjoy a measure of popularity among his companions. Upon noticing Victor watching from the side he detached himself from a group and offered him a cigarette.
Surprised, Victor demurred, and said he did not know how to smoke. Nacio shrugged his shoulders, as if to say hindi bale, then asked if Victor was new on the job. Upon receiving a reply in the affirmative, he nodded in satisfaction and told the other to learn from him, for he would teach him the tricks of the trade, such as how to keep a sharp eye out for customers, how to swiftly board a bus or jeep and alight from it while still in motion, and so on...
Nacio invited him to eat, but again Victor declined, saying he had no money.
- Hindi problema yan! - the irrepressible Nacio said, - Sige, I'll pay for you. - He turned to the turo-turo owner: Hoy, Aling Pacing! Pianono at Coke nga ho! Will you give me a discount? - Aling Pacing only looked down coldly at the boy, and grunted - no discount for you. No discount for any of you -
Nacio winked at Victor as he paid, took the rolls and drinks, and handed over to the other his share. Victor wolfed down the pianono, although it didn't taste too new, and drank with deep satisfaction while his companion chattered on, regaling him with his experiences as a carrier and his ability to skillfully dodge in and out of traffic. He disclosed that once he had been sideswiped by a car, but escaped only with a few scratches, and boasted: - I'm the fastest newsboy in Manila. - Victor marveled at his luck in finding such a fine friend.
As the time for the release of the first edition neared, an air of expectation materialized outside the plant. The newspaper's trucks and vans stood in readiness. The newsboys grew in number and began to form a dense mass. Their conversation became louder, more excited, and their horseplay rougher. Shortly after 11 p.m. a team of dispatchers emerged with the initial copies, the ink of the presses still warm on them, and was greeted by yells of anticipation. A stampede followed, and Victor noted that for every bundle turned over to a newsboy, one distributor jotted down on a piece of paper the number allotted to him.
The clamor grew as the boys dashed out of the building and surged into the darkened streets. They were like school children being let out for recess. The noise continued, then subsided after a few minutes, with the last urchin scampering away. The nighttime silence returned once more to the area, broken only by occasional shouts of the men loading the main bulk of the provincial edition into the trucks, the toot of passing motorist's horn and the sound of laughter from drunkards in the sari-sari store in front.
Victor settled himself on the pavement, and despite the hard ground he felt tired and sleepy. He used his right arm as a pillow, and thought briefly about his father, his mother and the man she had taken up with, Tio Pedring and the day's events, before sleep claimed him.
He awakened several hours later, jolted by the noise of the second wave of newsboys gathering for the city edition. Gingerly he stretched his cramped arms and legs, peered about him and shivered, for it had grown much colder. He kept an eye out for Nacio, although he felt sure he would not come back anymore tonight. He could recognize, though, some of the faces in the crowd.
The same procedure took place at 4 a.m., it was like a reel being retaken. The routine was now familiar to Victor, but with a difference. This time he was a participant in the activities, and he found himself caught up in the excitement. All weariness gone from him, he sped away in the company of his colleagues, holding on tightly to his ration of 15 copies. Exhilaration coursed through him, and he ran and ran, stopping only when he reached the avenida. The others had scattered in different directions, and the street stretched away endlessly, virtually devoid of traffic. Its stores had long closed down for the night, and only a few neon signs glowed.
He began to walk slowly, sober now, his responsibilities heavy on him. His destination was Blumentritt. As he crossed Azcarraga, a taxi slowed down, and its passenger called out to him. Tremblingly he handed over a paper, and received 15 centavos in turn. His very first sale! His spirits soared anew... perhaps it wasn't so difficult after all to sell a newspaper. This impression was bolstered when in a matter of minutes he made two more sales, to customers at a small, all-night restaurant.
It was still dark when he arrived at the district, and the first thing he heard was the whistle of the train which passed through the place every evening. He reacted in the same way he had to the foghorn blasts of the ships along the Boulevard.
He set about reconnoitering the area, to get the feel of it, and took out the list Tio Pedring had given him. He recalled his uncle's words:
- You're lucky. Not all newcomers have mga suki when they begin, and they have to return so many copies at first. Tambak sila. - The customers included a dressmaker, a barber, a small pharmacist, and a beautician. And to their places Victor eventually made his way, slipping the newspapers under doors, into mailboxes, and the apertures of padlocked steel gates.
Soon it grew light, and more jeepneys began to ply their routes, as buses appeared, bound for Santa Cruz and Grace Park. The signs of activity in the neighborhood market increased while the small parish church near it remained closed, silent and deserted. Young scavengers, worn out from poking all night among trash cans, slept inside their pushcarts. Piles of garbage stood on several streets and alleyways.
Victor made no other sales that day, and he returned to the plant with three unsold newspapers. He turned them over apologetically. The one in charge now shrugged, then noted that he had not done badly for a first night's work. He added that he expected Victor to improve in the future and equal the other newsboys, who always complained that their allotment was not enough. The dispatcher said: - Our newspaper is sikat. By noon we are all sold out in the newsstands. –
On his second night on the job, Victor was set upon by a group of street boys his age, who sprang up from out of the shadows and began to beat him up. He managed to flee from the scene in terror, leaving behind all his newspapers. For this he was roundly cursed by his uncle, who promised to take it out on his earnings for the next few days.
He took to haunting his beat even during the daytime and became friends with the little people, the vendors, the sellers of peanuts, kalamansi, coconuts and pigs, the grocery employees, the market denizens, the modistas and shop owners, and even some of' the patrolmen. Through his constant presence in the area, he was able to find additional regular customers, and no more did he have to return unsold copies. At night he went about his tasks with renewed confidence, and when through he would rest in front of the local bank. Gradually he lost his fear of thugs.
Though his work improved, his relations with the other newsboys didn't. Nacio remained his only friend, and whenever he was around the others let Victor alone. He couldn't make them out at all, with their rough games and harsh tongues, their smoking and their constant baiting. At one time he was jolted awake from the dreamless sleep by the concerted yells of the newsboys, who were hurling missiles, with the drivers reacting by merely stepping on the gas, and the passengers cowering in alarm. The guards whose job it was to break up these things did not seem to be around. No one could give an explanation for the sudden outburst.
VICTOR was eventually allowed to sell both editions of the paper and his daily quota was increased to 20. Soon he was making about three pesos every day, sometimes more. His beat late at night was transferred to the Boulevard district, where he peddled the provincial edition to night clubbers and cocktail loungers. In the early hours of the morning he would distribute the city edition to his Blumentritt customers. Tio Pedring expressed satisfaction with his development, and granted the boy more decent accommodations and better food at his residence.
Victor settled down into the routine, which would be livened up sometime by big events, like an earthquake. During such occasions the labor force would swell, augmented by now inactive boys who had graduated to other fields of endeavor, like pickpocketing and the watch-your-car business. In January the Press Club held its annual party in honor of newsboys, and Victor and Nacio along with many others, attended. There were balloons, soft drinks and cookies. Nacio kept stuffing these into his pockets, to the great amusement of Victor, who was tempted to do the same, but there didn't seem to be enough around.
That was the last time the two spent together. Within a week Nacio met his death - violently; he had been run over by a car while recklessly charging into the street following the release of the first edition. The following afternoon, this sign stood at the corner leading to the newspaper building: SLOW DOWN NEWSBOYS COMING OUT.
Victor grieved for his friend, and from that time on he became even more taciturn and withdrawn.
HE avoided the Boulevard by night, with its motionless ships, its necking couples, jagged embankment and swaying trees, and stuck to the well¬-populated areas. The bar district in the southern part of the city began to attract him, and fortified by his sheaf of newspapers, which was like a badge of distinction for him, he would stare expressionlessly at the painted girls posing before the doorways under the garish neon signs, at the customers briefly eyeing them before going in, and at the well-dressed bouncers.
On this particular evening the bars were filled with foreign sailors, for a military exercise was to be held within a few days. Red-faced and grinning, the fair-complexioned seamen made the rounds, boisterous, arm in arm sometimes, and swaying from side to side (they reminded Victor of the man who had replaced his father). Helmeted men, with MP arm-bands, stood in front of some of the cocktail lounges.
Victor approached one of the dives and, getting a nod from the bouncer, who saw he was a newsboy, made his way in. It was almost pitch-dark inside, and it took a few minutes for his eyes to grow accustomed to the cavern-like atmosphere. Hostesses and sailors were grouped around the small tables, drinking, talking and laughing shrilly while a combo belted out pulsating music and a singer strained to make herself heard above the din. Some couples were pawing each other.
He approached a group noisily drinking, and tugged at the sleeves of one sailor.
- You buy newspaper from me, sir. Sige na, Joe. –
The other peered at him in surprise, then guffawed loudly, and waved him away. He said thickly - Beat it, Flip boy! –
Victor stood rooted on the spot. He didn't understand the words, but the gesture was unmistakable. Some hostesses started giggling nervously. He was about to turn away in anger and humiliation when another seaman, blonde and clean-shaven, gently laid a hand over him - Wait a minute, sonny. - Then he dipped into his pocket and handed over something to Victor. - Here, take it, it's yours. Have a grand time with it. –
Victor thanked him automatically, and went out swiftly. He looked at the paper bills in his hand and saw that they totaled two pesos, practically a night's work for him... and the pall that had descended over him for weeks was suddenly lifted, like a veil. He felt liberated, renewed. He wanted to sing out, to shout and dance about. And he began to run, joy spurring him on.
Later that night he recounted the incident to his surprised colleagues, who had never seen him this garrulous before. He elaborated on the story, enriching it with imaginary details, and transformed it into a tale of danger, excitement and exotic drama. As a clincher, he proudly showed off his money, realizing his mistake in the next instant. But it was too late. The others began to advance toward him, encircling him. Their words were flung at him like stones:
- Why aren't you like us? -
- Why don't you smoke? -
- Why don't you curse? -
- Say putangina.
Victor drew back, frightened. With a chill he remembered the time the Blumentritt boys had ganged up on him. - I don't say words like that. –
- Say it! –
- All right, all right, putangina. - But the ephitet carried no conviction, and he repeated it, stronger this time. The boys laughed in derision, and gave out a mirthless kind of cheer. After uttering the words, Victor could no longer control himself. He began screaming all kinds of curses, and he hurled himself bodily upon them, kicking, hitting, screaming, in the grip of a fury he had not known existed within him.
With a great shout, the others fell upon him. Newsboys sleeping on the ground woke up in alarm, the night circulation people looked around in consternation, and the turo-turo owner screamed. The melee continued until a shouting security guard rushed in and roughly broke it up. He led Victor away, and was about to interrogate him when the boy, who had sustained some cuts and bruises, broke free of his grasp and fled into the night.
He roamed the streets, the byways and darkened alleys of the teeming district. He passed by children his age scrounging around trash cans, and dingy motels where couples went in and out. One small restaurant, a focal point of excitement during the daytime when the racing results were posted, now stood silent and almost empty, about to close down. His face and body ached from the blows he had received, and a trickle of blood streamed down his nostrils. He wiped this on his T-shirt. He seemed to be in good shape otherwise, and he felt relief that the fight had been stopped in time. His thoughts flew back and forth. He promised himself that he would never go back to the plant, but his resolve soon began to weaken. He was at a loss as to what to do.
A rough voice to his right drew his attention, and as he turned into a narrow sidestreet leading to the avenida, he saw a policeman bending over a man sprawled on a heap, and apparently asleep. The officer kept on shaking the fellow, who failed to respond. Then, cursing, he hit him with his night stick, as Victor watched...
HE reported for work the following evening, prepared for anything. But nothing untoward happened. Last night's incident seemed to have been forgotten, and the others made no reference to it. Then one of the boys, whom Victor recognized as a ring-leader, went over to him and, apparently as a kind of peace offering, held out a cigarette. Victor hesitated, then said he
The others began to form around him anew, but this time their attitude was one of curiosity rather than of menace.
- Sige na, take it. It is very nice to smoke, and it is easy. All you have to do is take a deep breath, then exhale slowly.
And Victor, his last defenses down, leaned forward and wearily accepted the cigarette, while around them swirled the life of the city: this city, flushed with triumphant charity campaigns, where workers were made to sign statements certifying they received the minimum wage, where millionaire politicians received Holy Communion every Sunday, where mothers taught their sons and daughters the art of begging, where orphans and children from broken homes slept on pavements and under darkened bridges, and where best friends fell out and betrayed one another.