Animal Avenue – Surviving a Megacity with a Four Year Old

18 Jun

Had Darwin lived long enough to visit 21st century Manila, he may have been intrigued by Katipunan. Day and night this anarchic, six lane boulevard is the arena for a lethal competition between diverse species of vehicle and pedestrian. Only the fittest survive. Just before my arrival, there’d been a few hairy incidents. A massive pile-up had demolished several cars and a trendy cafe. An official of the National Prosecutor’s League had ploughed into two teenagers, killing them instantly. A street kid had been squashed by a yuppie reversing his Toyota Fortuner outside the International House of Pancakes. I’d been warned that Manila drivers seldom check their wing mirrors.

Traffic police are a rare sight on Katipunan, but when they do pull someone over they’ll say something like ‘I am Noynoy Aquino’ or ‘I am Jeric Raval’. Such assertions might seem mad; Noynoy Aquino is the President of the Republic and Jeric Raval is a film star, the Filipino Arnold Schwarzenegger. The unsuspecting motorist will wonder if the policeman is suffering from a personality disorder. The more savvy motorist, on the other hand, will know that this is coded language for a bribe. The amount you’re expected to hand over depends on the fame of the celebrity mentioned.

My friend Joel told me about his own perilous encounter on Katipunan. As he was crossing the junction with Esteban Abada Street, a yellow taxi squealed to a halt. There was barely a cockroach’s antenna between its bumper and Joel’s knee. A policeman bounded over as Joel realised that this was his fault for jaywalking. The policeman drew his pistol. Joel started to beg: ‘Please, please, po. I have a wife and young children. I’m a Professor of English Literature at Miriam College.’ But rather than getting Jeric Raval on Joel, the cop stuck his gun through the window of the taxi and told the driver to watch where the fuck he was going. The driver yelled an obscenity back and sped off.

As J G Ballard proposes in his classic novel Crash, there’s something about the automobile that unchains the id, reduces men to beasts. Speeding, road rage, car crashes – hardly the behaviour of evolved, rational beings. But on Katipunan, the naked violence of animals can spread beyond the cars and into nearby places like the Greenbelt Mall. A week into my stay, this was the scene of a tragicomic shootout. The local mayor and his bodyguards were eating lunch when a posse of small-time crooks ran past. Mistaking them for potential assassins, the minders opened fire, killing one. The other crooks ditched their plan to rob a Rolex shop and fled the mall. This, sadly, was not a singular occurrence. A cursory surf of Google News will throw out such cheery headlines as ‘Hell hath no fury: abandoned wife kills 2 in mall shooting’ and ‘Love triangle shooting in mall leaves boy brain dead’.

Katipunan’s history is soaked in blood. The word itself means ‘association’ in Tagalog and refers to a revolutionary cell founded in 1892. Having lost faith in peaceful protest, its leader Andres Bonifacio was committed to the violent expulsion of the Spanish. After several disturbances in 1896-97 – including a massacre of Chinese-Filipinos close to the modern site of the avenue – Bonifacio sort of got his wish, but not quite. The Spanish were driven out, but rather than the Philippines achieving independence, the United States arrived in 1898 as the new colonial authority. Half a century later, Katipunan was reduced to rubble as the Philippines changed hands between the Japanese and the Allies. As the historian Jose S Arcilla writes, ‘Manila was the second most devastated city after Warsaw during the Second World War’. This explains the plethora of postwar, Art Deco-ish tower blocks all along Katipunan. They remind a philistine like me of Gotham City.

One such tower block – Loyola Heights Condominium – became home for my partner Donna, my four year old daughter Daisy and I. Our apartment had two bedrooms and a lounge – the height of luxury in a country where even middle class families squeeze into one room. When Donna started working at the Isis NGO, Daisy and I began exploring Katipunan. It was better than its reputation had implied. At first, anyway.

Ribbons of bougainvillea brightened the traffic islands and Spanish Flags burst across the skywalk. By mid afternoon when the fumes had built up to a pallid mist, these flowers would shine through, conveying a sense of hope. Well, to me, at least. All the nasty smells – sewage, particulates, burning plastic – were somehow offset by siopao (rice flour buns) and chicken balls frying in pavement skillets. Well-groomed men in shorts sold cheese-flavoured ice cream from pushcarts and helium balloons of Disney characters. Skin-whitened, jewel-studded old women stopped and asked us if we needed assistance. Students of Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines (the Oxford and Cambridge of the country) thronged in Mexican-style cantinas, their laughter competing with the buzzsaw riffs of The Eraserheads and other OPM (Original Pinoy Music) bands. The students’ bonhomie was infectious: it always cheered me and Daisy up. Even the street kids – half Daisy’s size but twice her age – would beam at us as we approached the glaring, day-glo frontage of a 7-11.

As we strolled, I noticed a contrast between the rumpus of the road itself and the dullness of the buildings flanking it. Insurance companies, autorepair shops, banks, language schools, fast food joints. Only the latter appealed to Daisy. No wonder, given the sneaky ploys these establishments used to lure the kids in. On Katipunan there were in-house fun fairs and failed actors dressed as bumble bees, promises of toys and crayons and children’s parties. I’d like to say that I rose above all this, that I resisted ‘pester power’, that I was a responsible dad… But no.

The best – or the least worst of the bunch – was Shaky’s. Attractive teens wearing red uniforms and Tony Blair grins skittered between Lego-like plastic furniture, serving pizzas the size of lorry wheels. On one occasion, a Tony Blairess called Pixie apologised as she delivered half a pig on dough: ‘Sorry, Mister, this not as big as you have in your country, no?’

‘Actually,’ I replied, ‘I’ve never seen a pizza this big or unhealthy anywhere in the world.’

One lunchtime, our flirtation with Shaky’s came to an abrupt halt. Daisy and I were sitting by the window watching men chainsawing a tree that had got tangled with an overhead line. I handed Pixie the bill, but Daisy wouldn’t turn away from the window.

‘Time to go, bay-bay!’ sang Pixie, but Daisy continued to treat us to the back of her head, which was now bowed against the glass.

More than a bit concerned, I took her arm and gently pulled her round to face us. She’d scrunched her eyes shut. Sweat was dripping off her brow. The window was streaked with multicoloured vomit. It was as luminous and cartoonish as the furniture. A crowd – amongst them hungry street kids – was gathering outside to stare at the brilliant lime green of the peppers, the blinding yellow of the mozzarella and the dazzling pink of the ham.

Pixie went for help. I fed Daisy water and mopped up what I could with a napkin. An army of grins with mops appeared. I made apologies – in the customary English way – and left a 700 peso (about £10) tip. This was three times the cost of the actual meal.

On our way out, Daisy giggled and called me ‘A big fat pooh pooh bum.’ I took this renewed cheekiness as a sign of recovery.

Shortly before reaching home, we were nearly killed. As the pavement was disappearing into two parking spaces outside the Jeff Gonzalez Auto Emporium, an SUV backed towards us at top speed. I picked Daisy up and dodged into the other space, treading in a puddle of oil. The SUV was blaring out the karaoke national anthem of the Philippines: the risible ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler. This only added to our humiliation.

I put Daisy down and banged my fist on the tinted driver’s window. The anger was burning up from the pit of my stomach and into my eyes. I had always thought ‘seeing red’ was just a metaphor, until that moment, when I was literally seeing red. Everything was a bloody hue. I stood there shaking, panting, feeling the control drain away from me, my free will evaporating like steam into the air. Instinct overrode any concern for safety, consequence or the law. I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling, and the feeling was this: a fucking idiot has almost killed my child and he will suffer. As a lefty peacenik, I’m embarrassed to admit to ever feeling like this. But feel like this I did.

I banged again on the window, my knuckles going numb. The window zipped down. Inside was a group of well-dressed yet profoundly frightened people; VIPs, probably big shots in Manila society: off-duty lawyers, actors, executives. They cowered, mouths like black holes, as if I were threatening them with a gun. ‘I’m so sorry, sir, so sorry, so sorry, so sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry…’ Who did they think I was? The only white, unarmed carjacker in Manila? With his four year old in tow?

It was a pathetic sight, and I was appalled by my own capacity to affect someone like this, to frighten. Whatever switch had flipped in me flipped back. It was like instantly sobering up from a state of intoxication. The burning sensation vanished. I caught my breath. I relaxed my fist – which was now hurting like an absolute bastard.

I looked to Daisy. Her back was turned. She was eyeing up Dunkin’ Donuts. I hurried her away, thankful that she had missed this.

 Originally published in the London Magazine, April-May 2012

©2012 Tom Sykes


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