My parents had run the store for many years as they always did: by themselves, with not much of an accounting except perhaps in my father’s head. I suppose in a way it was very much a hand-to-mouth operation in those days: whatever profits were generated immediately went into paying for daily subsistence, and the rest into buying more inventory for the store.
Sales were wrapped up in recycled newspaper and tied with a string. Tatay and Inay worked in the store together all year long, and often when the kids are off from school they were drafted into helping out as well. There were no hired help, except for Lucing, who kept house and did the chores for which Inay did not have the time. There was hardly any relaxation time for my parents, and the only entertainment I can recall for them was the electric radio in the store. As soon as my father woke up, he would turn it on and listen to his early morning talk and news show. It was his main source of information apart from the vernacular daily newspaper Taliba which would be read from cover to cover, then passed around to whoever wanted to borrow it: uncles, friends, Ching’s sales help during their lunch breaks. Not a bad buy for ten centavos when it practically made the round of the whole neighbourhood, and still made its way back to the store to be used to wrap tomorrow’s sales.
I can almost still recall the sound of the morning announcer’s voice: Ka Paeng as he was chummily called by his assistant and his listeners, and in time replaced by another man called Ka Noli. Regardless of who was on the air, the format never really changed: late-breaking news, personal commentaries and best of all, the latest weather reports. DZMB, Radyo Balita (news radio) was the one to tune into very early in the day, especially during the typhoon season when it was almost the authority on the severity of the typhoon to be expected for the rest of the day. Signal number one meant business as usual for everyone; the next morning, the calm voice of the announcer would turn into a more excited pitch as he declares, “Signal numero dos na po ang bagyong Etang,” (Typhoon Etang has been upgraded to Signal Number Two. Typhoons were always accorded female names, the name of first typhoon of the season started with the letter A, then B and on and on. Occasionally in case of super typhoons, the name is switched to a masculine one).
Signal Number Two also brought a certain excitement in the air especially for younger kids. It meant a day off from school with not much to do but hang out and maybe catch up on sleep, the perfect thing to do on a cold, wet afternoon. It also sometimes meant that the store will not be busy, and Inay would find some time in the afternoon to make samporado, glutinous rice porridge flavoured with coconut milk, sugar and powdered Ricoa chocolate, or if available, with tabliya, dark rich natural cocoa balls that came from the province and stored for special occasions. Soon as it was ready, samporado was served in small bowls, with evaporated milk added to add extra creaminess, and eaten with a side of fried tuyo, dried salty fish. Together they made the perfect hot afternoon snack for a blustery and rainy day.
Perhaps once a season, or every other year, a really powerful typhoon will head towards land, and Signal Number Three would be declared. It meant that at least for the day every normal day-to-day activities would stop: all schools and businesses shut down, the market would be abandoned by both buyers and sellers and if you didn’t get to Ching’s grocery before it shut down for your candles and canned goods, then you ended up starving in the dark! For almost as certain as predicted, by midday the whole force of the storm would come down hard on everything outside: gale-force wind would send everything that is not tied down flying and, like in our house all buckets and pans not being used were placed on the floor to catch rainwater which inevitably dripped down from holes in the roof.
It was always scary but thrilling at the same time to take a peek out the front window and witness some of the chaos the violent wind caused in the neighbourhood. Through the torrential rain one could sometimes catch a glimpse of corrugated metal sheets being torn off the roofs of houses, all sort of garbage and debris swirling in the air, and even the occasional unfortunate soul stupid enough to venture out of doors, frantically running after his salakot (wide native hat made of palm) or his upturned umbrella.
After the storm passed, it was almost a given that the electric power supply would be out for most of the day and sometimes even overnight. Meals were usually limited to the canned variety: pusit Portola, squids in their natural ink, sardinas or my favourite: tinned corned beef sautéed in garlic, onions and diced potatoes served with rice.
The whole day and night would pass in eerie silence, broken only by the newsflash from the battery powered transistor radio my father kept for such emergencies: how many people died, the amount of devastation, the places most affected. Everyone went to bed early, exhausted by the worries that normally accompanied such natural calamities.
The next morning everyone woke up to a bright sunny morning as if the storm never passed except for the tell-tale signs: leaves and branches strewn all over, pieces of metal roofing lying on the ground, severed power lines dangling from the lamp posts. After a brief clean up everything went back to normal and the briefly interrupted life continued.
And what exactly was normal? Well truth be told it was a relatively humdrum life then. The store was the focus of everyone’s life, probably because it was there that everything happened. It was a place of business, the living room for visiting friends and family, the family den where before we got a television every member available congregated around the old standby radio. Everyone also understood and respected each other’s turn to listen to their favourite program. Tatay would have his morning show; whichever of the children were at home listened to midday game or variety shows and on the weekends, teenage-oriented programs. The commercials were as memorable as the shows themselves, sometimes even more so. An ad for baby vitamins went:
United American Tiki-tiki
United American, United American
United American Tiki-tiki
United American, United American
Inay commandeered the rights to the early afternoons with her daily back-to-back dramas like “Dear Kuya Cesar” and “Ito ang Inyong Tiya Dely” (This is Your Aunt Dely). More appropriately, “Ito ang Inyooong Tiiiiya Delllly”, as the host Tiya Dely Magpayo used to draw out the title as slow and as deliberate as she could. The theme for both were the same: listeners would write their sob stories, which would then be written for radio and at the end Kuya Cesar (Big brother Cesar) or Tiya Dely would pontificate about their own opinions and offer advice. It was a formula that worked and the programs ran for years. I still smile at the memory of Inay, so caught up in the stories and oftentimes so disgusted with the turn of things she actually talked back at the radio, giving it her own piece of mind. “ Magsa-putang ina,” she would exclaim as a reaction to a particularly pathetic hard-done by housewife (and yes, Inay used to swear back then! But she used even saltier words than those, very much unprintable ones!) “Iwan mo na ‘yan!” (“Son of a b___ ! Leave him!”)
Saturday nights were usually the one night were everyone sat around the radio listening to shows we all seemed to agree on. It could be Hamon sa Kampiyon (Challenge the Champion) later becoming Tawag ng Tanghalan (Call of the Stage), both singing competitions where the previous week’s winner faced a new challenger every week. These were the same talent shows where eventual local superstars like Diomedes Maturan and Nora Aunor got their first breaks, and where the winners got the whopping weekly prize of a gift basket from the major sponsor Procter and Gamble Philippines, grandly presented by the hosts Pugo and Patsy, both older generation stars of the pinilakang tabing (silver screen).
The other Saturday night program was the runaway hit “Tang-Tarang-Tang” about two families, one rich the other poor joined together by the courtship and subsequent marriage of the rich boy to the laundry girl:
Ako ay si Don Mariano,
Aling Charing ang ngalan ko,
Tuwing Sabado, ika-pito!
My name is Don Mariano,
I am called Mrs. Charing,
Each Saturday at seven,
To the rich man Don Mariano’s chagrin, his older son Badong woos and marries Ibyang, the laundry woman’s only daughter. The social gap between the two families is the running theme of the program, usually inadvertently resolved by the wisecracking younger son Bitoy. Much of the appeal came from the casting of the stars: Don Mariano was played by Pugo, already a household name from the previously mentioned talent shows, Ibyang was Sylvia La Torre, a coloratura soprano who became more famous for her comedic acting abilities, Leroy Salvador, Jr., Rosa Aguirre another movie actress from prewar days and the weird character actor Bentot, whose only claim to fame was this role: a bizarre man of about fifty, playing the part of a seven-year old child. With its subsequent transfer to television, the character of Bitoy became even more jarring to see: an old man dressed in short pants, dress shirt and suspenders and wearing a beanie hat to signify a young boy; unfortunately the whole visual did not travel too well on TV and Bentot was thereafter typecast playing nothing but simpletons.
As it so happened, Saturday nights were also one of the busiest times for the store. Factory workers usually got paid at the end of the day Saturday, and many went out Saturday night to do their personal shopping, and my father made sure that the store stayed open longer to capitalize on that fact. Between the swarm of customers and the din from the radio, it usually got very hectic just after suppertime. As it also so happened, for some reason my parents never had a cash machine or even a locked drawer for the daily sales. All money went into a small cardboard shoe box (or to be even more accurate, a small cardboard box that socks came in: I remember the box and the brand like it was just yesterday: Gold Toe) which was tucked away high up in a gap between the tall display cabinet and the floor of the mezzanine. It would be taken down with every transaction concluded, either to stash the money into or to make change.
The whole operation was so out in the open and so obvious to everyone, it was a wonder what happened one Saturday night did not happen more frequently. The store was busy and everyone who could be drafted was present, including myself, then about seven years of age. I’m not really sure what was expected of me as I was too young to sell, take money or do anything else but hopefully be a deterrent to some potential shoplifter.
Everyone was so busy, and in the middle of this semi-chaos, what do I see but a rather short man, reasonably well dressed reaching for the box of money wedged in its little cubbyhole. He was sure and deliberate with his actions, and perhaps even glanced at me while doing this; as soon as he got what he wanted, he walked right out of the store as boldly as he had come in. Even at that young age I knew what he did was wrong, so I went up to Inay and told her what I witnessed, sure that I had done the right thing. In due time there was a big to-do about what I had reported, and after having checked to make sure I was not mistaken, my father flew into a rage and I got a pretty severe scolding, for not having made more of a fuss about it. I remember being very confused and upset, and not really sure why I had received such harsh words. The fear, confusion and hurt stayed with me and I made up in my young mind that I would never want to go through that ever again.
But I guess sometimes the adults do not take things too seriously nor learn from previous mistakes. No more than a few months had passed that I was again drafted to watch the store in the middle of the afternoon, I think by myself, but maybe perhaps with a slightly older sister. We were given very strict instructions: no reading comics or nodding off in the stupor-inducing midday tropical heat, and keep a very keen eye for thieves. I guess I learned my lesson all too well, as sure enough I saw out of the corner of my eye, a hand emerge from behind the front display shelf reaching for something, anything it could lay itself on, then quick as flash disappear after having snagged a couple of pairs of slippers.
Petrified of getting another dose of punitive scolding, I jumped from where I was seated and started running after the thief, all the while yelling, “Magnanakaw! Magnanakaw!” (Thief! Thief!).
I was not really sure what or who I was running after: the fear and the tears that have welled up in my eyes blurred everything and all I could remember was running as fast as my little feet could carry me towards the direction I last saw the shoplifter. I was barely three blocks north of the store when Ate Nellie, my older brother’s wife caught up with me in front of Cine Mari and stopped me from further running: after the long-gone thief and away from the fear of being scolded again for not having done the right thing. She had to hold me in a bear hug, I was resisting so much, and slowly walked me back towards the store, all the while trying to calm the fear inside that have turned me into a sniveling, tightly wound ball of frustration and anger.
© September 2007