Sunday, November 07, 2004

chapter 2, part 2

"Pare, again you’ve given me a shitty disc that won’t run. Sometimes I wonder if you’re just stupid or you’re really trying to rip me off. Eto, gago, give me a new one!"

Fortunato grinned, and even the litany of abuse had been delivered with a mostly toothless smile by Jon-Jon, whom Rodrigo and the other vendors here called Piolo because of his uncanny resemblance to the actor, if the movie star had lost most of his pearly whites, had pockmarks and a nasty-looking scar on his left cheek.

At one time, Jon-Jon had actually professed to be the older brother of the actor, until a heated argument between him and one of the vendors had broken out while he was claiming this during a drinking session on the Feast of the Black Nazarene. He had lost several more teeth that night, and never spoke again about his blood ties to the Piolo who was famous. The vendor who had beaten him up, however, had fled Quiapo after realizing the following day that he had confessed that the actor was the love of his life and that no toothless moron was going to sully his name -- this delivered in a spittle-filled speech worthy of a Tagalog B movie after he had beaten the said toothless moron to a pulp.

While Fortunato knew the names of many of his suki, most of the people who bought the bootleg VCDs, DVDs, PC CD-ROMs, audio CDs and game console discs from him he knew by nicknames he and the other sellers had given them.

There was Prof, who loved the pornographic Japanese animation that aficionados called hentai ("Hentai nang hentai ‘yang si Prof, akala mo kagalang-galang, yun pala malibog. Sailor Moon pa ang kinalilibugan."). King Kong was a hairy bruiser who seemed to have been carved out of granite, whose barrel-chested body always reeked and who looked liked like he belonged in a professional wrestling ring, but who bought Disney DVDs and children’s movies by the dozen. Chinita was a porcelain doll who was always accompanied by her friend Pokpok the slutty girl.

Fortunato had lived all his life in Quiapo, which he saw as a magical place that sold everything under the sun and offered something for everyone with no questions asked, as long as the customer was willing to look for his or her heart’s desire and was willing to pay the price. Quiapo was the world’s bazaar crammed into the busy streets and narrow alleys of Old Manila, where the sacred and the profane sat side by side in happy fellowship, where the Old World met the New and the fake and the real merrily toasted each other’s health.

Fortunato’s stall was one hole in the wall among the many in this busy warren that featured four main halls, each pirate den filled with shelves and stacks of DVDs of practically every movie that had ever or will be shown. Here, Audrey Hepburn danced with Jennifer Grey and Britney Spears and learned English from Michael Caine. Michael Jordan relived his glory days with the Chicago Bulls, while the late Christopher Reeve still leapt tall buildings with a single bound while the disastrous "Superman" revival movie starring that no-name actor who had appeared in "Will and Grace" was snapped up only by the people who loved bad films or who loved collecting them, the same people who buy Kristy Swanson’s "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Dolph Lundgren’s "The Punisher."

Outside the warren are more stalls, with vendors selling thousands of pirated VCDs, including porn for every imaginable taste, from "Barely Legal" to "Girls Gone Wild" to "Dirty Debutantes" to the X-rated romps produced by Private ("Eto ser, maganda ito, Private. May istorya.") to lesbian, gay, anal, masturbation, gang-bang, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, blonde, brunette, dog, horse, sheep. Some stores displayed ancient Betamax and VHS tapes and players, while other offerings in other altars included vinyl records, cassette tapes, eight-tracks, laser discs, penny loafers (such as Sebago and Haruta, and the knock-off Hatura), bla-blas, Chuck Taylors, espadrilles, Sperry Topsiders, baston pants, stone washed, acid washed, tied-dyed.

Across Quezon Avenue was the place Fortunato loved the most, the Basilica Menor de Nazareno (Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene), whose patron saint was not, as most people supposed, the miraculous Black Nazarene but the cousin of the Redeemer, St. John the Baptist, after whom the church was named. The edifice, however, was more popularly known simply as Quiapo Church, which if records were to be believed, was as old as the district itself, both being founded sometime in 1586 by Franciscan missionaries led by Pedro Bautista.

The original abode of San Juan Bautista in Quiapo was a humble building made of bamboo and nipa, but as the district prospered and became the emporium of the Spanish empire in these parts, the church became grander and grander, ultimately becoming a magnificent Mexican baroque structure where the shepherds and their flock had the privilege of worshipping and meeting God on earth. In 1606, the records say, the church’s most famous resident arrived in Manila, brought to this other port of the Galleon Trade by a priest who had bought the life-size statue of the Black Nazarene in Mexico. In 1787, the Black Nazarene came to reside in Quiapo Church, and there it would stay until today, even though the original Mexican baroque church had burned down in 1928, with the statue the only object to have survived the flames, or so the legends say.

The present Quiapo Church, cream-colored and a far cry from the massive baroque framework of the old structure, was not much to look at, as Fortunato and any devotee would readily admit, but beauty, as they say, is not skin-deep, and the spirit of the great church had survived up to these modern times. Inside and outside the minor basilica, the people prayed and plied their trade. After all, the emporium also sold blessings and curses, and could even buy the devotee a ticket to heaven or a glimpse of the future. The grounds outside the church were filled with vendors of all imaginable goods, from toothless crones and young girls selling sampaguita to sellers of different kinds of pamparegla, various concoctions to induce abortion among women whose periods had been delayed. Vendors offered people-shaped candles and anting-antings, rosaries and missalets, abanico fans and wooden puppet snakes, prayer beads and gayuma, good luck charms, hexes and sundry spells.

Fortune tellers of every shape could read the future in your palms, a crystal ball or tarot cards. They had signs proclaiming the extent of the mystical services they offered: "Kapalaran ay alamin: American card; tarot card; palmreading; panaginip; psychic powers; telepathy; ESP; mind reading; punsoy; lucky charm; malas, tinatanggal; nawawala, naibabalik; nakukulam, napapagaling; gayuma; negosyo; pag-aaral; trabaho; mapapangasawa; nagkahiwalay, magkakabalikan."