From a pedestrian’s perspective, the avenue was just a sea of buildings. But for us living in it, it was something else. The news arrived as a hearsay at first, from gossip mongers who strut on the arcaded sidewalks that shaded them from the sun. One of them closed her umbrella and approached our shop.
Our store occupied one of the mid-rise buildings that shaped this part of the city and glowed in neon signage when the night set in. The tattletale removed her sunglasses, placed it on our glass counter, and fanned herself with a tabloid.
My wife Alice took a good look at the front page and the woman pointed at the small article just below the headline. “Train to be built soon.” What a horrid title it was – thank god it was in small fonts, almost invincible to a passersby glancing at the dailies.
Reading it further, it mentioned a 10-kilometer train above the street that would pass through the avenue, not just a street as the woman had said, but an extended road that traversed eight cities.
“From 45 minutes to 10 minutes travel time, from point A to point B. Now that’s pretty fast,” said a customer who came in and had the same paper tucked under his arms.
I stormed outside, just to breathe out. I looked above and in front of me was a stand-alone theater. We had about ten of these structures, all lined up in less than a kilometer. Motion pictures were shown in buildings with façades adorned with relief carvings of anahaw leaves and sometimes geometric shapes.
The one in front of us built in massive concrete had details of straight and curving lines, and right at its entrance were vertical blocks lined up to form an uneven symmetry. Its signage lit up in pine tree green at night and its billboard surrounded by over a hundred yellow light bulbs glared the title of a Hollywood film that ran for almost a week.
I looked further to the right – there were shops of different kinds. Next to us was selling sporting goods where special basketballs were encased in glass counters and could not be dribbled unless there was a promise of purchase.
A number of bookstores lined up the avenue all the way to the junction where the universities stood almost next to each other. Books were stuffed on shelves while the school supplies dominated the center aisle.
Children accompanied by their mothers in the store wanted those piles of new notebooks, neat and newly minted, with hard covers and smooth white paper in between its pages.
The aroma of scented erasers were blown away by the electric fans standing at every corner of the store, including the scent of intermediate pad and yellow paper. But the smell of plastic covers dominated them all, standing vertically near the cashier counters, it was all rolled up, to make the lives of sales ladies easier so that they still had ample time for lunch in Chinatown for hot soups, steamed rice, and sweet and sour pork.
I turned my back and looked at our building, a two-story prewar structure left to survive more than three decades ago when our district was burned down and shelled, and our families were left with nothing but a structure that was almost razed to the ground.
Ours was three buildings from the corner hence it was spared because corner buildings were most likely to be damaged by war than mid-rises built in between two structures.
We painted it off white, including its columns and arches. The swing-out glass windows were always cleaned with moistened newspapers and it glared when the sun would blaze right through it like a punch of a fist.
But our signage was a bit discreet, just a little above the arches of the ground floor that says “R.D. Lim Grocery” in block letters and was different from other stores in the inner Chinatown with names like “Double Prosperity,” “Lucky Eight,” and “Red Dragon Merchandise.”
My wife, who was raised in this district, was thankfully, a non-conformist and found the trend of naming a business after a value, virtue, and dragons, a bit silly. She named our store after the name of her father who owned the building that was built in the 1920s, back when our avenue was just second to the first class narrow street near the church and the plaza.
Alice felt a sense of doom after reading the short article on the tabloid’s front page. It mentioned that the government had already approved the 1980 memorandum that the elevated train would cut straight to the inner city where our building was located.
There was a photo showing the gleaming concrete like an overfed python with a rolling train sliding above it. Below the train tracks was the street without lights and on both sides were the sea of buildings, all war survivors, about to take the challenge of this massive reptile, planning to take over and spew venom in our district.
I sank into a chair of the cashier counter. Everyone in the shop felt the times of uncertainty were not far behind, even our loyal customer who came in with his basket came up to me and asked what was wrong. Alice who was about to go to the stock room answered for me and told the man that our business, the avenue, and the community was about to face the huge snake of a train.
Because of this news, our community can no longer hide what we wanted to say about the government. We knew we couldn’t fight the giant who made the protesters and student leaders disappear. But plans of peaceful protest have been mapped out, and our version of town hall meetings was done during downtime, when there were no customers, to discuss our problems at hand.
After talking about our main agenda, we would extend our talk over coffee and express our sentiments about the failure to collect the garbage on a regular basis or why we have to give food to the metro com police who visited all of the stores at noon time. But we always gave them the canned pork and beans that were about to expire. When they returned and asked why it tasted funny, we told them that it was the natural flavor of imported beans.
The woman with the tabloid heard the hiss of the smokestack near the river. It was four in the afternoon. It was time to go, she told us. “By the way, that ice plant will be torn down by the train construction,” she added.
The ice plant laden with red bricks, a smokestack that belches thick, black fumes, and a whistle that blew every four in the afternoon to remind us that another day has passed, was one of the structures that made the downtown distinct from the suburbs.
The woman mentioned it several times each time she dropped by the store. She even suggested that we should rally in front of the city hall or the office of public works to stop the demolition. The ice plant will not be spared, how much more our lowly business in an equally-antique building?
I told Alice that there won’t be a direct hit because the train will be built in the middle of the road. But she looked at me like I dropped a crate of apples on the street. She explained to me that constructing an elevated railway in the middle of a busy intersection will threaten all the businesses that surrounded it. Of course I knew about it. Who wouldn’t? Even our sales girl and delivery boy understood the consequences when they heard the news.
I gave Alice an assurance that our loyal customers who have been patronizing the store would keep us afloat at least for a few more years until the market catches up again and sustains a regular flow of patron. But she knew that the demographics changed when something new was introduced.
This time, it wasn’t just about curfew and prohibition of selling alcohol to minors – these were easy to deal with. But when the store loses its buyers, the python must be stopped.
She kidded me that we only had five loyal customers. While she gave me a silly grin that made us laugh at least for a moment, I remembered when she took over the business from his father that was then called Otis Department Store.
Alice breathed the business that his father bequeathed her and she loved the building even more. It was a structure reminiscent of a bygone era that retained the original façade with its neoclassical columns and pilasters that seem out of place in an avenue where art deco structures whose fine and clean lines on its exterior dominate the streetscape.
When I met Alice, I knew that she liked selling general merchandise and preferred perishable items like meat and vegetables to shoes and bags. She told me that food sold better than luxury items. I had suggested that we put up a school supplies store, but she said that notebooks and pencils will not sell because we were no longer living in the heyday of Manila anymore.
So, instead, we sold black chicken and we were the only store on the avenue that sold the exotic Chinese delicacy that could not be found in markets and groceries. After several months, we had to wake up as early as five in the morning to satisfy customers banging the glass door and pleading for us to sell the poultry for its medicinal and healing properties.
We also ventured into wholesale items like boxes of canned instant milk and luncheon meat that were stacked up in our small warehouse at the back of the store, where unfortunately, rats almost as big as our missing cat could be found lurking around the dark corners, sometimes feasting on uncooked spaghetti noodles still wrapped in its packaging.
All of these things, these minor matters in the store prevented us from having children. Alice told me once while I was helping her arrange the canned milk on the shelf that she couldn’t afford months of having another human being inside of her. The afternoon heat while tending the store could roast her and the baby.
I told her, almost in a murmur, that it would be nice to have a son assisting me with the inventory or a daughter helping her mother organize the shelves. We’re still young, she always told me. All of the black chickens should always be sold at the end of the day.
As I threw away the pack of spaghetti that was eaten by the rodent, Alice reminded me that I should man the store at all times especially when she was out on a meeting with the
suppliers. That I should increase the frequency of checking the inventory from thrice a week to five times a week, and inspect all the corners of the store for pests lurking in the stocks and grocery items. I might as well wear a blue short-sleeved polo with a black-plated name tag, a pair of blue trousers, military boots, hold a baton, and walk in and out of the store.
Alice asked me for a strategy, for a plan. She told me that she had already submitted letter of appeal to the city hall to reroute the railway to the other street parallel to us, but after a number of phone calls to the mayor’s office, the secretary with a shrieking voice would already hang up on us. We even changed the tone of our voice and pretended to be someone else, but that didn’t work either.
Passing through the newspaper stand, the headlines almost screamed to our face that the plan had already been mapped out and construction would start soon. There was no point in cursing the national and even the local government.
Alice had been repeatedly shouting “idiot” in the store until one of the customers thought that she was referring to him. With profuse apologies, Alice held man’s hands and asked for his help how we could save the store from the so called development.
She let go of the man’s hands, turned to me, and asked what I can do help her.
“I don’t know how to deal with politicians,” I answered.
“I’m not saying that you talk to the mayor. Think of an alternate marketing strategy for the store promotion,” Alice said.
Several ideas came to mind. I suggested that we place an advertisement on top of the school at the foot of the bridge and give out flyers. It was a strategic vantage point, and people walking along the plaza would see the name of our store “R.D. Lim.” Why not put out another ad? “R.D. Lim–if you want black chicken…we have it.”
“A simple advertisement won’t work,” Alice said.
This woman can read minds.
“How about a huge advertisement near the church?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “The priest hates black chicken. Besides, have you seen the banner of the other grocery on top of that bank in front of the church? They have a grocery section too you know.”
“But not black chicken,” I said.
“Forget black chicken,” Alice said. “Our customers already have more chicken than they can consume. A sale banner in front of our store will do.”
I shrugged and resorted to picking up the string of noodles left by the rat. Alice talked to one of our regular customers who had come to the store earlier asking for the black chicken to be replaced with a bar of detergent. Wishy washy. From cooking to laundry. From chicken to detergent. He always assumed that we will completely understand and immediately replace his purchase with a laundry soap that he specifically requested not to be cut in half because he preferred it that way.
Actually, the reason why there were rats enjoying their stay at our store was because Griswald the cat has not made an appearance yet. He had been missing in action since last week, and Alice said that we needed to find the cat so it could start catching vermin in the store.|
What Alice didn’t realize was that we were in pits of downtown. Griswald had probably been slaughtered by the cooks at a nearby panciteria, and grinded into meat for siopao. I told Alice the rumors about the delicacy made from cat’s meat but she got offended because I accused her race as unhygienic and cat-eating natives.
Alice was also talking to another customer, a Chinese man whose skin was like dried plum and smelled of Tiger Balm that wafted through the store. He explained that he wanted a regular chicken because the black chicken tasted like rubber.
She attended to customers like a domino: No matter how many the complainants were, she toppled them by the flick of a finger by saying, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t replace that.”
Alice approached me when the complaining customers left the store.
“What are you doing just staring at the merchandise? A customer is complaining, and I have to deal with it all by myself. Nora is getting stupid by the minute, and you have nothing better to do but stare.”
“We need air-conditioning,” I said.
“Pardon me?” she asked.
“You heard me. We need to cool this store so you wouldn’t be in a bad mood all the time.”
“Start looking for the cat! I have no time for your silly remarks!”
To be continued…