"I didn’t know that these girls were prostitutes. I just thought about them as my aunts."
I didn’t know that these girls, who were good to me and mother, were prostitutes. I just thought about them as my aunts.
I was in grade four when Mother rented a barbecue space along Fields Avenue in Balibago. When my parents separated and the cocktail lounge that Mother used to own and run folded up, she kept connected with the bar girls and the American servicemen who frequented the area. She wouldn’t want to run another bar because, I surmised, that Mother felt she was already too old to become a “mama-san” to all these girls who wanted to marry American servicemen, their own idea of the great American dream, and that she wouldn’t want to run the risk of getting herself enmeshed in a controversy because we were all growing up and studying in a Catholic school. She wouldn’t want us to embarrass ourselves in school.
But she did not want to lose all her contacts either. Somebody suggested that she open an eatery or cafeteria, but she thought that it was a business that is tiresome to put up. So much was at stake. Maybe, I could think of a business that does not require too much work and too many people, she said. This gave her an idea to open a small space where she could run a barbecue business, something that she could personally handle and was easier to manage.
She eventually opened this during the summer vacation and obliged me to help her, since I had no classes, together with two distant nieces she brought from Bicol during her last trip to Matnog. My sister had a job at that time and my brother was simply uncooperative. Every early afternoon, she would come from the market and I would help her marinate the chicken and pork meat.
I would use bamboo sticks to put the necks of chickens, the gizzards, and the hotdogs together. She would also buy bundles of sampaguita garlands and rose corsages. “Americans are very romantic. They want to give flowers to their girls so I bought these, too. It would be additional income for us,” she said.
Angeles City is now served by the Clark International Airport and the Clark Freeport Zone but back then when I was growing up, it was the home of the Clark Air Force Base, the largest United States military facility outside of the continental America. I didn’t know then that Fields Avenue, the street where I grew up, had become a honky-tonk area for prostitution, and had been a favorite spot frequented by the US servicemen, and known as an epicenter for sex trade. I didn’t know that these girls, who were good to me and Mother, were prostitutes. I just thought about them as my aunts. But I sensed that they were acting rather funny and strange because of the weird sexy dresses and thick makeup they wore, the erotic dancing and incessant cussing, and the dating and kissing of different men every night. Maybe they were a different kind of girl, I thought.
I sensed that they were acting rather funny and strange because of the weird sexy dresses and thick make-up they wore,he erotic dancing and incessant cussing, and the dating and kissing of different men every night.
At about six in the evening, we would go to the barbecue stall, carrying two basins full of marinated meat, a Styrofoam ice chest containing more meat without barbecue sticks, an improvised cash register, and some loose change. I would place a generous amount of charcoal on the grilling container and start building a fire. While fanning, thick smoke would strain my eyes.
“Hurry up, customers would soon be coming,” Mother said, as she instructed the two girls to wipe the tables with a wet cloth. She started counting the change. “I heard from Lydia that there were a lot of TDYs who just arrived yesterday, so expect a lot of people coming in tonight.”
“What’s a TDY?” I asked her.
“Temporary duty. There are American Air Force men who are only stationed at Clark briefly and temporarily because their work is somewhere else,” Mother said nonchalantly.
“Oh,” I muttered. I was meaning to ask her if my father was also a TDY when he met her, but I guessed Mother was not up to answering personal questions, so I continued fixing the grill.
Three hours later, the space was jam-packed with people. Mother had to call for two more helpers to assist us in serving the customers. My face felt like it was almost red because of the heat coming from the grill, as sweat dripped from my forehead. But I was happy fanning the hotdogs and the chicken breasts. There was a lot of singing and dancing. Some Americans noisily stood up and raised their beers. The girls that they were with clapped their hands and started singing. One tall blonde guy walked to the jukebox and played “One Way Ticket” by Eruption. It was a cover of the Neil Sedaka classic and was a very popular song at the time.
Choo, choo train a- chuggin’ down the track / Gotta travel on, ain’t never comin’ back / Ooh, ooh, got a one-way ticket to the blues.
Two Americans got up and held the hands of their Filipina partners and started dancing on the street. There was no space inside and the music was loud enough to be heard outdoors. There were bystanders who stopped by to watch the merrymaking. Others went out and followed in the dancing.
Bye, bye love, my baby’s leavin’ me / Now the lonely teardrops are all that I can see / Ooh, ooh, got a one-way ticket to the blues.
One of the girls, one that I called Tita Tess, came to my corner and grabbed my arm and gestured me to join them. She said to Mother, “Ate, hiramin ko muna ang anak niyo ha? Inday,” she turned to the helper. “Bantayan mo muna yung binabarbecue.”
I looked pitifully at Mother and motioned her to stop Tita Tess in abducting me, but she just nodded her head with a quaint smile on her face.
“Everybody,” Tita Tess called everyone’s attention. “This boy is a very good dancer, and he’ll teach us to dance with the song. Halika dito, huwag ka nang mahiya,” she cupped my shoulders to her side and shook them. Then she motioned to touch my hands and put them in the air. Everyone clapped their hands and went outside.
“Show us how, fine boy,” one American GI said.
“Yeah, teach us the steps, fancy dancer,” another replied.
Gonna take a trip to lonesome town / Gonna stay at heartbreak hotel
Determined not to disappoint Mother and Tita Tess, I nervously told everybody to form a single file, just like a train. “The one who is behind should place his left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front. Like this. And then, as the music continues, we move like a train. When we take a step, we bend our knees and sway our right hand and our hips. Got it?”
I was a dancer in school and got used to training and choreographing kids in their shows and programs. “Let’s try it, left hand on the shoulder, everybody,” I gestured. The people at my back assembled and, despite their tipsiness, followed me closely like blind servants following their master.
A fool such as I that never learns / I cry a tear so well.
“Ok, once we hear the chorus, we move in circles,” I said in a growing voice. “Just follow the beat of the music, and don’t cut the chain. Everybody, go!”
One-way ticket, one-way ticket / One- way ticket, one-way ticket / One-way ticket, one-way ticket to the blues.
The line became a circle as we glided in the corner of the stall. The circle became a bigger one. Then the circle became a line again. It grew longer, extending far across the street. Some of the American visitors who were not part of the group joined in the dancing. Some of them were wrapping their arms around the waists of the girls, instead of just holding their shoulders. But everybody laughed and had a good time.
Choo, choo train a-chuggin’ down the track / Gotta travel on, ain’t never comin’ back / Ooh, ooh, got a one way ticket to the blues.
When the song faded, there was an uproar heard from the people. Some were hugging one another. Others were either clapping their hands or shaking them and offering a toast. I went back to the barbecued hotdogs, tired and perspiring. Two girls came to Mother and said thank you. It was the best of times, they said.
One American soldier who looked older than everyone went to my direction and shook my hand. “That was a blast, kid. You made these people happy,” he said grinning. As he held my hand tightly, he put a twenty-dollar bill.
I didn’t know what to say. I said thank you but I didn’t think he heard it. Most of all, I never fully understood what he said.
When it was closing time and all the guests were gone, Mother and I packed the containers. She sorted the leftovers and discarded the sauces. The helpers started washing all the used bowls and bottles in the small kitchen. I swept the floor littered by beer tabs and cigarette butts. It was past midnight.
Mother tapped my shoulder and brushed her hand against the collar of my shirt. “It was good of you to have thought of leading the dance. You are a good dancer,” she said.
“Well, those young boys were like you, only older by a few years. Some of them had no idea their life would be like this here. Now, they probably miss their homes and their mothers.”
“I never understood what the officer said to me,” I butted in. “He thanked me for making them happy. What does that mean?”
“Well, those young boys were like you, only older by a few years. Some of them had no idea their life would be like this here. Now, they probably miss their homes and their mothers,” she said, with what seemed like an irony to me. “Maybe what they all need now is real good dancing.”
I frowned. I didn’t catch what Mother meant. I had to ask her. “Did you and my father meet this way?”
“Oh yeah, we did,” she said emphatically. “Only he danced too long. Until now, I still think he does. I just don’t know where.” She looked at the sky briefly, and then briskly untied her apron. “It’s late. Hurry, we’re closing the store.”
I followed her as I readied the closing of the accordion door.
This essay was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Esquire Philippines with the title "Fancy Dancer."