Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Babaylan in playland by the sea

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“Rosebud… A girl’s name? You wouldn’t think that a man in his dying breath would mention someone’s name out of the blue after fifty years, would you?”
“Well…you’re pretty young, Mr. Thompson. A fellow would remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. Crossing the ferry to Jersey one late afternoon in 1896, I saw a girl with a white dress and a white parasol. Just for a second, it was. Don’t think she saw me. But I bet that a month does not pass by that I don’t think of her.”
Mr.Bernstein in Citizen Kane, 1941.

The stupidest thing that the city of San Francisco ever did was to get rid of Playland by the Sea, with its Funhouse giant doll of a bouncing Fat Laughing Lady with freckles and red hair, its grand towering Ferris Wheel, and the formidable Salt and Pepper Shaker Loop, where he, as a teenager, once discovered too late not to have anything in one’s pockets because they will all fall down, coins, pens, whatever, when the ride turns you upside down violently and fearfully. Hot dog stands steaming in the night and the carnival atmosphere everywhere and all around, various sounds and barks of laughter floating in the air. It was a mini Disneyland right across the misty Pacific Ocean, the Great Highway and the Cliff House, a turn of the (twentieth) century Restaurant made of brass and dark wood. Unfortunately, Playland was swallowed up by the waves of greed. Speculation, they called it. So they closed it down, built apartments and condos instead to make more money. Joy subsided quickly like the foams from among and along those silver-crested waves. No more mermaids beckoned from the sea. Where once it shimmered in the summers of the City, the area now is a very quiet place and deserted. Lonesome winds frequent it. Condominiums and apartments were put on the site were Playland used to be. Those apartments and condominiums have never been fully occupied. In due time, desolation took over the place and no children were ever seen near it. That was the day the magic died in Playland by the sea. Songs and stories will be the only remnants of those days. This is one of them.

Priday Night Walker called his trusted friend Amador one day during prom season and told him to get ready for a double date that he, Priday, is arranging.

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“You gotta go on a double date with me, pal.” He said with his phony Texas (Filipino) accent. Priday Night Walker was a Filipino mestizo whose white U.S. citizen father was in the service and found himself growing up mostly right in the heart of Texas, of all places. His father was transferred to San Francisco only 6 years ago. He got to know everybody fast. He was a very social guy as you can tell by what folks called him.

“I don’t got a ‘date,’ Amador reminded him.

“I know that,” answered Priday quickly. “I don’t know why; you got the looks. Look at me…Pry-day Night Walker…”

“No thanks.”

“I just don’t know what it is they see in me, but…”

“Could it be that Chevy Impala of yours? It ain’t the looks, that’s for sure.”

“But I always got a girl, right? And seein’ that I knew you wouldn’t have one, and seein’ that the prom is already this Sarday nat…I got you one.”

He was right, the fucker. Compared to Priday’s social life, Amador felt at times that he would languish in loneliness for the rest of his obscure life.

It seemed that his (Priday’’s) date’s parents won’t allow the two of them on a date alone. Amador did not know whether the parents had heard of Priday’s reputation or not. They would however permit her to go on a double date with her girlfriend, (and family trusted companion), who turned out to be his, Amador’s, blind date.

“We’ll spend for everything,” Priday told Amador. “I’ll take care of expenses,” he said. “What about for the date?” Amador asked.

“Not the expenses that don’t involve me, pare. You gotta cough that up yourself, brother. I’ll just provide the merchandise; you gotta pay for the maintenance. Don’t be kuripot, man. C’mom, you gotta fork out something. Show some class, man. You’re buying her a corsage, right?”

Amador, the ever-accommodating (in his mind) young man of seventeen that he was, said, “Yes, of course.” Amador himself had just graduated. His graduation celebrations and activities were nothing to brag about. In fact, it was nothing at all, period, even though he made dean’s list again. Just a kiss from his mother and a controlled smile from his father. He was not really planning to go to his school prom, though Father Becker, his Saint Ignatius High School English teacher, had offered him a couple of names from his list of Mercy High School girls. The same priest had procured him one before on the Sadie Thompson Dance. Her name was Anne Farmer and her straight, long, red hair still had him remembering. The truth is that Amador had hinted to his Mom about going to the prom, but she picked up on it right away and said, “Nating doing! No money for all dis kalokohans. It’s not enough that you go to the most expensive school in San Francisco. You have to pick the most expensive event pa!”

“Ma, this is the prom. And I didn’t pick the school. You guys did.’”

“Not me,” she said and cast a furtive glance toward his father who was reading the newspaper while watching the news on the television in the sala, as he, with his Giants baseball cap on, was listening to the baseball game on the radio in the kitchen.

“They’re paying for the whole thing, Ma.” “Who are “they”, ha?”

“I guess their family, Priday’s girlfriends’ family, or her girlfriend’s girlfriend’s family. I don’t know. All I know is that I, I mean we, I mean you, are not paying for a centavo, Ma. Wala. Libre lahat.”

“Siyet,” she curtly said.

And he kissed her on both cheeks, making gigil noises and grabbed her shoulder and started massaging it and shaking it until she wrinkled her forehead and started screaming for him to stop. “Hoy! Hoy!” And, laughing, he slowly let her go.

“Siyet”, she said again, regaining some control and fixing herself up.

The ride after the prom was rather quiet. He had danced with his date Maria a few times only. He should have danced more, he knew, but it was too late now. Priday pulled over by the diner with the big Dachsund hot dog on top of it by 48thAve, near the Great Highway. Priday and his prom date quickly disappeared into Lover’s Lane by the Laughing Lady’s entrance gate, leaving the two alone. Amador and Maria sat down at a small eating place and as they were ordering the food, Amador started noticing Maria. And he started listening well to what she was saying, as he slowly chewed on his fish and chips with a sprinkling of vinegar. The jukebox was playing “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” and she was humming and oo-oowing a bit. They finished their meals and smiling at each other (as the Rocky Fellers were busting out “Killer Joe”), walked outside into the lights-studded mist. They walked somewhat awkwardly through parts of Playland to cross the Great Highway into Ocean Beach, passing the Laughing Lady, the dart and balloon games, the shooting galleries, and the cotton candy wagons, till they confronted the giant Ferry’s Wheel with all its lights and colors and slow, creaky turning. Everything must have been turning in Maria’s inside, too, because she suddenly said:

“Someday, I’ll have my name in lights. Keystone Korner, Black Hawk, Blue Note. You never know, right? Why not?”

“Sure, why not?” He said. “You’re a good singer. I can tell by your humming you got soul. I can’t sing, but I can tell soulful singing.”

“To sing, I think, to really sing your own, you gotta do it with passion. But you gotta have a broken heart or two under your belt to have that passion. I think. I don’t know what I’m saying.” She looked up at him smiling a bit and took his arm to cross the street to the ocean’s side.

She was looking up at him and beyond him, at the sky, with white-edged clouds bathed and drifting by the silvery moon, seawind blowing, foaming waves pounding, her chiffon dress puffed billowing with the billows of the sea.

After they’ve crossed, he said, “Maybe you can teach me to sing. Think it’s possible? Can any one learn? I’m pretty hopeless. I might scare away all the mermaids by singing off tune.”

“Nonsense. Anybody can sing. My niece is toned deaf and I taught her to sing.” “Wow, you’re a teacher, too. You’re gifted.”

She looked at him straight and clear and kindly. They were stepping on sand now. “You’re the gifted one.” She was looking through him, beyond him, into the moonlit sea. “You’ll write about us and someday people will read them and someday, maybe, one will come to know someone like me. You’re the gifted one.” She moved a little closer to him and walked in his rhythm, taking bigger steps. “The waves, the ocean, the sea, will wipe them all out immediately, but the spirit of our footprints will still be in these sands because you will write about them, I can tell. I know a little bit about you before from Priday and them. Research is good, right?.”

“When before, or before when?” “Before before pa.”

“Wow! A budding private investigator, too. 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaii Five-O, female Ponce Pons!”

“More like Paway Five-O. I’m Ilokana. My mother’s Tagalog, though. She named me after the legendary Maria of Mount Makiling because I was born in the calm right after a storm. I

like to know what I’m getting into, of course, before I jump into anything. With a practical and desperate friend like Priday, one has to excavate a little oral history on his double date choices,” she smiled, her red lips accentuating her scarlet and gold shawl. With a slight change of tone she said, “You keep writing. You keep us alive.”

“That’s funny,” he answered. “Everyone tells me to dream another dream, to stop writing. I’ll be broke all my life, they say. No one is interested in reading about Filipinos, especially Filipinos, they all tell me. Don’t know if I should even consider it now. My own family…”

“Consider it? You talk as if you have a choice. You don’t. You’re the bridge. And you’re good. I read some of your poems that you write for your friends to the girl of their dreams, or the object of their lustful affection. Some are too good to send away. I hope you keep all of them.”

“Yeah, some of them won’t appreciate the poems, huh?”

“Oh, they’ll appreciate them all right. Every one of them. A girl appreciates those things.

But not necessarily for the same reasons.”

“Really? Do they know it is not from their aspiring suitors?” “Of course, they do. C’mon, they all know they came from you.” “I’ll make sure to keep them all from now on.”

They took off their shoes and started laughing. He tried to carry her pair but she would not let him. “It’s all right. I’ll carry them. They’re my shoes, after all.” The night was all a-splash in spindrifts brought by the wind and waves. They strolled on the sands of the silver-ladened seascape. He noticed the moon, though not yet full, was bright and it made his gaze wander towards the horizon. It was during this gaze that a strange surge of romantic feeling overwhelmed him. It was prom night after all, and he suddenly swept Maria off her feet and scooped her up, carrying her as they both almost fell. Regaining his balance, he continued carrying her, trying to keep up a conversation. He noticed the silveriness of things as the moon momentarily got in his eye. It took his attention for a split second and then that was all because a wave, a gigantic one, rose like a monster from the sea and it was heading straight for them. Terror-stricken and instinctively obeying the most formidable human urge, that of self-preservation, he forgot everything and ran away from the great wave, toward the Great Highway. But of course, he forgot, too, the bundle he had in his arms a few seconds ago, the object of his romanticism. He looked down at his empty arms and looked back and saw Maria squirming to get up from the water’s edge like a cockroach on its back trying to get right side up. Coming to his senses, he rushed to her, shouting apologies before he even got to her and picked her up.

“Not just our footprints, now,” Maria said laughing in her surprise, “but my body prints, too,” brushing off the sands and water from herself. “I was shaking like a cockroach out there.”

“Or a mermaid,” he said.

When he had gathered her in his arms safely and things started to look right-side up again, he clumsily added,”You’re a wise one. With a hell of a sense of humor, too.”

“But you,” she touched both his hands and turned them palm up, “through these soft hands, your gift will flow. Remember that.”

“C’mon. Let’s get outta here. You’re all wet?”

“Just a little.”

“Wanna go back to the diner and change in the bathroom?”

“Change to what, my slip or shawl?” she jokingly said, and then she thought for a while. “Why not? I’ll just put my coat over it. C’mon. No. Let’s go in the Cliff House. I’ll change there.”

 

When she came out of the Cliff House, she came out all colorful and babaylan-like. She looked like she belonged in the richy, classy Cliff House (by her carriage and posture) yet she did not belong in the Cliff House (by her splash of many colors), too bold to neatly fit the ambiance. Biblical yet pagan. Folkloric, yet modern.

He never saw her again. And to this day, hard as he might try, he can not remember an iota of whatever happened to Priday and his date that prom night when he used him as an excuse to satisfy his (Priday’s) concupiscence, his lustful teenage loins.

The only thing he remembers clearly of the actual prom itself was that he had bought her a lavender corsage which reminded him of that corny song of which the only thing he liked was its title: Lavender Blue. They both had trembled at his pinning the orchid above her left breast. They must have driven home that night to end the date, but he has no memory of her at all after that night she came out of the Cliff House. They must have said goodnight but he does not remember if he kissed her or not, nothing, that unmentionable, for some, that dreaded moment, the prize of the prom—that goodnight kiss. No memory of it at all. Just the ocean, the beach, the moon, the wind, the Cliff House, the steaming smell of hot dogs, burnt cotton candies, and Playland by the sea that disappeared into the mist and recesses of San Francisco history, but not from memory, at least not from his.

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