There was life in Dumaguete years and years and years ago on New Year's night. The noisemakers don't count. They come every year, their ephemeral brilliance lighting up the night sky to expected oohs and aahs, the evidence of their fiery short life lying in the tattered paper shells and the whiff of sulfuric smoke that litter and fog the city streets. I am talking about the congregation of people that used to meet the new year in our public byways. Those were happier days. The stretch of Rizal Boulevard, in a memory plucked from more than a decade ago, was a smorgasbord of music and merriment: I remember that when the midnight approached, we would break out to that ten-second countdown, and then finally, after the cheer of 12 o'clock struck, there would be that general swell of people singing "Auld Lang Syne," and then would come the hugging, and the kissing, and the breathing-in of the embracing atmosphere of a city alive and gearing up for another year, and the...
Last night, we only imagined the countdown, trusting our wristwatches to give us the mark to celebrate the first hour of the new year. There was no "Auld Lang Syne," no throng of merrymakers to party with. The fireworks, projectiled from some distance off the pier, came prematurely at around 10 o'clock. It was a little too early to break into celebration, and so we met the fireworks with both restraint and heavy expectations. "There should be more by midnight," someone said as the sky above us flared. "I do hope so," said another.
We crossed our fingers. But the stretch of the boulevard looked deserted, already a ghost town. It was as if slumber was the way to go to meet 2011, all darkness, no merriment -- perhaps a metaphor for the condition of the city's soul, its psyche. The city was already wet from an early evening rain, and so the concrete streets were browning in that ugly way cement does when pelted with water. The poor tourists -- mostly white -- were huddled here and there, waiting for something to happen. "There should be more by midnight," someone said. "I do hope so," said another.
We didn't know where else to go. And so we stopped at the only place that seemed festive in the pre-midnight hours: CocoAmigos. I haven't been back to this restobar for almost a year. (In actuality, most of us haven't been back to this place for a long, long time. It has become another spot of our abandonment, the way most of us fled Why Not, for example.) It looked grimy and sad, a far cry from how it was many years ago when this was the city's hub of food and entertainment, when we delighted in its Mexican whimsy and the attention to detail spent on its decor. There were still traces of that old beauty, but the atmosphere had certainly changed -- we felt that in our bones, on our skin; the place now resembled a tawdry saloon peopled with characters of scarlet tendencies. It had certainly seen better days. We took charge of a round table near the restobar's makeshift stage, where we began nursing our bottles of beer as the explosions raged above us. In the shadow of the sparkly lights brightening the sky, two girls -- both in red, one clad in a baby doll dress and the other in a mini-skirt -- climbed up the stage accompanied by an older man, also in red, and the two began singing away our New Year Japayuki-style. Their repertoire was catchy in that Ermita vibe, their dance moves rich in variations of the gyrating bombshell. All that was certainly lacking was a pole. They sang in clipped bar-girl enunciation, ripping with gusto such songs as Lipps Inc.'s "Funky Town" and Van McCoy's "Do the Hussle." ("Do da hassa!" they breathed with affected sultriness.) The old man in red got into the groove of his sad synthesizer like there was no tomorrow. Around them, the men -- mostly white, some with bellies protruding -- held court with their women, some of them feeling like almighty kings of the world. Later, a middle-aged woman, perhaps pushing fifty, long-haired and bespectacled and clad in black leggings, her generous tummy spilling over the edges of her pekpek shorts, took command of the space in front of the stage, and danced with such knowing choreography to the sound of ABBA's "Dancing Queen," among others. She flipped, she flopped, she did the hustle. Later, the women on stage called on a "guest singer" who riffed into a soulful rendition of two Aegis songs. Later, with the dancing queen back on her dance floor, a foreign man waddled in to join her, his Hawaiian shirt open, and he swung his hips and dipped low to her dance moves, and someone -- the foreign man's Filipina companion -- burst out laughing. Perhaps scared or insulted, the dancing queen made a move to get away, offering the man a half-hearted air kiss, and soon retreated to the insides of CocoAmigos. It was sad.
It struck me that most of these people -- the locals, anyway -- must have been someone else in their past: a former dancer, a former singer, a former entertainer in some foreign bar where the lights are kept low -- and this place has become the hub of some forlorn afterlife, where they can gyrate and croon to recapture the seedy glow of past lives in the open air, in this space of personal freedom in the stifling burgis snobbishness of Dumaguete. Here, they dance and they sing on weekend nights, where they get at least some applause, from the foreigners who find all these exotic and striking, from the throng of masa goggling from the sides, enjoying the free show.
In our growing discomfort over the white man's dance, we hurried to pay our tab, and escaped to witness the last of the paltry fireworks that finally ushered in the New Year. We counted down among ourselves, then hugged each other, and then proceeded to the friendlier atmosphere of Hayahay where we got wasted on beer and rum and fried kangkong and sisig to the sounds of Cebuano reggae and Kakay Pamaran singing her sultry version of "Careless Whisper." Later, we made an aborted run to Labeled, where nothing was happening. Later, we descended on El Camino Blanco, where at least there were people dancing. There was more drinking. There was flirtation. There was no talk of resolutions.