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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

entry arrow4:12 AM | Six Years Old, Noblefranca Street

Noblefranca Street in the midnight light feels short—although to be honest, it has always been a short street, a stretch that covers a mere two blocks of mostly unpromising structures you could begrudgingly call city buildings.

It forms a tributary that begins, in the east, at the Rizal Boulevard, and then all the way to a terminal point touching Perdices Street that feels like a premature end: reaching either ends feels always like a surprise for the pedestrian, as if Noblefranca promises a longer adventure, only to be shaded on each side by utter nondescriptness that contributes to its shortness, and to be eventually swallowed by the wider avenue of downtown.

Where it disappears into Perdices Street, you can see that it is blocked to the west by the imposing building called Ever, which has the garishness to call itself a mall. This building used to be a cinema of second-run movies, also called Ever, and which itself sprang from the ashes of an even older cinema called Main Theatre, which—the old folks love to recall this anecdote because it has the romance and tragedy of premonition—burned down in the late 1970s on the last night they were screening "The Towering Inferno."

Not many people actually know Noblefranca Street by name, which is telling. For the commuter, hailing a tricycle for a drop off along its stretch would entail naming one of its landmarks, which shift in the constant flow of changes we call Dumaguete: there is a bank and a European bistro called Casablanca at its eastern point, facing the sea that borders the city. Further on, and then around the part where Noblefranca crosses Calle Sta. Catalina de Alejandria—named after the patron saint of Dumaguete—it bears two or four restaurants and eateries of varying degrees of sophistication—Negrense Food Lab and Microbrewery, a Korean coffee shop that pains itself to be trendy, a Mediterranean food stand of no particular distinction, and a flashy carinderia called Food.Net that amply demonstrates a very democratic idea of popular culinary tastes.

Then there is a high school that caters to the richer Chinese families in the city called Holy Cross, which commands a campus that takes up a quarter of the block it sits on, distinctive for its bold choice of painting its building a blue that is the staple hue of countless nurseries.

Beyond that, there is a hodgepodge of sad-looking buildings and empty but fenced-off lots no one in Dumaguete really sees, except that occasionally—from the doldrums of the area's banality—certain generations of Dumaguetnons would see a ghost or two. Those who grew up in the 1970s would remember a cafe called Maricar's which sold the best cakes and pastries in town—gone now, although the building still remains, its handsomeness covered up by neglect and sheets of galvanized iron. Those who grew up in the 1990s would remember Taster's Delight, which sold the best cheeseburgers in town—also gone now, although the building also still remains, but boarded up like a jilted bride gone to seed because of heartbreak.

Noblefranca ends with a sprawling complex housing a McDonald's Cafe on one side—sleek and modern with all its glass and concrete surfaces—and then a towering but very old wooden building on the other side, one of such vintage that its wood are browned darkly with too much testament. The ground floor of this old building has been parceled into a cellphone shop, a store that ostensibly sells brass knick knacks from Mindanao, and a stand that sells fruits. Side by side, these two buildings are the very story of Dumaguete itself: the shine of modernity skirmishing with the insistent holding on to the past. Nothing wins, and out of this impasse is shaped the very heart of Dumaguete.

I think of these things as I traversed Noblefrance Street, taking in bits and pieces of it as the night deepens and my feet take me to a familiar spot down the road and forking left on Perdices to that corner between the 24-hour downtown lights of Chowking and Jollibee, where I knew I could easily catch a tricycle ride home this late in the midnight hours.

Everything about Noblefranca felt familiar, but also obscure like an abandoned memory.

I lived here once, in this neighbourhood, with my family. I must have been five or six. This was in the mid-1980s, a few years after we exiled ourselves from our haciendero days in Bayawan, into a stark poverty living hand to mouth in Dumaguete, an existence that must have proved shocking to my family, which had until then enjoyed the wealth of being landed. [I didn't know any better, which is the inured bliss of very young children.] All I knew was that we had become rent nomads, finding whatever cheap enough digs my mother could find, and that previous to Noblefranca we had once lived in an old area of Dumaguete past the tianggue, traversed by Calle Sta. Rosa, where I had fallen in love with an older girl named Kate, and where I once saw Dumaguete leveled by a gigantic conflagration, with fiery embers falling down from the night skies like a hellish version of rain. [The entire Dumaguete public market burned down in 1982. We lived in a wooden house two small blocks away from it.] When my family decamped from this wooden house of Tia Tansing along Sta. Rosa, to this new house nestled right in the heart of a block along Noblefranca, I cried, because I could not bear the thought of not seeing once more my darling Kate, who lived with her father in one of the apartments in Tia Tansing's house, which was next door to ours, and who, when I was six and she was ten, gave me the privilege of a brilliant first kiss. I had no words for whatever I felt then except that it was such a lovely torment. It would take me years to recognize this as the blossoming of first love.

This new apartment we were renting was accessible only by the narrowest of passages between two buildings along Noblefranca, which snaked here and there deep into the block until it led to the house of _______, a kindly old lady who was renting to us the upper floor of her house, which had its own entrance of a side staircase, which had three rooms good enough to house all of us, which had a sizeable dining room and kitchen that could fit the old family table we had dragged all the way from our old life in Bayawan, and which had—this was the best part —a balcony that overlooked the campus of Holy Cross High School.

Television was a rarity in Dumaguete in those days in the 1980s, and only the richest families could afford having a set installed in their houses, which meant a six-year-old kid like me, whose family could barely afford rent, had to be creative in the formulation of my own entertainment. In the ground floor of the apartment, the landlady had installed a small pond, which was teeming with all kinds of golden-looking fish. Their watery existence entertained me enough for most afternoons, and I delighted in bearing a stick and stirring the waters of the pond just so to make the fish in it scramble to and fro, their skin flickering in the sun. I imagined stories of shipwrecks and whale chases.

When I finally became native enough to the neighbourhood that I began to acquire friends of children my age, I managed to assemble a troop gleaned from the various houses that teemed inside that city block along Noblefranca, and we satisfied ourselves with playing the assorted outdoor games expected of us then—tago-tago, tayukok, siatong, Chinese garter, marbles—until one day we dared enough to launch a war game involving tirador. Slingshots of our own devising, assembled from a strong enough Y-shaped wood and scraps of rubber.

I must have been a good shot at six, because I had taken my slingshot, and managed to shoot with a stone one of my little friends, right smack on her forehead, like David to Goliath. This was a short-haired girl whose name I can't remember [let's call her Rita], but I do remember that she was always a quarrelsome sort given to a generosity of snots; so my targeting her—and succeeding so well—must have sprang from some inchoate and childish sense of bloody murder. When my stone found its mark on her forehead, I found her wailing so frightening that I immediately ran home, and hid under my bed, sure of my impending doom.

True enough, by nightfall, the girl and her mother had come up to our apartment. The mother was furious, and was demanding that my parents pay for whatever medicine was required to heal the deep wound on her girl's forehead. My mother has a way of placating vicious people, and when some civility was finally restored, I was ordered to face the tribunal gathered in the dining room. The girl was in her last heavings of crying, her mother was glowering at me, and my parents and brothers looked at me with such disappointment on their faces that it felt very much like the end of the world.

"Ian," my mother began. "Whatever occurred to you to shoot a stone straight at Rita's forehead!"

I began crying dramatically. "But we were just playing!" I protested between tears.

"But don't you know it's bad to throw stones at other people?"

"Rita was making fun of me! And she was sling-shooting stones at me, too!"

"And that's why you chose to shoot a stone at her?"

"Yes!"

"But you're a Christian boy, Ian! Don't you know what the Bible says about this?"

My mother was a religious sort, but I didn't know what the Bible said at all about any of this, so I shook my head.

"The Bible says," my mother continued, "that if someone throws a stone at you, you have to throw back at them a piece of bread!"

That bewildered me. "But I didn't have any bread with me!" I cried.

Which made my mother laugh so hard, and I knew I was instantly forgiven.

Those days of my childhood along Noblefranca Street probably lasted a year until we had to find another apartment again, but the days rolled by so slowly. My friends and I made use of all that time chasing fishies, and chasing each other with newfangled play. But I was soon to realize that my biggest source of entertainment was easy enough to have: it was the scene from below my balcony, the very courtyard of Holy Cross High School, which teemed with uniformed kids I secretly aspired to become. They teemed during recess, they teemed during P.E. classes, they teemed during special events and shows, the school stage perfectly positioned for me from the vantage point of my balcony. I spied on all these, I made up stories about the school kids I saw, and I was entertained exceedingly, even by my lonesome.

One day, during a school recess, I spied a familiar-looking girl walking from one of the classrooms straight to the school canteen that was situated right below my balcony. It was Kate, my beloved!

"Kate! Kate! Kate!" I shouted with so much excitement from up above her. I hadn't seen her in months and months, and my heart swelled. She looked beautiful in her uniform of white collared top with blue trimmings and a blue skirt.

She heard her name called out, and when she looked up to find its source, she saw my face.

"Kate!" I shouted again.

I saw her do a double-take, I saw her frown, and then, clearly embarrassed, she hurried back to her classroom with her other friends.

My six-year-old heart stilled, Kate's name frozen on my lips—and for a brief moment that stretched like eternity, I felt like there was a rain of fire coming for me, I felt like gold-skinned fish being chased furiously with a stick, I felt like there were thousands of stones sling-shooting right through me, blistering me awake to the suddenly cruel, cruel world.



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