The Boys of Tondo

by Joy Icayan

250px-Ph_locator_albay_legazpiAfter a ten-hour land trip, the L300 parked in front of the Church. We had reached Legazpi, Albay, a province south of Manila just a year before ravaged by a deadly typhoon, which left hundreds dead. It was almost Christmas—Christmas lights hung from the trees around the plaza. In the center, a makeshift Nativity scene made of hay, and already disintegrating caught our eyes. We were sleepy, hungry, cooped in the boxlike vehicle for what seemed like forever. We had come in a convoy, a huge truck carrying our supplies—candies, junk food, foodstuffs, whatever we managed to get from donors back in Manila, and then the L300 carrying me, two clowns who offered their services free of charge and the boys from Tondo—our volunteers.

The boys were our lifeline: we were often tasked to bring relief goods to communities ravaged by typhoons, floods and with that frustrated, hungry people fucked over by weather changes as well as their own political fiascos. The staff was small: Paul who headed the program, a warehouse supervisor, an admin go-to person and me. It was those boys who packed and repacked, who helped organize the masses of people who came in droves, needing food, and water, and whatever assistance they could get. These kids (for I never saw them more than that, even if some of them were older than me) could hold a megaphone and get people lining up. They waded in floodwaters without a second thought.

And so they came to us to Bicol—Michael, ever trustworthy Michael who was twenty seven that time, the oldest and who was the closest to having it together, Alex, eighteen and who needed a way out of worrying over having his girlfriend pregnant, Ping, whom they all teased had some deficiency in the head and who managed to fall in love with every woman he talked to, Bryan, curly haired, ever fierce, who talked and cursed like a pirate, no, like a typical street kid from Tondo, who personified that place by heart.

And because every night they came home to that place—the stories piled on them like another layer of skin. Described as the home of the ‘utterly poor’, subject to filmmakers local and foreign, and politician’s podiums with its spectrum of gang fights and drugs and dark alleys and lives that seem to get skewered by the minute. In 2007, an indie film called Tribu focused on gangs, the sad endings of youth, and trying to get them to a conversation about ‘poverty porn’ and such, I asked them what they thought of it. They merely shook it off, and exhilarated, proudly said that they live there—right there where they filmed the movie. They knew some of the actors, in fact. But no, they didn’t catch the shoots, didn’t see any pretty actresses at all.

Paul had made it his mission somehow to give the boys a chance at something better—always looking for friends who might need extra work where the kids might earn some money. Charismatic, he was always cinching deals to take them to Bicol or some other place. It was well worth it. When the clowns during that program in Bicol failed to make anyone laugh, it was Michael and Ping who took the stage and got the kids busy. We were always trying to repay them in ways they could never understand. Once we got Ping and Bryan expensive tickets to a Chinese cultural show which featured gymnasts and prodigious kids singing and dancing. How was it, we asked after. They thought we’d played a joke on them. They slept through the show.

They taught us how to open a door lock using the handle of a spoon. I’m not sure I can do this, I said. Yes you can! they chorused. And so I could. They prepared spaghetti—instant noodles dipped in sardine—staple relief food. They told us they prefer sugar free coffee. Why? Because you save more. Why? Because it has free sugar. Sugar free, see? You get into that kind of logic after a while. They believed in democracy. Majority wins, okay? Majority wins you buy the liquor, majority wins you buy the food, majority wins you and Ping are together now and forever.

Sometimes we got in trouble, no, many times. Happens when you deal with angry crowds, forced to line up and wait to get their basic needs, not from the government but from charity. Don't let them scare you, Michael would say often, Michael the ever responsible one. And someone else would pipe in—ako’ng bahala saiyo. Roughly translated that goes—I’ll take care of you, and they said it again and again to us, but they said it more and more to one another. When Alex freaked out over having a kid, when Bryan spoke of a friend in a gang, when they spoke of problems with money—always that–ako’ng bahala saiyo.

I don't know how long they kept that promise to one another. I left that job soon after. When I came back to visit a year after, they had new volunteers—the boys had moved on, it seemed. Alex was raising his kid. Michael had a job, Bryan was hiding from an assault case, or drug case—they hadn’t seen him in a while. Ping, was, well, Ping.

In my head, I imagine them still somewhere in a house in Tondo where we often went to drink and eat sizzling hotdogs, past into the early hours while the city’s noises died down. They would be making up lyrics, or when sufficiently drunk, manage to belt one with all the right lyrics—something about falling in love. Those cheesy, cheesy boys. Once, Michael was sick in the warehouse where we packed relief goods, and his girlfriend was there touching his forehead and fussing over him. She was nineteen, almost ten years younger than Michael—still a kid really with her hair in a ponytail. Later, we’d tease Michael on how he managed to get such a pretty girl. But even then, I was worried about how they would fare—if they would just end up among the statistics that piled in police centers and hospitals—domestic abuses, pregnancies. I would like to think they made it together, amidst all that.

*Names have been changed