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Manila For Rent

JEN BALBOA writes about her toxic but necessary relationship with the city she was born into to–the same city that kept driving her away.

H ere is an account of a life lived in three apartments in Manila, spanning nearly 42 years, highly condensed, and unjustly selective.

No worries. It shall not sell this city as the ideal home or must-see destination, particularly now that travel and any other form of nonessential movement are outlawed. Even true blue natives practically have no choice but to remain leashed to their Manila, regardless of affection for it or a lack of. I cannot even remember the last time I felt pure, blissful affection for Manila. But then again, as the old saying goes, you can only get hurt by something you love.

Small unit with 1BR, Sampaloc (around 28 years lease, inclusive of transfer from communal 3rd floor occupied for 12 years)

B ut I do remember a time when I was in love with Manila. I was growing up. How I reveled in the fact that I was born in Manila, studied in Manila, first worked in Manila. How I took pride that only a native like me could embrace the city for everything that it is–its cable-choked skyline, its monsoon floods that cancel work and school and all other useful activity, the suspense past midnight whenever I was awakened by the scurrying of boys when the riots are about to start, the tough talk in the streets of people toughened up by having so little in life. And as I heard every day from Tatay–the tough man of the house–that anyone who dares complain about anything should goddamn get out, I held on to one resolve: I shall stand my ground.

All the ground I ever really had was just the top bunk bed of a rusty iron double deck bed I shared with my brother, who slept right below. It was the place where I wrote, hunched on my notebooks laid on a pillow on my lap for a table. I was a kid who just discovered a new world, where I first awkwardly laid down the very first words. That double deck was placed at one side of the cramped living room of the apartment unit that Nanay rented for all of us. The unit only had one small bedroom which was occupied by Nanay and Tatay, leaving no other sleeping space for everyone else. When our grandmother, Nanay’s mom (the one who took care of us while Nanay worked) was still alive, she used to sleep on the lower bunk bed. When our maternal cousin, Aizel (whom mother sent to school) still lived with us, she slept next to me on the top bunk. My brother at that time slept on a folding bed he would set up next to grandmother at the lower bunk. And whenever we hoisted the mosquito nets at night, to keep us from getting boils from all the insects and pests that bit, I would imagine that the four of us had our own little shanty town within that crummy little unit at the fringes of Sampaloc’s tenant town. We were all together, a tough band of four, and that’s all that mattered, and everything was alright.

Until Aizel returned to her parents to live in another part of Sampaloc, and grandmother died. I and my brother were the only ones left to face Tatay whenever Nanay went to work. And as that cramped unit deprived everyone any personal space, yet afforded our family a weird privacy–unlike the unit we previously occupied in the third floor above, where we shared the living room, kitchen and toilet with three other families–Tatay all the more frequently invited his buddies over. They often talked about cheap things that could make them look tougher. Like getting themselves pellet guns or Swiss knives. Or more mistresses. One day they talked about lifting weights to get themselves some muscles. But Tatay would rather use his daily allowance from Nanay for buying pot rather than rent gym equipment, so he built himself his own bench press, setting it up on the spot of the double-deck bed.

This meant the double deck bed had to be moved all the way to another side of the tiny space. This meant that we had to dispose of stools and chairs to make more room for the bench press, and that Tatay’s buddies, who had nowhere to sit anymore, had to make do with sitting on the bench press. And of course, all that bench-pressing made Tatay stronger. And that meant my brother had to be stronger too whenever he had to take Tatay’s blows. Too bad none of us took any interest lifting those weights to also grow muscles. I, for one, only saw the bench press as something I ought to keep my eye on and not bump whenever Tatay slapped or kicked me around. Hitting the bench press and its protruding bars can be equally injurious. From my top bunk office, four feet above the floor, it looked no more than a silly contraption, no match against what I was learning to carry, the weight of our lives, through the word.

Room/bedspace, common CR+kitchen, Sampaloc (at least 2 years lease)

I believed I needed no tools for building strength or making things bearable. This I believed: I am strong; I am made of the toughest stuff, and I shall prove it. When Tatay finally beat me up in one of my worst beatings from him, and after that day led me to decide to leave, I still chose to stay and live in Manila, within the warm belly of the beast that spawned me. I will have to admit that a part of me was afraid to leave. Manila was the only home I knew, and was still the home of my brother and the mother I abandoned. I found comfort in the fact that although I would no longer be with them, at least we still shared a common ground. I still was bent on standing my ground.

Even before I fully recovered from the beating, my brother already helped me look for a place. I told him I want it to be still in Manila, that I could not spend over four thousand a month; that I want the space all for myself no matter how small, and no matter if it looks like a shoebox or a jail cell or a toilet, it’s okay, as long as it has a window. Tough specs, given how desperate rental conditions can be, but my equally tough brother was able to scout for spaces exactly of my preference. Finally, I settled for a shoebox, a third floor unit in a four-story building, a tiny bedspace right at the end of the entire third floor. This meant that unlike all the other units next to mine, and despite my having to share the kitchen and toilet, I had at least a row of six slim glass windows on one side of my room, where light and air can come through, ensuring my well-being. Plus, whenever I needed to hang-dry clothes, all I had to do was open the windows, set up my makeshift nylon clotheslines supported by the knobs, and leave my hangers with the clothes dangling there.

I only did that when I was in the unit. Whenever I had to go to work, I saw to it that all my belongings were kept inside the room, locked and safe. I guess it becomes instinctual when one is suddenly hurled in a situation of survival. I began being too protective of every little thing I owned. My basins for washing clothes. My Scotch Brite, my toothpaste. Even of my doormat which I finally decided to put inside my room after I caught the guy next door thick-facedly wiping his feet on it. Then I noticed how the toothpaste tube I left in my assigned shelf in the kitchen always appears pressed in the middle, even when I always pressed from the end. And scratches and cracks started showing on my basins. Then my Scotch Brite disappeared. On the next paydays, after I was finally able to buy replacements piece by piece, I gathered and locked them all inside the room too, whenever I left. I never complained. What is losing a few little things to some strangers anyway compared with what I had to endure with a tyrant at the far end of Sampaloc?

The only time I complained was one night when I made a list of the petty thieveries and posted it in the communal kitchen after I discovered that the one thing I could not bear locking indoors–because it needed the sun–was gone: a little potted lavender, a souvenir from a dear friend’s wedding, the one living thing I lived with. In the note, I nagged at the unidentified klepto about every little thing taken away from me since I started living there, and how all throughout I kept silent, but not anymore. The note worked, must have driven the thief to shame, as I saw my lavender right back in my kitchen shelf in the morning.

The note must have triggered something too, in the larger scheme of things. I never trusted anyone there, never spoke with anyone, not even with the bum who wipes his feet on my doormat and got cursed at every day by her girlfriend who worked. Not one tenant there knew me, but I must have exposed a weakness through the note. All that any thief needed to do was pounce on that weakness, and surely one day, I’d give in.

That day came when while at work. I got a call from the landlord: Jen, may nangyari (Jen, something happened.) I rushed to go home and upon my arrival, I found out that most units on the third floor got broken in. Gadgets, cash, and jewelry were stolen. Other than that, no one was harmed and no unit bore any damage–except mine, which lost nothing since I had no such valuables. Nonetheless, it got trashed, proof of the thief’s frustration at not finding anything he can take.

He did not like the basins and toiletries which he flung all around. He was not impressed with my jazz CDs which he also threw around after destroying the locked shelf which stored them. And he toppled down the bookshelf because he did not care for the word, thrown around, and stepped on, as he left his muddy footprints on the book covers and ravaged pages. After my initial shock at seeing the damage, I reached for the door and locked myself in, shutting out tenants who were peering in and gaping and gushing. I felt like collapsing. I fumbled to prop up the folding bed which was toppled too, then sat on it. And then I vomited. And then I wept.

Studio type with CR+kitchenette, Malate (2017 onwards, after around 10 years of Cubao lease)

T he incident forced me to accept what I have long resisted to admit: that I am not as tough as I believe I am, and nobody really cares about me proving otherwise. Certainly not the city. Finally, I was able to hear what Manila has been telling me all along: can’t you see, I do not like you. I never really did, get away from me. So one day, I gave in to its power–I surrendered, I left.

During my years away from Manila, I lived in Project 4, a quiet and laid back part of Cubao in Quezon City, with wide streets and trees planted on the sidewalks. Lower fees, slightly bigger space, marshalls made rounds at night. I had very limited resources after leaving Manila, which left me starting off with great difficulty in the new neighborhood, but I made do with the little I got. In my solitude–cut off from everything familiar, cut off from the city I strained to fit into–I worked quietly, I worked hard. I began to appreciate the odd virtue in being forgotten, in being an outcast, and of being uprooted: freedom. And there was freedom too in accepting that it is beyond me to plead to be accepted. But I can work, I can write, and I accepted that it’s all I can really do. There is freedom in that.

After the writing and the hard work have paid off in little ways, circumstances took an unexpected turn. I earned a job in a publication which necessitated another move. I was apprehensive, I wanted to wait to be regularized before deciding if I should indeed move. I did not want to make any effort at all to find a place, cautious of shaking up my balance. Then a fellow writer pointed me to a unit in the building where he rents in the outskirts of Malate, right next to Makati where my new work is. I checked it out and could not believe how it looked, because it was so unlike the Manila dwellings I was used to: spacious, bright from the light from rows of windows, with a kitchenette which I never had in my entire life of living alone, and has immaculately clean white walls. The landlord had it painted in anticipation of a new tenant. Someone cared to do that, right here in Manila, I thought. I let go of my distrust and gave the city another shot.

So I lived in Manila again, this time in a district that houses the city’s old rich in ancestral homes, the new rich in high-rise condos, and commoners like me in little decent apartments. The streets were often calm and orderly, except for stray dogs. Whenever I arrived late from work, I observed that some streets were closed with gates, gated off even pedestrians needing to pass through, supposedly to protect cars from side-mirror thieves, a kapitana I questioned about it alibied. Stray dogs, petty thieves, another tyrant–I must have old acquaintances lurking in the dark here, I figured. All these aside, my stay had been so good. Unbelievably. Did the city finally accept me? Have I at last earned a place within its good graces? No idea. I was never really sure. It felt like all that the city had to say to me was just this: you are here for business, let’s do business. I was fine with that. And I loved my white walls.

End of the affair (specifically, the lease)

T he caretaker informed me in November that all of us in the building are being evicted. The owner has sold the property. Nobody saw it coming, not the caretaker who lived at the ground floor, and certainly not my friend-colleague who brought me to that building and even recently peeled off his old flooring to replace it with a fresher color. Not even our lady guard Mars, our longest-serving guard, knew anything, despite her knowing all other useful information that helped us survive. Like the numbers for carpenters and appliance repairmen. And who’s the rotten barangay captain who tolerates the drunken midnight videoke of the equally rotten sangguniang kabataan brats, and what number to call for the police precinct should I want to complain. I was not worried at all for Mars losing her job. She is kind and hardworking and street smart. She’ll be fine.

As for me, I looked at the books I amassed within the past three years there and realized I am in for a hard move with a heavy load, probably a literal truckload, which was why I ignored my friend’s suggestion of securing a van from one of those phone apps for moving. He did that and required two haulings. I would have needed three, maybe even four, had I gone for those. I knew the sizes of those vans. I had been seeing a lot of them, white ones with heavily tinted windows that transport China mainlanders from condominiums near the Makati street where I work, all the way to the POGO hubs down south where they work. Incidentally, my eviction came around that time too when numerous other evictions of locals have been going on in and outside Manila. A reporter in the publication I work for even wrote an in-depth on it, and teammates called my attention to it, to read it, as they asked if it’s the same kind of eviction as mine. All over Metro Manila, landlords are jacking up rents in favor of new lessees, who happen to come in the form of POGO workers from mainland China since it’s them who can pay rent for as high as double and triple and quadruple the price.

The buyers of the building gave me barely a month to move out, forcing me to use all of my much-anticipated Christmas money for the requisite advance and deposit for a new place. Thankfully, I found one quick, walking distance from work. It was way bigger, and with even more immaculate white walls, though already outside Manila. It can’t be said that I did not try. Up to the last minute, before I surrendered my dear bonus to the new landlord, I did look through Manila, but it just did not have a place for me, as if it did not want to deal with me again. I even went so far as dare ask the buyers if they can spare me a spot after they renovate. They said it would be too expensive for me to afford. I asked, too expensive that only POGO people can afford? I asked out of resentment of course, hurt from suddenly being kicked out of my home, or at least out of a place which I thought was finally my home, the Manila I reclaimed.

I did not expect an answer but they gave me one: a resounding yes. The buyers said it is indeed expensive, and that they just might actually rent out the whole building to POGO workers by dealing with just one person who can pay for a group’s full-year lease. I felt too weak to argue by then. I instead appealed that I no longer pay the full rent for January if they wanted me out before the month is over. “Hindi na namin problema yan, [That’s no longer our problem,]” one of the buyers sneered, “nagnenegosyo kami [we’re doing business.]”I said I was aware of that, it’s a business of course, but the only way I can help them continue their business with new lessees is if I got the resources to leave as soon as possible. Finally, we met halfway; they agreed I pay only half of the remaining month’s lease.

In exchange, though, I was hardly extended the least amount of goodwill in my remaining days. Renovations started right away with deafening drillings on the second floor where I was, making the air suffocating with fine white dust. I feared I would catch pneumonia again as I did in May last year while I wrote a thesis. The particles were so minute they found their way under the lid of the rice cooker and settled inside the pan. The same particles crept through the top of my books on the shelf right by the door and left a sticky feel on my fingers when I flipped through pages. My bed began hosting a chemical smell. In the morning, before I left for work, I would see Mars downstairs wearing a face mask. She actually advised me to also wear one. Hers was of a washable kind, good enough to protect her from particulate matter. We talked while she wore the same face mask, a few days before my move. I even joked that she should have at least two masks, because what would she wear while her one and only is drying from the clothesline? She said she would think about it, especially since she could not leave like me outright until all tenants have been evicted. Taal had just erupted too, and though not much ashfall reached our part of Malate, it could erupt again, and who knows what happens next? We were nodding at the thought, then I joked, “timbrehan mo ‘ko kung magkaro’n ng POGO invasion dito ha, [let me know if a POGO invasion happens here]” to which we both laughed. She asked where I am headed, I said somewhere in Makati, in probably the best place I have ever chanced upon and which I can only hope to keep, amid the threat of the existence of powerful POGO house-hunters.

I remember our guard’s was the first face I saw when I first inquired and moved in the building, over three years ago. And with my friend having moved out earlier than I did, hers also happened to be the last face I saw on my last day. Coughing my last cough from the hostile air, I told her, “salamat sa pag-aalaga mo sa amin. Alagaan mo din ang sarili mo [thank you for taking care of us. Take care of yourself as well.]” Then I turned my back and took the seat next to the truck driver, my sight fixed on the road that would lead me out of Manila, the place of my birth, as I am uprooted from it all over again. Behind me, she was waving goodbye. Very soon she would need to put her mask back on, as she returns to the scaffoldings and rubble by the gates, locking herself back in.

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