Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A trip to the third-world barber shop

A good haircut -- it can give a man a sense of rebirth, renewal. No longer do wild tufts of hair sprout from the back and sides of his neck. Suddenly, his sideburns are on the same level, at a sort of foul-line extended point from where the top side of the ear curves downward and connects to the head. Whether, buzzed real low, cropped into a Ceasar, juiced-up in some jheri curl madness or sporting a Gumby, he couldn't feel fresher.

But at what cost?

This was my principle concern this afternoon when I started combing Xavierville Ave. for a barber shop. Yeah, my hair is pretty thick by WASP standards and it was longer than it had been since I was 11 years old -- so long, in fact, that when beads of that good Manila sweat started forming on my scalp, I could make it stand straight up maybe 4 inches. I didn't approve of how soft I looked with the rats nest-cum-pompadour, but at least I had control. There was no telling what would happen once I turned the show over to some near dwarf named Lito.

The In and Out Barber Shop on the corner of Xavierville and Abada Avenues in Loyola Heights -- 50 pesos (less than $1) for a cut, close to home in case I needed to run home with a towel over my head, and most importantly, crowded. Three out of four seats were filled, which was very encouraging compared to the ghost-town barberos I passed on the way.

The diverse clientele impressed me as well. It wasn't just a bunch of Filipino old men sitting around like Eddie and Arsenio in Coming to America (although I think I'd have enjoyed that). There was one old guy having his world class Fu-Manchu beard trimmed, a neighborhood kid looking to toughen up, apparently by getting a baldie while keeping his lips pursed like someone posing for a prison photo, and another, plain-looking guy who was getting a pretty intense head rub and shoulder massage. If they could handle all these requests, they ought to be able to tame my puffy locks.

Mindanao, we have a problem. I'm taller in the chair than my barber is on his feet. So when it comes to buzzing the top of my head, I need to lean forward and hope for the best -- something I haven't had to do since Eric Prengle shaved my head over a garbage can when I was in seventh grade. I haven't looked closely, but I don't see any hugely abnormal clumps up top. No harm, no foul, Lito.

Cuts on Crates! Git em.

He seemed to be intent on making up for the lack of attention to the top of my head by lavishing the sides and back with attention. He whipped out a pair of garden shears -- a lot like the pair my super Edwin uses to cut the lawns in our apartment complex, a task that I hear was number two on Albert Camus' list when he wrote The Myth of Sisyphus. But Lito could work them shears, man. I tried to keep still and not giggle at the idea of a 4'11'' guy snipping away at me with something like hedge clippers that were larger than my head.

After a good five minutes of the Edward Scissorhands treatment, out comes the straight razor; time to man up! For the first time, having hair taken off the sides of my face and neck actually put hair onto my balls. I wouldn't call the shave gentle, but it was bloodless, which was my pre-decided litmus test for the whole experience.

And what tops it all off? One of those two-minute massages. I promise, I was going to stop him once he got to my waist, but luckily it never came to that. You see, despite its name, In and Out has got class. And in the end, Lito looked at me like Don Bartolomeo after I tipped him 40 cents American. That's how I roll.

Walking back, the big question was what kind of idiot am I to think that a Filipino wouldn't be capable of buzzing my hair? I felt a little like the Ugly American, but at the same time, everyone is pretty particular about their haircuts. I've been going to the same Albanian crew on Christopher St. for at least five years. My father has been going to the Italians on Spring St. since he had hair. Massages aside, there is something personal about letting someone manhandle your head, so I'm going to excuse myself in this case. Besides, the boys at In and Out have turned me into a Xavierville loyalist.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sure signs of the apocalypse

Back on the pristine streets of downtown Manhattan, something would seem seriously wrong if I noticed many of the following things. Here, on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, Metro Manila, it's all par for the course.
basketball court -- pride and joy of Barangay Loyola Heights -- has a roof, drainage system, lights for night games, Fiberglas backboards and, in an ironic coup de grace, NBA-style breakaway rims with special, spring-loaded hinges built in to keep the hoops from being pulled down by all the power jams executed by the 5'6'' schoolboys who play here. What's wrong with a nice basketball court? Nothing, on the face of it, but when you can find really hungry-looking, one-armed pre-teen girls begging for food 50 steps away on Katipunan's main drag, it makes you wonder if there's some wiser way to invest in the community.
  • The stray dogs and cats here are straight out some Goth fantasy comic book, and not in some kind of mildly erotic, stylized fangs and dark eye make-up way. The dogs have the longest, nastiest, most stretched-out looking nipples. The nips hang a good 6 inches away from their rib cages, looking like they've nursed a few thousand ravenous puppies over the years. I don't think I realized how truly fat and slovenly American housecats were until I saw some of these mangy, half-hairless feline wraiths on the prowl out here. They look at me with this half-questioning "could I take him?" look in their eyes. If they could, they'd be eating for weeks, as long as they could protect the bounty from all the stray people who're going to want a taste.
  • The unique concept of personal space in a city of about 15 million people is that there just is none. The most Hellish example of this would be a recent ride on the Metrostar Express elevated train between Shaw Blvd. and Cubao, where for three stops a chunky guy wearing a yellow "Hot Stuff Coming Through" T-shirt was pressed against me so closely that he just couldn't avoid rubbing my crotch with his knuckles for the duration of the ride.
  • Malls and fast food. You can't escape them. While planning my first official meeting with and academic adviser/potential source for research, this accomplished, middle-aged Filipino family man suggested we grab lunch at someplace nice like Taco Bell. I see Colonel Sanders' goateed grill an average of 3 times a day. He's the most popular white guy in Manila. And while my initial reaction to the Taco Bell-ization of life was inward scoffing, I'm oddly drawn to their quesadilla + taco meal and, more than anything else, the rare opportunity to get free refills on drinks.
  • After the chicken soft tacos, how 'bout I rape you and steal your petrol?

  • The sudden realization, that can hit you at any time here, that you're walking through a scene out of a Mad Max movie. Oh look, there's the crusty dwarf who hangs outside of McDonald's at night. Oh, here's a guy roasting various parts of a pig's face over a fire he's built in a hollowed out car engine. Hmm, it smells like the whole city is on fire, or maybe just left behind and forgotten in a toaster set on "dark" for 20 minutes. I'm just waiting for a gang of half-naked guys in leather with spiked baseball bats and barbed wire lassoes to show up.