FIELDNOTES: Silences, Songs and Senses in a Naga Burger Stand Along Magsaysay

Tito Genova Valiente

It is past eight in the evening. The fast food, which is the undisputable heritage of American colonization of our taste, is jumping with customers. I am reeling from my heady trip to Busan as I walked from my favorite Villa and ended in that part of the Magsaysay strip. The line was long and slow. This fastfood transplanted to our Philippine soil has been infected by the laidback culture of the land. What was prided to be fast had turned languorous. There were no Bikolanos here if we were to listen and judge by the language people spoke. Crews talked to each other in Tagalog and the customers responded in the same language. The shift to another language had made everyone sound sophisticated and mannered. No one was in a hurry, except this writer, this organically grumpy columnist. I realized the young man behind the counter was looking at me even as he was waiting for two y0ung girls to carry their tray away. Can he spot a difficult person from afar? Approaching, I quickly uttered my order: that kind of burger… meal, which means with fries. Drinks? Coffee, I replied. Dai pwede. I was taken aback, but not for long. The secret to responding to any quick dumb declaration is to ask: What do you mean? In English, with a brisk inflection to put everyone in proper station. The young man was still composing a short phrase in his mind when I began already with an exordium: I have been ordering coffee with these things even before God had created this street, and the spirits had not complained. Of course, I did not say those lines. I just told the young man that I have, indeed, been requesting for coffee to go with this set. Ah, upgrade na lang po! “Upgrade” is more elegant than “extra,” I suppose. You know what I mean, when you order chicken in another fastfood establishment and the young girl or boy at the counter asks you if you want an “extra” rice. There is nothing greedy or impoverished in the notion of “upgrading.” In fact, I love the notion that my order of burgers and fries could be upgraded, like a reservation in a hotel, like a shift from Economy Class to First-Class. But, “extra” to define another ball of rice? It is as if things are not enough, as if something is lacking even before y0u have considered the supply and the surplus. “Extra rice” is really about a hungry nation. But economics was not the order of the night in that fastfood establishment. It was something else. There are two ways to eat in any place that proposes to make everything fast: eat fast or go slow. These eateries are built to bring in eaters or consumer and, as quickly they are served, then they are encouraged to move fast and out. I go slow in fastfood. I counter the ideology of these establishments that make food in minutes. That evening, I munched and meditated on my fries that, given a new attitude, was coated in cheese powder. I sipped my coffee, the upgraded one. I listened. I listened: there was no sound bursting from the wall. There was no music that, according to studies, are meant to push people to eat quick and rush through their buns and chickens and fries. In this uncanny silence, three women entered. Without any desire to shame them, may I describe one as “fat” and looking cruel; the other two were pretty in the unobtrusive way. The “fat” or big one wore a crumpled face from the entrance. She signaled how she did not want to approach the counter. The prettiest of them did the ordering while the other pretty one went with the fat one who found a seat and continued her grumpy ways. I felt she did not like the friendship between the two pretty friends. Soon, the three were into their sundaes. Soon, they were huddled and giggling. The “fat” one was more obtrusive as she looked around and whispered about the other people at the tables near them. As this fat commentator looked around, I followed her gazes. She was eyeing and observing four tables. I was looking at her looking at those couples at the four tables. We were doing what Clifford Geertz did with a “wink” and how looking at that gesture could yield “thick” and not “thin” description. Ah, but that is another topic. I went back to the fat girl doing the job of a Greek chorus – delivering updates and judgment on the scenarios around. The four tables that were the object of the fat girl’s gaze were occupied by couples – women really. I did not have to look deep to notice that for each couple, one was a “butch,” a woman with the appearance and mannerisms of a man, a manly man. I already spotted two of these couples when they entered the fastfood. But, it was only with the gaze of the fat lady that I was taking in the scene. One of the manly woman was so masculine I could only tell “he” was a “she” when she spoke to the woman who bought the food. “He” would not budge from “his” table, he was so macho he would not be a gentleman. The other pair huddled at the corner of the fastfood had sweetness between them. The “man” was in “his” early thirties. He would cuddle his partner every now and then. He also did the ordering for the food. At the other table, the “old” man was an “old” woman after all. “His” partner, a younger woman, took care of the food. I like to believe the “man” was her “aunt.” No more no less. The fourth pair was y0ung. The “young man” who was a “woman” was very caring. When this couple entered the place, the other pairs looked at them. Were they regretting how this young girl had turned or decided to be a young man? The fat one continued to giggle as she looked at the four pairs. I was hearing in my head a song, an old song, an old, sweet song. Huwag kang manalig sa bulung-bulongan/Na ikaw giliw ay pinagtaksilan.” The song went on in my memory: Pagkat maraming naiinggit lamang/Sa ating labis na pagmamahalan. There was no infidelity that night, just genders being judged and misjudged. The song running in my head had a beat that was so old. It had no place in that place, as my judgment and that fat girl’s commentary had no place in love of any kind, of different forms.