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My Gallery

As this month leaves, we are thankful enough we have survived it. If you are lost in this discourse about the dangers of August, then go back to those old belief systems that have marginalized the month as the anomalous aggrupation of 31 days. Do not be sick in August or it will take time to recover. Guard your skin against any infection or the wound will go on long after August has slinked down in the horizon. Remember them?

I do have some persons and places to remember. They are not heroes but who cares. They were characters in those years that may never end in any book about the Naga We Know.

With art and artists all over the city and the region, it may surprise this generation that one of the pioneering places in the city was called “The Gallery.” It was the place to get drunk and stoned. Remember this was the 70s. Iconoclasm and irreverence were the order of the day. Holding court in that place (he never admitted this role) was the artist Cesar Natividad. It was from him that we learned the rudiments of real art – how to sell them, what is a good canvas etc. He was free-spirited. Serving only the coldest beer (again one of the greatest legacies of this person), Cesar’s or Sarek’s gallery was turned into a small theater for absurdist plays and poetry reading. Woe to the writer or poet who believed in himself too much for the place was also the only place in Naga where anybody was free to tell you your poetry was full of sh-t (this one a legacy of Rudy F. Alano). Candor came with sincerity and a laidback predisposition.

Political correctness was a mere speck in the universe then. And we all had natural problems with authority. Naïve and innocent, I was the troubled observer watching in the dark as lovers or even non-lovers kissed not even in the dark. For that place was also that kind of place – the site of uncontested discretion.

I was not around anymore when the Gallery closed down. It was a hilarious letter from my brother, Pempe, detailing about some officials of a college I (which shall remain unnamed) petitioning the local government to shut down the Gallery. The complaint specifically mentioned that prostitution was happening in the place. Was it because of the kissing? Anyway, as days went on, Cesar found out that the petition was bolstered by another complainant – an official from another college (which shall remain unnamed).

Cesar would become a comic character in Manila Bulletin - the Cesar Asar of RoxLee and MonLee. A good-looking guy in the mold of Tom Selleck, thick mustache included, Cesar had that perpetual quizzical look that one could mistake for an annoyance.

Mark that in your mind: we had a gallery and a theatre-in-the-round. And freedom.

When were the girlie bars and honky-tonk clubs driven out of the city? When did freedom leave us?

Pasapoga is one artefact of that period. To the Bikolano ear, the name conjured sexual acrobatics. It did sound obscene in those years. Thus, it became the name of one popular girlie bar near Plaza Rizal. It would be years before I discovered Pasapoga to be names of Cuban restaurants and nightclubs in Spain. In those days, transgenders or transwomen were unheard of in the city. An exchange student, however, from Barcelona did meet a transgender in one of the clubs in Naga and, I believe, there was love at first sight. It took the words from his friend to tell him off that the “she” he met a night ago was a “he.”

Even when the entire floor of the old GSIS building (which is the present-day Nagaland) was turned into a sleazy bar, Naga never became a sin city, to use an old cliché moral guardians love to paste onto their social commentaries. I remember taking a young historian up to that club. He who was repulsed by two sights: the women and the dirty, stinking place.

Naga had always good taste. There was a jazz bar before called the Peppermill. The trio- a pianist, guitarist, and drummer – could do mean jazz standards. They even could do a cover of any arrangement by Bill Evans. Rudy Alano, Aton Nabua, Manong Pempe, my brother, and I would be practically there twice or thrice a week.

We were there for the jazz trio but we were there also for a very unique personality – a real jazz singer whose day job was teaching in high school. He was Ross Delgado. He could swing the old warhorse “You’d be so nice to come home to” like there was no tomorrow. He could transform a Tagalog song into blues. Our favorite was his version of the very maudlin “Gulong ng Palad.” There was always a tension when we requested him to sing this song. He, obviously liked the song. The band, obviously, did not enjoy playing the song. But we would request it to be sung: the band liked us and Ross liked us, too. Each time, at past 10 in the evening, over beer, the bar would be overwhelmed about kung minsan ang takbo ng buhay/ mo pagdurusa nito’y walang hanggan, and how ang Maykapal marunong tumingin sa taong naghirap at nasawi or of life that was like a gulong ng palad.

There were nights when the stars would shine upon us. In the crowd would be Mulo Reyna. For those who didn’t know him, he was just a huge man. When he was in the right mood, he would stand up and without looking at the band, he would segue into his signature song: “Magnificent Obsession.” With stars aligned or even dis-aligned, he would go on singing in that sweet baritone whose only rival was the sweetness of the city uncomplicated and still universes away from future tragedies.

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