Prolegomena to a Foot-Long Subway Chicken Breast

Prolegomena to our Pop Culture Lives, 1

Today is a Sunday. 

It is the day the Lord could have rested if you are a Catholic.

You could not believe sometimes when the stomach grumbles and you look for bread with the Italian herbs or crispy garlic or honey or oats. 

In the midst of the recession of our sense of selves as if we have not left the country where there every family has contributed to the post-colonial slavery of hands and bodies and minds of lesser people like our own, lesser not because they do not have anything to offer but lesser because they have so much love and kindness and masochism in themselves, you look for that foot-long Subway chicken breast complete with the gay wrappings to hide away our frenzied lives, to hide away our modest inabilities like looking for another kindred spirit who, like you, can mouth expletives on the road to the Nazarene of Quiapo or to the Cathedral of the Angels in Los Angeles and immediately ask for forgiveness from the God who hears and sees and records our deeds. 

You ignore the grumbling of those intestines that remind you of past lives of want in the provinces and cities that had claimed you as its own,  you vagabond man who do not have any permanent address, in the homeland haunted by respectable thieves where they pass your laws about ethics of government service, in the land of your exile where there, you have your anonymity for company, something you lose, something you have lost, something you will never regain in between traffic lights in the busy streets that claim you when you sell your sweat to your work. 

The stomach grumbles and you can hear the cries of your grandparents eking it their imagined newfound paradise in Alicia, in their homestead beyond that Isabela river that swells during the months of the monsoon rains and disaster, in that Linglingay of their dreams, elusive and magical and enchanting dreams that they would live on to imagine they have it pursued only to lose it among soldiers who carried long guns and death, amidst New People's Army and Communist Part of the Philippines cadres who came to teach about nationalism in the Tagalog language because these people are from the cities so far away, and there, in these cities, they speak English, they speak Tagalog, and they speak of strange freedoms and nothing else. 

You can just imagine yourself pointing this out somewhere, some time ago, and you were branded: reactionary. 

That was your 'R'-word, something close to the rotten bugguong you hate when uncooked but you love when boiled to give taste and texture to the marunggay and saluyot and uong of your dreams when you have started to live far away from it all, from the villages that had more real life than what you have got in the cities you have come to know, tentatively at best, and transiently at worst. 

Oh, that bugguong had your guts tested. 

This not the deodorized bugguong every balikbayan from the Ilocos-land is wont to bring back to Honolulu, by hook or by crook, including the patis--the fish sauce that comes out of it to the usual consternation of immigration officers who ask invariably what could that smelly thing on the balikbayan box is all about. 

The pre-deordorized bugguong I remember, of course, came straight from the filthy factories, its salty paste reeking of fish and the labor of its makers: the men who would stomp on the fish, boots on, in factory warehouses by Navotas City by the Manila Bay that has welcomed nothing but filth, the generous sweat of the men profusely dripping on the battered fish, with men and sweat and fish admixing to produce the bugguong for the pinakbet. 

Some would perhaps remember in Laoag public market those Lorenzana bugguong in cans and their other derivatives, imitators and impostors included.  

Their stomping by the Navotas bugguong factory men would become a ritual learned, like that icon of a ceremony of stomping of shrimps by Manila men in one Louisiana bayou down in New Orleans in the 17th century. 

It is the same ritual that lies there buried in the senses without names such that on lazy Sundays when the sun is up over here by the Manoa that looks to the ocean for that refreshing breeze and to the mountains for the industry of clouds to form images of anything one can imagine from abaleng, that larvae that crackles in the mouth for its sheer milky juiciness like the abal-abal and the simmusimmot  to zebra, that animal an infant would love to swallow for each stripes and color and friendliness. 

You sit down to write, but the grumbling begins anew.

You look out the window, and under the heat of the noonday sun, you imagine from the clear skies a scene straight from the Gospels of the Christians: the full course meal of the Last Supper, where the eucharist of sharing was covenanted to the people of God who were supposed to believe, and which someone did, but some would believe to betray the others, as in that man who love to count his silver coins for a reward, and all by trying hard to fake a kiss he offered to the man-god who is Savior. 

Merienda cena, ultima cena, noche buena--heck, all those images of food and you have nothing on your inherited ice box, a two and a half by two cream faded ice box that has seen the sorrow of man and his joys depending on the supply and demand of its contents. 

You open the box again. Two bags of Kona coffee greet you forlornly, reminding you that you have had four cups of coffee already since you woke up, one cup filled to the brim in your Waipahu home twenty five miles away, and three cups you needed to make you awake as soon as your reached your office to pick some writing again, or what passes off for one. 

You did not take a whit of a breakfast, you remembered.

You had a meeting with the writers association you are a part of and you were supposed to take charge of the play to be presented at the cultural program and you were supposed to cast them, the actors and actresses who will say your lines, sometimes unconvincingly as you have seen in the past, and sometimes lacking in nerve as you have always told your dramatists. 

And there, you had the food: katuday flowers, young katuday fruit, young marunggay leaves, young marunggay flowers, young marunggay fruit. 

And put this in: paria or bittermelon leaves cooked dinengdeng-like with aramang-a-kubbo with generous saluyot leaves and equally generous garlic cloves that dotted the otherwise landscape of dark, soupy thing that gave off that aroma of Ilokano life lived far away and in strange places.

And so you had to skip a breakfast, even if you felt like a king on a Sunday morning when you did not have to think of a rush hour traffic on the freeway that has another name: traffic jam, and traffic jam whichever direction you go, with the east-bound traffic towards the Diamond head worst off in mornings and the west-bound, where you go home to roost, worst off in the afternoons. Tough luck, this you have got, bro. 

You gulped your coffee, whitened by that ubiquitous and insistent mate of that morning drink, minus sugar you have learned to hate. 

Except if you have palinang or balikutsa or moscovado, the last one you pilfer from some other peoples parasabo or the balikutsa you get as pasarabo from Dr. Dedicacion Agatep-Reyes and Dr. Godofredo Reyes who never knew that their pasarabo to the Daproza couple eventually came to you. You think of something that is close to the concept of distance as the shortest when you go from point A to point B, you make my poetic day. This is not how it works with the poetry of kindness and generosity and the anonimity  of selfless giving. 

So you take that last drip of Kona coffee you brewed and you run towards the first floor from your fourth floor office. 

You have learned to hate elevators, and you did well, and this does you go, as you pant like mad dogs as soon as you reach the fourth floor as the first floor depending on where you are going.

You decided to vote for your sanity: grab that foot-long of a Subway and live, bro, live.

Forget the wars of Kabul, Baghdad, and Southern Philippines.

You have to listen to your body, appease its spirit, and learn how to feed it with a foot-long of a food people call here Subway.

As you run, you calculate the cost: the gas to drive to the Subway store, the cost of the foot-long, and the energy expended to decide on which foot-long to gobble up to appease the hunger you remembered when you took that four-day bus ride to Williamsburg from Los Angeles, thousands of miles away from the West to the East.

You remember as well what gluttony is all about, and that this has not been removed the list of sins that Christians are supposed to confess regularly so they can earn point for salvation in Heaven. 

You remember too that if you ordered one foot-long, that would be equivalent to about four hundred pesos, in Philippine currency, and about the cost of a one-third cavan of rice.

You felt guilt getting in out of hand, and getting into your soul, into your mind, into your vulnerable conscious and you felt the relentless grumbling of your stomach.

Would you say now the prayers to ask for guidance?

Would you trade in the promise of the foot-long Subway and settle for something in accord with the demands of Sunday?

You said to yourself in whisper, the sound almost imperceptible even to you: Go, grab, bro, grab that fulfillment of your dream.

And which you did.

You ran straight to the store from the parking and you are next in line. 

You surveyed the meal and the list that makes you imagine what American culinary culture is all about even in the Hawai'ian islands far from the Mainland that now experiences the recession of taste buds and beds on the backs of homeowners who have lost their home.

You say with confidence: chicken breast, pepperoni cheese, honey oats for bread and roasted, put in all the oil you can pour, the vinegar you can pour, the salt you can sprinkle, the pepper you can grind, and all the perks of veggies, the better if you can put in all the Subway garden: jalapeno, green pepper, yellow pepper, cucumber, tomatoes, olives, all the leaves, and all the onion rings you can put in that foot-long of a darling of a bread. I could have said as well: tie the bread with a rubber band so you can put in some more of those leaves. Of course, I did not say that, but the Mexican lady, young and college-type, read my mind: she kept putting all those perks and joy filled my heart.

How much, I asked her, and I started to believe in angels. In the meantime, I forgot how starvation wage also known as minimum wage in the United States, as elsewhere including the land of my birth, has kept two kinds of people in this land of milk-and-some-honey: the first kind are the Washington types who can enjoy all what freedom is all about and the second kind are the counter-people type like this maker of my foot-long Subway bread who, despite her backbreaking work, is able to keep an ammunition of grace and smile, her sense of dignified labor despite all an armory of her belief that one day soon, one day soon, she will graduate from all these and she will start to order for herself one foot-long of Subway bread, perhaps the one with the Italian herbs and spices, her toasted bread filled with turkey slices and bacon, and American cheese.

You went back to work by stopping to work: you declared a ceasefire to all these that beset your days of celebration.  

You declared a holy hour of a break from all these that stand in the way of your gustatory delight.

You open your foot-long of a honey oat and you forget your dream of famine and want. You forget Darfur and the Philippines as you told yourself, warned even, that you have to live.

Honolulu, HI
Nov 23/08


Joe Padre said...

You go in the backyard, notice some scraggly red tomatoes hanging from the dried branches of what was once a thriving green tomato plant, gather the red stuff--including the tiniest ones--slice 'em in a small saucer, open that bagoong jar and let the last salty digo drop into that saucer of sliced tomatoes, scoop some of the mixture and place them beside the killaban on your plate, pull a chair and make yourself comfortable with the heel of one foot gently rubbing against your you-know-what, command the remote to a rerun of The Don Ho Show and listen to the lilt of Tiny Bubbles and then Pearly Shells, sink your washed eating hand into your plate and scrape a portion of the killaban nga inafe and binagoongan a kamatis--and feel grand about how absolutely fabulous that tastes, plenty much better, I bet, than your foot-long subway sandwich. Funny how the alimentary canal is so inured to the ethnic food, the experience is, as MasterCard says, PRICELESS! BON APPETIT!

ariel said...

Yes, you are right.

And this immoral addiction to the foot-long is, by all account, immoral!

I wrote this piece to show how gluttony has become the standard of our culinary life, particularly those of us who came here to play that game of pretense about not knowing the mix of the best of the bugguong and samatis (the type who says 'yucky' everytime you mention to them how we made the sacred ceremony of kammet, which I still do, quite more often now, when I get the chance to spy on that pinakbet I always long for. The foot-long: how can I explain its lack of morality to my grandmother who knew only the 'sangkagemgem a pandesal' for the ritual of 'deppel' with her coffee of burned rice? I know what she would say: you Ilokanos of Honolulu are all bukatot and durbab and lam-ug? And she would say too: what kind of 'nakem' have you got with your foot-long?

My breakfast would be best if I eat with my hand, with the ginisa-a-bulong-ti-bawang (I had one this morning!), with the juicy samatis plucked from some lowly farmer's lot somewhere in Wahiawa over here, them farmers, who, in their sacred act of communing with the land and coaxing it to let loose those samatis to bear the red fruits, are able to feed us with fresh vegetables not harvested from Stockton or Sacramento or some other farming places in Southern California.

The memory, Joe, is what makes us alive, is more than enough for me. I am the incorrigible Ilokano through and through.

I am tortured by the abundance of food over here when I see famine and its devastating power in other places. I cannot reconcile this immoral politics of food supply and food consumption, and its absence elsewhere. It is beyond me.