Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Introducing Joe Bay (an excerpt from Undercover Angel)

It’s four o’clock on a bright and sunny Tuesday afternoon in 1999 and I’m drunk again. I don’t usually like sunny days, especially in the spring right after they go back to daylight savings time. Sunlight tends to make everything look ugly, and to tack on an extra hour of it in the spring is like putting your eye up to a microscope to take in all the ugly details you usually miss. Besides, I don’t trust sunlight. Because whenever someone proposes to “shed some light” on a subject, that person’s usually a liar.

I woke up at noon today. I was still wearing the clothes I’d had on the night before. Although I’d planned on staying inside until at least three in the morning, I slipped my arms into my sport coat, then headed downstairs and out the door. It was what normally would have been just another inauspicious beginning to a never ending series of days when it isn’t until I’m drunk that I feeI truly awake. Taking a deep breath, I looked up at the sky and smiled before walking down the block to the Raven, my neighborhood bar.

My buddy Carl was there. He’d beat me there by an hour. He always went home at eight in the morning after getting off from his job as the nightwatchman at the old Gas Company building, and after trying to sleep for a couple of hours would always end up at the Raven. He’d get there early—eleven a.m., as soon as it opened. For the last five years he’s been an insomniac, though he doesn’t like to call what he has “insomnia.”

“I hate that fucking word,” he says. “And besides, it’s sounds like some kinda wimpy kid disease, like measles or mumps. I’m forty-two years old, and I ain’t gonna be telling someone I got some goddamn kid’s disease.”

Carl’s a white dude. A white dude with the kind of sallow face that people look at and say, “He looks so unhealthy.” It seems you always see Filipino dudes like me hanging out with white dudes like Carl. White dudes who look like they’ve got something wrong with them. You’ll never see two Filipino dudes hanging out together, no matter how healthy or unhealthy they look. Unless, of course, they just got off the boat. They’re the kind who’ll see you on the street and try to make eye contact—as if just because you’re Filipino too that they fucking know you. Then while you’re minding your own business trying to ignore them they’ll call out to you, saying something in Tagalog. Thinking that just because you’re Filipino you understand the language.

I never learned it and never wanted to—at least not until I was older. What I wanted was to be white, black, anything but Filipino. It’s never been hip to be Filipino. We’ve never been the popular ethnic group, the foreign flavor of the day—and we've never wanted to be. Hell, when Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines in his attempt to become the first man to circumnavigate the globe, we immediately slaughtered that uppity Eurotrash bastard. Back in the sixties you never saw any of those radical college kids in Berkeley quoting Ferdinand Marcos—President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines who, in addition to being a totally corrupt leader, was also one of the greatest poets in the world. But none of those braless Berkeley coeds or their furry, fetid boyfriends ever mentioned his poetry.

So whenever it was time to hold court with a few nuggets of wisdom, they chose to quote Chairman Mao, a motherfucker a thousand times more ruthless than Marcos. But because Mao was Chinese and not Philippine, he could get away with it. And just when people were starting to forget about the whole deal with Magellan came Imelda—the lovely Imelda Marcos, first lady to the president and wife to the Philippines’ greatest poet. Imelda, who possessed one of the greatest singing voices in the East, as well as several thousand pairs of shoes. It’s the crime of possessing too many shoes that people remember her for now, not the gift of her voice. Filipinos don’t get away with shit. But I’m trying.

“And I hate opera,” Carl mumbles. “And Oprah... and origami and... ortolans. Have you ever eaten an ortolan? I did once. I hated it.”

What Carl did like was cars. And California girls. It didn’t matter if they were black or white or Asian or Latino or whatever. If he heard that some woman just came here to Washington from California, he was there. Buying her beers, buying her shots, trying to get her as drunk as he was.

“But I’m about ready now for some of that goddamn California love,” he says when this woman walks in and sits a couple of stools down from us. A skinny Asian woman with a don’t-bug-me-I’m-on-my-period kind of look in her eyes, she’s about thirty with long black hair and wearing a purple sun dress. She orders a “Lemon Drop”—Vodka with a twist of lemon—when Carl looks over to her.

As he curls up the side of his mouth to form an expression that’s part smile and part sneer, I can see that Carl’s about to say something to her. Carl can get away with the worst pick-up lines. I’ve heard him ask women, “So, do you come here often?” or “So, are you new in town?” And though he doesn’t always get to go home with them, he always gets them talking. But this time he went into a spiel.

“You know, I can tell you’re not from around here. Because on a warm spring day like this, women who grew up here in our Nation’s Capital tend to wear something along the lines of denim shorts and a light colored blouse with the sleeves rolled up. Women who’ve come here from someplace further south, for example, but have lived here for a few years would most likely wear a dark tee shirt and long pants—an outfit that’s spring from the waist up and winter from the waist down. You see, being from the south, they’re not quite ready to commit to warmer weather up here in the north. And, well, to make a long story short, you’re wearing a light purple sun dress. And though most women who just came here from your part of the country wouldn’t wear something like that right now, you would... because I believe you’ve just come to town via San Francisco.”

The woman looks at Carl, lowering her head as if she’s about to fire right back at him.

“Well, am I right?” Carl asks.

She turns away toward the window, then back again. “Shut the fuck up,” she says finally.

“Carl, you ready for another beer?” I say, even though another beer is the last thing he needs.

“I’m sorry,” Carl says, “let me introduce you to my friend, Joe Bay.” Carl, as always, pronounced my last name to sound like bay, even though he knows it’s properly pronounced to sound like buy. “He’s a Filipino dude, which is interesting here, because I can tell that you’ve got some Filipino blood in you as well. I’d say you’re half Filipino, half Japanese”

The woman looks at Carl, then at me, feeling more helpless than angry now.

“Hi,” I say finally after recovering from a moment of drunken embarrassment. “Ah... this young man here who’s been harassing you is Carl—Carl Watkins.”

“I’m part Irish, part French, part German, part English, part Italian,” Carl says. “Sort of a Eurotrash mongrel.” Carl pauses, then picks up his bottle and turns it upside down into his mouth. Looking back towards the woman, he sighs. “So, how about this weather?”

She looks at Carl quizzically. She knows that for the time being Carl and I are just a couple of drunks for whom all progress has stopped. But she also knows that out of inauspicious beginnings such as this momentous things can arise.

She smiles sweetly like a little girl, and says, “It’s fucken great.”

And then she begins to talk.

From a novel in progress.

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