Meet My Other Neighbors

Yesterday evening, I had a few hours of downtime at work. So, after scarfing down some pieces of cold cuts and scraps of rye bread, I decided to forgo my usual evening constitutional of conversing with the cats out on the front stoop of the house. Instead, I changed into street clothes and took a stroll around the neighborhood.

An aside: Yes, I now work from home as a freelance writer. I’ve set up my makeshift office right under the stairs and I sometimes work in my pajamas like most stereotypical telecommuters.

Alright, back to the night in question.

So, there I was, slightly disoriented with everything that went on outside the house. The sights, sounds, and smell of my neighborhood street almost short-circuited my senses.

Kids played badminton right in front of our gate. One skinny pre-teen in short shorts and tight fitting purple t-shirt that said “You Can’t Afford Meh” in lime green lettering nearly smashed her racket on my face as she tried to catch a speeding shuttlecock tossed by her opponent. She missed by a millimeter and quickly apologized. Her friends teased her for being nearsighted. Their game resumed and I walked on out to the main thoroughfare.

To my right is a monolith structure all clad in green brick. Not too long ago, the spot was merely a fenced in vacant lot lush with bananas trees and neck-high weeds. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to toss some toys over the fence and dared each other to clamber in and find it. It was a scary thing to do. But failure to do so resulted in merciless teasing for days. One does not have too much option as a kid. I hated going into that jungle. I always imagined some wild animal lurking in the bushes as I searched for a frisbee or a water gun among the tangled cadena de amor.

I was already away for college when the owners sold the vacant lot for, as neighborhood rumor has it, forty-five million pesos. When I returned, the building with the green brick wall already replaced the urban jungle of my childhood.

The building’s signage said it is a factory that manufactures display cases — the sort I usually see in restaurants with the expensive menus.  This is the Igloo House, so named because of the display cases, ice chests, and meat lockers  they create. In this tropical country, it would be unwise to not have a box that gives you ice cold water when the temperature indoors reaches near-boiling point. So, I applaud the Igloo House’s efforts.

However, for the longest time, I have this niggling feeling that there is something going on in there aside from assembling freons and soldering cooling trays. The edifice is way, way larger than a regular refrigerator factory. The floor area spans three quarters of a block. Moreover, picture this: The building is five stories high and is surrounded by a green brick fence whose top reaches the third floor. And the Malacanang Palace could really learn from Igloo House’s security measures. Four guards patrol the perimeter on a regular interval and there are several CCTV cameras mounted on the walls, overlooking the streets. What gives?

Before my imagination could run wilder than its regular mileage, I reached the mouth of my street. I took a left towards the west. The main artery going to the malls was to my right. Across the street, Eponymous, the strip bar, was filling up with customers. Women’s laughter – throaty and dripping with feigned lust – floated up the purpling sky.

Eponymous is an off-track betting station and carinderia during the daylight hours. I often buy lunch there if I’m too lazy busy to cook. When dusk begins to settle in, the girls who served my lunch would transform into beautiful women wearing skimpy clothes and heavy makeup. As the evening progressed, the joint’s parking lot would fill up with assorted vehicles: taxis, tricycles, ancient sedans, the occasional SUV with vanity plates. All driven by men looking for diversions their money could afford. Now, three cars parked in succession. New cars. It’s going to be a busy night for the girls of Eponymous.

I continued walking westward.

I was pleasantly surprised upon noticing that the building I could see being constructed from my bedroom window is already sporting a highly polished glass facade, complete with the chromed effect. It faces the main road. As I approached, I saw that a guard was in his kiosk.

I smiled at the guard, and curious as I was, asked him what company owned the building. It looked like a corporate center. But then, I also saw from my window that their structure sprawled to encompass about four 600-sqm lots that were sold by my former neighbors to the new building’s owner. Couldn’t merely house a call center hub. When I saw its external facade, I doubted that it was even an academic institution.

“It’s a gun factory, miss,” the security guard informed me.

Eh? I took a long look at the building again. Its glass windows glowed golden as they reflected lights from the street lamps. There were some letters engraved over the enormous double doors. La Ofensiva.

The guard might be having a bout of loneliness because he was chatty. “Of course, the main factory is not here. This is more of a holding facility and the showroom. The building behind the office is the firing range. The neighbors would surely complain when we start operations but noise-reduction measures are already being done.”

My bedroom window overlooks the building behind the office.

“What guns do you manufacture?” I squeaked.

“Oh. AKs. Forty-fives. Thirty-eights. We got those. Mainly we are a supplier for private owners.”

“And the firing range would primarily be for testing your products?” I squeaked yet again.

“Yes, it would be, of course.” The guard replied. Then his two-way radio squawked.

Bravo one. Bravo one,” the static enunciated.

The guard replied with his own code and a string of numerical language. He seemed to have forgotten I was there.

So I made an about face and retraced my steps back to my front stoop. The cats quickly congregated on my lap as I sat outside and gazed at La Ofensiva frowning at me and partially blocking the moon.

A chill of unease ran up my spine.

When I was a kid, all we ever knew to do during summer holidays was to play piko or Chinese garter with the other neighborhood kids. We’d get in trouble with our parents or any adult for that matter if we’d be caught wearing t-shirts that advertised our retail value. See, in my childhood years, we were insulated from talks of sexuality and were often ordered to close our eyes when something amorous went on between two characters on the television screen.

In my neighborhood, the largest building then was Mr. Ong’s General Merchandise where we bought pan de sal with a pat of butter in the morning for breakfast and ice cold bottles of Fanta or Royal Tru-Orange in the afternoons to slake our thirst and feed our sugar cravings.

Everything was wholesome. I guess that word’s extinct.

I haven’t really taken a good look at the goings on in my neighborhood. The realization crashed in. There’s a strip club a few meters away from my front door. There’s a gun factory at my backyard (Mr. Ong’s property is now part of La Ofensiva). And a silent green building continues to hide its secrets.

Times change. I know that. My neighborhood is one proof of the adage.

Suddenly, I felt very very old.

And tired.

And out of sorts.

And… I haven’t told you yet about the Blessed Unction Drug and Mental Health Rehabilitation Center three doors down to my right. I’ll save that story for another day.

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