BACOLOD CITY, Negros Occidental, Philippines – The neighborhood maton (thug or bully in Filipino) stands in the middle of the dark, narrow alley, usually at the cul de sac.
Barechested, in maong shorts or a hand-me-down boxers and flipflops, a crown of thorns tattoo on one bicep, a three-letter combination tattoo on one side of his chest (perhaps initials of an ex-lover or the last victim he has knifed or that of another bully who managed to hit him on the head with a pipe).
The street light casts an overhead glow on him, a keylight placed wrongly, casting shadows on his face that make his eyes look like deep, dark holes.
Below him, just beneath his crotch is a pogon, a small, clay stove with fish being grilled.
Oils dripping from the silver slivers onto the glowing charcoals create clouds of smoke, making him look more menacing than the remedyo heneral he actually is as he glowers at his fellow drinkers (usually lower-level thugs with a rich or better off patron or an aspiring politico wanting to project a makitao image).
The maton sits down to flip the fish on the grilling tray, sometimes a piece of chicken wire found on the roadside, oftentimes a piece of flattened tin.
He had been drinking since about an hour ago, pickling his liver either with either rhum, Tanduay, or Andy Tan’s latest offering to the masses: Emperador Light.
Sometimes, it could also be Ginebra San Miguel gin, bilog or kwatro kantos.
Truth is, the maton’s stomach is growling. He had not eaten since morning. Scientists call the sound borborygmus, an onomatopeia the Greeks invented but the maton knows nothing about that English word in the same way he finds it hard to spell fuschia.
The tuloy on the grill is his kaluwasan, a salvation from the hunger spell for the day as he faces another 364 more or whatever is left of his isang kahig, isang tuka year.
That tuloy – Indian oil sardines – seems to have replaced galunggong as the national fish, that fish poor Filipinos can afford, a cheap aquatic protein source, at least according to then President Aquino who made bringing down the prices of galunggong part of her rallying cry, much like Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ food and jobs slogan under tsarist Russia.
Tuloy is a lowly fish. That much is clear.
When in abundance, it is made into fishmeal, food for chickens raised in poultry farms or like the maton, pulutan for the masa drinkers, like pica pica in the US or tapa in Spain.
“Your fingers smell of motor oil or diesel if you eat it with your hands,” not a few people would swear, including those who believe that tuloy, or any other food, will sagang or shield their intestines and liver from the pickling effects of alcohol.
There had been much fuss about tuloy not so long ago when government and environmentalists, like lawyer Antonio Oposa, called for a closure of the Visayan Sea.
“Anti-people,” the activists screamed. It would deprive the poor of food and jobs, Pamalakaya, a federation of fisherfolk aligned with the Left claimed. (to be continued)