FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS
(Reflections of a Loser)
I’m a bum. I make no bones about it. I like being a bum. I coasted through life like a hobo riding the rails, although I covered a wider area and I used airplanes. I’m the guy who knocks on your backdoor offering to do odd jobs for a meal, hoping there were no jobs, and you’d feed me anyway. I ‘ve exploited people’s good nature and hospitality and I’ve
been exploited. I had an edge, an innate talent I discovered while my parents were attempting to intimidate me into an education: An innate talent for photography. I thought about titling this piece, “DIRECTIONS,” but reviewing my images, I find they wouldn’t bear it out. While competent, many are beautiful, they portray one thing, promise unrealized. In fact, they lack direction. I realize the subtitle of this piece could be a disadvantage. Who’d want to read about a loser? Yet, most people are losers to some degree. Even the most successful set goals beyond their reach. Me, I never had any ambitions. So, I’m not disappointed, but I find myself beginning my career at an age most people are retired.
I started out as a photographer in Hongkong, in 1959. Stranded, I obtained a job with Catholic Charities. They had just fired their Chinese photographer, whom they discovered
was doing commercial work on the side, using their facilities and equipment. He never did provide the images they needed. He probably didn’t like shooting pictures of his people at the lowest ebb of their lives, degraded and humiliated, having to rely on charity for food and clothing. Neither did I. My subjects were Chinese refugees fleeing the results of famine from Mao Tse Tung’s“ “Great Leap Forward.” They were inundating Hongkong. My job was to patrol the border and shoot pictures of refugees under the most dismal circumstances, and I did, often threatened with being beaten up by resentful Chinese residents in the process. I couldn’t be blamed for my embittered frame of mind. I was surly and unpleasant to my bosses, one of whom, a German merchant, turned Jesuit priest, Monsigniuer Charles Vath, and the other an Italian priest, Father Pietro Lazzarotto. Because I observed the provisions they doled out couldn’t possibly be sufficient for more than two or three days a
week. I felt we were leeching off them. I made sure I wasn’t credited for my work Some hauntingly beautiful pictures I shot appeared in magazines all over the world in ads soliciting donations. They must have elicited some. Monsignieur Vath smiled tolerantly at my irreverence and constant wisecracks, instead of getting angered, and discharging me. Years later, I was forced to re-assess my original dour appraisal of what we did. I was accosted by a former refugee, then a trader, while strolling in search of a restaurant in Causeway Bay, Hongkong. He recognized me from one of their distribution sites, and insisted on treating me to noodles. I tried to decline. Noodles were okay, but I wasn’t particularly fond of Chinese food. He was not to be denied. Watching me eat, he kept poking my shoulders affectionately, gratified he could repay the favor. Apparently, just our presence gave the refugees hope. A lifeline that kept them from drowning. We gave them the impression that people cared about what happened to them. I then learned that Monsignieur Vath had expired four years before. Between slurping my noodles, I made a silent apology to him, remembering he also kept me alive during an unsettled phase of my existence . He had made tremendous sacrifices to resettle the refugees. He had been a successful businessman in Shanghai. I don’t know why he entered the priesthood. I speculated, it was to atone for Hitler.
There were many other charitable institutions competing to do noble deeds in Hongkong in 1959, World Refugee Year, among them World Council of Churches, in the person of a rather attractive South African woman , Jan Olivier, Foster Parents Plan, The Quakers, Monsignieur Joseph Romaniello, “The Noodle Priest,” etc. Jackie Pullinger, who worked at rehabilitating drug addicts would arrive later , Marvin Farkas, who filmed public service announcements aside from his work as a freelance newsreel cameraman, and more important to me , foreign cor-respondents, (China Watchers), who later gave me assignments after seeing my pictures. Some of them took advantage of my naivete, and while they paid me the standard daily fee, collected the supplemental publication rate (space rates.) for themselves, blandly informing me the pictures were unused. I didn’t care. The pittances they paid me helped me survive.
I shouldn’t complain, really. They gave me access to precincts normally out of my reach, met famous people I would not have met . Much of my work has been bartered for bed and meals. I didn’t bother to reclaim the pictures. I would have had no place to store them. I’ve lived within the economy of third world countries, but at times, my temporary benefactors would book me in 4 or 5 Star hotels, while on a job. I remember encountering other newsmen acquaintances, who’d remark with awe, “You’re staying here?” when they ran into me while I was lodged in one. They were aware I lived hand to mouth. I certainly could not have afforded the tariff. I didn’t disabuse them. They became certain I was a CIA agent, or a runner for a drug lord. I’d like to add, CIA agents I knew didn’t stay in high profile establishments, not wanting to call attention to themselves, notwithstanding James Bond movies. But I digress. I soon got bored with freelance news photography. Long waits for the briefest “photo opportunities,” plus the uncertainties of income . You never knew when the next assignment would come. I moved on to shooting movie stills for Philippine films. This didn’t pay much, but it was steady, and I got to meet beautiful Filipina actresses. I was more enthusiastic than the jaded still photographers they were used to, so they gave me unlimited film and darkroom supplies. I perfected my black and white processing and printing. It was a pleasant experience, but it was limiting. I was looking for more. I stumbled into travel photography. Asian publishers were establishing a niche market for English language house organs, and inflight magazines. They couldn’t use the fractured English and patois of most bilingual Asian writers at the time. For almost two decades, British, American and Australian expats could depend on jobs as editors and writers for comparatively good salaries. I found outlets in Asian credit card, hotel, and airline magazines. While they hesitated committing themselves to assignments, they made suggestions, invariably, purchasing picture stories that resulted from them. Although numerous proficient Asian feature writers have sprung up today, competition reducing payrates to local scale, I still contribute to Asian magazines on occasion, doing essentially travel stories on topical occasions. The marginal fees they pay still defrays my travel expenses, but does not insure my security. I may try to assemble pictures for a book as soon as I get of my duff and construct a mosaic of the
images I harvested. With a perspective that skates on the periphery of history, my most pungent childhood recollections are of war. I was born in Manila, Philippines on July 6th, 1931. My father was a US Army veteran of World War I, and a peacetime naval veteran shortly after that. It was his means of reaching Asia. There were slim pickings in The USA, which was heading for postwar depression. Even then, The US Navy wasn’t accepting new recruits. The reason he was appointed (as they referred to induction) was because he accepted a position as steward, positions normally reserved for Negroes, an early designation for African Americans . He made a lifelong friend of Thomas Pritchard, founder of Tom’s Dixie Kitchen in Manila, which became a gathering place for American colonials, and politicians. At first, Tom personally cooked the meals, good, plain American food, steak and chops, with occasional southern cooking, chores later left to staff. Tom had taken his separation from the service in Manila after his two year enlistment was up. My father re-upped for another two years so he could see China. Comparing opportunities, he decided The Philippines was more attractive, and similarly took his discharge there. He met and married my mother, who was a Filipina in 1930. I was born a year later, and my sister, two years following. It was a stormy relationship, which dragged both of us to precocious maturity. I can’t remember much else of my childhood. Just witnessing domestic battles and antagonisms.
I had a preview of the coming war in The Pacific about a year and a half before Pearl Harbor. During a spasm of rage after one of their frequent quarrels, she decided to take a tour of wartime China. Up to today, I can’t understand why. It was a surreal experience. Our first confrontation with racial prejudice. We boarded an Italian liner named Conti Verdi. The voyage to Shanghai took a week, with a brief stop in Hongkong. The time spent on board was enjoyable. Good food. Plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. Indulgent fellow passengers. My sister and I were the only kids on board. So, they fussed over us. Our arrival in Shanghai’s chaotic docks was not as promising. As soon as we debarked, we were overwhelmed by porters quarreling over our luggage, almost pulling some apart. We milled around in confusion, incapable of coping with it. Then, we heard a sharp commanding voice
snapping in Mandarin. It was a tall Caucasian male with a mustache in a blue uniform, and a visor cap. He selected two porters, then introduced himself as “Katz,” a Russian refugee,
explaining his full name would be too difficult to pronounce. He bowed elegantly as he offered his services as a guide. He didn’t know what he was in for, but he proved to be our guardian angel. He negotiated two rickshaws, one for our family, the second one, for himself, and our luggage. We cantered into Japanese occupied Shanghai, a historical tableau unfolding before our eyes. There was a congestion of people living in the streets at the fringes of The International Settlement. Foreign powers had carved out their individual claims of China, represented as “Concessions.” These enclaves effectively barred Chinese. The street-dwellers were rural refugees, escaping the civil war inland. The contest for supremacy between Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kai Shek. It might seem strange that they preferred the precarious Japanese rule, but despite the romantic delusions of revisionist historians, both antagonists pulverized the people caught between them. Japanese brutality was selective. Their ruthlessness were directed against those who openly opposed them. One of the sharpest visions etched into my consciousness was of three bound blindfolded Chinese coolies clad in black pajamas being used for bayonet practice by Japanese troops, a glimpse I caught when we passed a Japanese garrison, in our frantic search for accommodations. We could not find a place to stay. My mother was Asian, and therefore, unwelcome in foreign owned establishments. Asians could work there, but were excluded from fraternizing otherwise. I was surprised that our Russian guide, a local resident, was unaware of this perversity. Perhaps, a humane man, he didn’t want to believe anyone would turn away a young woman with two small children.
He first brought us to a small hotel, I believe, it was French. “No reservations,” The Chinese counter clerks shook their heads regretfully. “There are no vacancies.” Wartime Shanghai had a few traders, but hardly any tourists. We were one of the few who were indiscreet enough to come. They had to have room.They just couldn’t contaminate the premises with people of an “inferior” race. This became irrefutable when were tried to check in at a sixth “European” hotel. We had spent the entire afternoon wandering aimlessly through
the “Foreign Concessions” . It would have been colorful if we were in the mood to appreciate it. Each “Concession” flew their own country’s banner.They had their own uniformed
policemen to enforce extraterritoriality, an affront to Chinese sovereignty. Sikhs for The British. Their own nationals for German, Dutch, French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.. Each proudly preening in their countries’ splendid uniforms. Even armed US Marines in full dress in front of The American Legation. Upon reflection when I was older, I wondered why Katz had not brought us there for assistance. It was dusk by the time we noticed it. Likely, services were closed. The poor guy increasingly appeared trapped. He couldn’t abandon three innocents in a wartime city. Our rickshaw drivers would be a problem. We didn’t bother settling the fare beforehand by this time. As expected, the end of each trip ended with a noisy argument. He brought us to a hotel patronized by The Chinese in the center of the city. It looked clean enough. Once, he got us settled in a room, he excused himself to phone his wife, promising to return. We were alarmed he wouldn’t, but couldn’t detain him. He was in no obligation to us. But, he was back in half an hour. We hadn’t eaten since we left the ship, but had no appetites. Our only desire, to crawl into bed and sleep. We woke up the next morning, covered with welts all over our bodies. The mattresses had been infested with bedbugs. We noted Katz had slept in the foyer with the couch jammed against the door, which reminded us we were in a dangerous city. Although starved by this time, we didn’t bother to look for a restaurant. Finding a place to stay was an exigent priority. He negotiated another rickshaw trip, and brought us to a commercial hotel overlooking a park, appropriately named, Park Hotel. The lobby was crowded with Japanese civilians and military. Katz assured us that early morning had the best chance of finding an available room. The desk clerks directed us to a lounge to wait for someone to check out. My mother searched for Katz, to settle his fee. He had spent more time with us than he bargained for. We remembered him arguing with the rickshaw drivers about the fares, and she was concerned he’d demand an exorbitant amount, which he undoubtedly deserved, but he had disappeared. Probably happy to have us off his hands. A few minutes later, a bellboy fetched us, announcing a vacancy. The hotel was Chinese- owned. All they cared about was one’s ability to pay. Once safely ensconced in our new cocoon, we felt no
great urge to go outside. We’d seen China! My mother wanted to book passage back to Manila immediately, but the only ship headed back was The Conti Rossi, sister ship of the
vessel that brought us, which was not scheduled for departure for two days. The Hotel Manager sent the concierge to pick up our tickets. The housekeeping staff were just as kind. The roomboys and maids kept us company after their duty rounds. They probably were intrigued by lunatics, who would travel to a country at war. They saw us off like old friends.
The return voyage was just as enjoyable as the one that brought us to Shanghai, enough to erase the nightmarish experience we left behind. Less than two years after we
returned to Manila, The Pacific Phase of World War II broke out. My father was interned as an enemy alien by The Japanese in Santo Tomas University. Life under The Japanese Occupation was as normal as possible under those circumstances. One aberration was I didn’t have to attend school, which was all right with me. Best of all, I was unsupervised. I had a German name, and my hair was bleached blonde by the sun. There was a humiliating ritual every Filipino had to endure. Bowing to a Japanese sentry, each time they pas-sed one at checkpoints. They’d be slapped silly if they forgot. I didn’t bow. It was a rash pretension. My own petty rebellion. If I ran into a bad-tempered martinet, the consequences might have been fatal. The soldiers were quite affectionate . They would pat me on the head, then raising one hand and pressing two fingers together, would declare: “Germany. Japan. Allies.” As their occupation dragged on, the noose tightened around districts. It reached a point where a pass was needed to move from one to another. By that time, I saw no point in provoking Fate. I stayed within my own neighborhood. Books became my companions. I discovered The British Satirist, Saki(Hector Munro), , whose stories were brief, and had a delicious malice a child could relish. I graduated to Edgar Allan Poe, W. Somerset Maugham, and finally, Taylor Caldwell. I read many other books, but I remember these particularly because of their cruel depiction of humanity. I don’t pretend I understood much of what I read. I was fifteen years old before I finally deciphered Sadie Thompson’s spat out line, “Pigs. All men are pigs,” referring to the sanctimonious Rev.
Davidson, in “Rain,” Maugham’s celebrated short story. Liberation incinerated our house, including my beloved books. The Japanese had prepared a reception for the advancing
American Army. Machine gun emplacements, protected by sandbags. Their opponents RSVP’d massively with artillery shells. Most of The Japanese marines had their faces blown away. Some didn’t have upper torsos. I suppose, wounded civilians were similarly collateral damage, as described today. For the duration of the war, we lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor, by Paranaque Beach, 15 kilometers south of Manila. We had no toilets. In fact, no running water for six months following the end of the war. We answered nature’s calls, by stealing to the beach in the darkness, with a miniature army shovel. We had to line up for bathing and culinary water at artesian wells.
The US Armed Services employed civilians in nonmilitary jobs.. I scrounged positions with two outfits whose designations I no longer recall. One was an all black Quarter-master division, and the second was a Special Service Adjunct to an Air Transport Command. My bosses in the former were a somber middle aged former Chicago businessman then, Staff Sgt. James Edwards, and a young future educator, Corp. Jerry Withrow. They taught me rudiments of bookkeeping and typing, but they weren’t much fun. With all the brothels sprouting around army camps, they didn’t go whoring . In my second job, I didn’t have much to do. I was a counter clerk at a library, which also issued athletic supplies. Few people withdrew books, which I inherited when the unit left for Japan, but my bosses were not much older than I was, nineteen, twenty, their superior a twenty eight year old First Lieutenant . With active libidos, they smuggled prostitutes into camp after “office hours.” Sensing my curiosity, my supervisors would warn me, “You’re too young for this. Look, but don’t touch.” One young woman, she probably was nineteen, would muss my hair, and coo, “Sweet sixteen.” I was fourteen, but I didn’t correct her. I didn’t want her to get conscience on me. She looked tall, but actually we were probably the same height. I was about five feet two at the time. The poor wartime diet had stunted my growth. I pretended disinterest, but I knew her base. On my own time off, one weekend, I visited her brothel. It was early afternoon. The queues “for service” hadn’t formed. The GI’s would line up for a
“short time,” which cost ten Pesos, the equivalent of five US Dollars, then. She kissed me on the cheek. I handed her the envelope containing my week’s pay, forty two Pesos, expecting I’d have her for the evening, or at least, four hours. She led me up the stairs. There were three adjoining bedrooms, with metal basins of water at each entrance. I believe, I mentioned, there was no running water. I doubted if the roomboys took the trouble to replace the water in the pans after each use. She was very pretty, probably, of part Spanish descent. Not much make-up Very businesslike, she undressed, then guided me through the maneuvers, but she didn’t let me come to an orgasm. After I entered her, and gyrated a few times, she giggled, kneeing me in the groin, forced me to withdraw, then left the room. The entire process must have taken all of three or four minutes. Frustrated, I lay on the bed for a while, waiting for her to return. Then, I doubled up with shooting pains in my stomach. I believe it’s called “blue balls,” testicles reclaiming the sperm that should have been ejaculated. I pondered why males went to all this trouble to copulate. Voices outside augured the commencement of the business day. I realized, she was not coming back “Sweet sixteen, or not,” I was just another John. And one foolish enough to have handed her money without specifying what I expected in return. I lost interest in sex after that, until peer pressure forced me to my next engagement when I was twenty one. Visiting brothels is a rite of passage among young Filipino males. Most of my liaisons have been with call girls. A reason, perhaps, I never married.The first sex experience is supposed to be sublime . Romantic. Mine was sordid. I still get terrified when I look back. Even the white sheets I reposed on could have concealed filth. Disease, perpetuated through a train of prurient young men away from home, seeking refuge from loneliness in some stranger’s flesh. The sex act to me, even today, is a transaction. An appetite to dispose of. When it’s over, I’d wish my partner would go away, or at least, shut up. I find the conversation that follows: “Was it good for you?” annoying. I suppose, no woman would appreciate the response, “Yeah! Yeah! It was great.” after a “communion of souls.” If the war affected me in any way, it persuaded that relationships and property are ephemeral. You could lose either pretty quickly, in a flash, if you may.
I never had any inclination to accumulate property. When my mother died, she left me a house. Now, I feel it owns me. Like a human being, it requires attention, care. I can no
longer chase off at a whim. While she was still alive in a nursing home. I entrusted a young woman with the key to her house to check it in my absence. She took it as leave to loot the place. She stole all my mother’s jewelry, and sundry items which caught her fancy. She was a teacher, a respected profession. I wonder how she rationalized her dishonesty, or
what she taught her students A church going woman, and a Catholic, I presume, all she had to do is slide down on her knees and make an act of contrition. To be absolved of sin, my catechism reminds me, one has to be “truly sorry.” She can break all God’s commandments, and be “truly sorry”. I don’t believe in God, but still think I am the better human being. My mother’s property was insured, but I couldn’t file a claim without a police report, and since I gave her the keys voluntarily, it would be legally debatable whether she was a thief. It seems to validate my belief systems and attitude toward life. I find it reprehensible that a member of a venerable occupation would rob a woman in a nursing home. As I approach the twilight of my life, my age warns me of the minefield ahead. Of catastrophic ailments, of memory loss, weaknesses which may leave me vulnerable to predators like her. I didn’t expect to live as long as I have. So, it was not difficult to opt out of our safety net system. I now have to reenter it at ground level. I face my future like an adolescent, colliding with the canard . “You have no experience.” In my case, it’s “You’re too old. You can’t handle the job.” The last phrase is often unstated.
So, we learn there is not much demand for an old photographer with shaky hands and failing eyesight. Some new analogue and digital cameras have internal stabilizers or anti-shake provisions. Might be something worth exploring. The “safe” world is not easy to enter, but I offer something that compensates for my limitations. Experience. I don’t regret I’m a nomad. I have traveled much, but have only covered a fraction of the globe. As long as my health holds out. I shall continue my wandering. There’s still so much to see.