SNOWFLAKES drifted down on Colon St.
Last Friday, I was having a burger and sundae, watched solemnly by a little girl in metallic pink Hello Kitty boots. Her mother was trying to pacify her baby brother, who was trying to arrange on his bald head his meat-speckled spaghetti lunch.
The smell of chicken grease was all around us. The little girl gripped a piece of chicken as if it were the Most Famous Cat Without a Mouth, trying to escape from her and the place of eternal frying.
I sympathized. I, too, wanted to go back out to the street I left moments ago. Colon: swarming, noisy, smelly and snowing. A building on the corner of Junquera and Colon Sts. was bristling with workers. Its façade, molting and white, was raining fine flakes on pedestrians.
Fiesta forecast: expect gustiness and a light rain of lead.
The days approaching the feast for the Sto. Niño find Colon St. and its environs at its best and worst. I like walking around downtown then because these times remind me of Cebu half a century ago. In the traffic rerouting for the Sinulog fiesta, the hundreds spilling out from the novena masses at the Basilica take over the streets closed to vehicles.
When I was a child, tagging along after my elders on errands, it was always a rule to leave behind the car because Colon was notorious for being a place where you had to invoke a miracle to find space to park your car. And if you did, you had to pray you’d still find your car intact or whole at the completion of your errand.
Yet, for all Cebuanos and visitors from nearby islands then, downtown Cebu was the center of all things, from the religious to the commercial. I think it unthinkable for a Cebuano of my generation not to have a picture snapped by a “maniniyot” who instructs one how to place one foot slightly in front while holding a balloon or an oily bag of nuclear-yellow popcorn in front of the façade of: a) the Basilica, b) Magellan’s Cross, or c) Fort San Pedro.
Children are not only easy to bribe but also light to drag around as their elders hop from store to store in search of downtown’s most coveted: a good buy. Colon, Manalili, Magallanes, Leon Kilat, Borromeo: these were the classrooms where every Cebuano learned the art of bargaining.
Whether one’s preferred gambit was friendly or aggressive, the rule was never to buy at the price first mentioned by the seller. One who did was a fool and the seller was excused from getting all his money.
On the other hand, some places suspended the Cebuano’s thrift. My aunts, ferocious in driving down the price of cloth or a pair of step-in, were docile as cows whenever we walked in a shop, bare except for a Sto. Niño and vigil lamp guarding an empty counter. Someone would appear, followed by bowed heads and a whispered conversation that always ended with, “Naay atay or wa (with or without liver)”? And then a bag of Chinese chorizos would exchange hands and we would leave, as quietly as we entered.
I always wondered why other sellers did not just follow the chorizo seller’s style: hide all their goods in a backroom to avoid the haggling. On the other hand, I think haggling is the continuum of a ritual with its roots in prehispanic barter.
Trading in downtown follows the “suki” tradition. No matter how hard the bargaining got to be, an amiable chat preceded and followed every bout between my elders and the store owner or clerk. Inquiries about health or children were usual. While having my watch battery replaced recently by my Colon “suki,” the sales clerk, guard and I discussed if going organic is the best way to handle stomach troubles. To repeat this in a mall is unthinkable.
Changes, including the efforts of the government and civil society, to remake Colon and the rest of downtown have met spotty success. Then and now, you need your wits and a good pair of legs to find the bargains, survive the streets, and appreciate the gritty downtown vibe.
I recently stopped for a young sidewalk vendor whose sign, “Rushed ID,” was the only ungrammatical one in about two blocks of these hawkers. I joked if his service was really the best since for P100, I could get my photos done yesterday.
The fellow scanned my face and said, “P90, ato lang i-Photoshop ang imong uban (for P90, we can digitally darken your gray hair).”
Facial reconstruction with discount!!! Nothing is quite like Colon and downtown Cebu.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 19, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”