In 2001, I graduated from high school, enrolled in college (BS Ed Physics-Math at the University of San Carlos, on a scholarship), and lived at the squatter’s area of Brgy. Lorega-San Miguel, Cebu City, in what is now an open space after the houses were demolished.

Because my rented room was too small, air would not circulate much. Even the old electric fan would not be enough to force it to circulate around. Thus I used to spend my nights at the university library until they closed, enjoying the library’s airconditioning system. Then I go home and spend time at the store at the corner of the street, swapping stories and jokes with any of my neighbors, until I’m already very sleepy and the unmoving air in my room can’t stop my body from relaxing and my brain from going to dreamland. Sometimes, when the scholarship money comes in or my parents give me something or I earn from my myriad rackets then, I could afford a Red Horse beer and at times would even be galante enough to provide a Stallion free to a neighbor who happens to eye my cold beer with envy.

Those three or so hours every night exposed me to the many many characters in Lorega San Miguel, which I believe was similar to many other slum areas: the fathers who would rather use shabu so they could handle the backbreaking work of lifting heavy loads without eating a single meal (saving a lot of money); the mothers who wake up at 3:00 A.M. for the dawn rosary and made sure that their young children are in school, and then spend the rest of the day doing this or that little work which brings in some pesos; the brothers who victimize naive pedestrians along Echavez or MJ Cuenco or even Colon, picking their pockets and snatching their cellphones and pulling their necklaces; the sisters who open up their legs for money to put food on the table; the probinsyanos like me who only wished to finish their college education or continue working so that a brother or sister could finish theirs. Already exposed then to the ideology of the National Democrats (a.k.a. communists), I had wished for a more egalitarian society: where each family could live decently on one parent’s wages (preferably the father; on why, that would be for another post); where each child has a chance to get a college education through a publicly-funded network of universities; where no one has to resort to performance enhancers such as shabu and get themselves addicted in order to bring home food sourced from decent sources on the family’s table; where no one has to commit robbery or allow herself to be used in an intimate manner just so she could earn some money. The stories they tell inspired me. In 2005, I graduated from college, and got a teaching job at an exclusive school which pays a relatively large salary. I could have afforded to transfer to a more middle-class neighborhood. I did not. I had become part of Lorega-San Miguel, a nightly tambay in front of the corner store. Only this time, I could be galante more nights.

All this time, I had never considered my co-tambays as criminals, notwithstanding the fact that some of them were indeed criminals. To me, they were persons with hopes and aspirations, out to make a quick buck in order for VECO not to cut off the electricity (never mind if some of them did steal and not buy their electricity), or send money back to Negros or Agusan or Lanao (never mind that the money came from selling snatched cellphones). They were persons with talents and capabilities who, had they opportunity, would have made some difference in the community, in a good way. I drank with them, laughed with them, exchanged tsismis with them, shared suspicions with them who would be next to go when the death squads started killing drug personalities in 2002-2003. They were persons, not mere statistics. Yes, they were tambays, and yes, some of them did commit a crime an hour or so before we shared a cold Red Horse, but they were not committing a crime staying at a corner store and enjoying a drink with the rest of us.

In 2009, the renter of the other room used his last money to buy shabu instead of paying our shared VECO bill, and as a result, we had our electricity cut off. I was then studying law and needed light. I left the neighborhood and transferred to Mandaue. But in my heart of hearts, I would always be a tambay of San Miguel, and it is never criminal to be a tambay.

(First posted on Facebook on 23 June 2018.)