The Gangster of Love

Clockwise From Top Left: Imelda Marcos, Jimi Hendrix, "Gangster of Love," hip-hop artist "Rocky Rivera." Background: Manila

The Carabao Kid (an excerpt)

It was 1973. “Hoy sister.” He calls out when I stroll past Manong Joey’s Kayumanggi Barbershop on Kearny Street. I’m on my way to see what I can shoplift at City Lights Books, but I can’t ignore that loud and insistent “pssst, pssst.” Filipino greeting. “What the fuck?” I mutterd, annoyed. I stick my head into the dark, tiny storefront. Old Filipino men glare back at me from their pomade-scented gloom. Even in their humble circumstance and advanced age, they exude gangster flash and style, chewing on fat cigars while they wait for their haircuts. Acting like millionaires and preening like peacocks, they wear pimpy suits with rakish wing tips of white patent leather loafers on their feet.

Manong Joey is in the midst of putting the finishing touches on some aging used-to-be gigolo’s modified pompadour. The beat-up radio’s tuned to KJAZ. In this bastion of macho vanity and sartorial glamour, the Carabao Kid stands out in his chinos and muddy work boots, his graying hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, his goatee wispy. He’s right at home, claiming one of Manong Joey’s unused barber chairs and swapping tales with the manongs. They are obviously very fond of him. Kid and the old guys could blah-blah all day and all night. “Talk story,” the Kid used to call it…

The Shop (my story)

Growing up in South City, I would get my hair cut for free by Auntie Remy. She worked at Ely Lynn, the local barber shop that we referred to as The Shop. It was conveniently situated next to a Goldilocks where I spent weekends of my childhood ordering halo-halo and pretending I liked the red beans. But unlike The Gangster of Love, The Shop wasn’t filled with gangster manongs. Instead, that’s where the sisters Ely and Lynn ran their business of cutting hair and watching after the neighborhood kids. I’m sure there were choice gossip tidbits flying back and forth between the sisters and the other aunties who came to get their hair did, but my American ears weren’t privy to the tsismis spoken in Tagalog.

Auntie Remy was the mother of my brother’s best friend, hence the free haircuts. Once, I made the mistake of trying to use a round brush to curl my hair the morning I was supposed to take a school picture. I remember rolling the brush up to the my roots and trying to unroll it. The more I tried to unroll the brush, the more my hair tightened around the bristles. Panic ensued. Eventually, I emerged from my bathroom to show my mom my handiwork and she immediately called Auntie Remy. The Shop wasn’t open yet, so we made the two-minute drive to their house where Auntie Remy performed hair surgery with fantastic results: my hair was smooth and silky looking in my school picture and not the black cloud of tangles it was earlier that morning.

The Gangster of Love

I had many more flashbacks like this of mychildhood while I was reading The Gangster of Love. From her recollection of driving past the Alemany Farmer’s Market in San Francisco to the characters’ names (I knew someone in my life with about ninety percent of the characters in the novel) to the names of the cities (Daly City and South San Francisco are hot spots for Filipino communities) to Hagedorn’s skillful way of integrating Filipino history and culture into the storyline, author Jessica Hagedorn writes protagonist Raquel “Rocky” Rivera as though any young Filipino/a could have experienced the world through her eyes even if they were born in the US.

The Kid tells jokes. The atmosphere tingles with pent-up energy and nervous laughter. The Kid and his disciples believed that in the long run, everything could be reduced to a joke. Maybe that was the point all along, and Filipinos knew it. Jokes were in our blood, and very Zen of us. Four hundred years of colonization and Catholicism couldn’t erase it from out consciousness: Bahala na, ha-ha-ha.

An old Filipino man goes before the judge for his citizenship papers. The manong’s really nervous. He’s been in America since 1930, waiting for this Big moment all his life. The judge isn’t too friendly. He says, “Excuse me, Mr. Manong, but before you can get your citizenship papers, I must order you to compose a correct sentence in English, using the following words: deduct, defense, defeat, and detail.” The manong jumps up and down with excitement. “Ay! Very easy, judge! Very easy. See? De duck jump over the de fence. First de feet, den de tail!”  (I told this joke to my dad and he cracked up.)

A few reviews I’ve read about the book criticized it for being “unfocused,” “odd and confusing.” Yes, there are definitely some chapters in the novel where the narrator would change from Rocky to Elvis, or dreams that were written like scripts for a play. But that was the beauty of the novel! Hagedorn did a marvelous job of transporting me to the 70’s where Rocky and her crazy crew experimented with sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Of course the book will be confusing! Things are never straightforward when you’re high.

Besides being my favorite book (for now), Gangster of Love was an inspiration for me to start writing again. The stories of the Filipino or Filipino American are so unheard of; we have things to say, too! When I was growing up, I remember writing novel after novel of drama, suspense and comedy. But what I really spent time on was creating characters with cultural backgrounds that I grew up around including Filipino, Chinese, Latino and African American. Reading Gangster of Love was like a breath of fresh air for the young writer in me who so constantly kept searching for validation. It’s only a matter of time before my memoir is released…*wink wink*

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