Looking for Love
“I would need to drink a lot,” he says smiling shyly.
“How much?” I ask.
“A lot!” he says, covering a laugh with his hand. “ Five bottles. And some of that sex medicine, too,” and he laughs behind his hand again.
Fermin was looking for a baby-maker.
“It’s common in the Philippines, ” he says. “You pay the girl 50,000 peso($1,000), and for the health check-ups. And she makes the baby with you and gives it to you when it’s born.”
Fermin pauses. “But sometimes when the time comes they don’t give the baby up. Or, you make a contract and they decide not to go through with it.”
“Has that happened to you?” I ask.
He nods. “I talked to a girl from around here,” he says, motioning outside. “I asked her if she wanted a house or money. She was interested but then wouldn’t do it.”
Fermin pauses again. “I saw her a few months ago. She was pregnant. Pregnant! But with no money, no house, no partner, nothing for it. That girl…that girl is crazy!” he says.
Fermin owns a hair salon in Compound 18 of Manila’s notorious Tondo slum. A mirror dominates the tiny room. Above is a Chinese vase and a confusion of figurines: three little black babies, four Buddha and a Jesus standing with outstretched arms, look on as one of the Seven Dwarfs, Bashful, perhaps, plays the trumpet.
“What kind of girl would you look for? Intelligent? Beautiful?”
Fermin shrugs: “Just a simple girl, I just wants to have kids, that’s all…”
“So are you still trying?”
“Not now,” he says. “Maybe I will try again later.”
Outside, in one of Tondo’s many narrow alleys, the addicts, the dealers, the gangsters, the crazies and the desperate pass Fermin’s salon alongside a much larger crowd of hard-working, still hopeful, Tondo residents.
Inside is safe and a boy of 4 plays on the floor. A few feet away, sitting in a chair, watching morning television, is an eleven year old boy.
“Relatives,” say Fermin. “The parents of the younger boy don’t have enough money to look after him, so he with lives me. And the older one I take care of during the day.”
“He’s investing,” interrupts a friend.
“Yes, investing. He hopes that when he is old or sick they will look after him.”
Fermin nods his head.
That’s cold I think and attempting to buy love rarely works.
But the boys, unlike many other youngsters here, look well-fed, well-clothed and content. Part of Tondo’s lucky few.
Fermin earns between 20-30,000 ($400-600)peso a month by selling haircuts-starting price 50 peso ($1), and hair products.
“It’s good enough,” Fermin says of his earnings, “I can help my family.”
30,000 peso is nearly twice the minimum wage and he doesn’t spend money on silly things, he tells me. So his money goes into the bank, or he buys houses in Tondo and rents them out.
“What are your salon customers like?” I ask him.
“They are mean and naughty. Stupid!” he says with a chortle. “They tease me and ask if I want to be with them.” Despite the laugh, he is annoyed; it seems he hasn’t yet decided if he likes or hates the Tondo housewives that are his regulars.
Fermin has been working since he was 8 years old. “I had to, to support my education,” he says. So he stood outside of Manila’s big markets and sold large plastic bags to customers wanting to put all their small items into one big bag. It cannot have been lucrative work.
He dreamed of becoming a teacher. But no matter his endeavours, college was never an option. His parent’s could not afford it.
“They were always fighting,” he says. “Over money. And when they were sick or had no job we were kicked from one rented house to another.”
“We moved more than 20 times,” he says. Fermin looks sad, tears are near. “And sometimes when we had no money we had to share a house with relatives.”
Suddenly the small boy thrusts a small portable light at him and Fermin is further troubled.
“He’s broken my light,” he mutters. He quietly tries to fix it, but his mind is on other things.
Finally he looks up, “I have a women’s heart. Soft and emotional,” he says. “And once, a relative wouldn’t accept me for who I was.”
Fermin pauses again, “So I had to move out and away from my family.”
It was during these times he decided he would make enough money to buy his own house and look after his parents. But, fresh out of school, his start was a poor one: he started his full-time working life as a janitor at a private college.
He didn’t mind the work, but the rich students bullied him, for the lowliness of the work he says, but for being gay too, one suspects.
So he left one janitor’s job for another, and worked in an electronics company. After work he learnt from friends how to cut and colour hair and in 2000 he opened his salon within Gate 18 of the Tondo compound.
I ask him if he thinks he will ever be rich?
“Yeah,” he says confidently and by Tondo standards he already is.
“But are you happy?”
“I’m always broken-hearted,” he says dramatically. And then he laughs loudly.
“Most of the time I am lonely or sad… relatives just stop by… not to visit but for money…” he says, and his voice is flat, the laughter gone.
“And I used to have partners, but no matter how hard I tried they always left me,” he continues.
“They always left me for a girlfriend,” he says.
“For a girl?”
“Yes. Some I paid for their study and paid their parents’ debts. But still they leave me for a girl. I can give them everything…everything but kids,” he says softly.
I ask Fermin if it is difficult being openly gay in Tondo.
It’s OK in this neighbourhood he responds. “We are all friends, here.”
And then he returns to his loneliness.
“Life was better before,” he continues.
“I had no problems. Now I have money, but I am always thinking who is my family, who am I..my family only remember me when they are in trouble…”
Fermin stops and picks up the small boy at his feet who has started to cry. “I’m always alone… I wish I had my own son… there’s no one for when I get old, when I get sick…”
The boy stops sobbing, and Fermin too is quiet.
“How would you like to be remembered?” I finally ask.
“As someone who helped when help was needed,” he says simply.
I show him a mirror and ask him to tell me what he sees.
Fermin looks at himself and answers quickly. “A guy that has someone or something missing…incomplete…needs someone to make me happy,” he says seriously and then he laughs loudly again.
As I step outside into the narrow lane two women and two men squeeze past me carrying a gleaming white, child-size coffin. Five or six people, the family I suppose, follow sombrely; tattily dressed, the children have no shoes, and no hope.
Fermin waves at me through the barred door.
“Can you be my friend,” he says, the laugh gone.
“Sure, why not?” I tell him, as I turn to leave.