Commentary

‘Brances,’ halfway house

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In a hole in the wall on Mabini Street in Malate, Manila, where the yellow lights are diffused in their dusty receptacles, it is difficult to tell the difference between night and day. It’s known to loyal patrons as Remembrances, or Brances for short.

Windows tinted green and yellow hide its belly, where cigarette smoke drifts to the ceiling and stays there. A lone exhaust fan fights a losing battle against the smell of tobacco that clings to everything it touches.

Brances has become a halfway house for a weary bunch of reporters, editors and friends who can’t fully explain what draws them to it like thumb tacks to a magnet. The bar is owned by American expatriate Jim Turner, whom you can’t cuss secretly in Filipino because he speaks it fluently, and who gets occasionally piqued at being greeted with “Hi, Joe.”

On any given night, Brances regular Jun Bautista—Bote to friends, a fine TV reporter who became a casualty of prime time news’ shift to Filipino because, as he often said in jest, he could not report in the national language lest he do so with a “British” accent—would come in. “Hi, Joe,” he would greet Jim.

“Hijo de p-ta,” Jim would reply, after which the two men would sit together at the bar.

Shortly afterward, the door would swing open, flung by a force strong enough to slam it against the wall. The crash would shatter the silence that had earlier been broken only by the 1960s music playing on the turntable and the murmured conversation of Bote and Jim.

Newspaper editor Alex Fernando would enter hobbling, aided by a cane. “Hi, Joe,” he would greet Jim.

“Hijo de p-ta,” Jim would reply.

“Richard is here,” Bote would announce, the name said in a peculiar pronunciation—a reference to a joke that Alex’s dark skin was actually the result of his having survived two fires, the second one having him “re-charred.”

“T-ngnamo,” Alex would say, scowling.

But in Brances, no joke would spoil the night, unless it was cracked by the wrong clown.

The table across from the DJ’s booth and within arm’s length of the bar would start to fill. It was Bote’s spot, and his friends’, too.

Bote would proceed to hold court, a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He had been advised by doctors to avoid beer but he would not stop drinking, so he got a second opinion that brandy would be okay.

Alex, whom Bote had also convinced that brandy would be a healthier alternative to beer, had quit smoking. He would gesture with his nose twitching to all the smokers around him that while he didn’t mind inhaling second-hand smoke, they should kindly not blow it directly into his face.

The cast of characters that fills the regular spot where Bote sat would soon be complete, and the night would start at Brances.

“Fotahng lugar to,” Alex would blurt out within Jim’s hearing distance. It was a joke to indicate the lack of a logical explanation as to why the group had become so attached to a place that offered nothing out of the ordinary by way of food, drink, or entertainment.

“Crispy pata nga dyan,” Bote would shout, the order for deep-fried pig hocks a joking reminder of his and Alex’s constant watch on their blood pressure, after medical checkups confirmed them to be borderline hypertensive.

The conversation was the most engaging part of the night in Brances, especially with Bote and Alex leading it. On many nights, the conversation was about the personalities covered and reported on by this group of reporters and editors every day—Joseph Estrada, for example, when the actor-turned-politician was still a senator and still on his way to becoming vice president and later president, and disgraced after barely half his term was done.

Among the Brances habitués, Bote had the most numerous anecdotes about the would-be highest official of the land, many of them unflattering but the source of the loudest laughs in the bar.

Bote would recall one time when he, now GMA 7 anchor Arnold Clavio who was then just starting a TV career from radio, and other reporters were walking outside a hotel where a political convention or meeting had just ended.

They heard a loud “Pssst!” but they walked on, ignoring it. “Pssst! Pssst!” The sound was insistent. It continued, to their indifference, until an equally loud “Hoooy!” rang out. They turned their heads and saw the source of the summons: Estrada, by then the vice president, walking toward them, laughing.

Estrada, in Bote’s eyes, was both a joke and a key thread in a political landscape that was starting to make room for those who found show business an effective jumping board for higher ambitions.

Bote often talked about Estrada’s well-known attraction to women, including one from the Middle East. He also loved to tell the story of Estrada, after an on-cam interview with a TV reporter, frantically digging into his pants pockets and slipping what he was able to grasp to his interviewer, under the table. And then there was one time, after a press conference, when Estrada was rushing to catch up with reporters leaving the venue. Again, he was hastily reaching into his pockets, but at one point all their contents spilled out onto the floor, prompting the reporters, wide-eyed by then, to pick up the pace and run out of the venue as though being chased by a crazed man wielding a bolo.

Other politicians would also be fair game for Bote’s commentaries and the butt of his jokes during many a Brances night.

Among them was John Osmeña, a former senator whom Bote would call “manay.”

“Dadating  ba  si  manay  (Is  manay  coming)?” Bote would ask Jim from time to time, knowing that Jim and Osmeña were buddies.

As the night at Brances wore on, Bote would turn nostalgic, recalling the love of his life, the travails of his work as a TV journalist, and the looming extinction of reporters like himself who had excelled in delivering the news on-cam in English.

As would happen on so many nights, Bote would release his emotions through one of the things he loved to do—sing—when it came time to call it a day.

“Isn’t it rich?/Isn’t it queer?” Bote would croon “Send in the Clowns,” one of his favorites. “Losing my timing this late in my career?/…/And where are the clowns?/ There ought to be clowns/Well, maybe next year.”

Brances, the place that Bote filled with his voice, songs, and laughter, has since moved to a smaller hole in the wall in Ermita. But it is no longer the same.

The spot where it used to sit was torn down to make way for a multistory building, thus removing all physical traces of the bar that Bote, Alex and their friends used to take shelter in.

What are left of Brances are the people who called it a halfway home of sorts. It is in their hearts that Alex, who has since passed on, and Bote, who did so late last month, and Brances will stay alive.

Tony S. Bergonia is the assistant editor of the Inquirer’s Across the Nation section.

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